Right of first refusal

Our view: Ray Rice episode in Baltimore County shows the trouble that follows police officers who accept gifts, no matter how innocent the intent

November 17, 2010

Few people would begrudge a police officer a complimentary cup of coffee or even a doughnut. Theirs is a demanding and often dangerous job. Like firefighters, police officers are called upon to go into the burning building or dark alley — not to flee from it, as most people would be expected to do.

But with this important job comes a great deal of discretionary power and an opportunity for abuse of that authority. Like Caesar's wife, they are expected to live up to a high standard of behavior. When they fail to meet that standard, the police department loses credibility with the public, and the criminal justice system suffers.

Last week, an unnamed Baltimore County police officer received a great deal of attention for accepting an autograph from Ravens running back Ray Rice. He had stopped the football player in the parking lot of an Owings Mills shopping center for having too-dark tinting on his car windows.

Initially, the incident drew attention because Mr. Rice posted a description on his Twitter account that implied the autograph was given in return for not issuing a ticket. He later explained — and the officer confirmed — that the autograph was given for the officer's son at Mr. Rice's suggestion after the traffic stop was completed and that there was no quid pro quo.

Again, this is hardly a sensation. The officer gave Mr. Rice a warning, and he took out a pen and signed a piece of paper. The infraction was relatively minor; the gift was relatively small.

But the question is, why should an officer accept any gift at all? Baltimore County police are told from the time they are in training not to accept gratuities (although, in this case, the autograph was not considered to have monetary value — an assumption that might come as a shock to a lot of sports memorabilia collectors).

As is so often the case in matters of ethics, the problem here is not so much a matter of impropriety as the appearance of impropriety. By refusing to accept all gifts, individual police officers could insulate themselves from any connection to bribery or favoritism.

It's hard to fault the owners of local convenience stores or coffeehouses for giving away food and drink to officers to keep them around as long and as often as possible. But nobody holds a gun to the head of the police to accept any gift. Once they accept, the question is, how much is too much? Is a $100 meal OK? And who decides the value of a gift?

The county police officer was exonerated because the autograph was given after the warning was issued, so there was no opportunity for a return favor. Apparently, accepting a gift is not a violation of any specific department rule as long as there is no intent of a quid pro quo. But the outcome is still mostly the same: A police officer accepted a gift, a driver did not receive a ticket, and the matter required investigation by the department.

Some may claim that businesses often donate to police athletic leagues or other charitable efforts without ill effect. The difference is, those aren't gifts to an individual but to the department, and for activities totally unrelated to enforcement. There's far less of an appearance of impropriety.

Here's a script for the next traffic stop of similar circumstances: "I'm sorry, Mr. Rice, but I'm not allowed to accept gifts of any kind. But I'll tell my son I met you and I'm sure he will be thrilled. In the meantime, don't forget to have those windows corrected — and go beat the Steelers."

The officer's reputation is protected, and Mr. Rice gets a lesson in the high standards of Baltimore County police. Certainly that's better than outfitting every county patrol car with a dashboard camera to record all public interactions for later review, as some police departments do. Such scrutiny simply isn't needed when there's nothing to scrutinize.

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