Moral Courage – Law Officer

Concealed Carry

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Fear is one of the most powerful motivational forces in our lives.  From the time that we are small children, we learn to fear objects, ideas, and events that can cause pain or injury.  In response to these fears, we find ways to avoid or overcome these hazards in our lives.  Our responses have the potential to elevate us to the highest levels of achievement.  And, they have the potential to paralyze us and render us ineffective as leaders.  The purpose of this article is to discuss inherent conflicts and hazards associated with supervisory decision-making, and to identify ways to instill moral courage in our organizations.


In a cultural vacuum, supervisory decision-making sounds like a simple process.  The facts are identified, each option is reviewed and evaluated, and a decision is made based on an identification of the most beneficial solution to the problem.  After identifying the best course of action, the solution is implemented.

In reality, we do not live in a vacuum, and our decisions have consequences.  We are often called upon to make decisions that will have significant impacts on individuals, on our departments, and subsequently, on the quality of life in our communities.  We also know that no matter what decisions we make, people will “second guess” us, and someone will probably disagree with our actions.

Conflict is an inevitable part of leadership.  If we allow an aversion to conflict or a fear of the consequences to taint our decision-making, then our judgment will become clouded and distorted.  We will start focusing on what we have to lose, instead of identifying the correct course of action.  The results can be devastating for everyone involved.

An Indispensable Trait for Police Leadership

Twenty years ago when instructors were teaching police leadership, they typically promoted the development of an assortment of skills that included planning, directing, organizing, communicating, evaluating, problem-solving, and managing time. The mastery of these skills was clearly identifiable in the “best” supervisors, and the acquisition and honing of these skills were valid goals for the development of new supervisors into effective leaders.   In recent years, it has become evident that this limited curriculum was inadequate, and individuals can master all of these skills, and still remain ineffective as leaders and supervisors in law enforcement agencies.

In recent times, a great deal of emphasis has been focused on ethics and integrity, which are absolutely vital for successful leadership.  Potential leaders are being taught how to apply the principals of honesty, integrity, and core values to their actions and decisions.  However, one of the most essential qualifications for leadership has rarely been afforded the focus and attention that it deserves.  This indispensable trait for leadership is “moral courage.”

Moral Courage

Moral courage is the driving force for excellence in an organization, and it is the factor that empowers supervisors to adhere to the highest standards, even in the face of adversity.   It is the trait that fosters respect, honor, and dignity for the individuals who demonstrate it, and for the organization in which it is practiced.  It is the quality that separates the leaders from the individuals who just want to wear rank and increase their pay rates.

True leaders are not ignorant of the intrinsic risks associated with their jobs.  They recognize that their positions require them to make decisions that will subject them to public scrutiny, conflict, and criticism.  They accept the hazards that are inherent in their roles as supervisors, and they do not allow the fear of consequences to impair their judgment.

The most effective leaders have core values that they are unwilling to compromise, negotiate, or violate.  They are willing to accept negative consequences to demonstrate their commitment to their principles. They have a vision of their role as setting and maintaining the standards for conduct in their departments and in their communities, and they do not waiver in the application of their values and ideals. They are well informed and educated relative to the limitations and demands of their positions, and they exercise a sense of “fair play” in their interactions with others.

It should also be noted that “fear” and “moral courage” change over an individual’s career.   A rookie officer may fear physical danger, lack of acceptance by other officers, and failure to successfully complete probation.  A more experienced officer may fear never being promoted, or not obtaining a special assignment.  A new first line supervisor may fear conflict with the officers that were peers and friends.  An officer approaching retirement may fear making errors that will jeopardize a retirement or pension.  A new chief or sheriff may fear dealing with the news media, politicians, and unions.  Moral courage is necessary at every stage of an officer’s career.


Up to this point, our discussion of fear has not identified any specific threats.  To gain a more comprehensive understanding of the fears that can accompany a “simple” decision, the following example is offered for review:

If you were a police supervisor, and you suspended an officer for thirty days for misconduct, what are the potential consequences?

