Ethics in Conflict - Building a Strong Foundation

 


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Whether or not a military force (or paramilitary force) is properly equipped to handle crisis situations in an ethical manner is a question that is truly worthy of consideration. Before asking oneself this question, however, it is imperative that leaders are certain that their organizations are grounded upon a solid, impermeable ethical foundation. Ethical conduct simply cannot be expected within an organization that is under pressure if it is not expected when the organization is simply involved in daily, commonplace operations.

Police services and the military have enormous powers conferred upon them by the state. Each has the ability to restrict or remove individual liberty and both have the overwhelming and unenviable right to use lethal force where necessary. These powers are, in large measure, the basis for citizens’ demanding that our organizations are founded on strong ethics, principles and values.

In the vast majority of cases, especially in days gone by, the military’s focus has been other than domestic. When they are dispatched to any operational situation anywhere in the world, including here in Canada, they very often become very involved in the domestic life of that country’s citizens, however.

As time passes and one views the tasking being given to Canada’s military, one can see more and more that the role is that of peacekeeper rather than warrior. This reality brings our military and our police even closer in terms of roles, responsibilities, values, principles and ethics.

Some of the Challenges

There are some realities within the culture of paramilitary organizations that may cause significant interference with effective communications both internally and externally. It is incumbent upon the leaders of these organizations to recognize, accept and properly counteract any negative aspects of their organizational culture.

It is not sufficient that a leader possess impeccable values. The leader must demonstrate these principles in daily interactions with others, and the leader must communicate these values to all employees regularly, consistently and unashamedly. There must be a very clear understanding by each and every member of the organization that ethics, values and principles are simply non-negotiable.

All too frequently, when an individual is discovered to have been involved in unacceptable behaviour, the ‘bad apple’ theory is held up as the answer. A ‘bad apple’ grows and develops in an environment that either condones or ignores the early warning signs, or in some cases tacitly approves of the indicative behaviour.

The difficulty with the ‘act and react’ approach is that it is often seen by the junior ranks as, at best a witch-hunt or at worst a hollow inquisition with obvious ulterior motives. Occasionally, some view the curative measures that are imposed as knee-jerk reactions to isolated incidents. As a result, there are virtually no long terms benefits realized. Occasionally, such actions can actually have significantly negative consequences.

This is not to minimize the general and specific deterrence of swift, impartial action by the administration. It is imperative, however, that the organization be alive to any and all signs of larger, more insidious issues and take proactive measures when and where appropriate.

To fully understand how misconduct can take place, and more importantly, how it is sometimes viewed by the transgressor’s peers, it is vitally important to take a close and critical look at the organizational culture in which the misconduct occurred. This examination can take several forms but the most fruitful may be a bottom-up, holistic approach.

Defining the Organizational Culture

Military and paramilitary organizations have, over many years, developed a culture they can truly call their own. Moreover, units within these organizations develop subcultures that must also be recognized. This is especially true of specialist or ‘elite’ units.

A good starting point for the analysis of any organization in terms of values, principles and ethics can and possibly should begin at the front lines. This analysis can help to identify the symptoms of any irregularities within the culture.

The Cultural Evolution

Activities and behaviours within a particular organizational culture sometimes indicate values and standards that differ widely from those outside that culture. This is not peculiar to police or the military. Almost every single organization in every conceivable sector has it own, individual culture.

Organizations that tend to have their own ‘language’; their own specific identity; their own atypical rules; are more susceptible to developing a culture that is some distance from the culture of mainstream society. The members of the organization often believe that their world is too different, too complex and too onerous for anyone outside the organization to begin to understand. This belief is the likely foundation of peculiar cultural values.

Until quite recently, police services were very definitely apart from society. Although they are sworn to serve and protect society, this sworn duty was most often performed in the manner decided upon behind closed doors by the police services themselves.

With the advent of Community Policing, Community Policing Advisory Committees, Community Satisfaction Surveys and other similar Law Enforcement efforts, any mystique that may have existed is being stripped away. Police officers are being seen more and more as human beings with all the human frailties everyone else in the community may possess. In short, the public is now more willing to believe that their police officers are capable of committing not only acts if misconduct, but also criminal acts.

