Professional Courtesy in Law Enforcement

Police and Professional Courtesy

Closeup of officers standing with hands behind
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Images by Steve Skinner Photography/Getty Images

A quiet debate exists about the brotherhood of the "thin blue line" and professional courtesy among police officers in law enforcement circles across the United States.

At the heart of the discussion is the question of whether police officers should receive leniency if they commit traffic violations and even some misdemeanors, particularly in light of the tough job they have and the importance of "sticking together."

Professional Courtesy

Professional courtesy is not unique to law enforcement. A kindred spirit exists across nearly all professions. Waiters often tip fellow waiters better when dining out. Hospitality industry workers often "take care" of their fellow workers by giving them free drinks or enhanced service.

The fact is that people who perform the same or similar jobs have a certain appreciation and understanding of what others in their profession deal with from day to day. They have a natural inclination toward empathy and a desire to help each other out.

Considering how tough a day in the life of a police officer can be, it's no small wonder that fellow officers might be inclined to look the other way when their "brothers and sisters in blue" commit minor violations and infractions.

Higher Standards for Police Officers

The public nonetheless expects their officers to be held to a higher ethical standard. Officers rely on the public's trust in order to perform their jobs and to accomplish their mission of improving public safety. Part of that trust includes an expectation that officers will follow the law and lead by example.

Get Out of Jail Free?

Professional courtesy for police officers is most often given—or at least expected—in traffic stops. You've no doubt seen "thin blue line" stickers on the rear windows of cars. Many officers and public safety professionals display this seemingly innocuous sticker as a symbol to other officers that they're "on the job."

The expectation is that other officers will be lenient because "we're all in this together." Officers are granted broad discretion in what laws they enforce in most circumstances, and in how they enforce them. Citations, arrests, notices to appear, and written or verbal warnings are all on the table in most cases.

Knowing that a violator is a police officer can often influence another officer's decision on how to use his or her discretion.

Leniency for Cops—Right or Wrong?

The question remains whether police officers should receive special consideration or if they should be expected to follow all laws just like everyone else.

The argument for those who fall on the side of leniency and professional courtesy is that no one else knows what officers face from day to day. Many say that fellow officers are going to be the ones to back you up when you need help, so you need to keep that in mind when you've stopped one.

A ticket or an arrest might mean someone's job in some cases, which makes the decision to take enforcement action that much more difficult.

Who's the Rat?

Some law enforcement professionals get downright angry when they or a member of their family receives a traffic ticket or even a written warning. Officers who write tickets to other officers are sometimes called "rats" or worse.

There are some who strongly believe that an officer not take enforcement action against another under almost any circumstances, whether on or off duty.

Accomplishing the Mission

This notion flies in the face of why officers choose to work in law enforcement to begin with. It also undermines the trust the public has placed in the profession.

Officers are expected to be exemplary in following the law so they have credibility when they enforce it. Failing to adhere to the law, or to be held to the same or higher standard than the public, takes away from the ability of officers to effectively enforce laws. It takes away their ability to safeguard lives and property.

Real Professional Courtesy

Rather than express anger at another officer for failing to provide a professional courtesy to another, the outrage might be better directed toward the individual who placed the officer in that position to begin with. If someone doesn't want to be accountable to the law, the best course of action is not to break it in the first place.

Police officers understand that their profession is unique and that officers need to stick together if they're going to be successful and stay safe. But they're also all too aware of the consequences of breaking laws—even traffic laws.

There are real world consequences when things go wrong, in addition to the legal consequences and the inconvenience of the out-of-pocket expense of a traffic ticket. Laws are in place to keep people safe from harm. Officers cease to be part of the solution and become part of the problem when they fail to follow them or fail to own up to their mistakes and refuse to accept responsibility.