Very few of us have ever heard of Carlos Ramos, Anna-Marie Cuney, Levy Slagle, or Monce Portillo. Some of us might remember Larry DePrimo but might not remember why his name is recognizable to us. Recently most of us have also heard about Jacob Solorzano, or Gregory Thompson, two persons who the public once trusted to serve and protect them. Mr. Solorzano once called himself a sergeant with the NYPD until recently fired due to his part in a large ticket fixing scandal involving several other members of the NYPD.
Mr. Thompson was a Lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, until recently when he was implicated in abuses in the LASO jail system. Why did these men fail? Why did they fail to keep their oath? Many other questions come to mind as well. The public sees these incidents and views us all through the same lens.
Some in the media look at our “Thin Blue Line” and feel that we are all the same, that many more in law enforcement bend or break the rules instead of upholding them. The rest of us, who do our jobs, who take our oath seriously, are sometimes put on the defensive. We are embarrassed by the actions of the few.
It is the officer who upholds their oath, who represents the Thin Blue Line with pride, who stays above the line, which must represent the true image of law enforcement to the public we serve. You might ask, “How do I do that? I’m only one officer”. The answer is simple, being ethical and a true public servant is what we are supposed to do, SO DO IT. Let us look briefly at the incidents involving Mr. Solorzano and Mr. Thompson.
Mr. Solorzano and 16 other members of the NYPD have been charged in a large ticket fixing scandal. All of the officers have been arraigned on the various charges in Federal Court. It is alleged that one of the defendants in the case had conspired with his wife to use proceeds from his pension to have a witness in the Federal case against him killed. Are they out of their minds?
The case involving Mr. Thompson and 18 of his fellow deputies at the LASO is even more out of this world. Not only are they accuse of beating inmates in the jail, several of them actually manipulated computer records to show a government witness was let out of jail. Then they went to the inmate and tried to convince him that the federal authorities did not care about these incidents anymore, or his testimony. Are they out of their minds?
There are several similarities to these cases. First, large numbers of officers are involved. In most cases of these types, smaller groups of officers are usually involved. The large numbers of officers involved might indicate there is a severe problem with the culture that is present within their respective agencies.
I tend to think it is not a problem with the agency culture, but with the culture within specific agency units. I am an opponent of “blanket statements” like blaming the agency as a whole. With that said however, clearly some form of poor leadership is present.
I single out Mr. Solorzano and Mr. Thompson for one main reason. Mr. Solorzano was a Sergeant, while Mr. Thompson was a Lieutenant. Clearly they failed as leaders in their respective incidents. They also failed the other men and women of their respective agencies.
They also failed me, and you. They failed everyone who took an oath to be better than most, to do the right things, to do the ethical things. They failed to stay above the Thin Blue Line and what it represents. Instead they chose courses of behavior that sunk them below the line, into the abyss of unethical behavior.
We have to realize that we cannot affect the behavior of others in our profession. But we can most certainly control what type of officer we are, and when things go wrong, make sure we represent the ethical ground and do our best to make things right. Here are some other steps we can take when we feel the pull below the line.
We can practice self control. I remember coming out of the academy and a senior officer telling me “If you want to get rich, you are in the wrong profession”. This is very true for those of us who took an oath to serve and protect. I’ve never had plans to get rich, but I know plenty of officers who work part-time or own multiple businesses on the side that require every break in the action while on duty to take care of issues.
This is where self-control comes into play. Part-time is fine, owning a business is fine. But never being satisfied with what we have has taken down more than one officer across the country. This lack of self control and self-fulfillment is obvious in the NYPD and LASO events in the news. Coach John Wooden has always said in his Pyramid of Success “Practice self-discipline and keep emotions under control. Good judgment and common sense are essential”. Practicing self control and being content with what we have are important to those of us staying above the line.
What happens when we do start to stray, or feel the urge to do something that might make us dip below the Thin Blue Line? Once we recognize we are about to do something questionable, we have to stop. Then we need to find someone who has been a mentor to us, or someone that we can trust to discuss the issue with.
Sometimes knowing something is wrong is not enough; we need to be assured that it is truly wrong. That is where talking to someone about it comes into play. If you do not have a mentor figure on your department, probably the next best thing would be someone in your agencies chaplain services section. Sometimes we think that chaplains are only there to help victims through crime scenes or to serve victim notifications.
