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The place of positive discipline.

In William Giannetti's narrative, Commissioner John Timoney preaches the value of positive discipline as "remedial in nature, and corrective in its approach." (1) In my discussion of this case, I focus on the concept of positive discipline, with the aim of determining when it would be appropriate to use such an approach in a police context.

The idea of positive discipline, outside police circles, is a concept with which most people are very familiar. A child who damages another child's toy may be made to give up one of his or her own toys, either as a replacement for the toy that was broken, or more commonly, for a certain period of time, as a way of teaching the child about the sense of loss that the child has caused. An employee who causes problems in an office by frequently flying into a rage may be ordered to attend an anger management program. A young offender who causes damage to public property through vandalism may be sentenced to a period of community service. In all of these cases it is clear that the aim of the punishment is not mere retribution, but to remedy the aberrant behavior.

In the present narrative, the same principles have been applied to correcting police misbehavior. Where the police officer is seen "as an asset, one who should be retained for many, many years to come," and where the intention is "to redeem the police officer by reeducation," (2) such a policy does not seem to be unreasonable, because these are the very ideals that motivate positive discipline in other areas of life. However, like positive discipline in other aspects of life, there will be limits to the applicability of positive discipline in policing. Positive discipline should be seen as only one of a number of possible responses available to police disciplinarians, and its use should be limited to cases which it is appropriate. If not used carefully, positive discipline can been seen as a form of discrimination, used to protect particular groups or individuals who enjoy the favor of those in power. It also needs to be recognized that an overemphasis on positive discipline will lead to discontent among the public, and the feeling that police are merely out to protect each other from the consequences of their inappropriate or illegal actions.

I Appropriate and Inappropriate Use of Positive Discipline

If the concept of positive discipline in general is examined, it can be seen that there are situations in which the use of this form of punishment will be inappropriate. Consider the two cases that I mentioned before--of the office employee and the vandalizing youth. If the office employee has already attended an anger management course, but continues to fly into a rage after little provocation, then it would not be appropriate to require them to re-attend the same course. Similarly, if the vandalizing youth continues to cause damage to public property after a period of community service, then it would generally be seen as inappropriate to apply another similar penalty. When remedial or corrective punishment fails to deal with the problem, another approach must be tried.

There are also situations where the offense committed is so serious that positive discipline simply seems to be an inappropriate response. Imagine that the office worker does not simply yell at his colleagues, but rather strikes another worker and badly breaks her nose. It would seem unjust merely to order the violent worker to attend an anger management course--some other form of punishment is necessary to deal adequately with an assault that inflicts bodily harm. Similarly, if the vandalizing youth is not merely spray painting offensive slogans on walls, but is also setting fire to public buildings, such a serious offence seems to require a sentence more severe than a period of community service if justice is going to be seen to have been done.

As far as positive discipline in a policing context goes, these general examples suggest some guidelines for the use of positive discipline as a police disciplinary tool. Positive discipline may be appropriate for an initial offence or misbehavior, but it is unlikely to be appropriate as a method of dealing with repeat offenders. It also appears that though positive discipline may be appropriate for dealing with relatively minor offenses and behavioral problems, it would be inappropriate to use positive discipline for more serious offenses, as this would likely cause injustice to (or at the very least, create a perception of injustice for) the victims of those offenses.

So how might positive discipline work in police practice? A good example to use is the one given in the initial narrative, of the police officer who wrecks his car in a pursuit. In the case study, it is suggested that such an officer may find him- or herself sent back to the police academy for driver training, and then serving a period of time on non-driving status before being re-evaluated by a driving instructor. It is noted in the case study that if the officer continues to commit the same type of violation, it would then be necessary to impose some form of negative discipline, such as a fine or demotion. Such a move would be in line with the suggestion that I made previously, that positive discipline is likely to be appropriate only for initial violations. Repeat offenders require a more serious form of punishment, rather than continuing to apply positive discipline. But what if the initial violation is more serious? Perhaps rather than simply wrecking the car during a pursuit, the officer causes the death of an innocent bystander by recklessly engaging in the pursuit of a non-violent offender in an area of high pedestrian traffic. I would suggest that such a situation is not one in which positive discipline is appropriate, because the offense is so serious, and that such a case demands a much higher level of disciplinary action, most likely in the form of criminal or serious departmental charges being leveled against the officer. In such a situation, justice for the victim demands a sterner disciplinary approach.

II Positive Discipline and Discrimination

Any disciplinary system that utilizes both positive and negative discipline needs to be administered carefully, lest it become the case (or appear to be the case) that the different forms of discipline are used to favor some employees over others. Consider the previously mentioned example of the vandalizing youth. Suppose that two youths were involved in the offense, one from a poor family living in what is considered to be a bad neighborhood, the other from a middle-class family. Both were caught in the act of vandalism and neither has a prior record. If the youth from the middle-class family was to be sentenced to a period of community service (positive discipline), while the youth from the poor family was to be sentenced to a short custodial sentence (negative discipline), it would appear that the availability of positive discipline, as an alternative to negative discipline, had been used as a vehicle to further discriminate against the poor.

In a police context, a system that uses both positive and negative discipline can easily become, or seem to become, a discriminatory system, if some officers or groups of officers are given apparently favorable treatment. If some officers are disciplined according to the dictates of positive discipline, and other officers who have committed similar offenses are disciplined according to the dictates of negative discipline, then those officers who have been disciplined more harshly are likely to feel aggrieved and discriminated against. If, for example, a senior officer were to receive positive discipline (such as retraining) for a particular act of misconduct, and a junior officer was to receive negative discipline (such as a fine or suspension) for the same act of misconduct, then that junior officer (and perhaps all junior officers) might feel that the police department treats offenses by senior officers more leniently than offenses committed by junior officers.

