A conflict of interest, sometimes referred to as a competition of interests, is when a person acting in an official capacity has more than one loyalty and serving one loyalty may work a detriment to others. A loyalty may originate from oath, blood relations, financial interest, reciprocity, or a myriad of other interests. A conflict of interest does not require illegal, unethical, or otherwise improper actions. It originates as soon as a person, acting in an official capacity has more than one loyalty.
Some conflicts of interest are waivable. One lawyer representing both husband and wife in a no-contest divorce, without children or marital assets comes to mind. In a divorce, the interests of the husband and wife are at odds. For an attorney to represent one means that they must take actions that potentially work to the detriment of the other. Once fully informed of this conflict of interest, both husband and wife can waive the conflict of interest and authorize the attorney to represent both. They understand that at times the attorney’s actions may work to the detriment of the wife and at other times the actions may work to the detriment of the husband. In part, the husband and wife are willing to assume the risk of the conflict of interest because the risks are so small. There are no children and no marital assets at risk because there are none. Other conflicts of interest, however, are not waivable.
Carry the above illustration forward where the attorney is doesn’t just represent both husband and wife but is a party. Consider that the wife is also the attorney and the husband is not. This attorney-wife can inform her husband as much as she wants to, have him sign anything she drafts, but the conflict of interests is not waivable. The attorney-wife cannot separate the multiple roles they assumed as attorney, wife, advocate, and enemy.
The most effective way to avoid conflicts of interest is to avoid multiple roles. The attorney-wife, for example, could simply retain another attorney for representation. Rather than playing the dual role of attorney and wife, the role would then simply be a wife and the conflict would be avoided.
Likewise, placing law enforcement officers in the dual role of a peace officer and revenue generator forces them into a conflict of interest that cannot be waived. This is obvious where an officer is rewarded for stops, tickets, or arrests. For example, in New Jersey, North Brunswick police officers when considering whether or not to issue tickets, “there was a financial reward to rack up numbers. The more tickets, the more money officers would receive in overtime pay.”1 A special area of focus is asset forfeiture which is sometimes referred to as civil justice forfeiture. This is a process in which law enforcement officers take assets from persons suspected of involvement with crime or illegal activity without necessarily charging the owners with wrongdoing. The assets that are forfeited are used by the seizing agency or sold and the cash is used by the seizing agency. This practice creates a clear conflict of interest as the benefit is direct. Financial interests, however, do not have to be this direct to create a conflict of interest. A perceived interest is enough to create a conflict of interest.
A perceived interest would result from officers believing that stops, ticketing, or arrests generally fund law enforcement. For example, the practice of court fees funding courts is perceived by the normal citizen as motivating law enforcement to ensure a steady flow of citizens through the court system. If court fees in fact fund law enforcement, law enforcement officers are forced into a conflict of interest and the normal citizenry is right to distrust law enforcement.
Finally, interests do not have to be monetary. Promotions, awards, and general accolades are enough to create conflicts of interest. Some agencies have a scoreboard where stops, tickets, and arrests are recorded. Officers with the highest numbers may receive a printed certificate, notation on job performance reviews or just bragging rights. That is enough to create conflicts of interest.
But it is not enough to eliminate conflicts of interest. Officers’ compensation, accolades, and advancement should be rewarded based on the ethical core values of law enforcement. Fortunately, the International Association of Chiefs of Police has done the work of creating a go-by for agencies:
Law Enforcement Code of Ethics
- As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve the community; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality, and justice.
- I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all and will behave in a manner that does not bring discredit to me or to my agency. I will maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn or ridicule; develop self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others. Honest in thought and deed both in my personal and official life, I will be exemplary in obeying the law and the regulations of my department. Whatever I see or hear of a confidential nature or that is confided to me in my official capacity will be kept ever secret unless revelation is necessary in the performance of my duty.
- I will never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, political beliefs, aspirations, animosities or friendships to influence my decisions. With no compromise for crime and with relentless prosecution of criminals, I will enforce the law courteously and appropriately without fear or favor, malice or ill will, never employing unnecessary force or violence and never accepting gratuities.
- I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of police service. I will never engage in acts of corruption or bribery, nor will I condone such acts by other police officers. I will cooperate with all legally authorized agencies and their representatives in the pursuit of justice.
- I know that I alone am responsible for my own standard of professional performance and will take every reasonable opportunity to enhance and improve my level of knowledge and competence.
- I will constantly strive to achieve these objectives and ideals, dedicating myself before God to my chosen profession… law enforcement.2
Revised June 26, 2020
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