Ethics Conference Draws Together Unlikely Partners
in Police Work
Two officers with religious objections to abortion tell a supervisor they want off a detail protecting abortion clinic workers from anti-abortion demonstrators.
An African American police officer tells a supervisor he will quit rather than provide protection at a Ku Klux Klan rally.
For three hours last week at the The Johns Hopkins University Downtown Center, participants in a two-day conference on policing and ethics wrestled with these two questions, both drawn from real life cases. Should the two officers be ordered to work the abortion protest anyway? Would letting the two officers avoid the assignment open the door to having other officers pick and choose what assignments they want based on their political beliefs? And should the supervisor respect the African American officer's sentiments against the Klan?
"If you found these difficult," Stephen Vicchio told the more than 200 officers and citizens, "then you know what it's like to be a police officer. But these types of questions don't just happen once a week. They happen two or three times a day. It's a really, really hard job to be a police supervisor."
Vicchio, a philosophy professor at the College of Notre Dame, in Baltimore, who regularly teaches ethics courses to police officers enrolled in the Hopkins Police Executive Leadership Program, designed the ethical case studies. He had the participants meet in separate rooms, grouped according to their status: chiefs in one room, sergeants in another, citizens in another all debating the same issues.
In the end, the groups gathered together to present their conclusions. Interestingly, all of the groups decided the officers should be ordered to complete the assignments, with qualifications. But they arrived at their answers differently.
"If you noticed, the citizens' group was much tougher on the officers," said Terry Katz, a lieutenant in the Maryland State Police. "They had very high expectations of law enforcement."
Led by Vicchio, the officers tapped into decision making thought processes employed by ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. And by all accounts, he had their full attention.
The Downtown Center's Berman Auditorium was packed. And members of the Hopkins-based Mid-Atlantic Regional Community Policing Institute, which organized the event, said they had a waiting list of 35 people.
"It was a superior piece of training," said Katz, who taught at a similar conference last year at Hopkins on gangs and gang activity. "And I ve been to a lot of these training sessions."
The sessions for gang activity were "packed," Katz said, "But it was jazzy. This was not jazzy. Ethics is like nuts and bolts. Without it, the structure will fall down."
Mark G. Spurrier, director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Community Policing Institute, said feedback on the conference was "excellent." The institute recently received $912,000 in second-year operating funds from the Justice Department.
The Institute is one of 30 across the country that provide training to law enforcement officers as part of the 1994 Crime Bill designed to put 100,000 new officers on the streets.
In its first year of operation, MARCPI provided education and training to more than 3,400 law enforcement officers throughout the region on a variety of topics, and it has dozens of training programs slated for this year.
Baltimore County Police Major Brian Uppercue, a 1998 graduate of the Hopkins police leadership program, said the regional policing institute has helped bring different policing agencies together to cooperate, compare notes and solve problems.
Uppercue was also attending last week's conference on ethics. While much of the discussion felt like a good refresher course rather than new information, he said he still gets a charge out of applying age-old principles to modern police work.
"If you can apply principles from thousands of years ago, and it's just as appropriate today, and it works, it's awesome," said Uppercue.
Katz put it another way.
"When was the last time you had a cops class where you were talking about Socrates and Plato?" Katz asked, rhetorically, pausing a beat. "And nobody left?"
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