Police ethics: More is expected
All law enforcement officers in South Dakota, once hired, must spend 13 weeks training in Pierre to earn their basic certification.
Cops have a year from their hire date to get certified.
Plenty of officers or deputies in small towns and Sheriff’s departments start out at a lower pay grade, work for a while before heading out to the academy, then get a raise once they complete the training course.
In larger departments, such as Sioux Falls, the officers don’t hit the street until they’ve finished.
In smaller departments with fewer officers, that’s not always an option. Some spend their weekdays at the academy and come back on the weekends to pull a shift or two.
Small towns also contend with the reality that the word “certified officer” on a resume can turn the employees they’ve sponsored into free agents. Some towns, like Wagner, now ask their officers to sign contracts promising to stick around.
The differences between small and large agencies in South Dakota is a theme we’ll explore in greater depth during a series on rural law enforcement. I posted about the project previously here and here.
On Thursday, photographer Joe Ahlquist and I visited the academy and sat in for sessions on firearms and ethics.
There’s plenty to learn on both topics. The first involves lethal weapons, the carrying and proper use of which for an officer can hardly be overstated. The second speaks to what society expects from those to whom we grant the authority to protect and serve.
Instructor Greg Williams, who lead the ethics course, told the recruits that their behavior as beat cops will be scrutinized more closely and judged more harshly than many of the people they work for.
Specifically, he talked about President Bill Clinton, whose popularity actually increased after a sexual tryst in his office. Technically, Clinton was the highest-ranking law enforcement official in the U.S. at the time.
If that happened in an officer’s office - which is the patrol car - there’s no way the community would be as forgiving.
Is it fair that we hold officers to a higher standard of ethics than we have for our elected officials?
Williams asked the class the question, listened carefully to their answers, then offered his own:
“I think it’s more than fair.”
His explanation, a variant on the theme of “with great power comes great responsibility,” tied together the two concepts being studied that day:
“Under the right circumstances, you have the authority to take someone’s son, brother, mother or daughter away from them forever. There is no greater authority.”
In this clip, Williams talks about the concept of “noble cause,” which underlies ethical missteps that stem not from outright corruption, but from an officer’s desire to do justice.