Comment Of The Day: “The Ethics Dilemma That Has No Solution: We Can’t Trust Police, But We Have To”


Well, I expected this one: Jim Hodgson, a frequent commenter, has an extensive background in law enforcement. Ethics Alarms is fortunate to have the benefit of his perspective, and I am grateful for it.

Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, “The Ethics Dilemma That Has No Solution: We Can’t Trust Police, But We Have To”:


The scope of thought provoked by this post could fill volumes. I will try to be brief.

Some corrupt organizational cultures are so big and so corrupt that they seem to defy correction. This seems to be the case with big agencies like NYPD, Chicago PD, and perhaps Boston PD as well as others. Some of these agencies seem to have major corruption scandals every ten or fifteen years, which likely means there is some omnipresent level of corruption just below the surface. It boggles the mind (mine, anyway) to contemplate what would have to be done to set a large erring agency on the right path.

In the agencies I worked for, (200 – 250 employees max) just one incident involving one officer was a scandal. Yet, I can only comment accurately from my own experience. I entered law enforcement in 1974, at what I call “the end of the knuckle-dragging era,” when the first steps to upgrade police selection, training and supervision were just taking hold. My first agency required two years of college as a prerequisite to employment, and required us to remain enrolled in college until the completion of a baccalaureate or higher degree, pursuing the goal that the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice established in 1967, “that all police personnel with general enforcement powers have baccalaureate degrees.” This was, of course, presented by the Commission as “an ultimate” goal, but it was being actively pursued by some agencies.

Our Director of Public Safety was a retired FBI agent with a law degree and a PhD, and he ran a tight ship. Other agencies in the surrounding area were not so enlightened, and stereotypical “good old boy” cops abounded. We took pride in being “a cut above” most agencies and worked within a culture that would not tolerate dishonesty, brutality or incompetence.

My agency ran the training academy for a ten-county regional Planning and Development Commission, and our administration used the academy experience to try and spread our “public safety service” philosophy to other agencies in the region. This is the foundation I took with me after I got my undergrad degree and went on to a better paying job with a larger agency.
I never went to law school, but I got my MPA, and I had a judge tell me once that in his opinion I knew the criminal law better than most attorneys. (Don’t ask me any questions about estates and trusts, however.) By the way, according to a 2017 report, an estimated 30 percent of cops in the US had baccalaureate degrees and about 6 percent had graduate degrees.

During the ensuing years, I occasionally encountered “bad cops” of various types, usually either inept or prone to sometimes excessive use of force, but in a few cases -four to be exact- actually corrupt as in committing crimes on the job. Specific actions depending on my role at the time. I did all that was in my power to help improve or remove the inept, and to remove and/or prosecute the brutal and the corrupt. I never perjured myself and personally knew of only a couple who did, and they both got caught and were fired. I saw none of the mythical “blue wall of silence” where actual serious misconduct was involved. Good cops, at least where I worked, do indeed despise bad cops. I worked for five sheriffs in two agencies and none of them ever tolerated corruption, brutality or blatant ineptitude. Again, it is all about building the culture and making sure that potential bad cops know the prescribed consequences of their actions, and then consistently following through with those consequences.

It takes more than noble words and high-minded slogans. As one of my former training colleagues is fond of saying, “What’s lived in the halls is more important than what’s written on the walls.”

Every community generally gets the policing they deserve. If they tolerate bad cops and/or elect officials who appoint and tolerate them, they will have bad cops. If they want to get the cream of the crop of potential officers, they will provide pay and benefits commensurate with that goal. If they want the best trained best equipped officers, they will commit the resources necessary to achieve those ends.

Accountability and excellence are obtainable if insisted upon. If a community or an agency are willing to settle for mediocrity, that is what they will get. If people allow city or county leaders to let the union run the agency, then they have surrendered control, which in my opinion is a serious dereliction of their responsibilities. But, as Lincoln said of people’s responsibility during elections, “If they decide to turn their backs on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”

7 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “The Ethics Dilemma That Has No Solution: We Can’t Trust Police, But We Have To”

    • Individual neighborhoods don’t provide their own police service. Those “poor neighborhoods” are part of larger jurisdictions (cities, counties) that have the means to provide a uniform level of service to the whole jurisdiction. In general, poorer neighborhoods often consume more police services than others, due to higher crime rates and calls for service in those neighborhoods as opposed to more well-to-do areas. So police service to those “poor neighborhoods is, economically speaking, subsidized by the wealthier ones.

      • Exactly.

        Minneapolis has some of the most valuable real estate in the wealthiest County in the State of Minnesota.

        The same police force covers the rich areas, the poor areas, the commercial districts, and the residential districts.

        They burned down the Third Precinct. A few years earlier, they only blockaded the Fourth Precinct in a worse part of town when there was a police shooting.

        Minneapolis, sadly, will get the police force they have chosen.

        And, the bodies of children are piling up lately.

        It’s sad. We are generally so accustomed to a peaceful existence, we think it is natural. When you feel comfortable walking about in the presence of thousands of complete strangers, you might think that that is how things should be. But, it is only like that because everyone knows that everyone ELSE will suffer consequences for anti-social behavior.

        With that illusion, one begins to wonder why you need the police.

        Then, once you get rid of the police as unnecessary to keep the peace, the illusion quickly disappears.


  1. Accountability and excellence are obtainable if insisted upon. If a community or an agency are willing to settle for mediocrity, that is what they will get.

    This is 100% true of any company, government, family, etc. It is the core of what is rotting in America currently. We are not holding people accountable, it is that simple. Simple, but not easy. For some reason people think they don’t have to do the hard work of parenting, managing, teaching, coaching, and so on. But they think that children (co-workers, etc.) will magically learn how to behave. We see this literally everywhere currently. If children aren’t held accountable for their very minor childhood behaviors (like hitting, or cheating) they will absolutely grow up to think they can do whatever they want. Including burning down cities, stealing, what ever else they may happen to want to do.

  2. What is the difference between a cop and a vigilante?

    It is not the uniform.

    It is not the badge.

    It is that they perform theirt duties in fighting crime under regular, transparent procedures.

    They must follow the law.

    And those among them who commit misconduct must be held accountable.

    In the absence of these, they are just vigilantes.

    The appeal of ‘defunding the police” is clear.

    One other thing to note is that the primary deterrent against vigilantism is not fear of criminal punishment nor retaliation by criminals’ friends and family.

    It is the belief that the police operate in accordance with law.

    when the police are perceived to be acting like vigilantes…

    • “What is the difference between a cop and a vigilante?”
      As a police academy instructor, I used to make almost those identical points during a first week “Intro to Police Service” class for new cadets. Well-stated.

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