Schooling the police in ethics

Philosophy professor applies sage Greeks to the mean streets

January 30, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Stephen Vicchio is facing a crowd of more than 200 police officers -- from street patrol officers to chiefs -- and talking about Aristotle. "Because Aristotle is The Man," he says.

And the police are listening.

"Dr. Vicchio may say that Aristotle is The Man," says Tom Cassella, a lieutenant in the Baltimore Police Department. "It's Dr. Vicchio who's The Man."

In less than four years -- since Vicchio, 48, a philosophy professor at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, started teaching in a program for police at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Continuing Studies -- he has emerged as one of the nation's leaders in police ethics.

An academic from the ivory tower talking to the police about how they should behave on city streets is not standard fare or an easy sell. But Vicchio makes it work.

"So much of it is his credibility," says Mark G. Spurrier, a former Baltimore County policeman who is director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Policing Institute.

"It's one thing for a professor to get up there and talk. The police might not listen," Spurrier says. "But the more time he has spent dealing with police, the more stories he can tell that the police relate to. They listen to him because he has credibility."

Yesterday, Vicchio wrapped up a two-day conference on ethics and integrity that attracted more than 200 police personnel from the Baltimore-Washington region, representing more than 60 different organizations -- from campus police to big city departments.

It was organized by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Policing Institute, a Justice Department-funded outgrowth of the Police Executive Leadership Program at Hopkins.

In 1995, those who put together that program at Hopkins asked Vicchio to give a course on ethics. "I didn't want to do it," Vicchio, 48, says. "I came out of the '60s, and I had the standard misconceptions about police that people of that generation had."

But he said he was hooked virtually from the first class. "I was completely wrong about the police," he says. "These were very smart people who were focused on the subject. The whole class was going in the same direction, something I didn't see too often in my other classes."

Since then, Vicchio's reputation has grown. He has continued to teach at Hopkins, is on the staff of the Mid-Atlantic Institute and has talked to police groups from Alaska to Florida.

He is a regular at the FBI Academy in Quantico, where he once spoke to a group of police from Northern Ireland seeking to transform that department. He has delivered papers at Justice Department seminars and recently spoke to the Secret Service.

Vicchio says he found in his police students the embodiment of what he had been teach- ing in the abstract about ethics for years. "These people literally put their lives on the line," he said. "They face the ethical dilemmas I had just talked about for real. And for some reason, they accepted me."

That acceptance is clear at the seminar, where many of the participants have either taken courses from Vicchio or heard him lecture at other events. They call him "The Doctor" or "The Doc," in the way they might refer to a colleague as "The Lieutenant" or "The Chief."

"He has changed the way that I think," said Cpl. Scott Canter, a 12-year veteran of the Baltimore County force who has taken courses from Vicchio at Hopkins. "It's stuff I apply not only in my police work, but also at home, dealing with my kids."

High-profile cases

Vicchio caught a rising tide, getting into the field just as highly publicized cases including the beating of Rodney King and the O.J. Simpson murder trial focused the spotlight, along with government grants, on police ethics.

"I think Mark Fuhrman did more for police ethics in this county than any other cop," says Vicchio, referring to the Los Angeles policeman whose racist past damaged the case against Simpson.

The two days of this week's conference began with brief lectures, including a harrowing tale from New Orleans Chief Richard J. Pennington of the ethical mess he found when he took over that department in 1994 -- police running a drug ring, ordering a murder over a police radio, gaining promotions by giving presents to the chief, renting police radios to tow truck companies on their days off.

"I think it is important for these people to know what can happen to a department if you don't have a culture of institutional integrity," Pennington says.

Theoretical cases

After that, the participants divided into groups of peers -- street officers, sergeants, lieutenants and majors, chiefs, civilians. They were given cases to work on that Vicchio devised.

In the first, two officers didn't want to participate in protecting an abortion clinic from demonstrators because they believe abortion is murder. The second case presented a black officer who threatens to resign if he is forced to work a Ku Klux Klan march.

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