A “Free” Cup of Coffee Law Officer

In December 2009, I wrote a short piece for LawOfficer.com entitled “ There’s No Such Thing as a Free Cup of Coffee.” It got a lot of attention, and 99% of our readers were in agreement with my premise that it’s simply wrong for police officers to accept, let alone seek, food, drinks or other freebies from merchants or businesses within their jurisdiction or elsewhere ‘on the badge.’

It seems that the newspaper got wind of police officers being given free lift tickets at an upstate ski resort. Apparently, one of the resort’s employees had been keeping a list of the free lift tickets that were being given out to the local cops for years. The list contained names, dates and lift ticket numbers. When she became a disgruntled former employee, that list found its way to the local newspaper.

It became an even bigger problem when the local police chief was contacted by the press and actually justified the practice on the basis of his officers being able to provide “visible security” for the resort during the time they’re there skiing. There was no explanation on exactly how that was going to be accomplished while those officers were careening down a 2,000-foot vertical drop in nondescript ski jackets, pants and goggles.

He then attempted to justify the practice based on the fact that his on-duty officers would probably respond a little faster when summoned to the resort by staff because they appreciate that the management “takes care” of them with freebies. He finally ended the embarrassing interview with the explanation that because a portion of the mountain resort was on government land, it wasn’t really an improper benefit at all. However, he conceded that it was his local cops, not the State Department of Environmental Conservation Police, who were receiving this bennie.

I learned about the issue when the paper’s editor happened across my LawOfficer.com piece during her research on police ethics and called, wanting a comment from yours truly. I repeated my premise that the practice is not only unethical and improper but, in my opinion, is an embarrassment to the law enforcement profession as a whole. I think I ended the interview with, “That chief ought to be ashamed of himself. It is disgraceful the damage he caused to the reputation of not only his own agency but our honorable profession.”

For years, law enforcement has been striving to be considered a profession, not just a job. And we’ve come far in that endeavor. Most agencies demand their applicants or recruits have some level of college education, a measure by which some believe police work truly becomes a profession. Many states require their officers to earn CEUs to maintain that recertification, like other professionals. But the practice of seeking or accepting freebies denigrates the professional image law enforcement has been striving to achieve and maintain. Just imagine how the cops in that upstate N.Y. agency who pay for their own lift tickets or who simply don’t ski there feel when they’re out in public in uniform.

There’s no other occupation I know of (short of mobsters) that has the possible expectation of freebies. I know a few accountants, a handful of teachers and lawyers, one or two plumbers and insurance brokers, and a half dozen or so doctors. None of them expect to get kissed into plays, nightclubs or ballparks based solely on their profession. Not only that, but think of what the paying citizen who is standing behind the cop who’s getting his freebie—be it a cup of joe, a Big Mac, or a lift ticket—is thinking?

There’s a great textbook out there on police ethics by Debbie J. Goodman called Enforcing Ethics: A Scenario-Based Workbook for Police and Corrections Recruits and Officers. If the police chief of this particular N.Y. agency, or any of his officers, is a reader of our outstanding magazine, they may want to pick up a copy of that book. Toward the end of the text, it asks the officer who’s being placed into the uncomfortable position of being offered a freebie to ask him or herself three questions.

Some, like the chief, might want to hold on to the stale excuse that the resort wants police visibility. But that’s hard to buy because the ski patrol are the only skiers on the slopes who wear distinctive and readily identifiable garb. Others might buy into the speedy response excuse, but most cops are professionals and are going to “roll code” regardless of whether the place kisses them in a few times during the winter months.

But if the answers to questions No. 2 and No. 3 are “yes” and “no,” respectively, then you ought to know that this lift ticket isn’t really free at all. It comes with a price. And that agency, from the chief on down, should know the cost of the free lift tickets. It could be a price most cops just aren’t willing to pay. It could cost them their reputations.