Fishhooks McCarthy and the Importance of a Leader’s Moral Philosophy

A public leader’s moral philosophy affects the world just as much as the world affects the leader’s philosophy.

This is especially true for police executives.  They lead a service corps whose defining characteristic is the making of consequential judgments.  Moral choices are marbled into almost all of the millions of highly consequential decisions police personnel make, at every tick of the clock, ad infinitum.   Joseph Badaracco, in his must-read for managers, Defining Moments, lays out the responsiblity that comes with such authority.

“Managers are the ethics teachers of their organizations. This is true whether they’re saints or sinners, whether they intend to teach ethics or not. It simply comes with the territory.   Actions send signals, and omissions send signals – almost everything does…”

We confer on police by default the greatest discretion of any actors in the criminal justice process, as many scholars including Egon Bittner have observed for a long time.  The largest category of discretionary decisions is never reviewed; it involves decisions not to take formal action or not to act at all.  Practical limits on this discretion are evolving with the ubiquity of high-resolution recording devices, but the overwhelming majority of decisions by police are still by their nature unreviewable.  No formal intervention, no record.  No informal intervention, no phone camera video.  Officers’ very broad discretion for interpreting and applying the law make it imperative that police leaders have a moral framework for guiding them.  The more explicit the better.

The clarity and genuineness of the leader’s moral code significantly influences the capacity of subordinates to make judgments based in core values.  The leader’s framework guides officers’ judgments as much as do officers’  personal experiences, training, the department’s rules and the law itself.

All should strive daily for the clarity, but not the content, of the moral philosophy of John A. “Fishhooks” McCarthy.  In a famous speech in 1984 at Notre Dame on public morality and the Catholic governor, Mario Cuomo described the profound simplicity of Mr. McCarthy’s core values.

I am by training a lawyer and by practice a politician. Both professions make me suspect in many quarters, including among some of my own co-religionists. Maybe there’s no better illustration of the public perception of how politicians unite their faith and their profession than the story they tell in New York about “Fishhooks” McCarthy, a famous Democratic leader on the lower East Side, and right-hand man to Al Smith.

“Fishhooks” the story goes, was devout. So devout that every morning on his way to Tammany Hall to do his political work, he stopped into St. James Church on Oliver Street in downtown Manhattan, fell on his knees, and whispered the same simple prayer: “Oh, Lord, give me health and strength. We’ll steal the rest.”

Mr. McCarthy believed in graft, honest or otherwise, and probably redistribution of some of the filched wealth to his unemployed and working blue-collar constituents.  And did he ever act on his code of “We’ll steal the rest.”  Mr. McCarthy’s morality produced a memorable backdrop  in The Great Gatsby.   As Sam Roberts wrote in the  NY TImes,  April 27, 2005,

…Flushing Meadows, Queens, a site immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald as the fiery “valley of ashes” through which Jay Gatsby commuted in the 1920’s between Manhattan and Long Island’s gold coast. The valley was manmade, flanked by mounds of ashes up to 90 feet high that John A. McCarthy’s company, under a sweetheart deal with his fellow Democrats in Tammany Hall, removed from Brooklyn’s coal-burning furnaces and dumped at the rate of 100 or so railroad carloads a day.

It’s more important  than ever for police at all levels but especially at the top to seek clarity daily on the core values that drive them and guide them.  The term “daily” is used deliberately.  As Fishhooks instructs us, it is a daily obligation.  Developing a moral foundation is not a task that ends in adolescence at the conclusion of whatever religious or other moral formation one experiences.

One forges an effective philosophy through the cycles of acting, reflecting, learning and acting anew, every day.







About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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