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How to react when a cop goes ‘bad’

It is an undisputable fact that in any profession there is a bad apple in every bunch, but the impact in the police world is more devastating than most others

Most cops are passionate about their work, dedicated to their jobs, and willing to put their lives on the line for the cause of public safety. In many instances, they may wind up making the ultimate sacrifice.

The brotherhood among cops is strong, and the unity that binds them together is the strength that enables them to forge ahead in difficult and challenging circumstances. Importantly, most honor the badge and are proud to wear it.

Therefore, when some cops journey down the wrong path and engage in unethical, corrupt, or criminal behavior, the law enforcement brotherhood is deeply affected — the badge is tarnished and the citizenry is appalled. It is an undisputable fact that there is a bad apple in every bunch of any profession, but the impact in the police world is more devastating than most others. This is due to the nature of the work combined with the meaning of honor and integrity that is representative of their badge and profession.

Some Bad Apples
In June 2011, Washington D. C. Metropolitan Police Officer Richmond Phillips was arrested for fatally shooting his mistress — Wynetta Wright — and for leaving their 11-month old daughter, Jaylin, in an overheated car where the temperature reached in excess of 125 degrees, resulting in her death.

Phillips had met Ms. Wright while he was off duty in a club. He kept secret the fact that he was a married man with a 12-year-old child. After he learned his mistress was pregnant, he ended contact with her, but Wright subsequently filed a paternity suit andrequested child support and health insurance payments.

Phillips was convicted of two counts of first degree murder and sentenced to a term of two life sentences plus 20 years.

In May 2013, Jonathan Gamson, a former 25-year veteran police sergeant of Tampa (Fla.) PD was sentenced in to four years and nine months in federal prison for possessing child pornography. He was also required to register as a sex offender.

His crime was uncovered through the Department of Homeland Security’s Operation Gondola — a global initiative to detect child exploitation and abuse. Gamson was married at the time with a young daughter.

During his tenure on the department, Gamson was well-liked by his colleagues. He had received many accolades for his performance — he once saved a woman who had been stabbed and once rescued a suffocating child pinned underneath a car.

Charged with three counts of possession of child pornography and one count of destroying records, Gamson signed a plea agreement to one count of possession of child pornography. The ensuing shock that reverberated among his colleagues — and the personal impact on his family — left an indelible mark.

Recently, Prince George’s County (Md.) Police Corporal Michael Brown — a 12-year veteran assigned to the aviation unit — was suspended with pay pending the outcome of an investigation. He has been charged with assault with a dangerous weapon — a felony.

Brown was with a friend of his in the District of Columbia, when his friend allegedly got into an argument with a parking valet. Brown’s friend reportedly struck the valet in the stomach and face and knocked him to the ground. Both men returned to their cars and, according to documents, Corporal Brown obtained his personal handgun and his friend obtained a tire iron. Allegedly, Brown pointed his handgun at the employee while his friend held the tire iron in a menacing fashion.

Why Openness and Transparency Are Vital
Are these anomalies — three isolated incidents of good cops gone bad? Or should these individuals never passed “go” from the start, inherently flawed candidates ending up in a calling that demands unquestionable conduct comprised of lawful, ethical, and appropriate behavior?

Though police departments nationwide have enhanced and refined their comprehensive screening processes for those wishing to enter the ranks of law enforcement, there are going to be individuals who somehow slip through the cracks. Some will show no signs of anything to prompt a red flag indicating a need for an immediate halt to the hiring process.

No department is totally infallible — mistakes are made and bad things happen. Still, law enforcement agencies try to have a finely tuned selection process to avoid any semblance of problems that could result in tragic outcomes that bring disdain and disgrace to their agencies.

When a ‘bad apple’ does fall through the cracks — bringing their law enforcement agency into the headlines as a result of their awful actions — it is imperative that police leaders be open and transparent in addressing and acknowledging any suspected or proven wrongdoing.

Openness and transparency are vital for three reasons:

1 .It provides a valid affirmation of accountability
2. It provides support to its officers who take pride in their jobs
3. It provides the public the knowledge that the agency is being upfront and forthright

In the case of Gamson, though many in the police department were shocked to learn of his actions, the agency was transparent in acknowledging the incident.

“Good, bad or ugly, we stand up and address it,” Laura McElroy, a police spokeswoman said.

In the case of Brown, Prince George’s County Maryland Police Chief Mark Magaw indicated Brown is suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation. Magaw is known to be a chief who maintains transparency regarding his agency and his officers.

Magaw said he “holds officers to high standards whether they are on or off duty.”

In the case of Philips, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said simply, “This is a horrific crime, and our deepest sympathies go out to the Wright family.”

Don’t Forget Your Troops
When an agency is suddenly faced with a truly bad apple in the ranks, it can be a real morale buster for those others in the agency who consistently and diligently conduct themselves appropriately in their duties. Don’t forget to communicate — and listen — to those in your ranks who will pull your agency out of the trouble your bad apple has laid at your feet.

It only takes one officer to tarnish the badge and to bring unwanted attention to any police department. As a police leader, you must understand this and be prepared to deal with both your external and your internal strife.

When bad apples are identified and dealt with — and the good cops in an agency are acknowledged — public safety moves forward for the good of all.

Karen L. Bune is an Adjunct Professor at George Mason and Marymount universities and a consultant for the U.S. Dept. of Justice. Board Certified in Traumatic Stress and Domestic Violence, a nationally recognized speaker, she also serves on the Institutional Review Board of The Police Foundation. She received the Police Chief’s Award and County Executive’s Recognition of Service Certificate from Prince George’s County, MD. She is in the Wakefield High School (VA) Hall of Fame. She holds the AU Alumni Recognition Award and Marymount University’s Adjunct Teaching Award. She appears in “Marquis Who’s Who in the World” and in “America.”