Honor is not for cowards

Taking an oath one thing, knowing what it means another

February 28, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

Before he went out last Wednesday to arrest 15 of the officers charged in the Majestic towing scandal, the police commissioner of Baltimore attended a morning retirement ceremony. It was for a cop who had had a long and honorable career and who, a few years ago, risked it all to expose some bad police work within the ranks. The farewell for Mike Andrew, who retired as a lieutenant colonel after nearly 38 years of service to the people of this city, took place in the commissioner's board room first thing in the morning.

Then, just after 9 a.m., Fred Bealefeld left headquarters to reclaim badges.

That's a remarkable, almost surreal sequence — Baltimore's earnest commissioner salutes an honorable peer who once risked his career to do the right thing, then faces down 15 younger cops accused of risking their careers to do the wrong thing.

More than 30 cops are alleged to have been involved in the Majestic kickback scheme, and 17 were indicted. They're all off the street now, and if the accusations are true, you wonder what they were thinking: That they wouldn't get caught? That they deserved a little something extra on the side? That they really didn't like being cops all that much, and if caught taking cash, they might lose their jobs — but so what?

You also wonder what makes someone in a position of trust (and that's pretty much all of us who have jobs) violate that trust for personal gain. Why do some people cross the line but not others? What drives them? Greed? Hubris? Career suicide?

And what of the consequences? What of your good name? Could having your reputation trounced in the mud possibly be worth a few hundred bucks from the owner of an auto repair shop?

"They have no sense of honor to the badge," someone who goes by "espantoon" commented on Twitter when I posed these questions over the weekend. (Espantoon is an amusing word. It's a police officer's club, specifically in Baltimore; you can look it up.)

So then I asked where this "sense of honor" comes from. Is that something you learn in the academy, something that has to be taught? Or is it something that develops quietly and gradually in all of us, planted and nurtured by parents and peers?

I think we're inclined to believe the latter, particularly with regard to people who are called to public service. We like to believe they are more selfless than selfish and already endowed with a sense of purpose and honor when they step forward — cops or firefighters, teachers or soldiers, the scientist or doctor, the nurse or social worker.

But, public or private, most professions have a code of some kind, ethical standards, acceptable and honorable conduct, even noble purpose.

You'd think these things would be understood — unwritten and instinctual.

But maybe we assume too much when we assume that everyone gets honor training on the way to adulthood. Maybe these ideals and values need to be spelled out for each generation that comes along.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has an all-purpose Law Enforcement Oath of Honor, and it goes like this:

"On my honor, I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character, or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions. I will always uphold the Constitution, my community and the agency I serve."

Before police officers take the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor, they ought to know what it means. So, on its web site, the police chiefs' association provides definitions of the key words:

"An oath is a solemn pledge someone makes when he/she sincerely intends to do what he/she says. Honor means that one's word is given as a guarantee. Betray is defined as breaking faith with the public trust. Badge is the symbol of your office. Integrity is being the same person in both private and public life. Character means the qualities that distinguish an individual. Public trust is a charge of duty imposed in faith toward those you serve. Courage is having the strength to withstand unethical pressure, fear or danger."

Indeed, honor, achieved and maintained over many years and through all kinds of trials and temptations, is not for cowards.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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