Ethics in corrections: The value of disciplinary case studies in officer training
By teaching officers what not to do, we can prevent mistakes before they occur
In Florida, you can examine officer discipline cases on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) website relating to all sworn correctional and law enforcement officers. Each discipline case provides the type of incident, what act occurred and the discipline received for the officers’ actions. While these are certainly unfortunate incidents, these scenarios do come with a silver lining of sorts: They provide an excellent opportunity to train officers on what not to do both on and off the job.
(All of these cases are part of the public record and can be accessed via the Professional Compliance Bulletins found under the Publications section of the website.)
The following case was heard by the commission during the summer of 2020 and involved an officer making a false official statement. The respondent received a 12-hour suspension from the Department of Corrections subsequent to an internal investigation, which sustained that the officer knowingly submitted inaccurate or untruthful information and failed to follow verbal or written orders.
On December 25, 2017, an inmate was found deceased in his dormitory room. A review of the video for December 24, 2017, and the housing log for the same date, which was signed by the respondent as being accurate, revealed that proper counts and security checks were not being completed. Specifically, the log stated that there was an informal count conducted at 12:00 a.m., and cleared at 12:30 a.m.
A review of the fixed-wing video, however, revealed that the count did not occur. In a sworn interview with investigators on July 26, 2018, the respondent stated that there was a possibility that he had conducted a paper count rather than an actual count.
No criminal charges were filed, but the FDLE prosecution requested a 10-day prospective suspension as well as a one-year probationary term to begin at the conclusion of the suspension period; the officer was also required to provide proof of successful completion of a commission-approved ethics course prior to the end of the probationary period.
defining unethical behavior
Ethics is the standard of conduct based on moral virtues and is consistent with laws, department policies, procedures and professional standards. Behavior that deviates from these standards, like the case above, negatively impacts community-criminal justice system relations, and could have some serious long-term consequences for the offending officer.
But what constitutes a breach of professional ethics may not always be so obvious. What follows is a list of additional unethical actions all corrections and law enforcement officers must be wary of:
1. Acceptance of unauthorized compensation
As a public officer, you must know your agency’s policy and procedure by heart regarding the solicitation or acceptance of gifts. You can also check your state statute regarding a public official accepting gifts or compensation for a service. The bottom line is that you should be receiving your paycheck from your agency.
2. Inappropriate off-duty behavior
Avoid any actions that create the appearance of violating a law or unethical behavior. Remember, you represent the agency and yourself 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Drinking too much at the local pub and then yelling or becoming aggressive is one example of how you as an officer can land yourself in hot water.
3. Discrimination Concerns
We as officers represent everyone, no matter the race or gender. Discrimination is not an option and will not be tolerated by your agency. A joke at work about a person’s race or gender can land you in hot water quickly. Keep in mind that your jokes on social media such as Facebook or Twitter can cause you to be terminated from your job. When you become a sworn public servant your actions represent the criminal justice system as a whole. Do not do things that taint our image with our community.
4. On-duty criminal activity
This should be an easy decision but unfortunately, a few bad apples can spoil the barrel. As adults, we all know right from wrong so there is no excuse for criminal behavior among sworn officers. Our job is to serve and protect our citizens from criminals and crimes, not to participate in crimes. It is as simple as that.
My advice is straightforward: Report suspicious activity among your fellow officers. It is actually your duty to do that and is written in your state statutes, policies and procedures. Is this not the same thing we ask of the citizens we protect?
the bottom line
In my opinion, it is the responsibility of the agency and the training standards commission to do everything possible to teach our sworn officers on and off-duty ethics within the criminal justice system. Using case studies, I believe, is a very good tool for training all public servants. Let us prevent these mistakes before they occur. Keep your head on a swivel and stay safe everyone.