I just love ethics questions, and lucky for me, there's an unending supply of morality dramas in the food biz. Like, for instance, is it ethical to put "grouper" on your menu when all you've got in the deep freezer is panga or swai, as dozens of restaurants in South Florida have been doing? (thanks for the tips, Channel 10 and Menu Pages). For example, we received a letter this week from a reader curious why a certain Deerfield restaurant was always packed with police and firefighters, to whit:
I have been frequenting the newly opened Duffy's Bar & Grill in Deerfield Beach as it is close to my work. Everytime I go in to have lunch on my break, the place is packed with cops & firefighters. I finally asked my server if they were getting a discount. She said they receive a 50% discount for being law enforement or firefighters. Is that really ethical? I thought there was some rule against public officials accepting gratuities or discounts based upon their position as a public servant. I would love to see what you find out in a newly published article.
Pompano Bch FL
Well Jane, what you're seeing is an example of a long tradition in American culture: Cop pulls into diner on his beat. Overjoyed diner-owner, grateful for police attention, offers free coffee and donut. Cop afterwards feels warm and fuzzy toward diner owner. Everybody's happy.
The practice of giving freebies and discounts to our men in blue is not in fact illegal, Jane, but most police departments frown upon cops taking any kind of tips, gratuities, bribes, or sweet baked goods without paying full price. From what I can gather, ethics guidelines in police handbooks vary from department to department, as do the ferocity of the wrist slaps cops can expect if they're caught on the donut-take. Judging from the booming business at Duffy's it's probably safe to say that the Broward Sheriff's Department has other priorities.
However, that doesn't mean you ain't right to raise the question. The reasons most police departments frown on tips are pretty obvious: Once you accept a gift from someone, can you truly claim to be unbiased in a pinch? (This, incidentally, is just as true for food writers and restaurant critics). Let's say that Duffy's owner gets pissed-off some day and beats up a customer. Is the cop who's been served 100 cheap meals at Duffy's going to give the owner a break he wouldn't get otherwise? Or what if Duffy's wanted to run a backroom illegal gambling operation? Or open a house of prostitution in a trailer next to the restaurant? Is our police force, staggering and drowsy from so many plates of cheap baby back ribs and shrimp scampi, going to turn a blind eye?
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Problem is, there's no way to judge if individual cops would be able to remain impartial in respect to Duffys once their guts were full of almost-free cheeseburgers -- and furthermore, there's the slippery slope argument. Humans have an infinite capacity to rationalize their behavior.
Take a free donut today, you start to feel like you're entitled. Once you feel entitled, it's easier to take bigger and nastier bribes. And then, voila, you've got a corrupt police department.But you don't really need to worry overmuch: the Broward Sheriff's Office is already riddled with corruption. It's hard to imagine any grilled cheese sandwich discounts making things a whole lot worse.