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The moral imperative of loyalty

The dyed fabric from the famous mills of Coventry, England in the 17th century kept its blue color so well that it was known as true blue. The color you bought was the color that stayed, without fading or changing. Is that you? Do you honor your highest and original values by remaining true blue? Can you state your most basic values that guide your daily behavior?

Loyalty is often expressed as if it were purely an emotion — the misting of eyes at the national anthem or a breathless vow of love in a moment of passion. I believe we need to understand loyalty as an act of will and intellect. It is this firmness of thought that will sustain our behavior within a solid ethical framework through a law enforcement career.

Our real loyalties are exposed in the grist mill of life experiences. In their book Theory in Practice, Chris Argyris and Donald Schon state, “When someone is asked how he would behave under certain circumstances, the answer he usually gives is his espoused theory of action for that situation. This is the theory of action to which he gives allegiance, and which, upon request, he communicates to others. However, the theory that actually governs his actions is this theory-in-use.”

This perspective on the contrast between espoused theory (our stated life principles) and our theory-in-use (what we really look like as we behave in the world) is an enlightening one for self-examination. For example, if we say that we are loyal to Constitutional principles, to a high morality, to the espoused values of our department, and yet falsify a use of force report for ourselves or a co-worker then we have established that our highest loyalty is to convenience and self-interest. Our true colors show, and they are faded and not true blue.

Without a clear reminder of what you really believe and live for, the expediency of the moment may prevail and betray your higher aspirations. A loss of focus that allows us to drift from our highest ideals can contribute to burnout and misconduct. A visible cornerstone for your primary, ethics-defining loyalty can have refreshing preservative value to the soul. Your cornerstone might be a cross or wedding ring worn daily. For others that reminder might be a family photo on the visor in the patrol car. For some it might be a daily ritual or reading. I recommend a written personal mission motto.

A personal mission motto articulates your values so that you are compelled to define them. A motto or mission statement is the central measure for your life’s work and provides a standard against which to measure your decisions. My father was a WWII veteran who gave a lot of effort to the American Legion whose motto was “For God and Country.” All that he lived for, even the mundane tasks of work and family, was embodied by that phrase. Others might say “Family First” or “Remember Your Mission” or “Liberty and Justice.” Finding your cornerstone can help you through the day, and perhaps help you survive the worst days of all.

What is your motto?

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.