Early in my career—very early—a seasoned cop made a statement to me that’s still relevant today: “Your badge will get you sex and sex will get you your badge.” I had to clean up the statement a little so that I could share it with you but the meaning is the same. At first, I dismissed what he said, but soon saw the truth in both sides of his proclamation.
Over the past two weeks, our entire country has been captivated by the story of David Petraeus and his tumble from power. As the situation has unfolded and more details emerge, I’ve found myself hearing the words of that veteran cop over and over again. I wonder how many careers have gone down the tubes because an otherwise good cop just couldn’t properly stay on the right side of what should have been a very clear ethical line.
Perhaps the most egregious example I can give you was a guy who was married to a friend of my wife. He saw enough of what I did for a living that he sought out a job as a cop and ultimately got a job working for a large city in Southern California. About five years later, he was serving jail time and came back into the world as a registered sex offender. He had believed a 17-year-old shoplifter who told him he was the hottest guy in the world. A side trip to a hotel and the rest is history. The job was gone, the marriage was gone and his little girls grew up pretty confused about men. I could give you more examples, many of which I had the task of investigating, but I’m pretty sure most of you have stories that are just as compelling.
How is it that good people go wrong? Why do so many willingly step onto such a slippery slope? As I’ve listened to the news on Petraeus, I have been struck by the many expressions of great respect for him and the job he has done. Most statements have been followed by some comment on what a terrible loss this is for our country. But the genie is out of the bottle and no one, not even a four-star-general-turned-CIA director, can put it back. If you’ve heard the comments from those close to him, you probably know that Petraeus has blamed no one but himself and has continued to say he really screwed up. (No pun intended but it does seem to be the appropriate word choice.)
So what’s the lesson? Choices have consequences and, no matter how much you think no one will find out, the fact is that you will know. Once you step onto a slimy incline, it’s terribly hard to regain solid ground. It’s also likely that others will eventually find out or come to suspect wrongdoing. Remember: When you’re in a position of authority, the appearance of impropriety can be just as damaging as the impropriety itself.
It’s not easy to make the right choice in spite of overwhelming temptation, but then policing in general has never been easy. One way to confront temptation effectively is to avoid putting yourself in the crosshairs from the beginning. In other words, just don’t go there. Badges come with a degree of public trust and an expectation that you won’t abuse your authority. Some members of the opposite sex are drawn to that badge like a moth to a flame but trust me—if you engage, you’ll be the one who eventually gets burned.
Have you seen this situation happen?