Police leaders must steer clear of partisan politics

The recent suspension of a police chief in Massachusetts illustrates the delicate line between an official’s public duty and a citizen’s rights to express their opinions. The current hyperpartisan atmosphere in the United States brings this to the forefront on an almost daily basis. Read on for details – and tips on how to voice opinions without running afoul of ethical standards.

For police and other public safety professionals, as well as judges and anyone else involved in administering laws and justice, individual acts must steer clear of anything that might make law-abiding citizens question their impartiality when doing their jobs.

In the Massachusetts matter, officials say that Mount Holyoke and Smith College Police Chief Daniel Hect’s social media activity was not the reason for his sudden suspension less than two months after he started. However, a campus newspaper published an article last week about Hect’s Twitter feed, which it said “included anti-immigrant, pro-gun rights and racist sentiments.” Many of the examples were tweets by President Trump or others who supported the president’s anti-immigrant policies.

Does a police chief have the right to endorse a partisan position? Of course. But doing it publicly does not make it prudent.

The same principle applied several years ago when a New York City police officer parked a car with a confederate flag in the parking lot at his precinct. He had every right to display the flag on his vehicle, but parking it so that anyone with business at the police station would see it was wrong on many levels, and his supervisors were correct to ask him not to park there again.

Think of it this way. If you are a victim of a crime and a member of a minority that has been targeted by a partisan official, and you see that the police chief endorsed that official or more directly, endorsed his targeting of the minority in which you belong, how are you going to feel about going to that police department for help – or even to report the crime?

This is the same reason why police officers have been disciplined in many communities for posting overtly racist comments on Facebook or elsewhere.

Taking a public position that rejects the laws you have a duty to impartially enforce undercuts your and your department’s credibility.

This is at the core of the model policy on unbiased policing by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. All police officers “shall strive to maintain public trust by conducting all law enforcement business in an unbiased, fair, and impartial manner,” says the IACP’s model policy on standards of conduct. The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics describes the importance of respecting the constitutional rights of all citizens and not letting political views or personal prejudices influence police actions.

What makes the current environment unusually tricky is that the president does not adhere to the practices of his predecessors, such as separating partisan politics from policy debate. By painting every issue as partisan, the president makes it harder — or perhaps impossible — for law enforcement leaders to take stands on policies without appearing partisan.

Here are some rules of thumb to stay out of trouble when advocating on behalf of your community or your department and without abdicating your rights as a citizen.

  • Focus on policies, not people. Instead of “retweeting” a politician’s message on an issue, take the time to carefully craft your own message about the policy itself.
  • If the policy is not under serious consideration in the relevant legislative body, it’s probably not worthy of your public comment.
  • Use your knowledge and experience to share facts and details that help others understand your position.

In practice, this means starting out by considering whether the issue is worthy of stepping into in the first place. If it is, consider how or whether it affects your community or your department. If the impact on your department is small, consider staying out of the public debate. However, if the matter directly relates to law enforcement, think of ways you can use your role to inform people so that they can reach their own decisions.

The core of this is respecting everyone, regardless of their political viewpoints. If you communicate your policy viewpoints without bashing those with whom you disagree and without endorsing others whose conduct suggests prejudice or malice towards certain groups, then police chiefs can play important roles in public debate.

However, if your intention is to dismiss the views of other citizens, you should not be conveying that publicly — and you probably should consider changing your career.