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Departments : The Beat

Sharing the Truth

Both positive and negative experiences can greatly benefit our profession.

October 01, 2000  |  by William Harvey

There is a nationwide movement in law enforcement regarding the raising of ethical standards for officers.  I constantly hear of and support improvements in ethics and integrity.  These are very important values, and are needed if we are to continue toward professionalization.   But there is a fatal flaw.  Does honesty apply to a department, or can a department retain its bragging rights?  Does it apply when it comes to sharing a full exchange of all information?  I think it should.  This is an opportunity for improvement.

Having personally visited or spoken with representatives of hundreds of agencies, I was particularly puzzled with the following events.  Several years ago, I visited one particular agency where I was received in a gracious manner, lectured, and then taken on a tour of the city.  I left with a very favorable impression.  Later, I read an independent study, performed by a major university, about that same city and that agency.  The study gave startling, opposing views of the police response to a particularly disadvantaged area of the city.  This left me with a question: Why did that agency tell only a part of the story to me?

Many departments send their staffs to visit other agencies, to exchange information and ideas.  These site visits are a great way to observe the application of new strategies and tactics.  This is particularly popular in the Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving (COPPS) arena.  Departments proclaim their successes after applying these new approaches to policing.  You show up at their doorsteps and they are batting 1,000 percent.  Nothing but good and wonderful news!  But are they really that good?

A similar visit to another agency drives home the point.  Upon the standard "meet and greet" with staffers, I was given another grand presentation.  I was impressed, to say the least.  Later in the afternoon, I walked into a restaurant for the evening meal.  I met a few officers from that agency, who were also coming in to eat.  I introduced myself, was asked to join them and then bought pizza for all.  During the conversation, I told them how impressed I was with some of the programs in their department.

It was to my chagrin that I hadn't been given facts about the programs, but blarney.  These officers found it somewhat amusing.  The next morning, over coffee, I asked one of the officers who was taking me around the city about this truth-or-fiction scenario.  He told me that it was the custom of the agency to always put its best foot forward.  When I told him about my concerns of misinformation or misrepresentation, he only nodded and kept driving.

I am not anti-COPPS--far from it.  Hopefully, this will not come off as a vicious diatribe.  I merely want to hear the facts and the whole story, not the "rah-rah cheer."

It also seems to be a rarity to read an article that has the negative turns-as well as the good story.  Seems that this "only tell them about the good stuff" reeks of a lack of professionalism.  If this vocation is to become a profession, we must be obligated to share the defeats as well as the victories.  My analogy would be akin to the medical profession.  Where would we be as a society if the medical researchers did not share research?  Every hospital would be seeking cures and medicines for the same maladies.  In medicine, they share research.  Law enforcement is a profession we are trying to run here, not a bragging contest.

I guess no one wants to say that they failed at a task.  It is human nature to want to be the best.  But what happened to the old adage of learning from others' mistakes?  We cannot learn from each other if we do not tell the truth.

Agencies must have the courage to honestly speak of their entire experience with programs, strategies or whatever.  A motto that I often use is: "To report the truth requires no apology."  Many feel, however, that admitting to failure will jeopardize grants, tarnish images and damage public interest.

Face it.  We all make mistakes.  Those who judge you would rather have a fair representation of your attempts rather than find out later that you were not being truthful.  If there was a less than successful outcome, then treat it as a learning experience.  Agencies must be open to other agencies.  Would you withhold information that could solve a crime?  This is no different.  Share the knowledge.

Periodicals, editors and writers must have the courage to report the facts.  POLICE has never walked away from pressing issues.  This is no different.  It is my call to my colleagues, as well as all agencies, to report the whole truth in exchanging information.  Integrity, honesty and truthful reporting are necessary elements in improving the sharing of information.  Knowledge learned from the mistakes of others is very valuable.  Be courageous; tell of the ups and downs.  Remember, we can learn from others' mistakes.  Share the knowledge so we can all grow.

Bill Harvey is a police trainer in Savannah, Ga., a POLICE Advisory Board member and regular contributor.

Tags: Ethics


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