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The problem with gratuities. (Perspective).

"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." (1)

Until 1997, I was in charge of the Detective Bureau in Norwalk, Ohio, which is a relatively small town, but very professional and proactive. When I first came to the department in 1983, officers commonly accepted free coffee and discounted meals, along with other services. But, in 1991, a new chief was hired and these practices stopped.

In 1997, the chief of police position opened in Monroeville, Ohio, the community where I grew up. The department is a small one in the Midwest that, like other departments, is experiencing a change in the culture of law enforcement. I applied for the chief position and was hired on September 1, 1997. I started under a blanket of controversy because I was the first chief that did not progress through the ranks of the Monroeville Police Department (MPD). This caused some resentment, but nothing compared with the response I received when I notified my officers that they were not to accept gratuities. While all agreed that they understood, many felt that I was interfering with long-standing practices. In fact, one officer informed me that accepting gratuities had been a benefit of working for the police department for the past 15 years and that he did not see any harm in accepting free or discounted items. He said that we work in a small town and that we need to take care of the locals who, in turn, will take car e of us.

Are law enforcement officers unethical to accept these gifts? What I saw as an unethical act was viewed by others, entrenched in the culture of the department, as an entitlement. Gratuity is something given voluntarily or beyond obligation usually for some service. (2) The issue becomes cloudy as to whether the acceptance of free coffee and free or discounted meals is actually, by definition, a gratuity., Even if the acceptance of free or discounted items is not classified officially as a gratuity, does this mean that its acceptance is ethically sound? What do officers think? What do community members think? What do the owners of the businesses offering the gratuities think?


I have interviewed many police officers of various ranks within their departments about their views on what practices are ethical as they relate to gratuities. (3) Some officers have departmental policies that state that officers can accept gratuities as long as they do not solicit them. Other officers draw distinctions between what is an allowed gratuity. For example, the cost of the item, the reason it is given, and the expectation associated with the item determines one officer's opinion. Could ethical arguments of accepting gratuities be a matter of opinion, or are the acceptance of gratuities a community social act that should continue as a bridge between the community and the police? Varying opinions exist among officers, as well as in literature that I reviewed.

One officer asked me if I would turn down a cup of coffee offered by a friend or neighbor while off duty, and I answered no. Does this make it okay to accept one while on duty? I think that different rules apply while officers are on duty. Police officers represent their communities and have powers that regular citizens do not. The public has no way of knowing if the free coffee is given under subtle coercion.

Another officer advised me that his agency's policy states not to accept gratuities. However, if the shop owner becomes insistent, the agency's policy states that officers should lay the money on the table to be used as a tip or payment and then leave the establishment. Differentiating between gratuities and corruption is not a clear concept. "Within the larger community of any police jurisdiction, the practice of exchanging gifts, swapping services, and extending professional 'courtesies' is accepted by all citizens. It is a normal part of business relations for a salesman to offer a bargain to a steady customer or for a manufacturer to obtain favorable advertising space on a magazine or newspaper by paying 'extra.' Employees on public payrolls also receive gifts for professional services rendered." (4)

The payment of free coffee and discounted meals or services from businesses to police officers is a widespread, traditional practice in many jurisdictions. Free coffee is perhaps the most commonly received gratuity. Extra services that businessmen expect in return for giving a gratuity may include such immediate acts as additional protection during business hours and after closing, police escorts to banks, and frequent patrol of the business vicinity.

When law enforcement officers offer additional services to private businesses in exchange for a free cup of coffee, they detract from other citizens within their communities. Police service cannot be perceived as going to the highest bidder; decisions must be based on need.

In one city, officers arrested a local shop owner for drunk driving. The shop owner had supplied free coffee and discounted meals to department personnel for years. The shop owner took the arrest as a breach of an unwritten contract where he would receive special privileges in return for supplying free coffee and discounted meals. Apparently, the local police department had never done anything to give the shop owner this opinion. The shop owner became irate and demanded that the department drop the charges, which it could not do. Instead, the officers took up a collection and paid his fines. But, the shop owner still was riot satisfied. He went to the local newspaper with the names of officers who had received 1,300 free cups of coffee (apparently, the officers had to sign for the cups). In addition, a list of 300 discounted meals, along with the officers' names, appeared on the front page of the local newspaper. Some citizens argued that the officers accepted the coffee with no intention of giving favorable treatment to the shop owner or anyone else, while others claimed that no one else would have had their fines paid by the police. "To determine if corruption exists, use the totality of circumstances. Was there quid pro quo, or were special privileges given in return for the free item?" (5)

Most officers agree that offering free goods and services as an entitlement and basing efforts in handling a complaint on what the complainant has given the officer is unethical. But, according to the majority of officers I spoke to, a huge gray area exists, especially in the acceptance of free coffee to increase officer presence. Perception is important; accepting a free cup of coffee may be harmless. However, the public's perception is important in the support and view that the community has for their law enforcement agency. One officer I interviewed advised that a new restaurant opened in her town and the owners gave free meals to police officers. Subsequently, the city implemented a policy that began to charge businesses after the police department responded to a limited number of false alarms. The new business received a bill because of its number of false alarms, but the owners refused to pay based on the long list of free meals given to the police department. The media published the story, which reflec ted poorly on the department.

