Law Enforcement Ethics . . .
The Continuum of Compromise

Published by:
The Police Chief Magazine
January 1998

Written by:
Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D.
John (Jack) J. Harris, M.Ed.

Police corruption is often seen as a distant problem peculiar to "big city cops" or "other departments."  Denial and refusal to accept the potential for ethical compromise and corruption at " our department" prevents administrators and officers from developing an in-depth understanding and appreciation of the issues.  Without a clear understanding, adequate information and practical strategies, officers who are exposed to a risk-filled environment are more likely to engage in inappropriate behaviors that can destroy their professional and personal lives . . . as well as the reputation and credibility of their organizations.  The transformation from an idealistic, highly ethical officer into a self-serving individual who believes "if we don't look out for ourselves who will?" is a subtle process that usually occurs before the officers knows what has happened.  For ethics training to be effective, officers have to see the information as relevant and credible.  The typical "soap box" approach, whether taught by internal affairs, supervisors and commanders, attorneys or others is often seen as scolding, warning and threatening.  This approach, even when the information is interesting and enlightening, is rarely internalized by the officers nor incorporated into their day-to-day activities.

The Continuum of Compromise
In this article, the authors explain the "continuum of compromise' (Gilmartin & Harris, 1995).  It is a frame work for understanding and teaching how the transition from "honest cop" to "compromised officer" can occur.  Law enforcement agencies can help prepare their officers for the ethical challenges they face during their careers.  However, that will require changing the way this topic is approached by the organization and teaching and integrating the information throughout the organization. 

Officers live and work in a constantly changing and dynamically social context in which they are exposed to a myriad of ethical conflicts.  When either unprepared or unaware, officers are more likely to "go with the flow" than they would be if they were adequately prepared to face potentially ethical risks.  Everyday, officers practice mental preparation as it relates to tactical situations.  Officers who are mentally prepared to face a lethal encounter are more likely to be successful than other officers who are tactically proficient but mentally unprepared.  Just like lethal encounters, ethical dilemmas occur at the most inopportune times, frequently without warning and with little time to stop and think about situation.   When inadequately prepared, even the most honest, above reproach officers can make inappropriate split-second ethical decisions . . . decisions that can result in life-changing consequences.  If officers are going to survive ethical dilemmas they need to be as mentally prepared as they would be for tactical encounters.

While police work is seductive and exhilarating, it can also lead officers down the path of ethical compromise.  The "continuum of compromise" outlines the path of ethical compromise and can be used to help officers understand and mentally prepare for the ethical dilemmas they will face.  Understanding the issues and being mentally prepared will help officers assume responsibility for and make more appropriate decisions.  Compromising behavior has to be seen as something that can potentially affect all law enforcement officers . . . not just those in "corruption rich" environments.  Officers who view compromise or corruption as an " all or none" phenomenon will not see themselves as "at risk."  When the potential for compromise is not recognized, officers will see compromise as an unlikely event, training will be viewed as a waste of time and officers will not become mentally prepared.  Understanding the continuum of compromise will allow officers to recognize the risks, assess their own potential for compromise and develop an effective strategy to ensure ethical integrity.  When teaching ethics the goal must be to develop an understanding of the progression towards compromise and the development of self-monitoring strategies to prevent becoming embroiled in compromising events. 

The Continuum of Compromise
A Perceived Sense of Victimization can lead to the
Rationalization & Justification of:
Acts of Omission
Acts of Commission - Administrative
Act of Commission - Criminal
Entitlement versus Accountability
Loyalty vs. Integrity

Officers frequently develop a perceived sense of victimization over time.  Officers typically begin their careers as enthusiastic, highly motivated people.  However, when these young officers over-invest in and over-identify with their professional role they will develop a sense of singular-identity based on their job and an increased sense of victimization.  At greatest risk are officers whose jobs literally become their lives.  For them, "I am a cop." is not just a cliché but rather a way of life.  Over-identification and over-investment causes people to link their sense of self to their police role . . . a role they do not control.  While this builds camaraderie, it can also cause officers to eventually hate and resent the job they once loved.

While officers have absolute control over their own integrity and professionalism, the rest of their police role is controlled by someone else.  Department rules, procedures, policies, equipment, budget allocations, assignments, dress codes, and many other day-to-day and long-term activities are controlled by the chief, commanders, supervisors, prosecuting attorneys, the criminal justice system, laws, the courts, politicians, etc.  Officers who over-identify with the job soon experience a loss of control over other aspects of their lives.  Professional over-investment, coupled with a loss of personal control puts officers at serious risk . . . a risk, that in some ways is more dangerous than the physical risks they face on the street.  "It doesn't matter how guilty you are, but how slick your lawyer is," can become the officers cynical yet reality-based perception of the legal system.  Thee realities combine with over-investment to develop an "Us versus them" perception in terms of how officers see the world.