There is no shortage of Internet sites that exist to report on police misconduct. In one particularly poignant example, it is alleged that an off-duty police officer had had a physical altercation with a member of the public in a bar. The account of the fight included the civilian suffering convulsions, being attacked with a pool cue and having one of his eyes dangling on his cheek as a result of the beating. As it turned out, there was an altercation but it in no way resembled the account offered on the Internet. The altercation could in no way be described as a beating and the civilian did not suffer convulsions and did not have an injury to his eye even remotely resembling that described.

Anyone reading the original account would have been left with the disturbing impression that the police officer had been involved in a vicious, prolonged beating of an innocent civilian. Given the millions of people who regularly surf the Internet, there is a very real likelihood that there are many people who may have read the account and believed it.

The result of this new pressure on the police is that the public may be more prone to believing that the police are capable of heinous acts. When one considers the impact and frequency of the Rodney King video that played and replayed on television sets across North America, it should not be surprising that the public has changed it opinion of the probability of the police involving themselves in criminal acts. Disturbing photographs of military behaviour in Somalia have brough similar pressure on our armed forces.

These realities raise the bar in terms of the public’s expectations of police officers and members of the military. If the public is now more prone to believing it is probable, or at the very least possible that police or military personnel can be involved in these types of loathsome behaviours, it is incumbent upon police and military leaders to create and/or maintain ethical, highly principled organizations that are open to significant scrutiny by the pubic. Transparency has become vitally important.

When the behaviours move too far along the acceptable-unacceptable continuum, the organization may begin to experience considerable toxicity.

In looking at some particularly heinous examples of this phenomena, this evolution to can more appropriately be described as devolution. Every time an unacceptable behaviour is permitted, ignored or condoned, it becomes the new standard for a second, slightly more unacceptable behaviour. This second behaviour sets a standard for a third, and so on…

In the Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, incidents of serious assaults, robberies and even murders occurred; allegedly at the hands of sworn police officers. These unbelievable acts were the direct result of the devolution of the culture having been allowed to grow totally out of control. The illegal acts in Rampart are, thankfully, atypical of the vast majority of police departments in North America. They remain, nonetheless, examples of what can and does occur if the cultural devolution is not monitored and corrected. They are examples of what can occur if the leadership is inattentive; not listening to the heartbeat of their organization; not in touch; not listening to the cries for help from their various constituents.

The Code of Silence and The Thin Blue Line

There is a fervent belief, by some, that the police are all a part of the last bastion between good and evil. There is a view held by some that they must stand shoulder to shoulder regardless of the situation; that all are members of the ‘Thin Blue Line’. This mindset can frequently foster other, more serious problems within a police organization.

One of the first questions that must be asked is not simply whether or not there is a ‘Code of Silence’ prevalent within the unit or organization; for the answer to that is simple – Yes there is.

The breadth and depth of the ‘Code of Silence’ are the more important dimensions to define. The answers to these questions are frequently the bellwethers of problematic beliefs or values within the culture of that organization.

The Code of Silence drops like a curtain whenever it appears that one or more members of the organization may have crossed that vaporous line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

Time after time, when an internal affairs department or an outside agency begins to investigate allegations of wrongdoing within a particular police organization, memories become vague, vision becomes blurred and details become illusive.

Within the culture, there is an unwritten rule that officers do not inform on one another. This is, in part because of the belief that they must protect one another and also that only another cop understands what they go through on a daily basis; that many of these investigations are the result of individuals not knowing the harsh realities of policing; that they must stick together.

Cops dislike dirty cops. This is a strongly held belief inside and outside police organizations. The line between somewhat soiled and dirty is very difficult to define, however. Unfortunately, some wrongdoings are condoned, or at least ignored, while others are not. The two lists vary considerably, depending on who is composing the lists. The difficulty, of course, is the subjectivity and occasional self-interest that sometimes seeps into such assessments.

Once the ‘Code of Silence’ question has been investigated, there are other, more particular questions that the administrator must pose:

ž What behaviours have become acceptable within the culture that would not be acceptable outside it? ž How prevalent are these behaviours? ž Are these behaviours a ‘right of passage’ into a particular unit? ž Are these behaviours an indication of the ‘Three Musketeers’ mentality? ž Are these behaviours being condoned or simply ignored?

