Ethics case study analysis: Kansas City, Kansas SCORE unit.

Unethical Behaviors

The case at hand involves three member of SWAT from the Kansas City, Kansas police department, which pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy. Officers Bell, Forrest, and Sillings were involved in unethical behaviors including stealing cash, video games, and various electronics while executing search warrants at private residences (KCTV5, 2012). The officers involved were eventually arrested after a sting set up by the FBI following complaints against the officers (KCTV5, 2012). The incidents were not isolated, but spanned over an entire year and several search warrants executed at different residences. However, even a single instance of theft while executing duties as an officer of the law is a step too far.

These actions are counter to the ethical responsibilities set forth for law enforcement officials. Police officers are sworn to uphold a standard of ethics, as wells as the laws of the land and including the Constitution of the United States, and protect the citizens they serve. In particular, the Fourth Amendment provides for the protection of citizens from unreasonable search and seizure – so by illegally seizing property from these residents to keep for their personal use, these officers violated the rights of citizens. This violation of rights allowed for the prosecution of the three officers under Title 18, Section 242 of the United States Code, which expressly outlaws the use of their position in law enforcement to deprive citizens of their constitutional rights.  

Contributing Factors

Determining what led the officers to their unethical actions is best done by analyzing any cognitive rationalizations they might have had. These are common ways that officers might rationalize any wrongdoing on their part to counter any regrets or negativity regarding those actions (Fitch, 2011). Given that the officers committed these crimes against civilians while executing search warrants, their behavior may have started with some form of denial of the victim. Because these people were already suspected of some wrongdoing (hence needing a search warrant in the first place), the officers might not have felt guilty about stealing things from them because it was deserved.

Any time there is a group of officers involved instead of just one, it is also easy for denial of responsibility to become a problem. Each officer ends up justifying their behavior by pointing at the other officers that are also engaged in misconduct. All officers have “dirt” on all the other officers involved – if any one of them defected, the others could deny the story or even retaliate. In a sense, all officers are applying peer pressure to the other officers to keep it up and, even if one decides it has gone too far, there is no way out.

These rationalizations contribute to the immediate effect of their unethical behavior: enjoyment of the items the officers stole. Cash can easily be used for a variety of things the officers may desire, but electronics and video games are a specific type of entertainment. Forrest in particular had stolen a camcorder from one residence, which was later found in his patrol car as part of the investigation (KCTV5, 2012). The fact that the camcorder was not resold and remained close to his person suggests he just really wanted a camcorder; he saw one and he took it for his personal use. Rationalizing the repossessions in the ways outlined allows the officers to continue taking without feeling any remorse for their actions.

Past any cognitive rationalizations the officers might have, one must also consider the culture of ethical behavior established by the department. Due to the nature of police work, officers are sometimes pressured to show results at the expense of how ethically those results are obtained (Martin, 2011). These kinds of pressures also tie into the overall police subculture. Especially within highly specialized units, such as KCK’s SCORE unit, officers tend to develop a sense of superiority and lead to a divide between the members of that unit and the rest of the agency (Martin, 2011). Having too much pride can be dangerous, though, and officers might begin to think they are invincible because they are the best officers in the department.

By far the largest impact on these officers’ lives occurs after being caught: the loss of that pride. Officers are always placed on administrative leave while charges are pending, but certainly run the risk of losing their job entirely at any time throughout the process. In this instance, all three officers eventually pleaded guilty in exchange for having some of the charges dropped, and faced years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines (KCTV5, 2012). Those are all short-term consequences though; the real effect is in the long-term consequences. It is difficult to think of anything worse than being labeled as a criminal in the news for everyone in the community to see. The black marks on the officers’ record, both public and private, will make it extremely difficult for them to find future occupations that require any degree of trust, and certainly preclude them from ever working in the criminal justice system again.  

Role of Leadership

Leadership within the unit and department as a whole worked diligently to investigate the claims against the officers involved. U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom even commended Chief Rick Armstrong for not sweeping the allegations under the rug and for actively seeking out the assistance of the FBI to determine the credibility of the allegations (KCTV5, 2011). However, reactive standards for ethical behavior are only one part of a great department, and more proactive methods of ensuring ethical conduct should always be employed to prevent the misconduct from occurring at all.

Leadership within a police unit is key to ensuring that a culture of ethics develops among its officers. This is especially true for something like a SCORE unit, which consists of the supposedly most elite officers in the department charged with the most difficult tasks. These kinds of prestigious positions can easily lead to officers developing a God complex if their actions and behaviors go unchecked for too long. Departments tend to give them more leeway than normal in order to complete their harder assignments, but the opposite should usually be true. These officers need more supervision from a direct authority to make sure their actions continue to align with department policies.

This added leeway is part of what contributes to their ethical declines. It is common to hear something along the lines of “do whatever it takes to stop the crimes” in elite units like SCORE. Those words, though, are counter to all training they have received. They explicitly encourage officers to ignore the rules that were taught to them for months in the training academy. Once you ignore one rule and everyone says, “Oh hey, that’s alright, you’re stopping crime,” then it becomes easier to break another rule, and another, until eventually the officer is breaking laws too.

