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Monday, October 1, 2012

Police Agencies and Politics, Part I

A police agency must strive to maintain order, prevent crime, and enforce the laws of the government. Above all, a police agency must be a stable, respectable governmental body within society. All people must abide by the law, and police agencies are sworn to uphold this order.

Yet, we all know politics plays a part in policing. Politics has the power to exert influence over the government and public affairs. Politics can be manipulated to elect leaders who can impose private interests and control over certain resources. Thus, politics influences who will hold various criminal justice positions such as sheriff, police chief, judge, and prosecutor.

In the United States, a sheriff is a county official and is typically the top law enforcement officer of a county. Historically, the sheriff was also commander of the militia in that county. Distinctive to law enforcement in the United States, sheriffs are usually elected. The political election of a person to serve as a police leader is an almost uniquely American tradition. With that tradition goes great responsibility.

Within Ohio, sheriff's offices have probably one of the most extensive sets of responsibilities to those they serve. By statute they must provide the following:

  1. line law enforcement;
  2. court security and service of papers;
  3. jail operations;
  4. extradition process; and
  5. transportation of prisoners.
In truth, there is significant pressure upon county sheriffs and other elected officials to appease those who put them in office. How can such politics redefine a "police agency"? The agency can become committed to maintaining order over everyone except those who politically influence the police. The by-product of this selectivity becomes corruption. So, naturally, this pressure could cause a police agency to place politics above equality and justice.

We live with varying degrees of corruption within the policing system. Some of the corruption involves shades of dishonesty and misrepresentation. For example, most people laugh about the significant increase in arrests during election time. Despite an ineffective past, incumbents can manipulate new facts and figures in an effort for re-election. Many politicians believe a gullible public possesses a "what have you done for me lately" short-term memory of their accomplishments. They use increased policing during elections to bolster their mediocre records.

Given the weight of their authority, most citizens accept a degree of questionable behavior from policing agencies such as the sheriff and the courts. We, the public, sometimes find it easier to "give in" to what we perceive as false charges and unfair fines instead of facing a political police "system." We have become accustomed to a system that allows justice to rely upon position and political influence. Who couldn't name examples of evidence being suppressed depending upon "who and what you are"? And who would deny "special treatment" of those with power and prestige? Politicians often depend upon good relations with high social classes and political parties to stay in office.

Yet, some of the worst police corruption involving politics is nepotism and bribery. Partisanship has no place in policing. Neither do pay-offs of any kind -- be they politically "legal" or illegal. How can people support a political party that wants to maintain control of police policy by spending exorbitant funds to gain that powerful influence? This amounts to bribing certain people through promises of special favors. Nepotism involves favoritism or patronage granted to relatives and close friends regardless of merit.

Police politicians such as sheriffs also rely upon group endorsements. Why would police endorsements from work groups and unions sway the vote of an individual who has no clue of the group's true political intentions? The vote should go to the candidate who presents the best platform for law, order, and equal justice. The unknowing individual who casts his or her vote in this manner merely bows to political pressure and "group think."

Besides, unions and groups represent intelligent people with varied opinions and ideas about police policy, and these people do not want a group to mandate their standards of voting when it comes to order and protection. Endorsement is seldom granted in a unanimous vote. If an elected agent such as a sheriff seeks endorsements as a political "cover" rather than something earned with his service, he misuses the trust of the group granting the favor.

Often, uninformed people tend to equate a candidate's worth with things that have no bearing upon it whatsoever. Take the glut of political signs for a candidate. What does the number of posted signs have to do with the effectiveness of a policing agent? Perhaps more signs posted simply equates to more political money that has been wasted. Instead, the candidate should spend most of his money meeting the people he represents and defining his most effective policing policies before the election.

Speaking of money spent on campaigns, some police agents use public funds to support their candidacy. When a candidate uses manpower and time that should be mandated to the expenditures of law enforcement, he misappropriates those resources. To do so in the name of "keeping a job" overrides the purpose of public service. Often, undue pressure from the top causes this breech of service. A vote should not be coerced with the use of fear or pressure.

One must question the politics of a sheriff who (1) retires before the end of his present term, (2) persuades the county commissions to accept his resignation, (3) convinces the commissioners to reappoint him as interim sheriff, then (4) accepts the decision of the Republican Committee to complete his unexpired term, and finally (5) accepts his party's call to run for the office of county sheriff again for the new term.

Why? He claims he's not ready to retire, yet he is “ready to draw the benefits but not ready to just sit down.” He is attempting to persuade the voters in the county of the benefits of electing him as sheriff for another term at a reduced rate. This is known as “double dipping.” He claims he is doing this to guarantee his wife's medical insurance in the future. It is a prime example of playing the system. To state this reasoning for seeking office is an appeal to sympathy.

The public should also be aware of the manner in which campaigns are funded. Why would a candidate for a police agency such as the sheriffs office bend or break the law to attain a position that requires utmost decency? These police agents must abide by the same laws they enforce.

Some laws are specifically in place to prevent these shady, illegal practices. For example, Ohio state law makes it very clear that only a charitable organization, a public school, a chartered nonpublic school, a community school, or a veteran's organization, fraternal organization, or sporting organization that is exempt from federal income taxation may conduct a raffle. No person shall conduct a raffle drawing that is for profit or a raffle drawing that is not for profit.

Of course, a candidate for political office cannot sell raffle tickets to help finance a costly campaign. For example, a politician is not allowed to sell tickets and raffle a high-priced vacation trip in the guise of a door prize. If a political candidate does so, it is a misdemeanor of the first degree. If the offender previously has been convicted of a violation, illegal conduct of a raffle is a felony of the fifth degree.

My Take

Every police agent and prosecutor must pursue justice for all, not just for a select few. Any attempt to conspire to hide and ignore evidence and any failure to arrest potentially guilty parties must be viewed as serious corruption. Political pressure can make agents do shoddy work and make them fail to do their sworn duty. Caving into politics shows that an agent is completely devoid of personal integrity. Instead of making justice and order his chief concerns, he makes it “his job” to protect any and all political affiliations.

"The major cause in the lack of integrity in American police officers is mediocrity." (Los Angeles Police Department, Board of Inquiry into the Rampant Area Corruption Incident, 2000) Leadership that allows for mediocrity to first exist and then remain, rather than demanding the highest level of conduct within a department, can create a climate ripe for misconduct. However, a high degree of ethics that will prevent leaders from compromising their integrity in lieu of expediency or personal profit can stifle potential misconduct.

Feelings of superiority in an agency such as the sheriffs office can cause officers to develop their own code of conduct, which may not align with proper departmental policy and procedure. Then, a "this is the way we do it in this unit" mentality begins to set in. Some may refer to this as dealing with situations according to “good old boy” political standards.
If left unchecked, such politics can lead to feelings that an agency is untouchable, especially when coupled with a lack of strong leadership. Then, agents can cross into an unhealthy misdirection of loyalty. Police agencies must never compromise integrity for loyalty. In cases that call for thorough investigation, they must always take responsibility to ferret the truth instead of simply appeasing political friends.

An agency depends upon the citizens' cooperation in providing services in a democratic society. Law enforcement and legal agents are civil servants, and the populace must help maintain checks and balances over their work. When they vote to elect people to these positions, the people must be certain they cast ballots for those who are knowledgeable, rational, and moral – never those who choose the easy route in lieu of the ethical one.
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