What role does “character” really play anymore and what is its relationship to good policing? In our highly cynical, ultra-hip, post-modern society, the very word seems little more than a throwback to another era. Modern technologies that monitor, document, and report our every move distances us ever further from the idea that “character” is an important concept to develop internally, even in criminal justice work.
When it comes to policing, data gathered by automated logs, dash cams, CCTV systems, body cameras, and other technological devices are often held out as a proxy for what are arguably internal processes alone. We can’t monitor a person’s thoughts or beliefs in real-time (yet), but we can monitor outward behaviors that make it easier for us to differentiate those we perceive as having character from those who we believe lack it.
And isn’t that enough? Do we really care about a police officer’s actual inner character as long as he or she lives up to the legal, ethical, and moral standards we expect?
Maybe outward behavior is enough in most cases. But, what we know for sure is that technologies –including those noted above — are only tools to be manipulated, not replacements for human thought and action. An unethical person can easily bend technology to unethical purposes.
In the end, we’re always left with this problem of humans and human action, no matter what tools and technologies we develop. So, it’s unlikely that we can ever abandon the idea of character development as an important benchmark of quality policing.
But what are we really talking about here anyway? What is character, what are some key elements of it, and what examples might we look to that can help us bring the concept into sharper focus?
When working with students on this topic, I use the Josephson Institute’s Six Pillars of Character as a framework for nailing down what are otherwise some very abstract ideas. To me, this framework feels the most neutral and most descriptive of the qualities that contribute to character, although you might disagree.
Josephson’s six pillars are:
And the closer you look at each one of these, the more complex and nuanced the ideas become. So, let’s consider some examples that can help to clarify:
This is probably one of the most obvious of the six. It gets at the idea of acting with integrity, honesty, and loyalty as a way to develop trust – as opposed to self-serving, dishonest, and disloyal behaviors that break trust and take us further away from the goal of building mutually beneficial relationships.
Consider this example:
Open Carry Confrontation
Would you trust this cop to do a good job? I definitely would. He’s direct, honest, and acts with integrity, even though the people he’s dealing with are intentionally setting out to provoke negative police contact. He doesn’t take the bait. He’s calm, doesn’t make up any fake laws or ordinances, and he just does his job. I would certainly trust him to to do this whether or not he was being filmed.
The old golden rule is at the heart of this one. Treat people how you would like to be treated. Doesn’t get much simpler than that.
Here’s an example:
Good Guy Cop
Instead of acting like he’s a superior being from another planet, this cop introduces himself, uses a friendly tone, and communicates what needs to be said to the group without being preachy or ridiculous. He doesn’t sacrifice safety in any way, but he doesn’t bully or try to intimidate either. Good stuff.
We’ve heard about this one all our lives. Taking responsibility for words and actions is at the heart of just being an adult. What we may miss with this concept, though, is the idea of self-restraint and control as a way to prevent problems in the first place. We have to strike the right balance between self-control and getting our point across.
See how that’s done:
Another Good Guy Cop
This cop isn’t messing around, but he’s acting with restraint, too. This is a touchy encounter and a potentially dangerous one. Instead of over-reacting and making everyone eat asphalt, he takes a measured approach that’s very effective. He doesn’t get sucked in to a debate and instead stays focused on what needs to happen, all without losing control of himself or the situation.
Playing by the rules is school yard stuff, but we need more of it in policing as well. We see too many examples of unfair, biased, and generally bad behavior by police when put into a stressful situation.
Watch this cop handle it all like a boss, though:
Tampa RNC Cop Gets In Trouble For Being Nice
I don’t know that I agree with the caption on this video. I don’t think anyone got in trouble for being nice. I do think this cop is a good person who was able to not only keep his cool, but completely defuse the situation by just being fair. He listened to what the protester had to say, even though it was a barely coherent and overly broad rant, and then turned the situation around by responding in a human way.
Here’s one you rarely see connected with policing. Caring is often hidden beneath body armor and a faux attitude of disengagement and disinterest. Really caring about what’s going on is challenging, mainly because it makes people vulnerable. It’s still important nonetheless.
Watch this example:
Two Good Cops
Both of these cops were responding to a complaint of people flying some drones on a rural road. They could easily have just driven by, waved, and skipped having a conversation altogether. Instead, they both stopped, had a friendly chat to see what was going on, and then pleasantly went on their way. They both obviously cared about what was going on and also about making a genuine effort to get the facts.
This one is probably the corniest of the bunch, but I would argue that it’s also one of the most important. The police are not separate from society, they are part of society. Being a “good citizen” is a requirement of the job in that respect. This includes volunteering and giving back to the community, even though police officers do give of themselves everyday as public servants.
Here’s an example of citizenship in action:
Volunteering to Clean Up Graffiti
What I really like about what these guys are doing is that they’re so matter-of-fact about it. No bluster about it all. They’re just helping some people out, improving the community, and definitely creating some good will.
In the end, this is all really simple stuff to understand. The challenge is to carry it out into the field and use it effectively.
And, as much as we’d like it to, technology can’t replace any of these. It’s up to humans to act like human beings and to do the right thing consistently, even when that’s incredibly difficult.
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