Experts say maintaining culture of high ethical standards is key
Police officers exist out of the recognition that people don't always obey the law.
But who bears the responsibility of ensuring that officers working undercover don't cross the line between acting like a criminal and becoming one?
The arrest of three undercover Schaumburg officers on drug conspiracy charges this month is raising questions about how law enforcement toes that line and whether the crimes the Schaumburg cops are accused of are something their supervisors should have — or could have — prevented.
Law enforcement experts largely agree there's a limit to how much supervisors can know about every action of employees, especially those who exercise as much autonomy as undercover police officers.
More important and effective than close supervision are efforts to screen for good candidates in the first place and then to maintain a culture of transparency, professionalism and high ethical standards, they said.
The Schaumburg Police Department has long met all those criteria, according to Jack Riley, the special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago office.
"I personally think this is an aberration for them, and I believe we cut out the cancer that was a problem," said Riley, who led the investigation of Schaumburg officers Terrance O'Brien, Matthew Hudak and John Cichy.
The officers face multiple drug and other felony charges alleging they stole marijuana and cocaine from drug busts and then worked with a known drug dealer to sell the illegal drugs.
Like others the Daily Herald spoke to, Riley said how a department responds to a crisis like this is at least as important as its efforts to prevent it.
"I applaud the chief (Brian Howerton). As soon as he found out about this, he did everything he was supposed to do," Riley said. "This is a very good police department."
Dennis Rosenbaum, a professor and researcher of criminology, law and justice at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said there's probably no more important position in a police department than a first-line supervisor. But even their best practices may not guarantee the behavior of the officers under them.
"Supervision in policing is difficult because officers tend to work alone or with a partner," Rosenbaum said.
Maintaining officer integrity is really a three-step process — with each step being equally important, Rosenbaum said.
It begins with the screening process for candidates, which includes psychological testing for such personality traits as honesty or a tendency to aggression. Background checks also look for past or present drug problems, financial difficulties or anything else that can be a temptation to wrongdoing, he said.
The exact nature of these tests is tightly guarded by the companies that administer them in order to cut down on people's ability to fool them, Rosenbaum said.
After that comes an intensive six-month training period in which new recruits are not only drilled on police policies and procedures but socialized into the field of law enforcement.
Finally comes upper management's regular echoing of the codes and ethics of police work, Rosenbaum said. All these factors are important in creating an environment in which an officer knows what's expected of him or her as well as what won't be tolerated, he added.
The kind of misconduct Schaumburg officers O'Brien, Hudak and Cichy are accused of is very rare, Rosenbaum said. Even when the main culture of a police department is strong and sound, smaller and more isolated units can sometimes create their own cultures, he added.
Riley of the DEA noted that as members of Schaumburg's Special Investigations unit, O'Brien, Hudak and Cichy had a lot of freedom to go wherever they needed whenever they needed.
That level of freedom may be something the department would want to look at in the aftermath of the arrests, he said, adding that it's unclear whether the recent medical leave of the unit's supervisor played a role in creating opportunities for misconduct.
Schaumburg Police Chief Brian Howerton said he's learned from the investigation that one of the accused officers reportedly found a moment to steal drugs at a crime scene despite his supervisor being present.
That's not that hard to believe, Riley said.
"If someone is of the mindset to break the regulations or steal, they're probably going to be able to do it," he said.
Craig Hartley, deputy director of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, agreed.
"History tells us we'll never be able to completely do away with integrity issues in any type of institution," said Hartley, whose organization evaluates police departments nationwide and accredits those who follow the best law enforcement practices. Schaumburg has been accredited since 1986.
Corruption is an issue that La Donna Long, an assistant professor of criminal justice leadership at Roosevelt University, looks at in her ethics classes.
"I think in every profession you're going to have individuals who don't play by the rules, but the stakes are higher when you're a police officer," she said.
In law enforcement, there's so many opportunities for wrongdoing — from accepting bribes to falsifying evidence — that Long tells her criminal justice students they really need to imagine facing such ethical dilemmas early on.
"You need to know yourself well enough to know what you would do," she said.
All those the Daily Herald spoke with said the next important step for any department in Schaumburg's situation is to address the area of vulnerability that's been exposed.
Rosenbaum said it's a big step for Schaumburg's recovery that leaders historically have striven for openness and transparency in interacting with the community through programs such as its Citizen Police Academy and regular neighborhood beat meetings.
"I call it money in the bank," Rosenbaum said.
He believes that through such actions, Schaumburg has already put itself in a position to bounce back fully — despite the embarrassment of the arrest scandal.
"In a way, these things are good," Rosenbaum said. "They don't feel good at the time, but they force us to ask these questions and look for ways things can be done differently."