Tips, Gifts & Gratuities: What's Ethical and What's Not?

For decades, convenience stores, "mom and pop" stores, mainstream restaurants and more have offered discounts of various amounts to public safety professionals, just as they often do for active or veteran military members. Why, then, is it such a hot...


Every couple of years we seem to see a news article (which is usually more of an opinion piece) about public safety employees accepting discounts, gifts, etc. and how the practice is either wrong, ethically questionable or an outright corrupt practice.  I was recently referred to this article by my publisher and had to once again shake my head.  I'll comment on this through this blog, but I want to start with this comment:  It surprises me that it's not a bigger / more sensationalized issue given the on-going challenges our economy faces and how tight everyone is for money.

Now, let's be clear:  businesses providing discounts and/or free consumables such as coffee, sodas and (rarely to the best of my knowledge) snacks, is a practice as old as the law enforcement profession in America.  For literally centuries it didn't cause anyone much grief or aggravation, but since the late '60s / early '70s it sometimes comes up as a matter of concern to both the public and the public safety agencies themselves.  The concerns for the public safety administrators HAS to be maintaining the professionalism within the ranks, partly attained by setting policy on what is or isn't acceptable. The balance that has to be maintained is simple humanity versus cold professionalism.

I know one Chief of Police who absolutely, via written policy, prohibited his officers from accepting ANY discount or gifted item from any community member to include all the businesses therein. That Chief's position was that only in such a complete and thorough manner could the integrity of the agency be kept pristine.  Some of his officers felt he pushed it to the extreme when he investigated them and disciplined them for accepting hot dogs from the Boy Scouts at a local community event.  It was the end of the day; the hot dogs weren't going to be sold; the officers hadn't had a chance to take a break for lunch; the Boy Scouts offered the hot dogs, at no charge, to the officers.  The officers saw no harm and simply couldn't imagine that the Chief, if he ever even found out, would jam them up for eating what would have been thrown away five minutes later.  After somewhat of a stink, lo and behold, the policy was rescinded and officer discretion was once again put in place where accepting such "gifts" was concerned.

I know of another municipality where the agency received a complaint about officers always loitering at one convenience store.  When they were approached by the owner of a different convenience store asking why they never hung out at his place, their response (paraphrased) was, "Well, if you gave us free coffee and snacks, we'd hang out there more often."  That reply smacks of a sense of entitlement, not to mention demanding special treatment for simply doing your job.

Just like every other situation in life that requires anyone to make a moral or ethical judgment, each situation is unique and it's difficult, at best, to administrate a policy about such things.  the opposite ends of the attempts are...

The bigger the agency is, the closer to impossible it is to enforce, and...

The smaller the agency is, the harder it is to impact what often are friendships that result in such gifts or discounts.

What's the balance?  My own opinion is that every agency SHOULD have a policy in place about accepting discounts, gifts or gratuities.  The policy should include:

  • a requirement that each officer OFFER full payment prior to accepting a discount or gift.
  • a requirement that each officer REFUSE a discount or gift UNLESS it's available to EVERY agency member OR if it's being offered by a family member or close personal friend.
  • a prohibition on unnecessary loitering at establishments that offer discounts or gifts.
  • a requirement for the immediate reporting, to the agency, by the officer, of any discount or gift that seems exhorbitant to the point of being immoral or unethical, such that a reasonable person might construe it as a bribe.
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