Originally published as “Where Do Your Values Lie?” in the book Living a Life of Value (2006), I thought a slight adaptation of the title would be wise. I think about the values of a good law enforcement officer quite a bit, writing in the areas of social justice, social criticism, and ethics. In this essay my friend, a federal law enforcement officer with a 20-year career, reflects on a moral dilemma in the workplace. In so doing, he learns more about his values. I know he aspires to be a person of integrity on the job, and that is laudable since so many lives are affected by the many agents he trains and supervises. He and I both believe the values of a good law enforcement officer include integrity, accountability, and self-restraint. It is no coincidence that these are reminiscent of some of the principles of the (mythical) knight, who put honor and service and loyalty above all else.
Whether we like it or not, values are a part of our everyday decision-making process. Most of the time we make decisions easily without having to search the depths of our morals and values, but every so often we might find ourselves in a moral dilemma. It is times like these when it pays to know what you value most.
I am a law enforcement officer and have been for the past twenty years. Many of my experiences have led me to believe that generally, people’s views about law enforcement officers and the job we do is polarized or “black and white” if you will. However, this could not be further from the truth. I believe law enforcement officers operate in the so-called gray area. Keeping this in mind, it greatly benefits any law enforcement officer to know what his or her values are.
My first values check came quite early in my career. I had only been a law enforcement officer for about two years. I was invited to a private social gathering at an acquaintance’s house and decided to attend. When I arrived nothing seemed inappropriate at the time. As the evening progressed, a fellow law enforcement officer I worked with regularly arrived. It seemed he was much more acquainted with the host than I. A short time later the host started smoking pot and offering it to all of his guests. I politely declined to partake and decided it was time to leave. However, before leaving I tried to find my co-worker and give him the scoop. When I found him he was blazing up with the rest of the partygoers. I promptly pulled him aside and asked him what the hell he was doing. His answer was, “Relax man it’s just pot.” I tried to remind him of his position, but he just smiled and took another hit as if in defiance. Disturbed at this point, I left.
What are the values of a good law enforcement officer? Integrity? Honor? Law-abiding? Follows the “Golden Rule”?
All I could think about was how just a week or so before, this co-worker and I had arrested a man with a gallon freezer bag full of marijuana. It bothered me that this law enforcement officer would arrest someone with marijuana, but would use it himself. Now in the big scheme of things marijuana use and possession of personal use quantities is “small change,” but this was now challenging my values system.
Who did I owe my loyalty to? Do I say nothing and let it go and compromise my belief that a public servant should not engage in any illegal activity? Do I report the incident and risk being labeled a rat? I contemplated this dilemma for two days before coming to my decision. I decided to take what I knew to my supervisor. Of course, this kicked off an investigation which uncovered that twelve other officers were involved in drug use and distribution. I regularly received death threats at my house and even the guys that were not involved in the scandal did not really trust me anymore. I had broken the code of silence.
My life was miserable for about two months until I was transferred. Initially, I questioned whether I had made the right decision, given all the difficulties I was having with co-workers. I mean who cares what the hell those other cops did, I didn’t do anything wrong. However, I know that I made the right choice for me because if I had not reported it, I would still be dwelling on the whole situation today asking myself how I could have disgraced myself and my position. No, these days are rarely even think about the incident, my conscience is clear and I upheld what I thought was right.
The thing I know for sure is had I not been clear about what I thought was right and wrong I would not have had a good reference point for making a decision I could live with. We probably won’t remember most of the good decisions we make, but we’ll most definitely remember all of the bad ones.
David Kim is a federal law enforcement officer for the last 20 years. He servied in the United States Coast Guard. A father of five, David earned the rank of Shodan in Sekiguchi-Do, a samurai sword art. David grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons with Jason, whom he met at age 13.
The National Institute of Justice defines the values of a good law enforcement officer HERE. Suggestions for improvement are also offered.
“The Values of a Good Law Enforcement Officer”, by David Kim.