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Back to Archives | Back to August 2004 Contents 

Shared Responsibility: The Next Step in Professional Ethics

By Patricia A. Robinson, Ph.D., President, Coronado Consulting Service, Sonoita, Arizona

Editor's note: Patricia A. Robinson, Ph.D., retired from the Madison, Wisconsin, Police Department in 2000 to become law enforcement education director for the state of Wisconsin. In that position she and her staff undertook a major overhaul and expansion of the basic training curriculum for the state. She is now president of Coronado Consulting Services, LLC, providing training and consulting to law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. She is a member of the IACP Police Image and Ethics Committee.

Addressing Misconduct
Police departments have put in place various programs to address misconduct by officers. These include requiring ongoing ethics training for officers, improving use-of-force policies and training, developing early warning systems to identify problem officers before serious incidents occur, and improving pre-employment screening of applicants. All of these programs reflect the reality of the 21st century: no matter where a police misconduct incident happens, it affects all of law enforcement.

The media attention to police misconduct is not likely to diminish in the future. If anything, it will increase: contemporary journalism rewards investigative reports, and sales of video recording devices are booming.1 Continued reports of police abuses and continued blaming of all in the profession for the actions of a few are likely to lead to two results:

  • Calls for more stringent civilian oversight of police
  • More officers falling into the us-against-them trap

Neither of these results is good for the profession. Every time a scandal breaks, questions arise as to whether the police can adequately police themselves. Demands increase for close civilian oversight and for reducing the discretion given to officers. Yet a hallmark of a profession is that it operates under a code of ethics and applies internal discipline when its members violate that code. Abdicating that responsibility to others diminishes the profession and reduces effectiveness. The law enforcement profession must find ways to maintain autonomy while at the same time remaining accountable to the community.

Officers who repeatedly face criticism for the actions of other officers-especially when those other officers are in different agencies and even different states-can easily become frustrated and cynical. Ethics experts recognize that an officer who feels victimized is an officer at risk.2 An officer who becomes disaffected from the public can all too easily become disconnected from the criminal justice system and the rule of law as well.

Efforts in police departments to combat police misconduct have focused largely on accountability: holding supervisors responsible for the actions of their subordinates, putting in place systems to identify misconduct in the early stages and stop it before it becomes severe, and, in some cases, facilitating reporting of misconduct by establishing anonymous complaint procedures or protections for whistleblowers. These are important efforts, but in a real sense they come too late: misconduct has already taken place.

Shared Responsibility
A better approach to misconduct is to prevent it, and one way to do that is to embrace the concept of shared responsibility. Shared responsibility is now part of Wisconsin's basic police training curriculum, and trainers and supervisors there are building a base of experience and knowledge for implementation. Simply put, shared responsibility means that every officer involved in a police action (a call for service, a self-initiated stop or arrest, a citizen contact, a field interview) is responsible for how the action is handled, not just the highest ranking or the most senior or the primary officer. The corollary of that concept is that any officer who sees another acting unethically or contrary to policy or law has an affirmative duty to intervene-regardless of relative rank or seniority.3 Intervention can take a variety of forms, from mild verbal admonishment ("Hey, Joe, take it easy. Don't let him get to you.") to actual physical intervention, which can include separating the officer from the subject.

The concept of shared responsibility builds effectively on already ingrained aspects of police culture. Cops watch out for each other in terms of physical danger all the time. It's a small step to extend that watchfulness to ethical danger as well. Cops are loyal to each other. What higher form of loyalty is there than preventing one's partner from doing something that could ruin his or her career or even result in prison time? Policing depends on teamwork. What better example of good teamwork is there than working together to ensure that an incident is handled the right way?

Law enforcement is an incredibly difficult job. No other occupation requires the correct application of complex principles and procedures to such a wide variety of situations, often with little time to make the decision and in the face of distraught, angry, and sometimes violent persons-knowing that others (including news reporters, managers, community leaders, jurors, and judges) will analyze the decision in detail. And the stakes can be very high: a wrong decision can be catastrophic to the officer, his or her agency, and members of the public. As the world becomes more complex and dangerous, the decisions become harder and the ethical dilemmas more complex. Increased media scrutiny and rising expectations from the public leave officers little room for error. As the profession has evolved, the response to the ethical issues involved with the exercise of professional discretion must evolve as well.

Shared responsibility is the next step. It's no longer enough to rely on reactive strategies to address misconduct after the fact. Law enforcement executives need to take proactive steps to prevent conduct that sets up a conflict between loyalty and truth.

Objections to Shared Responsibility
When law enforcement executives are presented with the idea of shared responsibility, the response often is, "Great idea. It'll never work." Most of the objections boil down to two:

  • It will undermine the chain of command.
  • The union will oppose it

Some police chiefs contemplating the shared-responsibility concept foresee a reduction in discipline and effectiveness as rookie officers refuse to obey veteran sergeants, saying, "I don't think that's ethical." They imagine police responses that demand quick action and effective teamwork deteriorating into decision making by committee. And yet should junior officers stand by while senior officers take action that would land them and the agency on the front page of the newspaper as a police scandal?

