It’s not sex on duty, flirting with citizens or even a minor assault that will most likely end a police officer’s career. Oftentimes, it’s something that might seem harmless. And it’s something many people do regularly: telling a lie.
The issue was illustrated as recently as two weeks ago when former Gilbert police officer Justin Dekker had his certification revoked for telling his boss he conducted a records check on some people in a car, when in fact he had not.
The penalty was much harsher than the one handed down to former Chandler officer Nathanial Dixon, who flashed his patrol car lights and pulled over a woman to ask her on a date in July.
Dixon was suspended for one year from working in law enforcement, while Dekker can never be an officer in Arizona again.
The reason, according to the Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training Board, which certifies officers to work in the state, is that “personal integrity” must remain a top priority for cops.
“The expectation of 100 percent honesty and integrity starts even before you get the job,” said Scottsdale police spokesman Sgt. Mark Clark. “If that’s compromised in the process, you won’t have a job as a police officer.”
Many times, if an officer is immediately forthcoming about his offense, his punishment is minor. It’s the act of lying that gets officers in serious trouble.
“Integrity is something you have, it’s who you are,” said Tempe police spokesman Sgt. Mike Horn. “Even when we’re talking about white lies during an investigation, whether they’re small little lies or not, in this line of work, all you have is your integrity.”
Horn said the idea of integrity is so important that the police academy tests potential officers’ character using a series of seemingly pointless rules.
During the course of training, for instance, recruits must always walk on the sidewalk and can never step on the rocks in the nearby desert landscape. If they are caught stepping on a rock, and they don’t tell their bosses, they could be kicked out of the academy.
Similarly, if one of their peers sees a fellow recruit step on the rocks, he must turn in his fellow classmate.
“Aside from public trust, there’s issues in court with integrity,” Clark said. “Certainly if an officer has a high-profile case and their integrity is brought up, it’s not good for anyone in society.”
If an officer is shown to have a propensity for dishonesty, he could end up in a database that lists officers who could have a credibility issue.
In Maricopa County, 328 officers are named on what’s referred to as the “Brady list.” Their offenses range from biases to use of force and honesty issues, among others. If an officer on the list ends up as a witness in a prosecution, his or her past must be presented to the court. If the judge decides it’s relevant to the case, a defense attorney could use those facts during cross-examination.
Longtime defense attorney Richard Gierloff said he seldom looks into an officer’s past to use in court, but if an officer is named on the Brady list, he said he would definitely look into the incident.
“I’ve gotten police officers’ personnel files and never to any great effect,” Gierloff said. “If there’s something very good in there, they’re probably not going to be working on the force anymore.”
Tom Hammarstrom, executive director of the state board that certifies officers, said he believes about 80 percent of decertified peace officers lose their career for lying and about 20 percent lose it for conductrelated offenses.
He said he considers lying to be particularly dangerous because officers have the power to affect people’s lives.
“It was true in 1966 and it’s still the same today,” Hammarstrom said. “It’s just never been OK not to be truthful. You as a citizen have to be able to trust peace officers.”
Does the punishment fit?
Following are real police policy violations reported to the Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training Board, followed by the penalty given:
Situation: A female deputy had been dating an officer from another agency. Shortly after their breakup, she saw him eating at a local restaurant. So she called dispatch and made a false report of a car crash, knowing it would interrupt her ex-boyfriend’s meal because he would have to respond to the scene. She admitted her misconduct and said that emotional stress led her to use poor judgment.
Penalty: The deputy’s certification was suspended for two years.
Situation: An officer had a party and demonstrated his Taser to his guests by stunning himself and two friends. After he put the Taser away, a guest found the weapon and shot it into a bedroom wall. The officer called his sergeant to report the incident, and while he was on the phone, another guest discharged the Taser into a closet door. The officer did not admit to his supervisor that he had demonstrated the Taser prior to his guests using it. Later, he came clean about the incident during an internal affairs investigation.
Penalty: The officer’s certification was suspended for one year
Situation: An officer was in a high-speed chase on the freeway, which was being recorded on his dash camera. When the driver went onto city streets, the officer was told by his supervisor to “back off.” The officer decided to renew the pursuit anyway and chased the suspect through a residential neighborhood with his lights and sirens on. He later told his supervisor he didn’t chase the suspect after he was told to stop, even though it had been recorded on the dash camera in his car. He continued to lie throughout an internal affairs investigation.
Penalty: The officer’s certification was revoked, meaning he can never again work as a police officer in the state.