The answers to these questions will provide some self-evident guidance to police leaders as to the depth and breadth of the issue within their organization.

Noble Cause Corruption

Often times, the noble ideals that motivate men and women to enlist in a police service are the very same qualities that motivate them to behave inappropriately. These men and women do not act as they do out of some evil intent. They do so with the noblest intent. Tragically, these situations often have terribly unhappy consequences.

We in Canada have had numerous examples of this reality; especially since DNA technology has arisen as a tool in the detection of crime. As we now can see, there have been numerous examples of wrongful convictions, based upon the investigations by hard-working, tireless, honest, dedicated police officers.

One need only look at Donald Marshall, David Milgaard or Guy Paul Morin to see how tragedy has befallen these three men, and others, as a result of a steadfast belief in their guilt by a host of people within the Criminal Justice System during their investigation, detention and prosecution.

In the village of Queensville, Ontario, 8 year-old Christine Jessop disappeared. Some time later, her partially clothed and violated body was discovered. It became absolutely imperative that the person who perpetrated this heinous crime be found and brought to justice. In due course, Guy Paul Morin was arrested and charged with her murder. After a series of trials, he was imprisoned for the crime.

As history and science now tell us, Guy Paul did not do it!

As a result of DNA testing, Guy Paul Morin was acquitted after having spent years in prison. The fact of the matter is that he did not commit the crime for which he was incarcerated; yet those involved in the investigation of the crime were utterly convinced of his guilt.

Investigators, investigative supervisors, forensic scientists, crown attorneys and others held this zealous belief in his guilt. It was only after an exhaustive public inquiry that all of the details of this tragedy were fully explored and finally understood.

In almost every case, these wrongful convictions can be attributed, at least in part to ‘Noble Cause Corruption’. It is, in short, a phenomenon that can best be described as the ‘Ends Justifies the Means’.

This is not a phenomenon that exists only in policing. It can and does exist in any organization that values operational goals and/or tasks as indicators of success. There may be, and very likely are examples of Noble Cause Corruption within the military as well.

Police and military personnel are very task oriented. If they are given a specific goal, they will do what is necessary to meet or exceed that goal. If the goal is poorly defined, the efforts toward its attainment may go awry.

In the Guy Paul Morin situation, and many others very much like it, the goal was simple: Catch the bad guy! The missing aspect to the goal appears to have been the words ‘properly, impartially and justly’.

Because of significant pressure from the public, the media and the administration, it became imperative that the individual responsible for this atrocity be identified, arrested and prosecuted quickly. Unfortunately, it was the wrong person.

Similar tragedies can and do occur far too frequently for similar reasons. In a rush to judgement, investigators and others can develop tunnel vision, impairing their ability to objectively pursue appropriate suspects.

There are other aspects to the organizational culture of policing and the military that bear examination and understanding.

In these types of organizations, the need to belong is powerful. In combat or crisis situations, this is an important and vital characteristic. The reliance of one upon another or one upon the unit can and does preserve life. Perhaps part of the difficulty with this mindset results from the values of the warrior permeating peacekeeping operations.

In these types of organizations, an individual who rejects as unacceptable some piece of the organizational culture runs the risk of at best, being ostracized and at worst, becoming a target of the culture itself. There are examples of such happenings in many organizations across North America. In far too many cases, the Musketeer Mentality demands that everyone stand as one and dare not stand alone.

The Role of Associations

Another situation that has emerged somewhat recently is the militant position assumed by associations. In some cases, associations have minimized their mandate as champions of professionalism and have, for reasons known only to them, assumed the mandate of weakening the strength or impact of the leader of the service. In some cases, it has been reported that association leadership has investigated methods used by other militant unions/associations in other jurisdictions. One such report indicated that advice and counsel was received from the association that represented officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. Given the Rampart situation, this is a frightening thought.

This strategy can have significant negative impacts upon the effectiveness of the police service’s executive. At the very least, this diversion can have a very negative impact on the tactical operations of the service or the strategic planning efforts of the organization.

