Opinion #1. Police Legal Advisor
Issued by the Professional Ethics Commission
Date Issued: June 6, 1979
The Grievance Commission has been advised that in one of the larger cities, it is proposed that the position of Police Legal Advisor (P.L.A.) be transferred to the office of the City Corporation Counsel. Heretofore, the P.L.A. has been a staff position in the Police Department operating under the supervision of the Chief of Police. We are told that the P.L.A. has “confidential relations” with individual police officers in the course of advising them on matters of criminal law and procedure. When individual officers are charged with misconduct, they are prosecuted by the Corporation Counsel’s office and defended by private counsel of their own choosing.
On the basis of the foregoing, the Commission has been asked whether the relocation of the P.L.A. to the Corporation Counsel’s office would create conflict of interest problems. The Commission has also been asked whether a conflict of interest would be created by the possibility that the police might at some future date initiate an investigation of one of the members of the City Council since the P.L.A., although part of the Corporation Counsel’s staff, might be privy to details of the investigation.
In the opinion of the Commission, no ethical problems will arise from the proposed transfer of the P.L.A. to the Corporation Counsel’s office which would warrant delaying the merger. Although the P.L.A. indicates that he has had “confidential relations” with individual police officers in the past, we do not perceive why this would necessarily result from performance of his duties. Despite the fact that the P.L.A. may have developed personal relationships with individual police officers, his client has in actuality been the city. This will not be changed by his affiliation with the Corporation Counsel. If he has permitted his duty of loyalty to the city to become blurred by personal contacts with individual police officers in the past, this aspect of his role should not be continued. Police officers who approach him with personal problems the resolution of which might conflict with the interests of the city should be referred to private counsel of their own choosing. Indeed, the P.L.A. must be careful to avoid communications with individual police officers which would in any way compromise his duty of loyalty to his real client‑the city itself.
We also fail to see in the possibility of a police investigation of a city councillor a potential conflict of interest which would justify keeping the offices of the P.L.A. and Corporation Counsel separate. In such a case, the investigating attorney’s client is the city and not the individual councillor. If there is an ethical problem about investigating one who determines the level of your salary, it would not be peculiar to the P.L.A. and would, indeed, be shared by the Corporation Counsel himself. If the circumstances warranted, a special prosecutor could be appointed to undertake the investigation. There is, in any event, no more reason that the P.L.A. should resist affiliation with the Corporation Counsel because of this remote contingency than that the Corporation Counsel should also be required to resign in order to avoid the possibility that he might someday be required to conduct such an investigation of a City Council member.