Officer Barry Watson is a Community Services/Crime Prevention Officer for the police department in a Hampton Roads city. Sometimes, he “doubles” as a School Resource Officer at the elementary school his children attend when the SRO routinely assigned there has another commitment or duty assignment in the neighborhood. He and his family live one block from the school. He has lots of contacts, and has worked in his assigned area for about five years; the family is well-regarded and popular in the neighborhood and in the school and business communities.

A couple of weeks ago, Officer Watson and his wife, Nancy, were informed by their pediatrician that Sheila, their seven-year-old daughter, has developed childhood leukemia. Sheila hasn’t been feeling well for a while, and extensive tests recently completed have informed the diagnosis. There is a “silver lining” to this bad news, however. Her illness was discovered in its early stage, and is of a type that is very responsive to treatment. Officer Watson’s health insurance coverage he has through his city employment will cover a very large portion of the medical costs, but will not pay for transportation, lodging, meals, and related expenses. Both the local Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters and Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC would require only a short commute or a day’s drive at most for Sheila’s treatment, but doctors at both hospitals have indicated that researchers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis were the first to develop a successful treatment for Sheila’s type of childhood leukemia, and they have the most experience and success in treating it. St. Jude quickly accepted Sheila as a patient. Unfortunately, Memphis is hundreds of miles from Hampton Roads, and multiple trips for Sheila’s many necessary treatments are extremely impractical for the Watsons. In addition, it is likely that the time that the Watsons need to spend with their daughter during her treatment will exceed by a considerable amount the family medical and other leave that Officer Watson and his wife have available through their employment. While St. Jude patients and their families are not expected to pay for hospitalization and treatment, and routinely cover incidental expenses of families, loss of family income is not covered, and the Watsons want to avoid imposing on the generosity of the hospital unless it becomes necessary.

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Many organizations and members of the community have become aware of Sheila’s diagnosis and of the fact that her needs will be best met in a research and clinical environment that specializes in childhood cancers. The business and residential communities have come together to raise money to assist with expenses. Yard sales, car washes, impromptu flea markets, and donation drums have appeared all over the city, and the local community newspaper has encouraged donations through its publication. The generosity of the community has overwhelmed the Watson family, and the money collected so far is projected to possibly exceed the amount that the Watsons will need for their transportation and other expenses in Memphis. Informed of this, the Watsons participated in a brief news conference in which they stated that any remaining sum of money in excess of their actual expenses would be deposited in a bank trust account for other children in the community whose parents need assistance to pay medical bills for life-saving treatment.

When Officer Watson reported for duty a couple of days ago, his supervisor advised him that the precinct commander wanted to meet with him as soon as possible. During the meeting, Captain Baines stated that the city attorney had issued a legal opinion that said that a provision of the city’s human resources ordinance appeared to prohibit employees from accepting any form of benefit connected to their employment, or associated with the fact of their employment, other than their salary and leave donation from other city employees. He went on to explain that the city attorney stated that the city’s comprehensive employees’ health insurance policy provisions were designed to eliminate the need for outside public contributions from any source for family medical expenses. Captain Baines apologized for having to deliver this bad news and said, further, that neither he nor senior police management were in agreement with the city attorney’s ruling, but that it must be complied with. Captain Baines suggested that Officer Watson speak with his police union representative and the union’s legal counsel, but expressed doubt that the financial assistance could be accepted, at least not in the short term. Sheila’s treatment, however, cannot wait, as its success is dependent upon her condition being addressed as soon as possible.

What do you think should be the correct ethical position for the Watsons? What should the city’s correct ethical position be in a situation like this, or another similar one? Why? Is this a case of unintended legal consequences, in which a provision of the city’s charter that was well-intentioned to be an anti-corruption measure had an unintended result? City charters are issued by the state legislature. If it’s a city charter issue, and is therefore beyond the power of city leadership to “fix” it, where should the affected people turn to?

If you were a city official, elected or appointed, i.e., the chief of police, the city manager, the mayor, or a member of the city council, what would be your position regarding the ethically correct handling of this matter? What advice would you give regarding the city’s present policy? Can something like this be realistically covered by firm policy, or should such a matter be decided on a case-by-case basis by city leadership? There are lots of very important questions here. Please discuss all aspects of this difficulty.

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