Part 1 of a 2-part series
In his excellent new book, The Superhero Handbook for Cops, author Cary Friedman takes an impressively realistic look at what it means to be an ethical police officer. More importantly, he shares practical tips on how to remain ethical.
The topic of ethics is sometimes looked at with suspicion, which is unfortunate. “Most discussions and presentations about police ethics are well-intentioned, but misdirected,” Friedman says. “They’re too often conceived and used by police leadership as a manipulative tool for political ends. As a result, all too often the rank-and-file respond to ethics courses with suspicion and derision: ‘Why aren’t they—the managers and big dogs who really need it—taking the same course, too?’”
He continues, “When ethics in police work is relegated to some sort of mandatory-attendance session, of course it’s going to miss the point. There’s only one reason why you or leadership should be actively concerned about ethics: because being ethical is always the right thing to do.”
Why would a good cop ever act unethically?
“Good cops don’t suddenly turn rogue and tarnish the badge,” says Friedman. “In other words, an unethical bent doesn’t just happen. Most who stray didn’t intend to be dishonest, crooked or criminal.” So, what went wrong?
Friedman points out that the trip down the road to unethical behavior generally starts with a series of small steps in the wrong direction. Many officers caught in a net of bad behavior started out with pure intention but somewhere along the line decided to make slight compromises. Over time, they developed an ability to rationalize unethical behavior and began making larger compromises that ultimately lead to personal and professional destruction and disgrace.
How do you avoid that? Here are the first four of nine strategies Friedman offers that are designed to help you stay true to your personal ethics. (We’ll share the remaining five in our next transmission.)
- Make an absolute commitment to ethical behavior.
You can’t be casual or halfhearted. You’re either ethical, or you’re not. There’s nothing between. Right is right and has to be seen by you as right, and wrong is wrong and has to be seen by you as wrong no matter how attractive opportunities for misbehavior may appear. The right—the only—mindset, stated simply, is: Any and every form of dishonesty is absolutely intolerable and will not be allowed, under any circumstances. This is the power of previous decision—the determination about a thing or a course of action you’ve already come to, earlier, after a quiet, reflective period of clarity and long before the moment of temptation when the powers of seduction are in your face with an elevated sense of justification, clouding your perception and judgement. Commit yourself to incorruptibility before an opportunity for corruption presents itself.
- Get regular infusions of ethical inspiration.
Reading your agency’s manuals of procedures and protocols is important, but those types of lectures tend to be boring and uninspiring. Instead, create opportunities to be inspired and to be reminded of why you wanted to be a cop.
[Sidenote: On the subject of why you wanted to be a cop: Cary asked a few of his students to share their thoughts on being a cop and how they decided to take on the badge. Here are a few of their responses:
- “Give yourself to service, and never run from a fight. Remember “The Job” is just a job and that you are more than a title. Do your best to help those you can and allow yourself to forgive yourself when you fail. There is no greater blessing than to do what you do. So do it with honor. Never take for granted the now or those who love you. Do these and you might achieve the most important form of respect: self-respect.”
- “We live in a very stubborn, fragile, and complicated world where it’s going to test our morals, our very code every single day. There will always have to be people who maintain law and order.”
- “While it is a choice to put on a uniform, to be humble and blessed to be able to do what I do, the uniform can’t define who I am as a man.”
- “A calling to be drawn to be a police officer is how it all started. My family, my close friends, and being able to feel their support, give me the drive to maintain my faith, regard for people, and undoubtedly the confidence in myself.”]
Find a source beyond yourself that invigorates you to be your best, noblest Self.
Consider, for example, attending or listening to sermons that inspire you, and placing yourself in or near groups or situations where you can better observe the effects of people’s faith. It is of great advantage to maintain a comfortable balance in your Spiritual Account—the one that connects you to an external Truth higher than yourself. Or perhaps increased visits with someone whom you have known routinely to act with honor and integrity, someone who inspires trust. In terms of professional growth, few things beat a good role model. Or maybe invest more regularly in some valued recollections, trips back in time, to remember again that crime-fighter your seven-year-old self aspired to be. Obviously, these techniques can be used in concert and tweaked to serve your situation, and of course this is not intended to be a definitive list. But whatever it is, find your source of inspiration, and fill up regularly.