Most importantly, a department should never adopt a “do whatever it takes” mindset for its specialized units – that is the single biggest failure any department can make. It should always be crystal clear those ethical standards should always be followed and if an officer needs more leeway than normally provided, explicitly outline which additional actions are allowed and why. This kind of outline ensures that officers and their supervisors are aware of which additional acts are permissible under their mandate and make it easier for both to evaluate their own actions and the actions of their teammates without having to guess at whether someone higher up the chain would give the all clear.

As far as actually auditing the actions of the officers, several approaches could at least give leaders in the department a glimpse into whether or not something might be up with a particular officer. Simply sitting down with a psychologist for a routine check-in about their state of mind can be an invaluable tool. Certain signs that the power might be getting to their head – like incorporating cognitive rationalizations for their actions into their responses – or stuttering around questions that ask for details about certain situations could act as red flags that someone needs to look into their behavior in more detail. Even if the department cannot afford hiring psychologists to evaluate the officers, a leader within the unit should at least be sitting down with them every so often to just discuss the job and any concerns the officer might have – just to see how they are doing.

Another important step is ensuring that those that our mentoring new additions to a unit like this are in fact up ethical standards. Nothing is worse than having a new member tag along with an officer that is corrupt, and might corrupt the new officer as well. Existing officers, no matter how trustworthy they might be, should always be screened again before being allowed to participate in the training process of new recruits.

Course of Action

My involvement within such a unit would have been greatly influenced by breaking down the “blue wall of silence” that exists in many departments – or the unspoken agreement between officers not to report their misconduct. These kinds of unspoken agreements can cause many problems within the department that lead to corruption, but rather than discuss those, it is more beneficial to point out the logical inconsistencies in having such an unspoken policy.

Many officers would argue that it is necessary in order to maintain trust among officers, especially in a small and elite unit such as KCK’s SCORE. However, that kind of mindset is akin to emphasizing how much mafia goons trust each other, which certainly does not paint a picture of strong ethical standards. Instead, officers should strongly focus on the trust that officer has broken with both the officers they serve alongside and the community they are meant to protect. How does one trust another officer on scene that has a history of roughing up suspects but has never gotten into trouble for it? At a certain point, one officer is spending more time trying to watch the other and prevent unethical actions, rather than their own job. The biggest contradiction, though, is the fact that many of these same police departments run “see something, say something” campaigns among the community trying to get anyone to come forward with anything suspicious, then blatantly ignore that very advice themselves.

There are of course risks to this approach. Particularly violent officers involved in gross misconducts may try to get revenge on the reporting officer. The more serious consequence is the potential discomfort among fellow officers who might be afraid to associate further, or might withhold important information about an assignment. However, a good leader and a conversation with those officers about how the wall of silence violates the trust of the department and the people, or even further disciplinary action, could overcome those problems with time.

Conclusions

The public perception of any police department is the hardest to master. So long as departments hold onto the blue wall of silence, the public is always going to have that sense of mistrust – that sense of officers tend to cover everything up rather than investigate and remove the bad seeds. Police have to remember that it is always an uphill battle when establishing a positive perception among the people it serves and protects. Consider any customer service environment. Both very good and very bad things tend to happen on occasion, but it is much rarer that we ever hear about the very good things. When we do, they tend to be dismissed almost immediately as “oh, that’s nice” without thought. When we hear the bad things, they stick with us, cause outrage, and we demand an investigation and accountability. The bad things leave a much bigger stain than the good things are able to clean away.

Attempting to maintain that public perception is why ethics within the criminal justice system is so important. Driving in ethical standards and actively preventing misconduct from occurring is by far the best way to maintain a positive perception among the public. Breaking the blue wall of silence and investigating corrupt officers which are not following ethical standards allows the department to investigate and take action before the public finds out, allowing the department to provide much more context to answer the public’s questions when the time comes.

Even more importantly than the public perception, maintaining ethics allows the officer, as a person, to grow and build relationships with the community. Even if the community distrusts the department as a whole, seeing a specific officer constantly take the extra step and follow the rules will at least get them to trust their locally assigned officer. That trust can eventually evolve into many things.

Fitch, B. D. (2011, October 1). Focus on Ethics: Rethinking Ethics in Law Enforcement. Retrieved from https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/focus/focus-on-ethics-rethinking-ethics-in-law-enforcement. KCTV5. (2011, July 18). Indictments against 3 KCK officers unsealed. Retrieved from https://www.kctv5.com/news/indictments-against-kck-officers-unsealed/article_c06ae9b6-52d9-5ced-ad12-cb0871947341.html. KCTV5. (2012, January 17). 3 KCK officers plead guilty as part of FBI sting operation. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20180217012705/http:/www.kctv5.com:80/story/16537378/2-kck-officers-pleading-guilty. Martin, R. (2011, May 1). Police Corruption: An Analytical Look into Police Ethics. Retrieved from https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/police-corruption-an-analytical-look-into-police-ethics.