The physical risks that officers are exposed to each day require them to see the world as potentially lethal. To survive, they have to develop a "hypervigilant" (Gilmartin, 1984) mind-set. Hypervigilance coupled with over-investment leads officers to believe the only person you can really trust is another cop . . . a "real cop" that is, not some "pencil-neck in the administration." While officers first become alienated from the public, they can soon distance themselves from the criminal justice system and finally from their own department administration. "I can handle the morons on the street, I just can't handle the morons in the administration," is often heard among officers. It is ironic how quickly idealism and trust in the administration can change . . . often times even before the first set of uniforms wears out. As a sense of perceived victimization intensifies, officers become more distrusting and resentful of anyone who controls their job role. At this point, without any conscious awareness and certainly without any unethical intent, unsuspecting officers can begin a journey down the continuum of compromise.

As the over-invested officer detaches from non-work related interests or activities, a perceived sense of victimization will increase. Peer groups, friends, co-workers and potentially their entire frame of reference of life begins to change. By itself, feeling like a victim is by no means equivalent to being ethically compromised. However, feeling like a victim (whether real or imagined) is the first stop on the continuum of compromise.

Acts of Omission
When officers (or anyone for that matter) feel victimized, in their own mind they can rationalize and justify behaviors they may not normally engage in. "Acts of Omission" occur when officers rationalize and justify not doing things they are responsible for doing. At this point, officers can feel quite justified in not doing things that, from their own perspective, appear to "even the score." "If they (whomever it may be) don't care about us, why should we care about them." Acts of omission can include selective non-productivity (ignoring traffic violations or certain criminal violations, etc.), "not seeing" or avoiding on-sight activity, superficial investigations, omitting paperwork, lack of follow up, doing enough to just "get by" and many other activities which officers can easily omit. "You will never get in trouble for the stop you don't make!" typifies the mind-set of officers during this stage.

This results in decreased productivity and produces passive resistance to organizational mandates. "Acts of Omission" rarely face critical scrutiny from peers who themselves are frequently experiencing the same sense of victimization and socialization process. Peer acceptance and loyalty become more important than following some arbitrary set of professional principles. The perceived sense of being victimized can allow officers to rationalize and justify other acts of omission such as not reporting another officer's inappropriate behavior (sometimes regardless of how extreme or criminal the behavior may be).

Acts of Commission - Administrative
Once officers routinely omit job responsibilities, the journey to the next step is not a difficult one to make . . . "Acts of Commission - Administrative." Instead of just omitting duties and responsibilities, officers commit administrative violations. Breaking small rules, that seem inconsequential or which stand in the way of "real police work" is the first step. This can set the stage for continued progression down the continuum. Acts of administrative commission are seen in many ways . . . carrying unauthorized equipment and/or weapons, engaging in prohibited pursuits and other activities, drinking on duty, romantic interludes at work, not reporting accidents and firing warning shots are just a few examples. Department sanctions are typically the only risk that officers will face at this point. For most officers this is the extent of their personal journey down the continuum of compromise. Acts of omission and acts of administrative commission are significant in terms of professional accountability and personal integrity. When discovered, they can erode community trust and damage police/community relations. However, they rarely place officers at risk for criminal prosecution. The initially honest and highly motivated officers can now rationalize their behavior along the lines of "I'm not a naive rookie out trying to change the world . . . I know what it's really like on the streets and we (the police) have to look out for each other because no one else will."

Acts of Commission - Criminal
Unsuspecting officers can unwittingly travel to the next and final stage of the continuum . . . "Acts of Commission - Criminal." In the final stage on the continuum of compromise officers engage in and rationalize behavior that just a few years before could not be imagined. At first, acts of criminal commission may appear benign and not terribly different from acts of administrative commission. Evidence that will never be of any use is thrown away instead of being turned in, overtime or payroll records are embellished, needed police equipment is inappropriately purchased with money seized from a drug dealer, expecting "a little something in the envelope" when the officers drop by are but a few examples that officers have easily rationalized. "What the hell, we put our lives on the line and they owe us". A gun not turned into evidence and kept by the officer can become "it's just a doper's gun anyway and would probably be used to kill some innocent person or even a cop." Theft and misappropriation of seized assets is a problem, but it's not "like real theft where there is a real victim, nobody is getting hurt but the dopers, what's the big deal?" The "Loyalty versus Integrity" dilemma can permit criminal actions to develop into conspiracies . . . whether other officers are actively involved or passively remain loyal and accept what takes place.

Now, the risks are far beyond just administrative reprimands or suspension . . . officers face being fired and criminal sanctions when they are caught. The initially honest, dedicated, above reproach officers now ask, "where did it all go wrong," "how did this happen" as they face the realities of personal and professional devastation and criminal prosecution. Officers who reach the final stage did not wake up one day and take a quantum leap from being honest hard working officers to criminal defendants.

