CLEARWATER — A free soda at the gas station, a meal paid for by the car ahead in the drive through, a tab taken care of by the waiter.
It's not uncommon for the public to show gratitude to first responders. But at what point does accepting innocent freebies cross the line to corruption — or the perception of corruption? Local policies on when to politely decline vary widely agency to agency, and exceptions are often made for small gestures from well-meaning citizens.
Sorle S. Diih, an assistant professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Tampa, said there is a consensus that accepting even the smallest acts of kindness can be an ethical slippery slope for law enforcement and first responders. Even a "free cup of coffee can actually become a gateway to police corruption" because "those who offer gratuities may expect special considerations."
He said gas stations that offer free drinks to police and firefighters will undoubtedly receive more police presence as a result, creating an unfair advantage for that business. A citizen who observes an officer accepting a free meal at a restaurant may wonder what else the officer will take, said Diih, a retired New York Police Department lieutenant.
"There are a number of officers that accept gratuities and don't necessarily become corrupt, but one of the basic things gratuity does is they appear to reveal an officer's willingness to be corrupted," Diih said. "If somebody concludes the officers are not administering justice the way they should because they are accepting gifts or gratuities, then that becomes problematic for policing in a democracy in general."
Much of the theory against accepting even small gratuities is based on how the dynamic can be perceived: Just last week Clearwater Fire & Rescue Assistant Chief Ron Gemsheim was charged with theft after allegedly stealing a 5-hour Energy drink at a 7-Eleven — while picking up two fountain drinks the store always gives free to first responders. Gemsheim resigned on Monday.
Accepting free soft drinks is allowed under Clearwater city policy as long as the store offers them to all police and firefighters and not just a few individuals, spokesperson Joelle Castelli said.
But Pinellas Park police Lt. Adam Geissenberger said his department's 106 officers are prohibited from accepting any police discounts because of the message it could send.
"No member of the public should expect any different service from us than the next person," Geissenberger said. "By keeping a policy like this, we make it known that across the board we don't accept any special gratuities."
He said in cases where a stranger buys an officer's meal at a restaurant, or the drive through cashier shoos away a payment, officers are encouraged to leave a tip equal to the cost of the meal.
Most agencies have ethics policies that dictate what kinds of gifts are acceptable, but the guidelines are often open to interpretation.
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The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office rules and regulations state members "shall not accept, either directly or indirectly, any gift, gratuity, loan, fee, reward or any other thing of value arising from or offered because of a member's employment . . ."
But Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said refusing a meal or soda offered by a business owner or citizen can almost cause more of a scene than just thanking them and leaving, and much of it comes down to a judgment call by officers.
It's appropriate to take advantage of police discounts to theme parks or restaurants as long as they are extended to all law enforcement employees "with no strings attached," he said. And if tickets to sports games are donated to the department, they are given out to deputies on a first-come first-served basis.
"What our general rule and premise is as long as it is something they are doing for everybody and it's not individualized in any way, it's something that's a nice gesture, then we don't have a problem with it," Gualtieri said.
Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokesman Larry McKinnon said displays of gratitude from the public in the form of a free meal or coffee is as old as police work itself and that "there's a difference between taking an act of kindness and taking a bribe."
Some business owners implement police discounts to keep a security presence at their stores, and there's nothing illicit about it, he said.
"If somebody wants to give us a cup of coffee at WaWa's, we'll take that, but we're not going to take a four-day cruise," McKinnon said. "They go and sit there and write reports, (the business owner) will give them free coffee. I've been doing this for almost 40 years, and that's the way it's always been."
Largo Assistant Fire Chief Terry Tokarz said an ethical judgment can often come down to common sense.
Firefighters could gladly accept a batch of cookies dropped off to the station by the local nursing home, but they should decline, for example, Tampa Bay Rays tickets from the citizen whose building they are inspecting.
"We call it the newspaper test," Tokarz said. "Would you want what is going on to be in the headlines of tomorrow's newspaper? If it doesn't seem like that is something you'd really want out there, maybe you don't want to do it."
Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.