I just watched a video that sickened me. It's a video and news story that undermines all the great law enforcement work being done by officers all around the country. It doesn't matter where it took place because the city is irrelevant in any negative story about police officers because whether you are in the biggest of cities or smallest of villages, police misconduct paints everyone with a badge with the same broad and tarnished brush.

This news report was about the indictment of an officer who while in uniform groped, grabbed, and fondled a female pedestrian who was standing with a group outside of a nightclub. When a male companion pulled out a cell phone and videoed the encounter, the officer's partner manhandled him, took the phone, and arrested him, later claiming the man attacked him. The officers tossed the phone out of their moving patrol car on the way to booking. Unfortunately for them, surveillance video revealed the truth, which resulted in the charges against the man who was simply trying to protect his friend being dismissed and the indictment of the officers.

Law enforcement all over our nation has been pummeled this year by legitimate media, social media, "activists," political leaders, presidential candidates, and everyone with a personal beef or agenda. Most of the criticism is about use of force, officer-involved shootings, and reported misconduct, which have been shown to be false or at least explainable. But when the "real thing" rears its ugly head and we are subjected to seeing an officer or officers commit terrible acts in front of our eyes, it's nothing short of heartbreaking and anger provoking.

Each day law enforcement officers face temptations, as they have since the first officer pinned on a badge. And temptations come in all shapes and sizes. For example, the temptation of greed has probably been the root cause of the most high-profile police corruption scandals throughout history.

New York City in the 1970s had the notorious and well-publicized Knapp Commission hearings, which revealed the widespread practice of bribes being paid to police by bookmakers, prostitutes, gamblers, and drug dealers. Hundreds of officers and supervisors upward throughout the chain of command were caught up in a system of payoffs that was called "the pad." During the hearings, it came to light that even among those who didn’t actively participate it was common knowledge that it was taking place. Taking payoffs and/or turning away when it was happening became “accepted” behavior, which reveals how the ethical environment of an entire agency can become toxic even when a relatively small amount of the department were actively taking part in the criminal conduct.

No one wanted to be responsible for bringing this terrible betrayal of the public trust to light for fear of being labeled “a snitch.” This has been a pervasive problem in law enforcement all over the country. The culture within many agencies has been one of “loyalty versus integrity,” a perverted view of an “us versus them” philosophy that some call “brothers before others.” This culture is based on the belief that if you are a law enforcement officer, you must protect each other at all costs and regardless of offense, and it grows out of the loyalty that officers have for one another. Unfortunately, when criminal and other forms of misconduct become enveloped in that loyalty system of belief, it perverts everything that the badge should stand for, honor, integrity, compassion, and truth.

It took only two men of courage— Sgt. David Durk and Patrolman Frank Serpico to come forward in the 1970s and alter the ethical environment of the NYPD. Durk has been largely forgotten by history, although some say his role in exposing the corruption was larger than Serpico who was immortalized in a book and a movie bearing his name.

Frank Serpico was a “plainclothesman,” a patrolman assigned to work out of uniform investigating vice-related crimes, when he witnessed “the pad” and brought it to the attention of his superiors in vain attempts to stop what he knew to be unlawful conduct. Unfortunately, his superiors already knew about the bribes, and if they were not outright participating in it themselves, looked the other way so as not to “rock the boat."

That "don't rock the boat" philosophy has been the kind of thinking that has repeated itself in many cities and towns leading to high-profile investigations, arrests, and embarrassment personally and professionally for hundreds of officers, their families, and agencies throughout the years. In the NYPD, no one would listen to David Durk or Frank Serpico. So they went to The New York Times. The Times reporters listened alright and broke the story whose ripples can still be felt today.

The resulting investigations destroyed careers, lives, families, and shook the NYPD to its foundation. But they also paved the way for changes, which today can account for the immense pride that the NYPD has in its ranks. That one or two brave men could themselves change the course of history and the ethical environment of the largest police department in the nation is nothing short of incredible. And I wish that I could report a happy and rewarding conclusion for these honorable men. But they paid a high price for their integrity.

Durk was labeled a "rat," and his NYPD career faltered. He died in 2012. Serpico was shot in what is suspected to be a “friendly fire” incident during a narcotics raid shortly after his role in exposing the corruption came to light. He survived but retired and left the country for a decade. Today, he lives in a rural area of New York north of New York City.

But regardless of the cost, we as law enforcement officers, simply cannot condone the purposeful abuse of power and criminal misconduct of anyone who shares the badge. Not only does that person drag him- or herself into the abyss of disrepute but also all who have knowledge, whether a willing participant or a co-worker who turns a blind eye.

There has never been a more important time than now to understand that the ethical environment in which law enforcement operates is one of the most important issues challenging the profession. Creating a positive ethical environment is every single officer's responsibility, regardless of rank. If the head of the agency "talks the talk" but doesn't "walk the walk" of ethical behavior, on or off duty, the agency faces a terrible challenge. Yet, there can be no doubt that your integrity can never be taken, it can only be given away. And while that may sound simplistic, it is anything but. Pressure from administrators, supervisors, and peers play an immense role when it comes to creating the ethical environment of not only an agency but individual units and squads within an agency. 

America law enforcement faces challenges that will define and affect the profession for years to come. Some of those challenges are not within the control of the men and women who serve. But some things are clearly in your control, and they include your personal integrity, a belief in a personal code of honor, and the inner strength to always "do the right thing." Upholding your integrity and the integrity of your agency is how you can win the trust of the communities you serve and our entire nation.


Randy Sutton
Randy Sutton


Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran, a trainer, and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety. He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is an author who has published multiple books on law enforcement.

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Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran, a trainer, and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety. He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is an author who has published multiple books on law enforcement.

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