What happens off duty, stays off duty…right? Don’t bet on it.
Doing what’s right. We’ve all heard it. Many of us believe that we do it consistently.
And perhaps, when we’re on the job or in uniform, most of us do exactly that. But what about when we are off the clock and think we are out of the public’s eye? Those of you who have read some of my previous articles know that I love to use officially accepted definitions of words. The definition of Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles or moral uprightness. The one that I like better is the C.S. Lewis quote: “Integrity is always doing what is right even when you think that no one is watching.”
So who is watching?
Everyone. Everywhere. 24/7/365.
The best question that I have ever been asked during an interview was if I felt my personal conduct off duty should have any impact on my status with that agency. In a world of scripted (and often stale) interview questions, this not only took me by surprise but even made me giggle a little inside because the interviewing panel had clearly put some effort and thought into this and many other questions. Now, I pride myself on being pretty well spoken and can articulate my thoughts pretty well. For once, I was temporarily speechless as I formulated my response. After a noticeable pause, I responded with stating that was the best interview question that I had ever been asked, and that I was glad that someone finally asked it! My opinion on the matter is this; what happens in your own home, on your own time SHOULD be a private matter.
Unfortunately, the ugly reality is that the second that the general public and media discover an affiliation in the midst of a scandal, then it is no longer a private matter. Follow me here…
Scenario # 1.) A woman who works in the private sector drives home drunk and gets involved in a motor vehicle accident where there are no injuries. 99 out of a 100 times, the media will report on this with very little embellishment. It will pretty much consist of the pertinent facts of what, where and when, unless it involves a person of interest or celebrity. And that will satisfy the public’s need to know what caused them to be stuck in traffic on their evening commute home that night.
Scenario #2.) An off-duty police officer driving his truck, with LEO specialty license plates, is traveling at nearly 95 miles per hour on the interstate as he enters a clearly marked construction zone. Witnesses report this and identify the vehicle involved, and it is later discovered that the driver was, in fact, an off-duty officer. You can imagine the media feeding frenzy and headlines. And as a result, the agency that the officer works for will likely be forced to dole out some disciplinary action that could even result in being a career ending situation.
Scenario #3.) A brother is lost in a LODD, and thousands of firefighters show up to honor his sacrifice and support his family. In the local area that night, after the memorial service, some of them head out to the local bars for camaraderie and to tell the usual war stories and other lies. Nothing negative happens, and everyone goes home that night without incident. Aside from the out of touch John Q. Public Citizen, who is unaware that a firefighter was killed in the line of duty and sees a bunch of clearly identified firefighters in various states of questionable sobriety. This prompts an official complaint to the Chief’s office the next day, and perhaps certain city council members.
Is it fair that the three different situations get reported differently? Probably not. Everyone is human. We all make mistakes and have lapses in judgment. I can even speak from personal experience on this very topic. But the reality is that the public and media do, and will, hold public safety personnel to a higher standard. Once it is identified that the person in the news story is a (fill in the blank i.e. firefighter, law enforcement officer, medic, fire chief, teacher, doctor, etc…), then it will be reported as Fire Chief Jane Doe or Officer John Schmoe. The headlines will lead with the words: “Firefighter Arrested”, or “Teacher Suspended”, or “Paramedic Investigated”. The public and many politicians love to read about these kinds of things, and they can be used as political tools against our agencies when it comes time for public approval ratings and support for funding.
The fact is that we are in a position of public trust, and will be held to a higher standard even if it seems like it’s no one else’s business. Keep that in mind when driving your vehicle with fire stickers or light bars. Never forget that wearing a t-shirt or hat can identify your affiliation to an agency. Remember that the media will dig for juicy scandals because it’s in their interest to, “report the facts”. Be cognizant of the fact that when there is a public scandal that involves a member of public safety, the general public tends to see the rest of the members the same way as the headlines read.
Do what’s right even when you think that no one is watching.
These John Q. Publics are sadly the same ones that will say that public safety personnel are not “heroes,” shouldn’t ride the engine to get groceries while on duty, shouldn’t drive the ambulance to a fast food joint, shouldn’t get preferential treatment from anyone for any reason, but will call your boss for any perceived fault . That is a true double standard. but it is what it is. People will watch you like a hawk if they know you are public safety,etc.
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The worst part is that even after the charges are dropped or dismissed or found not guilty, the damage is already done on your career and the media is not there to report the truth
1st and foremost we are not “Heroes” we are doing our job.. Secondly if you sign up to do this job you better understand you are always under a microscope and finally ee proudly wear and post our FD this and FD that when you advertise it you are setting yourself up for justified scrutinity… Act like you deserve this job 24/7 not like it or the public owe you!