Chapter 4: Key Ethical Issues within Law Enforcement

4.6 Gratuities

For the purpose of discussion surrounding ethics in law enforcement, a gratuity is the gift of an item to another person based solely on their occupation. A gratuity is most often given to officers by workers in the service industry, such as waiters and bartenders. Additionally and problematically, gratuities are given for services expected and services already rendered; free coffees for law enforcement officers often come with strings attached, or at the very least, as an insurance policy to gain favours in the future should the need arise. A cynic would argue that offering free coffee is not an altruistic gesture, but rather an insurance policy for security in the future. A law enforcement officer who receives free coffee from a restaurateur will likely be expected to provide extra service to the restaurant should it be required. Conversely, a law enforcement officer who removes a drunk person from a restaurant can often expect a free coffee after the drunk has been removed. Four main reasons that gratuities are given to law enforcement officers are:

  1. Because of the theory of reciprocity, where people feel they owe something to the giver. In a law enforcement context, this will be collected after the gift (the free coffee) is given.
  2. To ensure future cooperation, where the gift-giver may want the services of the officer in the future. This can include gaining biased support of officers in spite of the facts surrounding an issue.
  3. To use the presence of police officers, attracted by free coffee, as an advertisement to potential patrons that the environment is safe.
  4. To use the presence of police officers, attracted by free coffee, as a way to dissuade potentially problematic patrons from patronizing the restaurant.

Gratuities are often seen as the first step on the slippery slope toward major corruption (Coleman, 2004), and it is for this reason that accepting gratuities is always frowned upon by law enforcement agencies. Coleman argues that while each step is, on the slippery slope, individually insignificant, it is the cumulative effect of the steps that draws and pushes officers to more serious forms of unethical behaviours. Once an officer starts on the slippery slope, pne step leads to another: the coffee leads to a coffee and a donut, which eventually leads to a free dinner. The cumulative effect of these gratuities, according to Coleman (2004), leads to a situation that is difficult for the officer to stop doing or turn around.

Coleman (2004) also identifies an absolutist perspective in which the free-coffee gratuity is viewed the same as receiving a thousand dollar bribe. They are both wrong regardless of the financial gain received by the officer. It can be argued that the intent of the officer should be considered. If the officer’s intent in receiving the free coffee is to build community cohesion and better relations with the police, that should always be considered. However, if the intent is unethical, such as to save money by using the officer’s power position, then this too should be considered.

In a controversial paper, Kania (1998) proposes that the police should be allowed to exercise discretion and decide the appropriateness of receiving minor gratuities such as free coffee. This, he argues, is similar to other professions and is a way to foster community relations; refusing minor gratuities such as coffee strikes at the core of building bridges with the community and can have an adverse effect on relationships. Kania (1998) offers little more than anecdotal evidence of this and recalls incidents in his own policing career in which he observed noble officers rejecting free coffee to the consternation of the provider, thus creating a rift between police and the community.

The most balanced view on gratuities belongs to Pollock (2007), who draws a sharp distinction between a gift and a gratuity. The gift refers to an exchange in which there are no strings attached, whereas a gratuity would likely be given for future favour, however subtle (Pollock, 2007). The difficulty is in determining what is and is not a gift versus a gratuity. Pollock utilizes ethical systems to make this determination.

A deontological perspective would suggest that if all businesses were to give all police gratuities, the ramifications would not be desirable (Pollock 2007). In essence, Rawls’ (1999) principles of justice would be subverted by a system in which only those who pay are entitled to service. Pollock (2007) also suggests from a formalism perspective that the motive of the giver would be paramount and that the giver who has good intentions would make the gift morally permissible. Conversely, utilitarianism would suggest that the negatives outweigh the positives and, as a result, the gratuities would be unethical; however, act utilitarianism would judge each act on its own merits, allowing for gratuities to be accepted when the consequences are good for all concerned (Pollock, 2007). Rule utilitarianism, on the other hand, would determine that the long-term consequences of gratuities would be damaging to more people than they would aid, and therefore would not be morally permissible (Pollock, 2007).

Kania’s (1998) perspective would fall under an ethics of care approach, in which gratuities would be ethical if there were a positive social relationship already formed between the giver and the taker. The ethics of virtue would be concerned only with the virtues of the receiving officer (Pollock, 2007).

In conclusion, while other professions, such as doctors, are free to receive gratuities, law enforcement officers must be careful when receiving gratuities for the following reasons:

  • Police are professionals and professionals don’t take gratuities.
  • People will expect different treatment.
  • Gratuities could erode public confidence.
  • There is the slippery slope potential; the receipt of gratuities can be a gateway for more corruption.
  • Police get paid by the public to treat everyone equally.


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Ethics in Law Enforcement Copyright © 2015 by Steve McCartney and Rick Parent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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