The Ambiguous Reality of Police Integrity

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San Francisco police. Photo by Torbakhopper via Flickr

In the wake of the 2014 police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., Americans demanded answers from police leaders across the U.S. to questions that have been simmering for decades.

Does racial bias influence police use of deadly force? What kind of training dictates the procedure for handling imminent harm?

With so much autonomy granted to law enforcement officers, the National Institute of Justice challenged researchers to delve deeper into a characteristic tied closely to ethical decision-making: officer integrity.

Daniel Blumberg

Dr. Daniel Blumberg

Daniel Blumberg, police psychologist and Associate Professor of Psychology at Alliant International University in San Diego, pursued the questions at career entry by comparing integrity levels of cadets before and after completing the police academy.

In an interview on the Command Post podcast, Blumberg shared, “The results of the first leg of the study were just as I expected them to be. There was no significant change in integrity levels in academy recruits after they completed training.”

Continuing the research, he again approached the study participants after they spent one year actively involved in the profession.

“Once they were out on the streets, experiencing the realities of the job, their results changed,” Dr. Blumberg acknowledged. “Very bluntly, we found a significant drop in participants’ integrity scores. It sounds kind of shocking to me, but it appears that police work played a part in lowering participants’ commitment to ethical principles.”

Officers from across the country chimed in with their perspectives after hearing Blumberg share his research on the Command Post podcast. Each provided limited personal details, preferring to remain as anonymous as possible.

Lieutenant Aaron, who has 17 years’ experience in urban policing, appreciated that someone bothered to ask the question.

“For most of us, integrity is a huge part of who we are and one of the reasons we became cops in the first place,” he said.  “When cops use bad judgment and violate our code, it reflects poorly on all of us.

“I may not like hearing that the job makes it hard to do the right thing all the time, but I’ve been doing this long enough to admit that’s true.”

What is the right thing? Using the definition of integrity from a scale created and validated by Barry Schlenker, a professor at the University of Florida.

Dr. Blumberg was able to quantify integrity with a measurable tool.

According to the scale, a person with high levels of integrity has a steadfast commitment to principles, despite temptations or costs or the willingness to rationalize unprincipled behavior.

Sergeant Ryan, a 19-year-veteran of patrol in a Midwestern city, finds no fault in the definition of integrity used. But he wonders if integrity – in strictest terms – is even possible in a profession riddled with situations like this, as he described it:

An officer responds to a domestic violence call. When he arrives, he finds a battered woman and her children living in squalor. It’s clear the kids are neglected – they haven’t been bathed in days and there’s no food in the house. He arrests the boyfriend, of course, but then turns to the children and has a difficult decision to make. The reality is, the victim – the woman – is a meth addict. She’s choosing to buy drugs instead of food, which also makes her the perpetrator.

 The kids are the true victims and they need help. But, calling children’s services could mean that the kids end up in a dangerous foster care situation. They could be separated, which may psychologically harm them more than their current living situation. They could be exposed to any number of abuses, which would make their lives worse. What’s the black and white answer?

Officer integrity is an important quality to understand and, unfortunately there is evidence that some officers do not make principled choices. This is why Blumberg’s research is so important. It provides is a clear starting point for the journey into the moral dilemmas facing police officers.

“In many situations,” Sgt. Ryan added, “it’s not a balance between two choices with equally-good outcomes. It’s choosing which is the lesser of two evils and knowing in the back of your mind that the consequences of your decision could actually cause more harm.

“For cops who hold fast the belief, first do no harm, this reality is a painful moral dilemma.”

A detective from the Las Vegas police department also alluded to a much larger undertaking than measuring integrity.

“When I graduated from the academy, I expected to be able to make black and white decisions,” he said. “Right was always right and wrong was always wrong. But we’re not policing in that kind of world. We live and die in gray area.”

Looking at the results from a broader perspective leads to another question entirely. If police cadets enter the academy with high levels of integrity and they leave with similarly high levels, then what causes the drop merely one year later?

“Police work makes it almost impossible for cops to maintain a strict adherence to their often rigid moral code,” Blumberg explained. “This same moral code, coincidently, is trained in the academy.”

Another officer, new to a large Northwestern police department, believes that police academy training should more closely reflect the realities of the job.

“I don’t mind admitting that I was close to walking off the job with fewer than six months in. I’m not the type to quit anything,” he said.  “In fact, I’m a veteran, so it’s not like I’m still an idealistic kid.

“But what I saw in training is nothing compared to what I see on the streets. I thought I knew what to expect, but I wasn’t ready to come face-to-face with the kind of evil I saw in those first days on the job. If you would’ve asked me then about my integrity, I probably wouldn’t have known how to answer.”

Often, research begets research. Blumberg, knowing very well the kind of moral struggle that police officers face, took the results of his integrity study and began to dive into the moral risks of policing.

“Efforts to eliminate all acts of police misconduct are misguided, because much of this behavior appears to be a natural byproduct of routine police practices,” he said.

In his latest work, Bruised Badges: The Moral Risks of Police Work and a Call for Officer Wellness, Blumberg presents integrity as a perishable skill that requires training, the same way that firearms training does.

To combat police misconduct, he recommends that law enforcement agencies institute training programs that focus on ethical decision-making. Rather than taking a ‘bad apple or bad barrel’ approach to officer discipline, he sees minor integrity violations as developmental opportunities to improve officer integrity and, by extension, wellness.

“Policing,” said Sergeant Ryan, “is a steady stream of situational ethics. After 19 years on the job, I still face situations that challenge my understanding of right and wrong. I wish it was easy to do this work, but I suspect if that was the case I wouldn’t like it nearly as much.”

Creating a culture of wellness should begin in the academy and continue at regular intervals along the career life cycle. Expecting cops to learn on the job leaves entirely too much to chance.

Renee Kosor

Renee D. Kosor

Rather than risking moral degradation, the research clearly supports an urgent need for administrators to take a renewed approach to promoting police integrity. To do so ensures that, when faced with the quandaries inherent in the profession, police officers have every tool they need to make good decisions in every situation.

Renee D.  Kosor, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist with a specialty in resilience, is  a former Navy journalist and current host of The Command Post podcast, a weekly program which brings researchers and first responders together to advocate for a culture of wellness. For more information, visit thecommandpost.org

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