It could be argued that it is appropriate to treat senior officers more leniently than junior officers. One might suggest, for example, that if the worth of an officer, as an asset of the police department, is regarded in purely monetary terms, the senior officer is a more valuable asset than the junior officer and the police department should work harder to protect that asset. Since it costs thousands of dollars to train a police officer, every officer is a valuable asset, but senior officers also possess years of experience that simply cannot be bought. In these terms, a twenty-year police veteran is far more valuable than a rookie officer, and so the police department should be willing to put more work into retaining that asset. Therefore, it may seem reasonable to treat misconduct by senior officers more leniently, since it is in the interests of the police department to retain the asset that is the senior officer.

Yet such an argument ignores the other side of the coin: senior officers ought to provide an example for more junior officers, and thus it is appropriate for the police department to expect a higher standard of conduct from its senior officers than from its junior officers. Although it may be reasonable to want to protect a valuable asset, and thus treat the senior officer more leniently than the junior officer who has also transgressed, it is also the case that if a senior officer and a junior officer both engage in the same form of misconduct, the senior officer's actions actually deviate further from the expected standards of conduct than the actions of the junior officer. In these terms, it would be reasonable to treat the misconduct of the senior officer more harshly than the misconduct of the junior officer.

I would suggest that these two considerations tend to balance each other out, and that the misconduct of all officers, regardless of their rank and experience, ought to be treated (and ought to be seen to be treated) equally. Thus if a senior officer and a junior officer both engage in the same form of misconduct, then either both of them should receive positive discipline, or neither should. Regardless of police rank, like cases should be treated alike. Positive discipline should not be a vehicle for any form of discrimination.

III Positive Discipline and the Blue Wall of Silence

The third problem with police use of positive discipline is that the use of this form of punishment may come to be seen as simply a way for police to protect their own. Although I believe that there is a place for positive discipline within police disciplinary systems, its use must be carefully restricted to those cases in which it is actually appropriate. In the narrative, Giannetti notes that "indiscriminate use of negative discipline leaves not only the punished officer, but all officers feeling disgruntled and detached from managers whose only interest is to 'burn' the rule breaker." (3) But equally, indiscriminate use of positive discipline leaves the community feeling disgruntled and detached from a police department whose only apparent interest is to protect its own. The police do not serve themselves or each other, but rather serve the community and the law, and thus police should, at the very least, be held to the same standards as the community that they serve.

IV Brady, DiLacqua, and Positive Discipline

Having discussed the general issues of the use of positive discipline, I conclude my discussion by examining the circumstances of this case to determine whether it was appropriate to pursue such an approach in dealing with the misconduct of Brady and DiLacqua. It should be noted from the outset that the penalty imposed on Brady and DiLacqua--twenty days suspension each-would not normally be considered a form a positive dis cipline because it did not involve any form of retraining. However, the fact that the sentence could be regarded as very lenient (and in fact was regarded as ridiculously lenient when it became public), together with the facts that both Brady and DiLacqua were permitted to forfeit vacation time in lieu of the suspension (meaning that both could continue on duty) and that Commissioner Timoney clearly regarded this as a form a positive discipline, means that it is appropriate to consider this penalty as positive rather than negative discipline.

I have suggested that though positive discipline may be appropriate for dealing with first offenses of misconduct, it is not appropriate to use positive discipline for dealing with repeat offences. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, in 1992 DiLacqua was suspended for fifteen days after attempting to cover up the details of an accident involving his own unmarked car, and in 1996 he was twice suspended for failure to deal appropriately with cases of suspected drunk driving. (4) This would certainly rule out the use of positive discipline in dealing with the misconduct of DiLacqua, for he had not only been disciplined for misconduct in the past, he had in fact been disciplined for this specific type of offense on more than one occasion.

I have also suggested that positive discipline is not appropriate for dealing with serious offenses. The fact that both DiLacqua and Brady were later charged with multiple offenses carrying long custodial sentences is evidence enough to suggest that the misconduct they committed should not have been dealt with through positive discipline.

Another problem that I noted, was that the use of positive discipline may be seen to be discriminatory if the offenses of some groups of officers are dealt with by this method when similar offenses committed by other groups of officers are dealt with through negative disciplinary techniques. The fact that Brady and DiLacqua received the treatment that they did, whereas other officers--who in at least some cases have had perfectly clean disciplinary records--have been fired for far less serious offenses, has led Philadelphia's association of black police officers, the Guardian Civic League, to denounce a double standard in the Philadelphia Police Department. (5) They assert that this case shows that there is a different standard applied to higher ranking officers, and possibly overt discrimination against black officers. On the evidence presented, such claims seem difficult to deny.

In discussing the problems that may be caused by the use of positive discipline, I also noted that if it is used in cases in which its use is seen by the public as inappropriate, then there is likely to be an outcry due to the feeling that police are interested only in protecting their own. I believe that I have shown that the use of positive discipline was not appropriate in the Brady and DiLacqua case, and thus it could have been predicted that were the details of this particular case to be made public, outrage would be inevitable. And that, of course, is exactly what happened.


(1) William J. Giannetti, Jr., "Policing the Brass: A Case Study in Command Malfeasance," in this issue, pp.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) See"DiLacqua's Disciplinary Record" <>. Originally posted December 24, 2002.

(5) See "No Ordinary Joe" <>. Originally published March 29-April 5, 2001.

Stephen Coleman is a Lecturer in the School of Policing Studies and Research Fellow in the Criminal Justice Ethics Research Program at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University, Australia.
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Title Annotation:Commentary
Author:Coleman, Stephen
Publication:Criminal Justice Ethics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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