Ethics in Law Enforcement and Policing

Law enforcement officer opening the door to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. meeting.

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It's often said that no other profession demands a higher ethical standard than that of law enforcement. Police work is a career that requires utmost dedication to doing the right thing. It undeniably and understandably places a tremendous degree of expectation upon officers, leading the standards for police ethics to be some of the highest among any profession.

Police Officers Live in a Fishbowl

Friends, relatives, neighbors, and strangers watch every move law enforcement officers make, both on and off duty. The fact is that the public scrutinizes police officers more than most other professions, either because they're cynical and hope to catch them making a mistake, or because they're hopeful and are looking for a good example and a strong leader. In either case, it's up to the officer to be above reproach in both their public and private life.

Few Bad Apples Hurt Everyone's Reputation

Day after day, we read stories of officers doing bad things. Theft, excessive use of force, misuse of public office, abuse of authority and simple things like speeding are all examples of unethical behavior on the part of those the public has entrusted to serve and protect them.

The vast majority of police officers remain truly good, hard-working and dedicated people. They strive to serve the public and do the right thing at every turn. Unfortunately, the good work that law enforcement does rarely makes the news. When it does, it doesn't carry the same lasting memory that bad news seems to.

A single disreputable act committed by a single unprofessional officer can impact the entire profession. At the end of the day, all police officers look and act the same in the eyes of the average citizen. An important thing for officers to remember is that what they do in uniform affects not only themselves as individuals, but their entire agency and, perhaps, the entire profession.

All of this is well and good, but how do officers apply this code to their everyday professional lives? The short and easy answer is "do the right thing." Because ethics, including police ethics, are based on societal values, it is not difficult to discern the difference between right and wrong in nearly any situation.

What Are Police Officer's Values?

"Values" is the term given to those ideas, behaviors, and actions that are important to us. Our values strongly influence our decision making and help determine where we place our emphasis on our personal and professional lives. Values form the basis for our understanding of ethics.

Within society, we have personal values and societal values. Our personal values are ours alone and are informed by our upbringing, cultural and ethnic background, religious beliefs and personal experiences. Because personal values are unique to each individual, they're not a proper platform on which to base police ethics, though they may inform how we view, appreciate and approach ethical behavior.

There are some values, though, that are essentially universally held by society. These societal values are those ideals that are held most dear by culture or group, and these are the values from which we derive our understanding and expectation of ethics and ethical behavior. Such ideals include integrity, honesty, hard work, kindness, compassion, empathy, sympathy, justice and bravery.

These universal values help guide us toward ethical behavior and ethical decision making. They help inform us of what is expected of us and what actions we should take.

Law Enforcement Ethics Defined

"Ethics" is doing the right thing, whatever that might be. The "right thing" is based on those values society that holds dear. Ethical principles are premised on the notion that right is always right and wrong is always wrong.

When officers fail to do what's right, and especially when they do what is clearly and blatantly wrong, they violate police ethics, erode the public trust, and further degrade law enforcement's ability to work within the community and carry out its mission. Adherence to high ethical standards is as vital to achieving the overall goal of modern policing as any other tactic, technique or practice.

The importance of a high ethical standard in traditional police work is impressed upon aspiring officers from the very first days of the police academy. Agencies have several ways to promote police ethics among their ranks. First and foremost is the oath of office that officers take.

The Law Enforcement Oath of Office

Of course, the oath contains provisions about protecting, upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States. It also includes promises to conduct oneself soberly, honestly and honorably, to avoid offensive behavior, and to obey superior officers within the individual departments.

Officers swear to be honest, upstanding citizens. They promise to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Above all else, they promise to follow the rules, regardless of whether they like or agree with them.

Understood within the concept of acting honorably is the idea that officers should own up to their mistakes. Far more respect is reserved for those who screw up and admit it than those who try to hide their misdeeds or blame others for their shortcomings. In fact, lying will get one fired faster than anything else when you choose a law enforcement career.

The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics

The oath of office lays the groundwork for instilling ethical behavior, but it doesn't stop there. most agencies codify those practices that they hope to promote and those they expect officers to avoid to help guide them toward ethical decision making.

Within an agency's code of ethics are specific provisions promoting the safeguarding of lives and property, the importance of avoiding bias and the understanding that the badge is a symbol of the public trust.

In short, the code of ethics requires that officers are not only prepared to enforce the law but to follow it. They are called to be examples to the public and to demonstrate the right way to behave, rather than the entitlement mentality they are so often accused of exhibiting.

Police Ethics and Decision Making

For those situations that may prove difficult for officers, several tests can be applied to help in the ethical decision-making process. Perhaps the best known ethical decision-making tests are the critical thinking test, the media test, and the gut test.

The Critical Thinking Test

The critical thinking test asks a series of "yes" or "no" questions to determine whether or not an officer should proceed with an action. These questions are asked in succession and ultimately guide an officer toward making a good choice. These questions ask:

  • Is my action legal?
  • Will the end result be good?
  • Will it work?
  • Is there a better, less harmful way to achieve the same goal?
  • Will my decision undermine or contradict another equally important principle?
  • Even if the end result is good, do the means violate an ethical principle?
  • Can my decision be justified if it is made public?

The Media Test

A similar but simpler tool, the media test requires an officer to answer one simple question: "How would I feel if my decision made the front page tomorrow?" This reminds officers that all too often, perception becomes a reality and that it may not be enough just to be able to justify our actions if they cause the public to question police practices and tactics seriously.

The media test recognizes that the public does not always see things the same way the law enforcement community does. It takes into consideration that, because becoming a police officer ultimately means becoming a public servant, law enforcement must be cognizant of what the public's perceptions are regarding police both on and off the job.

The Gut Test

Perhaps the simplest test of all is the gut test. The gut test essentially relies on instinct and the belief that, deep down, all officers can intuit the right decision. Essentially, the gut test relies on the principle that if it feels wrong, it probably is wrong. This is not to be confused with the difference between feeling good and bad, but between right and wrong. There are plenty of times that things that feel bad are right, and things that feel good are wrong.

Whether one chooses to use a test or to trust their gut, the fact remains that ethical behavior and practices are at the forefront of the law enforcement profession. It's vital that every officer remembers the reason she took the job in the first place: to protect and to serve.

Working to Make a Difference

Police must work together to be the officers that the public demands and expects them to be. They must lead by example, following the principles of policing, and they must make the hard choices to do the right thing under every circumstance. Only in this way will officers be able to provide the level of service their communities deserve and to begin the work of making a difference in the lives of others.