The subordinate may be hurt and angry… and the subordinate may strike back.  He may take action that jeopardizes your physical safety, or he could attack you through rumors and innuendoes.   If the subordinate knows any “dirt” on you, the subordinate may use it as a weapon to “get even.”

The subordinate may be popular, and your “friends” in the department may not approve of your decision, and they may alienate you socially.

Officers may misinterpret the facts and/or create factions within the department, leading to poor morale and dysfunctional relationships.

The union may publicly attack you, your motives, and your competency, and they may try to discredit you and jeopardize your job.

Your superiors may not share your assessment of the misconduct, and they may believe that you have overreacted and been too harsh, or they may believe that you were too lenient.

The case may be overturned by a supervisor or arbitrator, which would undermined your authority.

The case may publicly embarrass you, your squad, your division, or your department.

You may become the target of civil litigation from the subordinate or the victim of the misconduct.

Recognizing that all of these possibilities could be realized, it is apparent that decisions on disciplinary matters can easily be influenced by fear.  For this reason, organizations must be committed to providing an environment that supports its supervisors and encourages them to make “fearless” decisions.

Fearless or Foolish?

Although the purpose of this article is to encourage police supervisors to be fearless, it is also important to differentiate “fearless” from  “foolish.”   There is a difference between fighting for lofty principles, and fighting foolish battles with great risks.  Moral courage is not demonstrated by an ignorant commitment to an insignificant project or decision, and it is certainly not demonstrated by blatant insubordination.

If a supervisor simply enjoys living on the edge and taking risks, then their chances for long-termed survival will be very limited.  If someone becomes so egotistical and overconfident that they become insensitive and demanding, then they are at high-risk for failure.  Successful leaders learn to choose their battles carefully, and they recognize that “even when the boss is wrong, the boss is still the boss.”

Teaching Courage

The first step to instilling this trait in others is to identify it and discuss it early in an officer’s career.  At the initial orientation for working in a law enforcement agency, new officers should understand and commit to signing a statement that addresses this issue.  Just as most officers swear to uphold the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, they should be committed to demonstrating “moral courage.”  The National Institute of Ethics recommends that every officer swear to an “Oath of Honor” including the commitment that “Honor, Integrity and Respect are never betrayed,” and  “I will always hold myself and others accountable for having the courage to do the right thing.”

The Field Training Officers (FTOs) in every department should discuss this matter with recruits during training, and FTOs should demonstrate moral courage in their roles.  FTOs should recognize the awesome responsibility that has been entrusted to them, and they should not hesitate to provide valid and truthful Daily Observation Reports.   They should demonstrate their courage in making recommendations for remediation or termination if appropriate.  This also means that FTO supervisors have an obligation to support the recommendations and decisions of the FTOs.

When moving into a supervisory role, officers should have an understanding of the “fear” factor in their decision-making.  They should be provided with specific training to address standards, discipline, conflict resolution, consequences, and moral courage.  If supervisors know what to expect, then they will be better able to handle the pressures associated with the decision-making process.

To be effective, all department members, from the department head to the maintenance staff, must be committed to “doing the right thing.”  From top to bottom, there should be an expectation throughout the organization, that the department will support its members when they demonstrate the courage to stand up for honor, integrity, honesty, and respect.  This must become an integral part of the departmental culture, and it must be discussed, practiced, and modeled at all levels of the organization.

This article originally appeared here.

David Thompson has more than 40 years of law enforcement and private security experience, including certification as a law enforcement firearms instructor dating back to 1983. He spent more than 20 years on SWAT Teams, and has thousands of hours of law enforcement training.  As a law enforcement instructor, criminal justice professor, certified NRA Basic Pistol Instructor, and certified North Carolina Concealed Carry Handgun Instructor, Thompson presents class material in a professional, thorough, and entertaining manner! He is dedicated to providing safe, comprehensive, and practical instruction for all people seeking to protect themselves and their loved ones.


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