Many argue that the coffee is inexpensive and that owners are showing appreciation by offering a cup and enjoying the fact that officers spend time in their shops. Therefore, what is the harm? On the other hand, what happens in discretionary issues where officers stop the owner or an employee for speeding? They may base their decision whether to cite on the fact that they received free coffee. Should the free coffee factor in the officers' decisions?

I spoke with an officer who wrote the policy on gratuities for his department. He advised that officers may accept gratuities but not solicit them. He explained that the department did not want to deny its officers from taking a cup of coffee or meal as a goodwill gesture. He distinguished between the solicitation and acceptance because when an officer asks for a gratuity, it can be construed as expected. If the gratuity is not given, the perception of retaliation may become an issue if the officer was put into the position of enforcement against the store owner or employee. I asked the officer if the public's perception was a problem, and he advised that it has not become an issue. In this example, the thought behind the acceptance and giving of the gratuity is important. "What makes a gift a gratuity is the reason it is given, what makes it corruption is the reason it is taken." (6) The officer also explained that on a discretionary call the possibility remains that the officer may decide in favor of the vi olator based on the giving of gratuities, but this has not happened in his department.


Clearly, no overall consensus exists on the acceptance of gratuities or even what constitutes a gratuity. As an administrator, the commonsense approach would be to not allow officers to accept free coffee and discounted or free meals. Accepting gratuities can lead to unwanted perceptions by the public and bring the agency's discretion into question. However, a Christmas gift given by a private business to a department may be accepted as a token of a working relationship. Additionally, agencies should feel free to accept contributions from fraternal organizations that donate to programs that help the overall community. But, when an individual officer accepts items on a routine basis, an unhealthy relationship may develop or be perceived as such. To eliminate doubt, agencies should implement a policy against the acceptance of free or discounted items by individual officers.


Police officers often face the dilemma of accepting gratuities. Some officers view the acceptance of free coffee and free or discounted meals as an entitlement, while others view it as an unethical act. Law enforcement agencies should consider the perception of communities, as well as business owners, when accepting gratuities.

Departmental policies on gratuities vary among agencies, and officers may question exactly what constitutes a gratuity. To eliminate confusion, departments should ensure that their policies clearly distinguish what is acceptable.


(1.) International Association of Chiefs of Police, Code of Ethics; http://; accessed February 28, 2002.

(2.) Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. (1996) s.v. "gratuity."

(3.) The FBI hosts four 10-week sessions each year during which law enforcement executives from around the world come together to attend classes in various criminal justice subjects and conduct academic research on a variety of related topics. I attended the 206th session of the FBI National Academy and interviewed numerous law enforcement officers on their perceptions of gratuities, as well as their departmental policies on this topic.

(4.) "International Association of Chiefs of Police, Training Key 254, "Police Corruption," vol. 11, 81.

(5.) William McCarthy, A Police Administrator Look at Corruption (New York, NY: John Jay Press, Inc., 1978).

(6.) John Kleining, The Ethics of Policing (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

RELATED ARTICLE: Arguments For and Against Gratuities

Allowing Gratuities

* They help create a friendly bond between officers and the public, thus fostering community-policing goals.

* They represent a nonwritten form of appreciation and usually are given with no expectation of anything in return.

* Most gratuities are too small to be a significant motivator of actions.

* The practice is so deeply entrenched that efforts to root it out will be ineffective and cause unnecessary violations of the rules.

* A complete ban makes officers appear as though they cannot distinguish between a friendly gesture and a bribe.

* Some businesses and restaurants insist on the practice.

Banning Gratuities

* The acceptance violates most departments' policies and the law enforcement code of ethics.

* Even the smallest gifts create a sense of obligation.

* Even if nothing is expected in return, the gratuity may create an appearance of impropriety.

* Although most officers can discern between friendly gestures and bribes, some may not.

* They create an unfair distribution of services to those who can afford gratuities, voluntary taxing, or private funding of a public service.

* It is unprofessional.

Chief White heads the Monroeville, Ohio, Police Department.
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Article Details
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Author:White, Mike
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
Previous Article:Grants/funding. (Bulletin Reports).
Next Article:Digital Evidence and Computer Crime: Forensic Science, Computers, and the Internet.

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