making local government more ethical

Is Courtesy Professional?

Update: November 1, 2011 (see below)

Hundreds of Bronx police officers are being investigated for ticket fixing, one of the most common forms of preferential treatment in local governments across the country. What's especially notable about this investigation is that, according to an article in the New York Times, the Sergeants Benevolent Association, a union, has started a campaign arguing that ticket fixing is not corruption, but a courtesy. As in the expression, "professional courtesy."

The union president has also "recorded an audio message calling on current and retired members of the force, across all ranks, to come forward with testimonials about the beneficiaries of ticket-fixing. He said he expected to find evidence that politicians, prosecutors, clergy members, business leaders, celebrities, athletes and others have been among those who have had tickets fixed, often with the help of top police officials."

The union president said that "his aim was to highlight a culture of courtesy that had been the norm since the inception of the summons. But it could also serve to embarrass or even implicate public officials or others who have asked police officers to do them a little favor and make a ticket go away."

In other words, it's always been done, it's just a courtesy, it's the fault of other officials and VIPs, the city's finest just can't say no, and threatening blackmail is an acceptable form of self-protection.

Or, put another way, the Bronx police force has an ethics environment that embraces preferential treatment to VIPs and their colleagues' friends and family members (it's notable that the union president left this latter group off his list of people to out). The police feel the law applies only to those without money, power, and personal connections.

Jeopardizing Government Credibility
As an article in today's New York Times shows, there is no reason for anyone to believe that this preferential treatment stops at fixing tickets. "Any police officer swept up in the scandal ... is susceptible to being asked about the topic when showing up as a witness in unrelated cases. And if jurors cease to believe the words of police officers because they monkeyed with tickets, ... then it is in these courtrooms that the most corrosive impact of the scandal may be felt."

This happened for the first time last week in an attempted murder case. Defense lawyers can bring in any evidence to put a police officer's credibility into question. In an opening statement, the defense lawyer "advised the jurors that they would hear from 'corrupt officers' whose words could not be believed." And they mentioned the ticket-fixing scandal.

It is not far-fetched to think that officials, VIPs, and police officers' friends and family are getting away with a lot more than tickets, if not attempted murder. Or, for example, that white people are getting preferential treatment over people of color. "Professional courtesy" that excludes most citizens opens up many cans of worms.

Courtesy is important to law enforcement, but that courtesy is to the public, not to certain members of the public. There is no such thing as professional courtesy in government. It is just another name for preferential treatment, and it is unprofessional to say or act otherwise.

Those who asked, and especially those who demanded, "courtesy" should be named and fined, as well. They are equally responsible and, in some cases, especially when they are the officers' superiors, primarily responsible. And any union that participated in the "courtesy" system should be taken to task, too.

For now, the sergeants union should cease and desist its characterization of ticket fixing as "courtesy." There is no excuse for it, no matter how long it's been done, no matter that no individual has been directly victimized. The victims are the credibility of the police and of a government that allows officials, VIPs, friends and family to be treated better than the rest of us.

We do not live in a dictatorship or cronyocracy, where those in power, their friends and their family are treated specially. And the union needs to acknowledge this, or openly admit that the Bronx is a police state, where the police and those with money, power, and personal connections stand above all the rest.

Update: November 1, 2011
According to an article last week in the New York Times, 16 police officers were arrested for ticket fixing and other offenses. The police union quickly organized more than a hundred off-duty police officers to demonstrate at the courthouse, where they "cursed and taunted" prosecutors, investigators, the news media, the police chief, and even people in line to pick up welfare checks across the street. The arrested officers were given special treatment by not having to do the "perp walk," where arrested citizens are walked past news media and cameras. The officers were taken in through the garage.

According to the article, "prosecutors found fixing tickets to be so extensive that they considered charging the union under the state racketeering law as a criminal enterprise, the tactic employed against organized crime families. But they apparently concluded that the evidence did not support that approach." It's too bad that this is not being handled as an institutional rather than personal problem, and that it is not being handled by the Conflicts of Interest Board, since ticket fixing is a government ethics issue more than a criminal issue.

This would be a perfect opportunity to try an alternative sort of ethics proceeding, where the entire Bronx force would be the respondents, since everyone apparently fixed tickets or knew that tickets were being fixed and did not report it. Treating this as an institutional problem more for educational than enforcement purposes would force the police officers to acknowledge that because something is customary, that does not mean it is right. It would also send a message to other police departments and other departments and agencies that, instead of a multi-year sting operation, when word of their preferential treatment came out, they would quickly be brought before the ethics commission and told to stop it and, if it has cost the taxpayers money, make restitution.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics