Ethics in Action

Published: July 7, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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Ernie Allen has spent much of his life in public service and is currently president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In a conversation from 1999, Ernie shared this story with me about the importance of accountability.

“I have found that it is not enough just to strive to do what is right, because oftentimes, right and wrong are not clear-cut.  Virtually everyone feels fervently that they are right.  A meaningful ethical code requires something more, accountability.

“Far too frequently, nobody is responsible for anything.  I believe that everyone must stand up for what he or she thinks is right, while freely accepting responsibility and being willing to explain and defend actions to those who are adversely affected.

“The ‘moment of principle’ which I offer was not a ‘life and death’ situation, nor was it a major, world-altering event.  It involved motorcycles.

“In the mid-1980s I served as Director of Public Safety for the City of Louisville, Kentucky.  The Safety Director is an appointive position, reporting to the Mayor, responsible for the administration and oversight of the city’s public safety agencies, police, fire, emergency medical services, disaster preparedness, and a $50+ million budget.

“It was a time of fiscal challenge. Congress had eliminated revenue sharing, upon which many local governments were dependent. We were engaged in ‘cut-back management.’  The Mayor had given me a target for reducing the public safety budget, the largest element of the city’s budget, and I was struggling to cut without jeopardizing public safety.  We were seeking to avoid having to cut the number of police officers and firefighters, while reducing or eliminating services of lesser priority.

“The Louisville police had a well-known motorcycle unit and drill team which focused on traffic enforcement and performed at public events in Louisville and other communities. Its members were proud, capable and dedicated, and they loved motorcycles.

“However, the motorcycles were old, increasingly dangerous, and needed to be replaced, at a substantial cost. They were not as useful in inclement weather, and law enforcement research reported a high incidence of motorcycle-related injuries for police officers.

“Thus, at a time when I was trying to make cuts without harming the overall effectiveness of our department, I decided to eliminate the motorcycle unit, thereby avoiding a large capital expenditure for replacement, and freeing up sworn personnel to help us avoid having to cut jobs and officers. I thought it was sound, logical and was a tough but business-like decision.

“The Chief of Police, a fine leader who was fiercely protective of his officers, did not agree. Not wanting to compromise him with his personnel, and firmly believing that when one makes a decision that adversely affects people, one needs to be willing to explain what one is doing and why. I met with the motorcycle unit in person. They were angry, disagreed bitterly, and struggled to be respectful while expressing their unhappiness.

“In the weeks that followed, the Mayor and I heard from just about everybody. Business leaders who liked the positive public relations brought to the city by the motorcycle drill team called and wrote angry letters. Political contributors threatened the Mayor with withholding future contributions. Yet, the Mayor, a man of impeccable integrity, supported what he felt was the right decision, the best option available in a difficult environment, even though it was intensely unpopular.

“After working late one evening, I pulled my unmarked, but very conspicuous city car with multiple emergency radio antennae, out of the City Hall parking lot and headed for home. Several blocks later, after turning onto a nearly deserted downtown street, I glanced into my rearview mirror and saw blue lights. I pulled to the side, got out of my car, and walked back to the police cruiser.

“A young officer emerged. ‘What did I do?’ I asked.

“‘You rolled through that stop sign back there,’ he said.

“I looked to the right and left. There was no traffic of any sort anywhere. ‘I was not aware of that,’ I said, ‘but if you say I did, then I must have.’

“‘Aren’t you the Director?’ he asked.

“‘Yes, I am.’

“‘It would be pretty stupid for me to give you a ticket.’

“‘If I violated the law,’ I said, ‘you need to give me a ticket.’

“‘I can’t do that,’ he said.

“So, at 9:00 p.m. on a virtually deserted downtown street, this police officer and I debated whether or not I should get a ticket – I, arguing that if I violated the law, I should get one, he arguing that I shouldn’t.

“Finally, the real story emerged.

“‘I will tell you what you can do,’ he said. ‘You can bring back the motorcycles.’

“I went through the rationale and the circumstances that made the decision necessary. I explained how much I admired and respected his commitment to public service.  However, I did not change the decision.

“I did not bring back the motorcycles. Neither did I report the incident to his superiors. While I had no doubt that his pulling me over was ‘a message,’ not justified by any driving offense that I may have committed, I respected the fact that the motorcycles meant so much to him, and that he was so proud of the job he was doing. Our encounter on an abandoned city street stayed between us.

“By the book, that may have been the wrong thing to do. However, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I took the heat, did what I thought was right and necessary, and we terminated the motorcycle unit. Later, on a couple of occasions, the young officer dropped by my office in City Hall to say hello and talk. Though I left the City Administration in 1985, it was and is my impression that he went on to become a solid, professional, honorable police officer, albeit in a squad car rather than on a motorcycle.

“While I do not suggest that every decision has to be explained or justified, I do believe that a personal code of ethics demands higher standards for actions, which adversely impact the lives of others. Further, I believe it imperative that those in positions to make such decisions be willing to stand up and accept responsibility for them.

“Popular decisions are easy. Tough decisions require an ethical code and accountability.”

An organization or individual can have the best ethical code written, but if it’s not backed up by action, it’s meaningless.

“Character,” ethicist Michael Josephson reminds us, “is ethics in action.”


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