- Use your knowledge and commitment to develop an actual “ethical behavior” emotion.
Don’t leave the knowledge of right and wrong in your head. In order for your knowledge to have power over your behavior, you have to feel it in your gut. It’s not what you know in life that directs your actions; it’s how you know it. A sense of right and wrong derives its power from how deeply we feel what’s in our guts.
How do you emotionalize a thought, and integrate it into the depths of your being? There are many ways to do this, some more complicated than others. Allow me to suggest a few simple but effective techniques.
Compose a one-sentence statement of unwavering commitment to ethical incorruptibility; choose a formulation that is very meaningful to you, that expresses your refusal to compromise your decency in any way, shape or form. Repeat it slowly, over and over, for twenty minutes while you meditate on its meaning. Each time you say it, peel away another layer of the idea, and go deeper into what it means for you. Even better, pick a tune—something slow, soulful, something from your early childhood or central to your faith system—that has deep emotional resonance for you, and put your mantra sentence to that tune. Sing it slowly and soulfully for those twenty minutes. Repeat this process every two weeks for two months, then switch to once every two months.
Another method: Close your eyes and visualize the most unpleasant and downright sickening scene you can imagine. As you recoil in horror and squirm uncomfortably, tell yourself forcefully, “This is what it feels like to behave immorally. It’s that repulsive! I will never be responsible for introducing disgusting, immoral behavior into this world!” Tap into your reservoir of disgust and horror and associate it powerfully with immoral behavior. Then, do the same on the other side. Close your eyes and visualize the happiest—positively euphoric—scene you can imagine. As you relish the imagery and your essential self exults, tell yourself, “This is what it feels like to behave properly, with dignity. It’s that wonderful! I want very much to introduce that kind of happiness and nobility into the world!”
So, tap into your reservoir of joy and inspiration, and associate it powerfully with unwavering moral behavior.
- Don’t be caught by surprise!
As a police officer:
“[t]he possibility of being involved in damaging misconduct and/or corruption is more likely than being shot. Preparing to meet these dangers increases survival.
“Analyze scenarios: Examine actual cases of corruption, just as we do gun battles. Look for factors that are precursors to the actual act of corruption and discuss alternatives that officers can employ to avoid the slippery slope. A trainee who has discussed and rehearsed proper reactions to the inevitable temptations to compromise will be more likely to make the right decision.”
—Bob Vernon, Law Officer Magazine, September 2009
Remember what we said about anticipatory training for surviving physical threats? The same principle applies to anticipating dangers in the ethical realm. In fact, an unexpected temptation presents an even greater ethical challenge—and possesses a greater seductive power—than one you saw coming. So, prepare in advance. Play out scenarios in your head, anticipate the problems and temptations that might arise before they confront you like the Riddler’s offer of a fifty-fifty cut when you catch him with a big bundle climbing out of the Gotham Savings and Loan vault.
To the extent possible, therefore, don’t let an ethical situation turn into a dilemma and find you unaware. Equally important, teach yourself to think not in terms of “if/then” but in terms of “when/then.”
In all situations of danger—whether they be physical, mental, emotional, spiritual or ethical—we default to the level of our training, to what we have internalized through practice and repetition. Besides, you’ve long accepted the good sense of advance preparation against physical danger. The need to train beforehand to anticipate unanticipated moral dangers is just as real. Once your head and heart have played out an imaginary scenario a thousand times, you’re ready for it. And, when it comes, you’ll require much less effort and much less willpower to face it down and prevail against it.
The mind and body don’t register much—if any—difference between real-life experiences and simulated experiences. Neither does the soul. Toughen it today.
NEXT: Five more strategies that can help you stay true to your personal ethics.
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