When Should You Refuse an Order From a Superior?

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April 17 2013 4:16 PM

What Does It Feel Like To Refuse Orders from a Superior on Ethical Grounds?

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When should a cop disobey an order?

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Rick Bruno, retired cop:


I was a police officer for 37 years. I was fortunate to have some outstanding supervisors in that time.

There were two exceptions.

The first one was when I was a police cadet in 1974. I was assigned to a veteran officer, who really seemed inconvenienced that I (18 at the time) was riding with him on patrol.

We drove past a secluded vacant restaurant parking lot near a forest preserve, and we noticed about 40 men gathered there. They were kind of scruffy looking, and it just did not seem "normal." There should have been no one in that lot.

So, we pulled into the parking lot to investigate. Our squad stopped about 30 yards away from the group. I asked my partner if he wanted me to call the situation in to the communications center, and he gruffly said, "No."

My partner said, "Stay here," as he stepped out of the squad car and started walking toward the group of men. As he came up to them, I saw one of the men push my partner, and another man reached for my partner's gun, then my partner was swallowed up as the group surrounded him, and he was out of my sight.

I was afraid my partner was in serious trouble, so despite his orders, I picked up the radio microphone and called in "Officer needs assistance" and our location. Then I exited the squad car with the only weapon at my disposal, a night stick (cadets were not allowed to carry firearms).

An "Officer needs assistance" call gets immediate response from other police officers, and I could hear sirens coming closer as I ran up to the group to find my partner. When I got there, I saw my partner standing there with a smile on his face, joking with the men. He said, "I thought I told you to stay in the car?" I told him I thought he needed assistance. Then he told me these guys were all undercover narcotics officers from various jurisdictions, and they were about to serve some search warrants. By now, squad cars were pulling into the parking lot and officers were reaching for shotguns.

I ran back to the squad car and tried to get the other units to disregard my call for assistance, but once cops get excited, it's kind of hard for them to pull off a call like that.

So as some squad cars were pulling up into the lot sideways, my partner began to chew me out BIG TIME. It was the worst downgrading I ever endured. I was tempted to just take my star off my shirt, leave it on the dashboard, and walk back to the police station to get my car and drive home.

Then three of the undercover guys came up to my squad and told me I did the right thing. They said my partner should have told me he knew them in the first place, and that he was never in any danger. And they said the fact that I ran out to protect him with just a nightstick, knowing I would get my ass kicked—or worse—was the right thing to do, and then one of them said to me, "You can work with us any day, kid."

They must have laid into my partner about it, too. It took him an hour or so, but he eventually apologized to me. And in the end, my police career went a hell of a lot farther than his did.

Here is the second time:

An armed robber was holed up inside an abandoned warehouse, and the incident commander called for me and my canine (I was a canine handler for about eight years). My partner Bach and I arrived, and the commander told me they had the warehouse surrounded, the guy had a gun, and he wanted me to send my dog into the building to find out where the guy was hiding.

I said, "No way, sir." He said, "Excuse me??"

I said I am not sending my dog into that situation to be killed. You don't bring a dog to a gunfight.

He told me he was going to write me up, and I'd be fired, and all kinds of bad things would happen, but I told him I was not going to let my dog become cannon fodder.

Turned out we caught the guy and didn't need to deploy the dog. I got written up, but when I had the chance to tell my side of the story, I was exonerated.

No one is bound to obey an unlawful or unjust order. At least that's been my experience.

More questions on morals and morality:

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