Leadership Spotlight

Doing the “Right Thing” for the Wrong Reasons: Abuse of Police Discretion

As an ethics instructor at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, I labor to identify leadership models that will get the message across best, no matter the source. While thumbing through the Bible in the book of John, chapter eight, verses one through 11, I came across a powerful passage dealing with the abuse of discretion.

During those ancient times, a discussion occurred involving leaders who despised a man of moral authority. They discussed among themselves how to use an existing law and a woman—caught committing adultery—to achieve their legal, yet immoral, goals.

Imagine the discussion these men may have had while developing their scheme. It could have followed an expected pattern. “Ok, guys, if we present this adulterous woman before Jesus and he says, ‘Let her go,’ we got him! The law requires that she must die, in which case Jesus is a fraud, and we can kill him, too. If he says, ‘Stone her,’ we still got him! Working on the Sabbath also is punishable by death. Do we all agree? Yes? Let’s go!”

Having agreed upon their plan, these leaders took this woman before Jesus with their followers, ready to evoke “street justice.” With confidence in their scheme, they posed a question. “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. What saith thou?” There was just one problem with their scheme. Jesus knew that their motivations for evoking the law were, in fact, immoral. He bent down and wrote something in the sand. Then, Jesus stood up and simply said to the mob, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Now, let us be logical for a moment. Any streetwise cop who ever has addressed a mob situation knows that evoking such words, even with a bullhorn, will not calm the crowd. This mob was being led by leaders on an immoral mission. Here is my question to you. What was Jesus writing in the sand? The Bible does not address this. I believe that he was writing the names of the men who committed adultery with this woman, beginning with the leaders who engineered this legal mischief. In fact, the leaders of this travesty were “the first to depart” the scene. Again, a streetwise cop will tell you that anywhere the mob leaders go, the mob will follow.

Without preaching, Jesus was saying, “Listen, you guys! I know what you are trying to do! If you want me to evoke the law against her, I will evoke the law against you as well!” In other words, how were these leaders able to catch her “in the act” of adultery unless they knew exactly where to find her and, perhaps, partake in the act with her. These men were using the might of the law—not to do right, but to be inhumane.

Could this happen in law enforcement today? Can we abuse our legal discretion to advance personal biases? No, you say? We will discuss racial or religious profiling during another Leadership Spotlight. For now, let us agree that being in law enforcement comes with tremendous authority and, perhaps, discretion.

Let me say this. Nowhere in this passage does Jesus say that the law should be ignored. However, more important, he is saying without preaching that our sense of humanity never should be sacrificed to advance immoral intent, especially while evoking the law. It is acceptable, however, to be humane. So, before crossing that biased line, we must ask ourselves the question, “What does my humanity dictate?” That is not a religious question, but one of leadership.

Special Agent J.E. Granderson, an instructor in Faculty Affairs and Development at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.