Most police officers enter the force highly motivated and enthusiastic with a true desire to serve the public. Working in a position of authority presents opportunities for ethical compromise. Dr. Kevin Gilmartin is a behavioral scientist who spent 20 years in law enforcement in Tucson, Arizona. Together with John J. Harris, he explains what they call “the Continuum of Compromise” to show how and why a person who starts as an idealistic “honest cop” becomes a self-serving, ethically compromised officer.
The process is subtle and can occur without conscious acknowledgement on the part of the officer. Gilmartin advises that it is crucial for officers to understand the continuum of compromise, which includes:
Just as mental preparation is as crucial as tactical preparation for real life lethal situations, the authors stress that mental preparation is vital to making good choices when faced with an ethical conflict. Both kinds of situations occur without warning and with little time to stop and think. In that instant, an honest but unprepared officer can make an unethical decision that will have life-changing consequences. Officers who are mentally prepared for ethical dilemmas have a much better chance of navigating them successfully.
The study found that the officers at greatest risk are the ones who over-identify and over-invest in their profession. Their sense of self is completely linked to their life as a police officer. This creates problems because as officers there is little they have control over in their lives, save their own integrity and professionalism. Seemingly every aspect of policing is dictated by a chief, commander, prosecuting attorneys, the courts, and the criminal justice system. It provides the beginning of an “us versus them” mentality.
Another factor that changes the perspective of an over-invested officer is the hypervigilance required by the physical risks that police are exposed to every day. When the only other people to be trusted are “real cops,” i.e. not those sitting at desks in the administration, then the officer has started to alienate themselves from their own department and those who exercise control over their job. Instead of trust, resentment and a perceived sense of victimization grow. This is a crucial turning point because feeling like a victim is the first stop on the continuum of compromise for the unsuspecting officer.
There are three further steps:
Acts of Omission – Feeling victimized, an officer feels justified not doing duties they are responsible for such as omitting paperwork
Acts of Commission – Administrative – Breaking small rules that risk only departmental sanctions. Carrying unauthorized weapons, not reporting accidents.
Acts of Commission – Criminal – The final step on the continuum of compromise. These acts appear harmless to the officer – theft of assets seized from a drug dealer for example, but if caught, the officer risks being fired and criminally prosecuted.
Fortunately, this progression is both predictable and preventable. Ethically sound officers are those who accept the fact that they do not control their police role, but have total control over their own integrity and professionalism.