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Police Gratuities, Public Perception after September 11, 2001

by Sgt. Wayne C. Andrews

Published June 2004, The Florida Police Chief Magazine

Sergeant Wayne C. Andrews is currently assigned as a detective sergeant in the Office of Professional Standards. With over thirty-two years of experience in law enforcement, he has served as a patrol officer, homicide investigator, arson investigator, and supervisor of the violent crimes unit. Sergeant Andrews has a B.A. degree in Criminal Justice from Stockton State College, New Jersey and is pursuing a Masters Degree in Business Administration from the University of Saint Leo. He can be contacted at

Police gratuities - the long-time and controversial practice of providing unsolicited largess to sworn law enforcement officers - is a situation that was debated on legal and moral grounds long before September 11, 2001. The acceptance of gratuities has been scrutinized since the beginning of policing. The gratuity provenance stems from the early days of policing when service was provided by a fee-for-service system. When a citizen's property was stolen, one would pay a certain fee to have the police recover the goods and arrest the perpetrator.1 This fee-for-service system was not continued because police service was seen as a public entitlement. Restricting police service to only those who could afford to pay would create a social injustice. The thought in a democracy is that public services should be equally available to all.2 Writer, Michael Feldberg suggests that the acceptance of gratuities - both real case situations and cultural myth beliefs - parallels a fee-for-service system. The argument is made that those businesses providing police with better "gratuities" will receive a disproportionate amount of police protection.3

Public perception of gratuities changed from decade to decade. During the 1970s, police-work was not seen as a profession. The work force was dominated by men and the educational requirement was that of high school graduate. Many cops got much of their training in the military. For the most part policemen were considered part of our "blue collar" work force. The acceptance of free coffee or discounted meals was common place. Gifts of alcoholic beverages at Christmas-time from local bars had been the norm as long as anyone could remember. The public accepted this behavior and gift-giving as acceptable; just one of the "perks" of being on the force. It had always been that way, an entitlement for dealing with issues that no one else was willing to handle.4 Public support of the police was not swayed simply because the police were accepting gratuities.

In the 1980s, police began earnestly recruiting candidates with no military background (post-draft days) and began requiring more formal education. More and more members of police departments were attending universities, and the federal government was even assisting with tuition grants. Women were joining the work force as street cops, and individual agencies were seeking to require minimum-mandatory training and police officer certifications. Consequently, pay started to improve as the police elevated their profession's level of professionalism. The free coffee and discounted meals at walk-in restaurants became less commonplace. Coffee and fast food discounts were replacing such gratuities at corner gas stations. Most Christmas gifts were no longer acceptable, and the public began to demand more ethical accountability from their police.5

During the 1990s, departments began requiring some form of formal education from candidates, and a large number of police agencies required that police applicants possess certification from a police academy. Most positions in police supervision required a college degree, or at least some college. Police departments were working hard to meet minimum standards and become professionally accredited. Pay had improved, and the police were now state certified (licensed). Police officers were now perceived to be professionals and the public no longer accepted the practice of - or made excuses for - the acceptance of gratuities. The public perception was one of "Why should the police get discounted meals and free coffee or be able to speed, and not the rest of us?" The understood entitlements that had been accepted for so long by the public were gone. The perception was that these are professional people, receiving good pay and benefits. The police were no longer doing a job that was viewed as particularly special, or one that deserved extra consideration.6 The entitlement that the job was hazardous and no one was willing to deal with these issues was not reflected in the amount of recruits that police departments were processing. The numbers of men and women who wanted to be police officers grew. Police recruits were willing to work at civilian jobs during the day and pay their own way through police academies at night.

Police departments were dealing with issues of the maintenance and retention of ethical employees.7 They were mostly handling employees and these issues when someone did something wrong or broke the rules. Very little effort was aimed at strengthening the moral core values of employees. Training in ethics and issues of reducing rationalization by employees was limited to the newcomers. Allowing the long-term employee to apply situational ethics began to erode the public's perception of the police. The police need the public's support to carry out their duties efficiently.8 Public perception that the police are playing favorites to a business for free food will erode that support.9 Often the business that is offering the gratuity does so to build up credit for the future.10 Recently I read a report posted on a web site at a college in North Carolina. The report was on police deviance and ethics. The section on police gratuities offered some colorful phrases and slang in describing these gifts. I thought that it was important to share this information in my article and then discuss some conclusions of that section of the report.