Entitlement versus Accountability
Officers can develop an overwhelming sense of victimization and an intense resentment toward the supervisors and administrators who control their job-role. This can lead to another dilemma . . . a sense of entitlement. Entitlement is a mindset that suggests "we stick together" and "we deserve special treatment." The off-duty officer who is driving 30 mph over the speed limit and weaving in and out of traffic who tells his passenger, a concerned co-worker, "Relax, I have Mastershield!" implies a sense of entitlement and feeling of impunity. Entitlement allows both on and off duty officers to operate with the belief that many of the rules don't apply to them. "Professional courtesy" goes far beyond just giving another officer a break on a traffic violation. Officers are constantly faced with the dilemma of "doing the right thing" or "doing what they know is right." The only way to change this sense of entitlement is to foster an environment of accountability . . . both organizational and personal accountability.

Loyalty vs. Integrity
Most officers want to be known as loyal and a man or woman of integrity. A problem occurs, however, when a sense of victimization and over-identification with the job sets into motion the dilemma of "loyalty versus integrity" (Mollen Commission, 1994). Here is where officers called in to Internal Affairs and asked questions about another officer lie, many times about a minor issue. When this occurs, the officer has traded his/her integrity for "loyalty" to a fellow officer. Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies across the country can give many examples of "innocent" officers not telling the truth in an attempt to protect a partner or co-worker, only to find themselves facing serious or career ending discipline. Early exposure to such statements as "How will the department find out about it if we all hang together?" "Cops don't snitch on other cops" can help foster the "loyalty v. integrity" dilemma that officers will likely face during the course of their careers.

What Can Be Done?
When officers are ill-prepared to face the ethical dilemmas to which they will be exposed and unaware of the continuum of compromise, they can blindly and over a period of time allow mild job frustration to develop into pathological anger and rage . . . leading to devastating consequences. This progression is clearly predictable and is often preventable. The time and resources spent preventing ethical compromise through credible instruction and proactive supervision is infinitely smaller than what it takes to conduct internal and criminal investigations, convene investigative commissions or restore community trust and repair police/community relations.

If law enforcement agencies are going to foster an atmosphere of unreproachable ethics, they must implement a comprehensive strategy throughout the agency. Officers have to be aware of and accept the "Continuum of Compromise" as a potential reality that can effect all members of the agency. They must learn skills to help them change the "Victim Perception" and internalize a "Survivor Mentality." Teaching officers to appreciate and understand the difference between what they do and do not control is essential for creating ethically sound officers. Strategies for accepting the fact that officers do not control their police role, but do have absolute control over their integrity and professionalism have to taught and practiced.

While the ultimate responsibility for behaving in an ethical manner lies with the individual officer, management shares some responsibilities. Supervisors have to recognize and proactively address potential ethical violations before major problems develop. Supervisory acts of omission occur frequently. Not taking care of the "little things" can ultimately be devastating to individual officers and organizations as well. Supervisors need practical skills, a willingness to use these skills and they have to be held accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities. Supervisors, commanders and chief executive officers have to appreciate their own vulnerabilities and the mixed messages they sometimes send. They do not have the luxury of simply talking about ethics . . . they have to "walk the talk" and be day-to-day role models. Unethical behavior by supervisory and command personnel only models unethical behavior and sends the message, "Do as I say, not as I do." Is an executive-level officer who registers at a police conference (at taxpayer expense) and plays golf instead of attending the conference any less unethical than the line officer who is unavailable for calls because he/she is conducting personal business on duty? Politics, organizational history or institutional traditions should never be used to rationalize or justify unethical behavior. As long as what goes on in the department is inconsistent with what is being taught, any ethical training program will be nothing more than lip service and a waste of valuable time and resources.

The "continuum of compromise" can be found at all levels of an organization. Ethics training and a commitment to the highest level of professional and personal integrity apply to all members and have to be consistently demonstrated throughout the department. If law enforcement is to enjoy, maintain and in some jurisdictions regain the status of a respected profession in our society, it has to change the way it approaches integrity and ethical issues. A sincere organizational commitment and meaningful training has to focus on preventing small incidents from developing into major situations with potentially devastating consequences.

Despite the headline stories, law enforcement organizations can regain lost trust, improve police/community relations, protect the reputations of good, hardworking and ethical law enforcement professionals and help prevent officers from destroying their professional careers and personal lives. Ethics training can no longer be seen as window dressing that makes good press after an embarrassing incident hits the front page. The topics of ethics, integrity, compromise and corruption have to become as important as other critical areas of law enforcement training if significant changes can occur. By making a serious commitment and taking a proactive role, organizations can look forward to spending less time investigating, disciplining and prosecuting officers for unethical or criminal behaviors.

©E-S Press 1999 -