Comment Of The Day: “Ick Or Ethics? The Officers’ Coin Flip”

I haven’t posted a Comment of the Day this month, and it’s me, not you. I have a high quality backlog, in fact: my apologies. I’ll be working diligently to catch up.

First in the queue is Arthur in Maine‘s deft reflections on the post about the police officers who flipped a coin to decide whether or not to arrest a reckless driver.  (I tend to think that it is a very well-argued “Everybody does it” rationalization, but never mind…).

Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, Ick Or Ethics? The Officers’ “Coin Flip”:

When I was going to school in Boston, I made my beer money by working in emergency medical services. Part of that work was in a district of the city, and part of it was in the northern suburbs; the latter company was a private concern that had the EMS contract for three contiguous towns and did a boatload of transfer work on top of it. A terrible company, long since sold out, but that’s another story. Suffice to say that I liked the work itself, even if the company itself was lousy.

In that role, I came to know a lot of cops and firefighters really well. They weren’t that different from us, other than the fact that their jobs were a lot more dangerous than ours – and ours were dangerous.

First-response work requires that the teams work in very close proximity with one another, and teams are mostly together for their entire shifts. Depending on the branch, shifts can last between eight hours and 48 (yes, you sleep if there’s nothing going on). Inherent in a smoothly functioning unit in all three first-response disciplines is a good relationship between crew members; partners or teams at odds with each other become a huge problem. If they can, supervisory personnel will usually do their best to ensure that the personnel in a given car or truck get along well. It’s remarkably intimate.

In the world of first responders, gallows humor and inside gags predominate. The intensity and stress of the jobs virtually demands it. Things get said on the way to calls and on the trip back to the barn that many people probably wouldn’t appreciate. Jokes and gags run rampant, almost invariably with a dark, job-focused edge to them.

It doesn’t impact the ability of the vast majority first responders to do their jobs with competence once they arrive on the scene or are actively interacting with civilians.

Thus, I don’t view it as unethical. I view it as a natural and extremely typical example of what goes on in fire trucks, ambulances and police cars every day. This kind of thing is simply a coping mechanism that helps people the public depends upon to get in the morning, go to work and do their jobs without becoming so enraged, bitter and disheartened by what they see that they kill themselves – either slowly through drink, or quickly with their own bullet.

So let me add a third option to your impromptu quiz: is this a) unethical, b) ick, or c) an invasion of privacy? I would select c.


12 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Ick Or Ethics? The Officers’ Coin Flip”

  1. Any group under stress and potential high danger. I haven’t had jobs like that but I respect the coping mechanisms. I am quite sure I would say stupid stuff in those jobs too, that had nothing to do with the duties of that job. You cannot airbrush life…

  2. In an era when virtually everything a police officer does is recorded and subject to release and every decision that is made is suspect of being biased, it is particularly important that the process for reaching discretionary decisions be demonstrably thoughtful, reasonable and ultimately trustworthy. A coin toss is none of these and therefore unethical.

    As a cop for 30 years I am fluent in gallows humor, but I have come to realize that sarcasm always has a victim and never plays well on video. Comedy at someone else’s expense always comes at a price and if you don’t know your audience it can be a steep one. Dark humor is a real, and mostly healthy coping tool, but one has to be aware when video (particularly your own) is rolling and make an effort to keep it off the 10 o’clock news.

  3. As originator of the comment, I added something to it on re-reading the post on which it was based: I had apparently missed the point that the coin flip took place in front of the alleged perpetrator. For some reason, I assumed this had taken place in the police officers’ car.

    Had this been the case, my original comment stands: it would be an invasion of privacy. We probably don’t have to/don’t want to know what gets said in the cockpit of airliners, either, even though the cockpit voice recorders continually record and save the previous 30 minutes of conversation. You can bet pilots aren’t always discussing cloud formations.

    Given, however, that the coin flip DID apparently occur within the presence of at least one member of the public, I now believe the suspension was completely justified. Kevin Woodside has it exactly right.

    The subsequent dudgeon of the alleged perpetrator does fall into the ‘methinks thou dost protest too much” category, but the action itself was, at minimum, deeply unprofessional.

    First responders should have the freedom to get nuts in the barn and the car, and recordings of that should be kept with the greatest care and discretion.They should expect no such protection if they do stupid stuff in the presence of those whom they serve.

  4. If I understand the case correctly it was only the two officers present for ‘the flip’ in the squad car. The video taken by the officer’s body worn camera was turned over to the defense attorney as evidence of the reckless driving charge. There can be no expectation of privacy in this situation and officers have to be prepared for this kind of thing to get a big audience. It is the reality we live in.

  5. Comedy at someone else’s expense always comes at a price and if you don’t know your audience it can be a steep one. Dark humor is a real, and mostly healthy coping tool,…

    During my nursing career I was generally on a unit, but prior to that I had a semester in various surgical settings as well as snippets (topical or insult humor, macabre jokes, descriptions of the occasional hi-jink involving body parts or lost implements – one nurse was great at composing limericks for each patient) that occurred on the so-called “cutting-room floor” for the whole of my hospital years. Listening to them during an operation — I was too junior to participate in the heady humor, supposed to be seen and handy but not heard — was, I discovered, one thing; hearing the insensitive funnies second-hand left an unpleasant after-laugh, not just because they were out of the context of high stress/intimate workmates but because the nurses (and a couple of doctors) who took them outside that context were few and flawed.

    In fact, the in-jokes were symptoms of deeper problems that were affecting those particular people. Depression + low stress resistance + denial that job satisfaction (status, salary, effort & time served) had become nil + personal problems = a clown mask . . . the sadder the face, the thicker the makeup, the more clowning around. Most of them got help, I think. Of the three I knew, I never heard another joke “on” someone else out of them.

    After extended breaks, two settled back into surgery with a different team, the other took a supervisory position. One surgeon did a 180 degree turn (after an “early warning” heart attack) and became a gerontologist. They could be, if anything, even funnier than before. But another nurse suicided, clown to the end — he’d told the most wickedly hilarious tales on himself as a gay man. Everyone thought he “knew himself” so well, that exposing his weaknesses showed his strength. They never noticed (I’m ashamed to admit being one of “them”) that he laughed a lot but almost never smiled.

    Thing is, police, firefighters, EMTs, surgical and military personnel constantly working in the same small groups, and others like them frequently in proximity to danger and death will use humor as a coping mechanism. That’s not the problem. It becomes a problem when the work context is not there, when they Go Home, and they don’t have that coping mechanism that they’ve become dependent upon. The non-edgy humor doesn’t amuse them, the domestic crises don’t have the same urgency or importance, there is no one to turn to who “understands” what’s so funny or who “appreciates” how they feel. And that’s the problem: essentially, they are having to shift, if you will, from an addictive, unnatural, abnormal, unethical life (at least one that allows for, yea, encourages unethical behavior) to an ethical one, however loving and supportive, and back again. And back again. And back again. We can’t have a safe, healthy, wholesome, (sometimes) ethical society without them. My hat’s off to them. My hat’s off with a bow and a scrape to the ones who can do it without denigrating someone else.

  6. But sometimes it really IS funny, and deserving of a laugh on the part of EMTs and others. One case in point: a friend of mine worked as a part-time EMT and was called to a bar for a young man who had collapsed on the dance floor. When they took off his clothes they found a pepperoni in the crotch of his pants! They returned the pepperoni with his personal belongings with no comment when he was released from the ER, but needless to say, every single EMT and police officer in the city knew all about the pepperoni man within about an hour. Is that unethical?

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