A gratuity is the receipt of free meals, services, or discounts. Nonfederal police usually do not regard these as forms of corruption ("not another lecture on the free cup of coffee or police discount"). These are considered fringe benefits of the job. Nevertheless, they violate the Code of Ethics because they involve financial reward or gain, and they are corruption because the officer has been placed in a compromising position where favors (a "fix") can be reasonably expected in the future. When there is an implied favor (a "wink and nod"), it's called "mooching". When the officer is quite blatant about demanding free services, it's called "chiseling".11

Gratuities often lead to things like kickbacks (bribery) for referring business to towing companies, ambulances, or garages. Further up the scale comes pilfering, or stealing (any) company's supplies for personal use. At the extreme, opportunistic theft takes place, with police officers skimming items of value that won't be missed from crime scenes, property rooms, warehouses, or any place they have access to. Theft of items from stores while on patrol is sometimes called "shopping".12

The colorful slang words used have meaning in the police subculture that is engaging in this behavior of accepting gratuities. The second paragraph quickly relates to more serious misconduct and it appears that the author agrees with Lawrence Sherman and his theory of the "Slippery Slope" (the acceptance of gratuities leads to accepting bribes, which leads to accepting payoffs and so on).13 This is curiously similar to the law enforcement "Broken Window" theory of urban decay: if a neighborhood allows a broken window to go un-repaired, residents will overlook trash; then ignore decaying properties; then accept street crimes; and ultimately a continual degradation of the neighborhood, allowing crime to flourish.

All of this begs the question: "Are any acceptances of gratuities, violations of the code of Ethics? Does accepting a gratuity lead the officer down the slippery slope to more serious misconduct?"

On September 11, 2001, terrorists struck at the heart of America, crashing civilian airliners into the Twin Towers in New York City. Television and radio carried the frightening, numbing events as they unfolded. People in the Towers were attempting to escape, and the police and fire departments in the city rushed to their aid. The policemen and firemen ran one after the other into the burning towers. There was no hesitation; none of them stopped to wonder if another plane might crash into the building. They were doing the job they were trained for - the one they signed up for. They were performing exactly as they felt the public expected. And the entire world watched in horror as hundreds died when the buildings collapsed.

Public perception of public servants over the next several weeks was one that changed throughout the country. People were saying "hello" and tipping their hats to policemen and firemen. No matter where you were you saw NYPD and FDNY on hats, shirts, cars, trucks and buildings. The American Flag was waving in numbers that no one had ever seen. Public perception was one of "Just maybe the police are deserving of entitlements." For those of us on The Job, it was hard to buy your coffee or breakfast while working in uniform. Perfect strangers were paying for police and firefighters' meals, and walking out of restaurants not saying a word to anyone. Most had a smile on their face as though, maybe they were helping in some way. Theme parks all over the country such as Knott's, Busch Gardens, Sea World, Universal Studios and Disney World offered free admission to police and fireman. They were calling it Salutes to Our Heroes, and to those who serve.
Wait a minute, aren't all these examples of gratuities or gifts? Are the police who accept these gratuities doomed to slide down the Slippery Slope, and progress to more serious misconduct?

One definition of entitlement is the belief that an individual - by virtue of his/her position as a law enforcement officer - is owed certain privileges or latitudes in terms of their behavior.14 It has been argued for some time that if we could decide the reason for the gratuity, then we could decide to accept or reject. If the gift was given to solicit extra police service or for some future expectation of services to be rendered, then rejection would be the only choice. In turn, if the gift was for services already performed and simply a thank you for a job well done, then acceptance may be the choice. The values of society are constantly changing. Society dictates what defines acceptable behavior by the police. Clearly one can see that the offers by the theme parks and the public of small gratuities post 9/11 to all policeman and fireman were a simple thank you for a job well done. Our police departments owe it to the public and employees to enact policies regarding gratuities and gifts that prevent acceptance of inappropriate gratuities, and allow acceptance of genuine displays of gratitude.15

1. Feldberg, M. (1985). Gratuities, Corruption and the Democratic Ethos of Policing: The Case of the Free Cup of Coffee, Moral Issues in Police Work. F. Elliston & M. Feldberg.
2. Coleman, S. (2003/6). "When Police Should Say "NO" to Gratuities. Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University, Australia.
3. Feldberg, M. (1985). Gratuities, Corruption and the Democratic Ethos of Policing: The Case of the Free Cup of Coffee, Moral Issues in Police Work. F. Elliston & M. Feldberg.
4. Gilmartin, K. M. Ethics-Based Policing. Undoing Entitlement.
5. Gilmartin, K. M. Ethics-Based Policing. Undoing Entitlement.
6. Gilmartin, K. M. Ethics-Based Policing. Undoing Entitlement.
7. Gilmartin, K. M. Ethics-Based Policing. Undoing Entitlement.
8. Coleman, S. (2003/6). "When Police Should Say "NO" to Gratuities. Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University, Australia.
9. Coleman, S. (2003/6). "When Police Should Say "NO" to Gratuities. Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University, Australia.
10. Coleman, S. (2003/6). "When Police Should Say "NO" to Gratuities. Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University, Australia.
11. Wesylan College Faculty, NC. (2004, January 6). Police Deviance and Ethics.
12. Wesylan College Faculty, NC. (2004, January 6). Police Deviance and Ethics.
13. Sherman, L. (1974). Police Corruption: A Sociological Perspective. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday.
14. Gilmartin, K. M. Ethics-Based Policing. Undoing Entitlement. .
15. Coleman, S. (2003/6). "When Police Should Say "NO" to Gratuities., Centre
For Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University, Australia.
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