When police let officers skate, respect for traffic law tanks

Is officers' 'professional courtesy' unprofessional?

February 06, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Roger Martin of Glen Burnie wrote me with what in some circles would be considered a laughable proposition: That police should follow the same traffic laws they enforce.

"I believe the top issue is failure of law enforcement to pull people over for the most obvious law-breaking. The law enforcers themselves are among the worst offenders, and perhaps that's one reason why they don't pull over others," Martin wrote.

He makes a good point. And there's a term for this phenomenon: professional courtesy.

It's been called the "third rail" of topics in law enforcement circles. Many police officers don't like to acknowledge it exists outside the family. But it's one of the worst-kept secrets in the world. It's the ethic that "cops don't write tickets on other cops."

Or retired cops. Or cops' family members. Or military. Or people with a sticker on their cars indicating they've donated to a police charity. Or anybody any individual police officer decides is part of a protected class.

To get an idea of how far professional courtesy has gone in infecting our system of traffic safety enforcement, just Google "professional courtesy police" and you'll find a wealth of reading matter about when — if ever — law enforcement officers should apply the same traffic penalties to colleagues as they do to civilians.

Professional courtesy is a lively topic of discussion on police forums such as PoliceOne.com, where officers heatedly debate such topics as whether police who drive drunk should receive the same courtesy as other offenders.

Frank Borelli, editor in chief of Officer.com and a former instructor, had this to say:

"When I was working the street there were certain groups of people I extended a level of leniency to because I felt either I or society as a whole owed them that as a sign of appreciation. Those groups, for me, included cops, firemen, doctors, nurses and military service members. Those folks would only get a citation from me if either 1) what they did was way out of hand, or 2) they just couldn't find it within themselves to show me common courtesy when I pulled them over."

And Borelli is hardly among the fanatics on the topic. He at least says an officer who is ticketed should respect the colleague who doesn't give cops a free pass.

It is heartening, perhaps, that many officers who would let colleagues skate on other traffic charges say they would arrest a fellow police officer who was driving drunk. What's less encouraging is that the consensus is far from unanimous.

"If you hit something or someone else your (sic) going to have to pay the price," one forum poster told fellow officers. "If it's a self-initiated stop and you had a little too much to drink then your (sic) going to park your car and call for a ride home."

Not a bad deal if you can get it.

Mostly what you find on the forum is a lot of hairsplitting about how an officer should go about asking for professional courtesy when stopped. Some take the view that any officer who has the temerity to ticket another cop – or family member — ought to be hounded out of the profession.

Then there are a lonely few who see the practice of professional courtesy as unethical. A Jim Geeting posted the following on Officer.com:

"I am a strong believer that we are being neither professional nor courteous when we give a slide solely because the driver is an off duty cop or one of the many other categories [a previous poster] mentioned he felt deserved special treatment. Why stop there? Why not school teachers, plumbers, babysitters, lawyers, accountants, the guy who owns the McDonalds franchise down the street, Wal Mart clerks, and on and on. The law is not ours to give away. ... to give a free pass; solely and exclusively due to one's profession and nothing else, when others who chose other career paths would get hammered, is not only cheesy, it's corrupt by definition. ..."

And how did Geeting's fellow officers react?

"You are either an [expletive deleted] traffic cop or a civilian …" wrote someone with the handle Ronin. "It's perspective, boys and girls, in the grand scheme it's traffic. Nothing more than a revenue generator for the idiot politicians to spend on yet another failed social program. Cops should not write other cops, whether that cop is a new boot, salted veteran, or retired with Wyatt Earp."

What the reply shows is not only a disdain for ethics but for a large part of the body of law officers are sworn to enforce. It also exposes a contempt for fellow officers who take traffic duty – one of the most dangerous and necessary assignments in police work — seriously.

These attitudes are no secret to civilians. The National Motorists Association is a fringe group that essentially opposes all traffic law enforcement. Here's what its president, James Baxter, had to say:

"For as long as traffic laws have been enforced there has been professional courtesy among police officers. Cops don't give tickets to other cops. Why is that? If these laws have merit and it's to everyone's benefit that these laws be obeyed why aren't the enforcers held accountable?"

It's a valid question — and one every police chief who believes in highway safety must confront. Professional courtesy needs to be rooted out of every department where it exists.

Minnesota police officer Duane Wolfe gave a hint of where to start. He wrote on PoliceOne.com about his first chief, who coached him to cover up for other officers – even if they crashed while drunk. When that chief landed in trouble, a new guy came in.

"My new chief told me if I ever caught him breaking the law to arrest him," Wolfe wrote. "He was a great chief."

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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