Chaplains are also there for the officers and staff of the agency as well. Chaplains have a very unique set of skills that can be used to help staff members when they are feeling overwhelmed by ethical dilemmas. The important thing is to talk to someone. Chances are if we feel something is wrong, it probably is. Having a second opinion is not a bad idea at all before you decide to dive below the line.
What about the time you witness an unethical situation unfold in front of your eyes? What do you do? First you must make sure everyone is safe. I have had a rule in any unit I’ve served in that if you are involved in an altercation with a subject, as soon as the subject is under control and assisting units are around, the initial officer must disengage even to the point of leaving the immediate area. Those who work for me understand my reasoning, and being their leader they respect my reasons. I truly believe something this simple has made non-existent any use of force incidents under my command do to officers “losing it”. It is an unofficial policy however, imposed by me, the leader. When you come into an unethical situation, you could ask those involved if there is a policy covering such a situation. Asking how to handle the situation in the future might also be a way of combating unethical behavior, or at least it would cause some self-reflection where others could see their un-ethical error in their ways.
There are two other things that can be done to help law enforcement officers stay above the thin blue line. These particular things can be accomplished by proactive leaders who wish to see those in their command be successful, and be the officer that they took an oath to be.
First, as leaders we must talk to those under our command and more importantly we need to be around to lead. In the case of Mr. Thompson and those involved in his case, we have to ask where their leadership was in all of this. This case is still evolving and in several media outlets it has been reported that there will be more arrests. If these alleged incidents did take place, it is a huge failure of leadership to be there for their people. It was a huge failure in leadership to have a grasp of what was going on at the levels below their span of control. If we want ethical and righteous officers, we have to have the same qualities in leaders, and they have to lead.
Secondly, leaders must teach those under their command what is right and what is wrong. Those under your command must be taught the consequences of poor, un-ethical decisions. Most importantly these consequences must be administered when someone in the command makes a poor decision no matter who they are. Leaders must also work to show those under your command how to make ethical, right decisions without the leader being present. Those officers who are at risk to sink into unethical behavior must be on a leader’s radar, and correction administered when they make poor choices.
So who are the men and women I mentioned in the beginning? Let’s take a brief look at some honorable officers:
Carlos Ramos is a NYPD officer assigned to the Transit Bureau. He was recently photographed along a Ney York street giving his sweatshirt to a homeless man sitting against a lamp post. Officer Ramos wanted nothing in return; he was simply doing what he swore an oath to do; help someone who needed him.
Anna-Marie Cuney, Levy Slagle, and Monce Portillo are all members of the Brighton Police Department. They heard of a 12-year old who has a terminal medical condition living in a hospice in their jurisdiction. This young man had a lifelong dream of being a police officer, and the Brighton Police Department helped him toward this dream by holding a “swearing in” ceremony in his hospice room making him a Special Officer with their department.
Larry DePrimo is the NYPD officer who bought a homeless man new boots while the homeless gentleman was sitting on a sidewalk in Times Square. Again, a simple gesture fulfilling the oath that we have all taken.
What do all of these people have in common? They all took an oath to serve those in their community, to uphold the law, to be proud to wear the uniform, to be proud of representing The Thin Blue Line. However they all chose to take different forks in the road. Mr. Thompson and Mr.Solorzano chose to take the fork that led them down the wrong path, where they eventually sunk below the thin blue line. Ramos, Cuney, Slagle, Portillo and DePrimo came to the same fork sometime in their career. They made the right choice however and should be examples for the rest of us. They just did what was right, and stayed above the line.
David Crisler Jr. is a Lieutenant with a large metropolitan sheriff’s office in the Midwest. He is also an adjunct instructor with several different law enforcement training academies. He teaches nationally as well and has been an instructor and speaker at several law enforcement and leadership conferences across the United States. He is scheduled to teach in 2014 for the Park Law Enforcement Association Annual Conference as well as the National Sheriff’s Association Conference. David also provides consulting and training services to agencies large and small on leadership and other topics. Outside of law enforcement, David enjoys spending time with his family, coaching high school football, and helping his local Fellowship of Christian Athlete groups. You can reach David at [email protected] , or on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/pub/david-crisler-jr/24/6b5/131 .