Editor’s Note: Sonia Pruitt is a retired Montgomery County, Maryland, police captain. She is the founder of The Black Police Experience, which promotes the education of the intersection of law enforcement and the Black community. She is also a professor of criminal justice at Howard University in Washington, DC, and at Montgomery College in Maryland. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
It was an ordinary traffic stop, the kind that usually ends with a law enforcement officer giving a driver a citation or even a verbal warning. But what should have been an everyday traffic stop became an exercise in questionable ethics in police conduct.
Tampa Police Chief Mary O’Connor was a passenger in the golf cart driven by her husband when it was pulled over by a Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputy in Oldsmar, Florida last month because the cart did not have a license plate, according to footage from the sheriff’s office.
The deputy’s bodycam footage showed O’Connor announcing that she was the chief of the Tampa Police Department and flashing her badge, saying “I’m hoping you’ll just let us go tonight.”
And at the end of the November 12 encounter, which lasted several minutes, O’Connor handed the deputy her business card, telling him, “If you ever need anything, call me. Seriously.”
This week, O’Connor was placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation by the Tampa Police, which found that she had violated the department’s standard of conduct with regard to “abuse of position or identification.”
After the bodycam video of the encounter went viral and as the story made national headlines, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor requested O’Connor’s resignation, which the now-former police chief tendered this week.
In my experience, it is not unusual for officers who are stopped for traffic violations to identify themselves as law enforcement; it is actually a traditional part of police culture. It’s a way to make a connection with others in the same profession, even when one of the parties is the subject of the traffic stop.
Identifying oneself as a law enforcement officer is not inherently wrong in such a situation. In fact, a good deal of networking and honest relationship-building takes place during traffic stops.
For many officers, it is an expected form of professional courtesy that one officer recognizes the fraternal relationship. It’s not uncommon for an officer stopped for a traffic violation to be sent on their way with nothing but a friendly wave. It’s an act of grace by the officer initiating the traffic stop – the same sort of kindness officers frequently extend to members of the public.
But when a member of law enforcement pulls rank to gain that leniency – that is an ethical breach.
Police officers swear an oath of office upon entry into the profession, as ethics is a subject of immense importance. The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, adopted in 1957 by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, highlights the moral and fundamental obligations of a police officer, such as duty to protect and serve, adherence to constitutional requirements, integrity and behaving honorably and serving without bias. This code provides a template for law enforcement conduct.
While the idea of police reform has publicly ebbed and flowed throughout the years, with points in history to bookmark contentious periods – such as the death of George Floyd – police misconduct is without doubt a constant thread in the conversation. There is a call from the public for new training, policy and other accountability measures surrounding ethical behavior and professional standards of conduct.
It is rare to hear of an officer being dismissed – or resigning – because they flashed their badge to avoid receiving a traffic ticket. The mayor said O’Connor was asked to resign because as the leader of the department, she sets the example. It is nearly impossible for a leader to hold accountable the officers they are leading if they are themselves involved in misconduct, however minor the infraction.
Questions have been raised as to whether the punishment meted out in this case was harsher than what male officers who have similarly transgressed receive. As a retired female police captain, I can confirm that sexism is sadly a characteristic of policing culture. Women are not always treated with equity – not in terms of praise or in terms of punishment – in law enforcement agencies.
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None of that changes that in this case, a violation of police standards occurred, and must be answered for. In failing to lead by example, O’Connor abused her authority.
Ethical police behavior is a critical piece of the fabric of public safety in America, essential in establishing trust with the community and efficiency within policing. The incident with former police chief O’Connor should be a reminder to law enforcement that the public is watching, and that there is now greater scrutiny of police actions which officers have taken for granted for many decades past.
In this time of persistent calls for police reform and accountability, I have just one piece of advice for law enforcement finding themselves in a similar situation: Just take the ticket.