The Orange Police Department was right to fire three officers who it said had engaged in separate instances of sexual misconduct while on patrol duty. Also apt was Police Chief John R. Robertson's characterization of the men's actions as the product of "very poor judgment."

The department appears to have done a good job investigating anonymous reports of the policemen's activity. Robertson said the department's investigation produced no evidence that the sexual wrongdoing involved criminal activity, although the Orange County district attorney's office will review the case. A police lieutenant said the conduct of the officers and the woman or women involved was voluntary.

But even if the case reflects bad judgment rather than a crime, it is disquieting. Taken with earlier allegations of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct in other police departments in Orange County, it underscores the need for police to better understand just how widespread the problems are and to better deal with them.

Last month the Orange County Sheriff's Department said it was looking into the hiring of a stripper for a party two years ago at the department's training academy in Garden Grove. The commanding officer of the academy said he expects to be disciplined for allowing the woman to perform, and he should be.

Also, lawsuits have been filed alleging sexual misconduct in the Irvine and Newport Beach police departments. In Irvine, four women, current or former Police Department employees, sued the force, the city, the police chief and three other supervisors, alleging unwanted touching and sexual harassment. In Newport Beach, several women alleged sexual harassment by the then-police chief and a lieutenant, both of whom have since retired.

Several police chiefs in the county said that the existence of this many sexual-misconduct cases does not necessarily mean there are more such incidents now than before but rather that police departments, like society, are taking such cases more seriously. Maybe so, but many departments still have further to go.

Poor judgment by a short-order cook or a tailor is one thing. Poor judgment by a police officer with a gun and immense authority is something else entirely. The police are society's first line of defense; the public looks to them for help and protection. County police must do a better job of impressing on their officers that sexual misconduct and harassment are wrong.

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