As much as organizations and their leaders may try to appeal to the self-actualization aspirations of their employees, various groups appear to operate at a much more basic level, from time to time.

When perusing a variety of police association and/or union literature, one frequently sees articles and points of view that speak to job security, personal security or other related topics. If an individual’s priorities involve self-preservation and/or job security, it is hardly surprising that the loftier goals of the organization fail to make the ‘A List’. When a group is engrossed in thoughts of self-preservation, it is not surprising that ethics, values or principles do not receive their undivided attention.

This reality simply underscores the need for leaders to be very clear and unwavering in their communications with employees. The underlying need for personal reassurance frequently interferes with messages being sent from the head. Meaningful and effectual communication ceases to exist.

Organizational Accountability and Supervision

In organizations that ‘grow their own’ supervisors, managers and administrators, there can be a leaning toward indifference of some misconduct. This inevitably results from having ‘been there, done that’. The graduation from front line through supervisor to administrator sometimes fails to take this reality into consideration.

There is a need for a level of experience in senior police ranks that can only be attained by having moved up through the organization. But along with that experience may occasionally come some unhealthy beliefs and inclination toward wilful blindness.

As individuals embark upon their ascent of the chain of command, they undoubtedly carry with them varying amounts of sympathy, empathy and indulgence. This level of unresponsiveness may vary, depending on their particular career path.

When these characteristics begin to muddy the waters of appropriate supervision, accountability and authority, however, they may begin to sow the seeds of future organizational difficulties. It is also blatantly unfair to each and every member of the organization. When a supervisor, manager or executive entertains the notion that ‘boys will be boys’ or something akin to that, it is time for serious self-examination. Serious, thoughtful, well-planned and well-designed supervisory training is a tool that must be employed to help minimize the impacts of some of this inappropriate baggage.

The Executive

By the time an individual is at the executive level of an organization, there is a significant gap between their post and the front lines of the organization. This gap frequently causes the leader to steer his or her course using old, outdated charts. This necessitates having a process in place whereby the leader can frequently and regularly ‘take the pulse’ of the organization’s front line service delivery personnel.

Frequently, those who lead organizations possess marvellous ethical qualities. All too frequently, however, their expectations of the organization are based upon their own personal values and beliefs, which are not shouted from the rooftops.

It is imperative that leaders proclaim their ethical expectations of every member of the organization in a loud, clear voice. A leader cannot simply expect that those who follow do so with the same ethical fervour as they do. In fairness to everyone in the organization, the leader’s values must be clearly communicated to all, so that those within the organization behave with the full knowledge of the likely impact and consequences of their actions – good and bad.

In any organization, the impact of the leader should never be underestimated; and there are many eyes that are watching. Actions speak far louder than words. ‘Walking the Talk’ is the only possible option.

A Foundation for Times of Conflict

Whether or not a military force (or paramilitary force) is properly equipped to handle crisis situations in an ethical manner is, without a doubt, a critical consideration.

For military leaders to have confidence in the ethical nature of their units, it is crucial that the leader instils and demonstrates day-to-day personal, organizational and operational ethics in a consistent and demonstrable fashion.

The methods whereby individuals are directed, evaluated, recognized and rewarded must take into consideration the need for clear goals and objectives, honest and forthright evaluations against well-known and measurable standards, supervisory and management accountability and frequent but sincere recognition and reward.

When sculpting such an organization, the leader must plan each move within the framework of the organizational culture that prevails. Appropriate measures must be in place to anticipate, recognize and properly deal with various challenging aspects of the culture. The leader must be ready, willing and able to operate in a manner that is open to intense scrutiny. Nothing less can be contemplated.

It is only when the organization possesses an impermeable ethical foundation that the leader can hope to deliver on the promise of a highly ethical service during times of crisis.

Bob Fitches is a consultant to small and large organizations. He has worked in these fields for a number of years and offers executives and others insights and advice on building and maintaining ethically strong, values-based organizations. As well as having a successful consultancy, Bob is also a Life/Personal/Executive Coach and a much sought-after public speaker. Bob can be reached by email at rjfitchesinc@bellnet.ca , or toll free at 1-888-325-6164.

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