Was the Tampa chief just exercising the privilege of professional courtesy?
Whether you are a rookie or a chief, be a good citizen and take the ticket
There are two ethical questions facing every law enforcement officer. The first is whether to take that free cup of coffee. The second is whether to give a pass to a fellow police officer they just stopped for a traffic violation.
For the sake of full disclosure, this writer must make a confession or two. Yes, I’ve let a trooper know I was a cop after being stopped for speeding, and yes, I’ve had a free donut or two. Both of those things pain me upon reflection. After my badge display, I felt pretty low and never did it again and have earned a couple of speeding tickets with a clean conscience since. After arresting the coffee shop owner who screamed “After all those free donuts, you’re arresting me?” I realized that I wasn’t receiving a courtesy but was being bought for favors. I’m clean now.
On the other hand, I have used what is called officer discretion on every traffic stop. There is the objective reality of the alleged violation and the subjective judgment of what is in the best interest of the public. I remember reading years ago in the analog days of a police department that wanted to eliminate officer discretion by installing a device that required the officer to press a button to mark whether a ticket was issued or not before actually contacting the driver. The experiment failed because of a mysteriously high number of devices being broken.
When Tampa Police Chief Mary O’Connor’s husband was stopped by a Pinellas County deputy for operating a golf car on a public roadway without appropriate tags, the conversation quickly turned to O’Connor displaying her badge and saying, “I’m hoping that you’ll just let us go tonight.” The deputy did not give the chief a ticket and O’Connor shook hands with him, offering her business card with the assurance that “If you ever need anything, call me.”
The body camera video’s release resulted in an internal investigation. O’Connor did not advise Mayor Jane Castor, a former Tampa police chief herself, about the incident until 18 days after the stop. When questioned during the subsequent internal investigation, O’Connor said she has given out hundreds of business cards for a variety of reasons. She also stated that she always identifies herself as a police officer when stopped for the safety of the officer making the contact so that their safety would not be compromised. O’Connor said that if she had it to do over, she “would not have asked the deputy to let us go. I think that was an improper statement.”
At first glance, this episode probably doesn’t shock or disturb most officers because many have a “never write another cop” policy, but many have little tolerance for being badged with the expectation of privilege. The professional courtesy of offering a business card and any future assistance is common enough with no nefarious quid pro quo always attached. Officers also often inform officers conducting a contact that they are an officer and are armed in order let the officer know that they are friendly and not a threat. (Although that sounds a lot like hinting for a favor.)
O’Connor has a bit of a history of second chances. Although her climb through the ranks may be praiseworthy, she was only able to apply herself after a 1995 incident where she was arrested as a rookie for battery on a law enforcement officer. Although the official record has been expunged, O’Connor’s disciplinary file noted that she was a passenger in a car that was stopped, became “loud and argumentative” and had to be restrained in the arresting officer’s patrol car. She reportedly began kicking the windows and punched the officer in the chest. She was fired a month after the incident, then reinstated the following year. She retired in 2016 and was appointed chief on a 4-2 vote by the city council after hearing 40 speakers, 25 of which endorsed her appointment.
Castor said that O’Connor had made good progress addressing crime in Tampa, but her behavior was unacceptable. “I gave Mary O’Connor a second chance, as I believe in second chances for people, which is one of the reasons that the disappointment today runs so deep.” I think Castor was right to ask for the resignation.
My advice is the same for a rookie or a chief: Be a good citizen. Take the ticket and thank the officer.
What do you think about the chief's behavior? Share your comments in the box below.
Police1 readers respond
- I think it was a very bad example, and she should have been fired.
- The author's position is a bit too self-righteous for me. A crisis of conscience after a traffic stop? Suggesting that informing an on-duty officer that you are armed at first contact hints at corruption? Really, chief? I've been a working cop for over 35 years and in my experience, a traffic stop that ends with a handshake and an exchange of business cards is a good thing, not a bad thing. While I am not a Florida traffic officer, I am pretty sure that the crime in question, committed by the spouse of the chief, is an infraction at worst. Really? This is the big ethical deal?
- She should have just said she was a cop and armed. NO mention of her rank and definitely NO passing of her business card. In my 42-year career, I have stopped numerous cops including command staff. The only three I signed up all talked themselves into the citations and a phone call to their respective commands. I am talking about minor traffic stuff only. Some things leave you no choice.
I have never had an issue with a police officer identifying themselves as such when encountered on a stop. I have on more than one occasion when I've found myself in the middle of a s**t storm, been assisted by passing off-duty police officers. I think a little professional courtesy (paying it forward) is warranted. When you consider that we have all given roadside reductions to the general public, it certainly shouldn't be a negative that we also do the same for officers. And to your concern about "free" coffee...I have always, always left more in a tip than the cost of the coffee and the tip combined, mostly because its the right thing to do but also because the people working in the coffee shops make far less than the average cop, if I can help them out, why the heck not?
Frankly, I could care less. First of all, she was not the driver of the golf cart. There were no pending charges for her. In my 39-year career from officer to chief, I never once wrote an officer a citation. Now, if the officer were to develop an attitude, the outcome might be different. If it were a wreck, especially a DUI, it might also be different. Discretion is discretion. It does not disappear because a cop is stopped. How many officers stop one of their neighbors or even a family member? Would you write your own mother a citation? She may have been a lousy and hated chief with a history. I don't know. But it is obvious someone leaked the information to the press to embarrass her.
I've been stopped numerous times for traffic violations and walked away with a warning. I'm not a law enforcement officer. So, you don't have to be a police officer to be the recipient of officer discretion. What I think she did wrong was to overtly ask to be let off the hook: "Just let us go tonight.” The real unanswered question is, who released the bodycam footage?
I am a retired police chief with 44 years of experience. I have stopped and been stopped by officers over the years for speeding. I have shown my badge to let the officer know I was armed. I never asked the officer to let me go and usually stated that the officer should handle it as they would for anyone else. It is my firm belief and the way I operated as a police chief that I had an even higher standard of conduct to follow. While this is a minor offense it does not meet the higher standard for a police chief. Unfortunate circumstance but the chief sets the standard and is a role model for staff. This was an example of a poor decision. As a police chief, I agree with what the mayor did here.
I agree with the previous comments as far as the officer's discretion. The chief was a passenger, not the driver and identified herself accordingly. I have issued citations, and warnings, and even talked to prosecutors about specific citations and received prosecutorial discretion in court. Of all the split-second decisions an officer has to make during a shift that can change each participant's life, we are highlighting this stop involving public servants. Would this make a story if the officer issued a citation? Probably not.
We give breaks to various citizens for any number of reasons all the time. Why should we not give each other a break (if we can)? Especially on minor traffic offenses which usually incur more of a civil penalty than a criminal penalty. I would NEVER overlook a felony or incident where there were injuries. But a traffic violation.........
What happened to the spirit of the law versus the letter? A bit overblown in my opinion. Now if he was DUI, argumentative or attempted to flee in a golf cart (lol) sign him up regardless of whether married to a law enforcement officer or not. Otherwise, warn him regardless if related to law enforcement.
The first thing she does is ask the officer if his BWC is on and once he says it is, she announces who she is anyways. Once you know the camera is on, probably the right time to be quiet and take the fine for the unregistered golf cart. Based on the officer's demeanor, I'm guessing they would have received a verbal warning anyways. We should all exercise professional courtesy on this job because we rely on each other, but we also shouldn't be putting each other in difficult situations.