Police Misconduct, Professional Courtesy, and the Insideous Virtue of Loyalty

"No, I still have your back...I'm just going to have to give you a speeding ticket, that's all!"

“No, I still have your back…I’m just going to have to give you a speeding ticket, that’s all!”

In 2011, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Donna Jane Watts pulled over—after a brief chase– an off-duty Miami police officer whose vehicle she clocked at over 120 mph. Lead-footed officer Fausto Lopez explained to Watts that he was late for an off-duty job. The tradition among police, as in other professions (like the law and politics), is to extend “professional courtesy” in such situations, or as I call it, unwarranted privilege and corruption.

 Watts, however, arrested Lopez, who had a history of reckless driving, and he was eventually fired.

Then the culture Watts beonged to, the law enforcement culture, began schooling her in “professional courtesy.” First the Florida Highway Patrol investigated her—a nice, time-consuming message to an obstreperous women for breaking the “blue code” that took two months. After she was cleared of wrongdoing,officially, that is, Miami police officers began posting threats against Watts on police forums and message boards. She received hundreds of harassing and threatening calls to her private phone, Unfamiliar cars began parking outside her home. Over a three-month period,88 law enforcement officers from 25 different agencies accessed Watts’ driver’s license information more than 200 times.

With this kind of open hostility from her colleagues, The Miami New Times has suggested that her career is in jeopardy because her superiors “don’t think she’ll ever be able to return to duty on the road, and if she ever got into a situation where she needed backup she does not think she would receive it.”

Watts is suing. (The document is here.) Mere damages, however, will not go far to change a culture that is dominated by solidarity and loyalty, two ethical values that cause as much trouble as good. In a difficult, beleaguered, dangerous, often maligned field like police work, mutual trust isn’t just helpful, it is essential. Yet the assurance that every colleague “has your back” is intrinsically hostile to self-regulation.  Bad police abuse the expectations of loyalty, and otherwise good police enforce the cultural stricture against ever, ever betraying a fellow officer.

Law enforcement isn’t the only culture where this phenomenon is rampant and toxic. It occurs among doctors, who are reluctant to report incompetent or substance abusing colleagues, and a nurse who does so might as well open a bed and breakfast. Judges will throw a corrupt judge off the bench, and then squeeze the lawyer who reported the judge…and the lawyer’s clients…until the lawyer either leaves the jurisdiction or the profession.

In this case, of course, the real betrayer was Lopez, but if loyalty is a cultural absolute, no one within the culture will perceive it that way. Self-regulation is a critical aspect of professional ethics for any profession, but nobody, including me, has ever figured out a way to make professions believe it. We are seeing the results of this, I fear, in Ferguson, Missouri.


Sources: Baltimore Sun, Washington Post (Balko), Res Ipsa Loquitur

Graphic: deviant art

16 thoughts on “Police Misconduct, Professional Courtesy, and the Insideous Virtue of Loyalty

  1. There needs to be much stricter rules on the conduct of police officers as to what they may do. Some years ago, I was watching a British police TV program where a police sergeant looked up someone’s record unrelated to any crime that she was investigating. As doing so was totally against regulations she was fired. As none of those 88 officers who looked up Watts’ driver’s license information would have any reason to do so they should all be fired.

  2. Self regulation can be achieved when the unethical actions of one, that undermines the credibility of the unit, places the entire unit in jeopardy of losing its conferred powers.

    Yesterday I commented on the post regarding the professional ethics of CBS reporter Dana Kendrick. There I wrote: “It seems to me that any broadcast medium that purposefully discloses information that must be held private or risks causing a loss of the public’s trust in some other entity is grounds for the suspension or loss of its license.”

    The same is true for a police department, or other governmental body that must provide fair and equitable treatment, else the public’s trust is lost and the unit cannot be effective.

    With that said, it is equally unfair or unethical to leap to the conclusion that misconduct occurred in Ferguson, Mo. How exactly can any investigation take place and justice be served within a 48 hour window? It cannot.

    If there is no concrete evidence that threats to an officer’s life as a result of the shooting took place then I see no reason to withhold the name. Conversely, if such evidence does exist and coupled with the overt violence by some in the community, then the community shares some of the responsibility for the lack of transparency.

    Convene a grand jury and let them decide whether or not to indict. That is the way the law works.

    • “How exactly can any investigation take place and justice be served within a 48 hour window?”

      I disagree on the investigation part. I think given the scenario, all pertinent facts should have been discovered in less than 24 hours. To quote Cinderella Man:

      “I’ll tell you this much, they take this long to make a decision…they’re gonna decide to screw somebody.”

      The longer they wait to reveal the facts, the more it looks like they are covering up an actual terrible decision by a police officer, perhaps one worthy of a charge.

      I will say this, this whole thing is a microcosm of the breakdown of manners, respect, civility, due process, and deliberative design of of our system that we have seen festering since the 60s.

      • The whole thing..

        Starting not just with punk teenagers walking down the middle of the street. But with parents (or just one parent, unfortunately) not teaching their kids right and police not immersing themselves in their communities.

  3. Until there is clear and absolute protection for those for those doing their job the public can not have faith that law enforcement, the legal system, or the medical system acts for the public good. My spouse was forced to “retire” after making ethics complaints about a surgeon. His 30 years of experience as an anesthetist and proof of physician misconduct meant nothing. After that the OR staff opted for silence and escaping to other hospitals when possible. There is loyalty and then there is enabling abuse. Too often organizations protect and enable misconduct.

  4. I have to admit, as a reserve police applicant, I’m not wholly opposed to the idea of giving a cop more leeway. Just like I’d cut a soldier a break for a minor firearms infraction, a police officer is known to have received high-speed driving training and is less of a threat than Joe Citizen. (That said, I try to cut everyone a break when I can.)

    The conduct of Officer Lopez is so far beyond what I’m describing that you can’t see there from here.

  5. There’s an even higher code than the “blue code”. You don’t tolerate blatant unprofessionalism in your own ranks. You may deal with it out of the public eye, but deal with it you must. Every rotten egg in the basket increases the difficulties for the dedicated and mindful officials of any profession that must earn and keep the public trust in order to do their duty. This is not only true of law enforcement, but a large number of other professions.

    The concerning detail here is not so much that a bad police officer was identified, but that so many others would go to these lengths to protect him by persecuting and vilifying the officer who properly did her duty. This is another consequence of the “us vs. them” mentality that has become so terribly prominent in our times… and must not be tolerated. We give the police authority to police us within the limits of the law. With even greater firmness, the police must police themselves.

  6. Please note that Internal Affairs Divisions of Police Departments are routinely vilified (called ‘Headhunters’) and are portrayed as villains themselves on most police dramas.

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