Chiefs also assume that police unions will oppose any policy that makes officers accountable for the actions of others, particularly for the actions of their superiors. They anticipate that the union will fear that shared responsibility will put officers in a catch-22, in this case a situation presenting two equally undesirable alternatives: if they don't intervene, they'll be disciplined under shared responsibility, and if they do intervene, they'll be disciplined for insubordination.

Do these objections sound familiar? They should, because these same arguments were voiced against the idea of community policing and problem-oriented policing. Both of those policing models require officers to work proactively and on their own initiative to form partnerships and solve problems. When the concepts were introduced, police executives and middle managers feared that decentralizing decision making would lead to deterioration in discipline and constitute a failure of leadership. Many executives also expected unions to oppose this new style of policing because it expected officers to do more without more compensation. Yet over the years, skepticism has turned to enthusiasm from managers and the rank-and-file alike, as the programs have reduced crime, increased community support, and allocated police resources more effectively.

Implementing Shared Responsibility
Three approaches are key to successfully implementing shared responsibility in an agency: focus on prevention, provide training, and lead by example

Focus on Prevention: When shared responsibility works to prevent misconduct, everybody benefits. The officer is prevented from committing an act that could risk a career, the department avoids liability and scandal, and police across the country are spared from having to overcome another publicized example of police abuse. Focusing on prevention means that officers should be supported when they reasonably choose to intervene, even with a higher-ranking officer. Failing to intervene should result in discipline only when the situation is clear-cut: a flagrant disregard for policy or law. The goal of shared responsibility, after all, is to foster teamwork and encourage officers to look out for each other, not to punish ethical officers for making good-faith decisions in complex and difficult circumstances.

Provide Training: Just as officers are not expected to adapt to new technology without proper training, the chief should not expect them to apply a new concept without training. But the training must be more than a read-through of a new policy or posting of a general order. The best kind of training for learning to apply shared responsibility is scenario-based training. Scenarios and simulations give officers the chance to practice responses to complex situations in a safe environment. The training can be as simple as classroom role-plays or as elaborate as full-blown simulated calls. In any case, it is important to put the officers in a situation where they have to act on a decision, not just talk about it. It's one thing for an officer to say, "Sure, I'd step in if I saw my lieutenant doing something wrong," and quite another to actually do it.

Practical simulations train the body and the mind together and allow officers to rehearse actions before the fact, when there may not be ample time to work through their reluctance to intervene with another officer. Be sure to include higher-ranking officers in the training as well. They need to be able to differentiate between insubordination and legitimate ethical intervention, and they need to model a positive response when another officer intervenes to prevent their simulated misconduct.4

Lead by Example: Supporting and participating in training is a good start. But good leadership demands more. As Gilmartin and Harris put it, police leaders "do not have the luxury of simply talking about ethics . . . they have to 'walk the talk'" and be day-to-day role models.5 Or as a member of IACP Police Image and Ethics Committee recently asked, "What message are we sending to our officers? Do the right thing? Or never embarrass the department?"6 Police executives must by their actions send the message that we all have to do the right thing, and that means we look out for each other at all ranks, both tactically and ethically.

Implementing shared responsibility means having the courage to do business a little differently, but the rewards can be enormous: more trust, pride, and cohesiveness in the department, fewer incidents of misconduct, and more community support. Shared blame is already a fact of life. Embracing shared responsibility as a positive value is the next step in professional ethics. ■

1 The Consumer Electronics Association predicts that 3.3 million camcorders will be sold in 2004; see (, June 21, 2004.
2 See Kevin M. Gilmartin and John J. Harris, "Law Enforcement Ethics: The Continuum of Compromise," The Police Chief 65 (January 1998); and National Ethics Institute, "The Corruption Continuum: How Organizations Become Corrupt," by Neal Trautman, ( (June 21, 2004).
3In the Wisconsin curriculum, which teaches the familiar contact-officer, cover-officer model, this duty is referred to as contact-officer override.
4 For more information about shared-responsibility training scenarios, call or write to Dennis Hanson, director, Training and Standards Bureau, Wisconsin Department of Justice, P.O. Box 7070, Madison, WI 53707-7070; 608-266-7864; (; or call or write to the author at Coronado Consulting Services, LLC, P.O. Box 795, 119 Wagon Wheel Lane, Sonoita, AZ 85637; 520-455-5546; (
5 Kevin M. Gilmartin and John J. Harris, "Law Enforcement Ethics: The Continuum of Compromise," The Police Chief 65 (January 1998): 28.
6International Association of Chiefs of Police, Police Image and Ethics Committee, midyear meeting, April 23-25, 2004, Plano, Texas.



From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 8, August 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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