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An Unlikely Beginning: The Rampart Area Corruption Incident

In 1996, when I was attending Johns Hopkins University finishing up my second master’s degree, I happened to hear from one of the professors of the National Symposium on Police Integrity that was being convened by the Department of Justice in Washington, D. C. He put me in touch with one of the coordinators for this three-day event, and I received an invitation to attend. Little did I know that event would help launch my passion for improving ethical conduct in police departments across the nation.

I showed up on a Sunday, the first day of the event, and looked over the program. Over 200 people were there, with speeches being presented by powerhouses whose textbooks I had studied, along with other major players in law enforcement like Attorney General Janet Reno and Dr. Vicchio. As I perused the program, I discovered—much to my surprise—that I was scheduled as a keynote speaker for the following afternoon. I questioned the coordinator who had extended the invitation.

“Well,” he said, “you complained that there were no cops speaking at the event. So have at it.”

I took went to my station house where I had access to a computer and began to write my presentation. I managed to finish it in time. After I gave my speech, I received a couple of hand claps—a figurative message that said sit down and shut up. What do you know?

All the presentations—including mine—were published in January 1997. Shortly thereafter, the Rampart Division of the Los Angles Police Department exploded in a scandal involving their anti-gang unit. The situation was covered by national news media and generated a board of inquiry. Looking for answers to their problem, they obtained the published book from the National Symposium on Police Integrity.

In 2000, the Board of Inquiry into the Rampart Area Corruption Incident published their findings in a 360-page document. In their findings they wrote the following concerning the National Symposium on Police Integrity and how it related to their investigation.

“Though there are a number of interesting and insightful viewpoints expressed in that publication, there is one in particular which is most relevant to the issues at hand. That observation came from Captain Ross Swope, Metropolitan Police Department, Washington, C. C. At the heart of Captain Ross Swope’s remarks was a simple yet profound observation that ‘The major cause in the lack of integrity in American police officers is mediocrity.’

Captain Swope went on to explain that mediocrity stems from the failure to hold officers responsible and accountable. It comes from a lack of commitment, laziness, excessive tolerance and the use of kid gloves. He felt that dealing with mediocrity is perhaps the greatest contemporary challenge in American law enforcement.

When asked to explain how mediocrity is dangerous, Captain Swope drew an analogy of the bell curve. At the high end of the bell curve are those officers who practice all the core values: prudence, truth, courage, justice, honesty and responsibility. At the other end are the officers with few of those values. In the large middle are those officers who have some or most of the core values. The extent of moral influence in a police department depends on the extent to which the lower and upper portions influence those in the middle. The men and women who control that influence are sergeants, lieutenants and captains. The irony is that everyone within a workplace knows full well which of the three categories their co-workers fall into. When officers in the middle see that officers at the bottom end are not dealt with, they sometimes begin to imitate their behavior. Similarly, when those at the top end are recognized and rewarded, they become the workplace standard. The principal, though not exclusive, agents in encouraging top-end or allowing bottom-end behaviors are supervisors and middle managers. It is our sergeants, lieutenants and captains who have the daily and ongoing responsibility to ensure that the appropriate workplace standards are maintained. . . .

As you read this report from the Board of Inquiry, keep Captain Swope’s observations in mind for we found, and you will see, that mediocrity was alive and well in Rampart up until about 1998. We are sad to report that we also found mediocrity threatening to engulf many of our other workplace environments as well . . ., there are strong indicators that mediocrity is flourishing in many other workplaces and the mindset of too many managers and supervisors is allowing it to occur. Rather than challenging our people to do their best, too many of our leaders are allowing mediocre performance and, in some cases even making excuses for it.

If Captain Swope is correct in his observation that corruption follows mediocrity, and we believe that he is, then we must begin immediately to instill a true standard of excellence throughout the Department.”

I was flattered by that report, but more importantly, I was pleased to see that the practices I had been following for years held value for others. My words did not fall on deaf ears. I had “cred.”

Following the publication of my speech, I received many calls for speaking engagements. Police executives in Scotland even contacted me to write their policy on police ethical conduct, which I did. While I had previously published numerous articles in practitioner and academic journals, the Rampart report’s reception of my work encouraged me to pursue a focus on police integrity and police conduct. Ultimately, it led me to write a book on the topic: Solving Police Use of Excessive Force: Ethics-Based Policing.

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About Ross Swope

In a career spanning more than four decades, I rose through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police Department in both uniform and investigative positions. I began as a uniform patrolman and retired 27 y


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