Don't try to buy lunch for Capt. James A. Wright. The Washington Post did, and Wright, who was out of cash at the time, marched back to his office and returned 15 minutes later to hand a reporter a $20 bill.
What would you expect from D.C. police's first "ethics officer"?
Police forces across the country are putting new emphasis on ethics training, but the D.C. police department is one of the few to actually appoint an ethics officer.
Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. said he created the position last summer soon after he became chief because he wanted someone to be the "conscience of the police department." In December, Fulwood unveiled plans to get more police back on foot patrols, and Wright said part of his job will be to help officers deal with the increased temptation to compromise that is inherent in more street work.
Wright, 39, said he doesn't know why Fulwood picked him for the job. A reserved, soft-spoken man, he is the product of a small, tightly knit New Jersey town, a religious mother and Catholic education.
He had been working in Internal Affairs, where he commanded a unit investigating police misconduct, when Fulwood chose him.
Wright said he's still trying to figure out how to teach ethics to 4,580 officers, many of whom are ignoring the official police code of ethics and making up their own rules on the street, he said.
Most, for example, are probably accepting free coffee and food from restaurants, which is forbidden under the code, he said.
That's not big-time corruption, but the way Wright sees it, when an officer breaks one rule, it's easier to break another.
Wright's philosophy: The moral standard held by police officers should "reflect what society should be rather than the way it is."
But some officers view him as too idealistic, he said. And the trial of Mayor Marion Barry, which included testimony that a member of the mayor's security detail covered up the mayor's drug use and even used cocaine himself, has made his message harder to sell.
"It's made the men more cynical and more resistant to what I say," Wright said. "It's more difficult to convince them to do what's right."
Fulwood, who describes his force as "pretty clean," said he has not noticed any change in morale from the trial. At the same time, he does say he is trying to upgrade the department's ethical standards.
In the next few months, Fulwood is expected to launch his "community-oriented policing program" in several neighborhoods.
Under this plan, police officers will leave their patrol cars regularly to walk neighborhood beats, much as they did decades ago. They will be responsible for asking city agencies to deal with problems such as getting abandoned cars towed and alleys cleaned. The idea is to clean up the conditions that lead to crime, not just react to criminal incidents.
Today, most officers stay in patrol cars and respond to radio calls. When they start walking beats, they will see the same people every day. And they will have more invitations to take a free meal, requests to drive a shop owner to the bank in trade for cash and opportunities to take money from drug dealers or other criminals in exchange for looking the other way, Wright said.
And should they take money from drug dealers, the next step is almost inevitably to start selling drugs themselves, he said.
Deputy Chief Donald H. Christian, head of the Office of Professional Standards, which includes Wright's unit, agrees. He said the department has to trust unsupervised officers more when they go on neighborhood patrols. An officer will start forming relationships with people who are on both sides of the law, and in fact sometimes must cultivate contacts with small criminals to "get bigger fish." As a result, rules are blurred even more, Christian said.
"We are entrusting officers to a higher level of responsibility than we have ever given them before."
Most of the city's officers got their first look at Wright last month during roll call via a videotape in which Wright told them he will give them advice on ethical issues.
"Your actions may be ethical or legal," he warned on tape, "but the appearance of impropriety in our line of work is just as serious and prohibited as an improper act itself."
Wright said he has received only a couple of calls so far.
He said he's not discouraged, though, and plans to start running daylong ethics workshops this fall as well as training a supervisor in each district to conduct more workshops to help reach every officer on the force.
At the workshops, he said, he will offer ethical dilemmasand prod officers to make choices.
He said many veteran officers "build a wall around themselves and just look at things the way they are" rather than how well they mesh with their own standards.
"They think why should they do the right thing and set themselves apart when so much of the system is doing it the other way," he said.
"My goal is to not shoot holes in their excuses, but to convince them of their duties as police officers, how important their integrity is to their agency and themselves."
Wright said officers with eight to 11 years on the force run the highest risk of turning corrupt because they are the least enthusiastic about their jobs and have the know-how to "subvert the system."
Rookies, meanwhile, can be so eager to look good and get convictions, he said, that some tend to exaggerate when they write arrest reports and warrants.
Most who become corrupt say they don't know how it got out of hand, Wright said. "They knew they were heading for trouble, but they didn't know how to stop."
Wright has little sympathy. "If you find corruption, you have to prosecute to the full extent of the law. You have to bring corrupt police officers and city officials down."