​​​​​​​​​Arthur P. Meister

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Public Trust

We hear the term on occasion, but mostly as an afterthought to some news article pertaining to the arrest or indictment of a public official.  However, it is unfortunate that this principle, one which is seldom espoused in any formal sense, gets aired mostly under negative circumstance.  That’s because it is somewhat difficult to   articulate and fully understand.  (In democratic societies there is a fine line to be drawn between a necessary and healthy dose of wariness and the degree of trust afforded government to do its job.)  Representative government – where the “public” elects, empowers, and allows select few to carry out the responsibility of governing their lives - depends greatly on this very important principle because of its importance to sustaining the “equilibrium” between government and its constituency.  However, while the concept of public trust may seem somewhat nebulous or esoteric as most ideals are, the implications are very real for the public employee.  

When explored further one soon realizes how this principle could be considered almost sacred as it is sometimes described in the occasional lapse. It is the underlying theme behind everyone’s quest for life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness – the essence of our Constitutional form of governing, and the foundation of law and order that enables us to realize that ideal probably more than any other country on earth.  All anyone has to do is examine those countries without a trusted government and see the disquietude and oppression that prevails.  So yeah, public trust should be considered inviolable (sacrosanct) because of its importance to everyone in their everyday life - whether they know it or not.  

Most people assume it is there generally, but it is only when tested that the power of this principle comes to bear.  (How a department handles this kind of controversy challenging its commitment to honesty and openness that will either re-enforce or severely damage this principle).  It lies at the very heart of how effective any law enforcement agency will be.  

This may sound somewhat “Rah, Rah,” or overly sentimental to those working adversarial environments where the public’s reception of your service seems overly skeptical or downright hostile.  However, it is still a valid principle when applied to the “whole” of law enforcement responsibility.  In other words, your actions wherever they occur extend beyond your immediate environment to law enforcement generally.  Actions taken in defense of a fellow employee purposely wrong (circle the wagons) , thereby creating the appearance of “stone walling” or a cover up – only chips away at this very important principle as it applies to the department’s reputation and standing in the entire community and beyond.  So, public trust is an important belief to keep in mind when doing what you do, and holding others accountable to the same “big picture” understanding and expectation.  It’s part of your management role. 

A long list of important moral principle and values like honesty, integrity, commitment, openness, and fairness etc., underlie the concept of public trust.  A “Civil Servant” - as public employees are often labeled – is defined as a person employed in the public sector based on “professional merit” and examination.  And, the merit of any professional will stem from the public’s perception of one’s commitment to that long list of moral values.  

A “trusting” public on the other hand, depends on hope, faith, and the expectation that public officials will perform accordingly. While it’s naive to think just faith and hope is sufficient to maintain anyone’s trust in government, there are a few processes in place that help to bolster their expectations.  

Three keys for enhancing public trust are (1) transparency (aided by Freedom of Information access, etc. and the existence of an independent Press) and (2) oversight (From Congressional Hearings to local Internal Affairs) and – of course – (3) Oaths of Office and sworn testimony.  One of the main missions of Congress is to ensure the public’s trust in our government institutions.  While that may sound like an oxymoron, they help do this through public hearings and oversight committees and processes.  State legislatures, local commissions, and internal affairs processes also exist – in part - for that reason.  

While the principle of public trust applies to all government entities, there can be a discernible difference between “elected” officials, and those “hired” to actually provide the service of government.   While this may imply the unfortunate view of a “double standard,” it still doesn’t lessen the importance of holding public trust as an important part of one’s management role.  

There seems to be a cynical resignation by many that elected officials often ignore principle and rework certain values for the sake of political expediency or survival.  That being said, it is important to remember that the onus for public trust falls largely on those actually delivering the public service. One can differ with and doubt an elected official, yet still have faith in those employed to fulfill the responsibility of government.  

The complex nature of party politics may allow some leeway for elected officials (There are instances where discredited, even indicted officials were reelected to office).  However, the same does not hold for those appointed or hired who carry out the day to day requirements of this ideal.   Elected officials get vetted through rigorous campaigns that “hopefully” reveal inconsistencies or issues in their background that voters can accept or reject (voters generally know what they are getting when they go to the polls).  However, important civil service positions – as in law enforcement – undergo comprehensive background checks and rigorous training to determine their eligibility and (more important) suitability to hold such an important position of public trust.  

It can be argued a police officer’s impact on individual lives is greater than that of any other public official.   Nowhere in the public service realm does the relationship between citizen and government mean more in times of stress and discomfort.  While it is incumbent on all public institutions to uphold the public’s trust,  it falls on police officers to enforce the main frame of our social order with direct, personal, sometimes intimate, and frequently very visible impact. This is why law enforcement will always seem to have the greater burden of this very unique and important concept. 

The level of trust citizens have in their police department will directly determine the extent to which they will help (cooperating to solve crime, maintain order, etc.), and support (increasing budgets, granting additional authority, etc.) to fulfill a department’s needs. Those who hold the public’s trust must work hard to ensure this important perception is maintained with consistency and validity.  Without this expectation (sense), public order begins to break down.  

What goes wrong?

How does this guiding light of public service get bent around backwards – so that it somehow becomes a platform for personal benefit.  How do people get off track and veer into the gutter of trash politics, personal gain, and acts of crime?   More often than not, it is a flaw that accompanies the official into public office, and also the company one keeps while there.  These are some of the reasons one’s background and oversight is hugely important to the public trust and why appreciating and, yes, accommodating a free and purposely intrusive press is so important as well.  

The surge of compromise and problem solving dilemmas, along with the subterfuge of political intrigue and the challenge of unfair and sometimes unsettling experiences can subvert the power of this principle.  When one’s focus and original attraction to this line of work begins to drift away from “purpose” towards personal gain, retribution of any kind, and what you know or feel is not right, that failing this important principle can become a betrayal of the worse kind.

Something to Remember

The stigma for violating or failing to uphold this almost sacred principle can be harsher for law enforcers than any other kind of endeavor or career.  Like a dishonorable discharge from the service, it’s a long way to fall from the grace of this high ideal to that of a discredited public servant.  It is a blemish that can never be erased from one’s conscience.  The disdain for a convicted law enforcer carries greater vilification than most other public service failings.  That’s because of the damage it does not only to the honor of the profession generally, but how it spills over to and makes harder the job of former colleagues and how it impacts the public so directly.  A wrongful injury, arrest, or conviction of a citizen does much damage to this principle as it relates to the whole of law enforcement.  So, yes, public trust is a huge responsibility and ideal that should be frequently pondered and touted, and demands the highest level of persistently honest endeavor.  Maintaining public trust is an important part of your management role.