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.
Graphic: deviant art