This shocking story from Utah demonstrates an ethical culture truism: when superiors ask subordinates to deliver results without proper guidelines, warnings, and insistence on using only ethical means to achieve these results, misconduct is inevitable, the leadership is incompetent, and the organization’s culture is rotting.
Utah honored state trooper Lisa Steed as the first woman to be selected as Trooper of the Year for shattering all records with an astounding number of DUI arrests. Her supervisors spoke about her “sixth sense” in being able to detect impaired drivers when most officers would not. There was a reason for this, it turned out. Steed arrested drivers for DUI whether they were in fact drunk or not. Now her record-setting arrests are being challenged as invalid, and she is out of a job.
She had many victims, innocent drivers who lost jobs, promotions, reputations and thousands of dollars, because she was determined to make her bosses think she was a star. For example, she arrested Michael Choate, a now-retired aircraft logistics specialist at Hill Air Force Base, because her “sixth sense” told her that his driving while in a Halloween costume suggested he was inebriated. She arrested and charged him even though three breathalyzer tests showed no alcohol in his system. Choate says he spent $3,800 and had to take four days off of work to get his DUI charged dismissed.
This kind of arrest padded her figures and garnered Steed lavish praise. When she was honored at the state Capitol in 2009 for a record-setting haul of 400 DUI arrests, her DUI squad boss said admiringly, “With her training and experience, it’s second nature for her to find these people who are driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.” Prosecutors were suspicious of Steed’s credibility, eventually issuing warnings in 2012 that her arrests were often bad, and that her accounts on the stand could not be trusted. As early as 2010, however, other Highway Patrol troopers had noted that Steed’s arrests were questionable. A memo written in 2010 noted that most of Steed’s arrested motorists had no signs of alcohol or drugs in their systems, yet it took another two years to get her off the road. She was allowed more time to continue abusing motorists and citizens.
Why did this happen? As usual, the income her arrests produced was probably a big factor. Utah is a state where alcohol is officially and culturally discouraged; there was probably an unusual lack of empathy for DUI offenders. Mostly, however, Steed’s reign of terror was allowed to continue because her superiors didn’t want to know how she got her impressive results. This was willful and contrived ignorance of wrongdoing, often the first sign of an organizational culture jumping the ethics rails.
There are several useful lessons that the Lisa Steed scandal should convey:
- When law enforcement officials are rewarded for arrests, the incentive is ethically perverse, and will generate more bad arrests as well as good ones.
- Leadership that offers such incentives have an enhanced burden of oversight and care to make sure that what happened in Steed’s case doesn’t happen. In Utah, the opposite occurred. Leadership ignored all the warning signs of a bad cop after planting the seeds that yield bumper crops of them.
- Power corrupts. Government workers will do more of what they think they were hired to do. Officers will arrest, regulators will regulate, often without concern regarding whether their perceived duties are doing more harm than good. The overarching duty of government employees has to be to serve the public interest, and their performance should be judged and rewarded accordingly.
- If we can’t trust the police, we shouldn’t trust the rest of the government.
- It we do trust the police, then it makes little sense to distrust the rest of the government.
The final lesson is this: until there is an overhaul of police oversight and management, be really careful when you drive in Utah—especially in a Halloween costume. If you think Lisa Steed was the only problem, you are kidding yourself.
Source: Res Ipsa Loquitur
Facts: Fox News
Graphic: Z6 Mag