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Ethics in Law Enforcement

What the Public Expects and How Officers Can Deliver

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SCALE OF JUSTICE WITH HANDCUFFS & GAVEL

Police officers are called upon to make difficult ethical decisions daily, and are held to a higher standard than most people and professions.

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It's often said that no other profession demands a higher ethical standard than that of law enforcement. Regardless of whether or not there are other careers that require a similar dedication to doing the right thing, it is undeniable that there is an understandably tremendous degree of expectations placed upon police officers, and rightly so.

Living in the Fishbowl

Every officer knows, or at least should know by now, that they 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 screwing up 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 his public and private life.

A Few Bad Apples

Yet day in and day out, we read stories of officers who do wrong. Theft, excessive use of force, misuse of public office, abuse of authority, and even simple things like speeding, are all examples of unethical behavior on the part of those that the public has entrusted to serve and protect them.

It must be noted that the vast majority of police officers are truly good, hard-working and dedicated people who strive to serve the public and do the right thing at every turn. It's unfortunate, but the good work law enforcement does rarely makes news, and when it does, it doesn't carry with it the same long memory that bad news seems to.

Decades later, we still bemoan the Rodney King incident, and law enforcement continues to reel from the perceptions and implications that were left in its wake. Less-than-appropriate responses to race riots and peaceful protests, as well as widespread mistreatment of racial minorities, still affects how officers approach their jobs half a century later. Moreover, those events have served to whittle down and erode the public's trust in their police, making it that much harder for officers to do their jobs.

Unfortunate though it may be, a single uncouth act committed by a single unprofessional officer can impact the entire law enforcement profession. Rarely does the public make a distinction between uniforms; at the end of the day, all police officers look and act the same in the eyes of the average citizen. That's why it is so vitally important that each and every officer does her utmost best to maintain and build on the trust that the public has given her, instead of squandering it simply for the sake of bravado, greed or self gratification.

Defining the Terms

We often use words like ethics and values, but for all the talk of ethics in law enforcement, it's important to establish what ethics and ethical behavior are, and what they aren't. Such a strong push exists within the law enforcement community to uphold ethical standards, but without a clear definition of terms, such talk is futile. To start the discussion, then, some key definitions are in order.

Values

Values is the term given to those ideas, behaviors and actions that are important to us. Values are those things worth fighting for, and those things worth sacrificing for. They're what we hold most dear. Our values strongly influence our decision making and help determine where we place our emphasis in 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 are generally not a proper platform on which to base professional ethics, though they may inform how we view, appreciate and approach ethical behavior.

There are some values, though, that are essentially universally held by a society. These societal values are those ideals that are held most dear by a 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
  • Bravery

These ideals, these so-called 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.

Ethics

Ethics is, in essence, doing the right thing, whatever that may be. The "right thing" is based on those values society 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 is right, and especially when they do what is clearly and blatantly wrong, they erode the public trust just a little more and further degrade law enforcement's ability to work within the community and carry out it's mission. Adherence to high ethical standards, then, is as vital to achieving the overall goal of modern policing as any other tactic, technique or practice.

Promoting Ethics and Ethical Behavior

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

Oath of Office

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

In essence, officers swear to be honest, upstanding citizens. They promise to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and above all else, they promise to follow the rules, whether they like or agree with them or not.

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 own shortcomings. In fact, it is an oft-repeated mantra that, in law enforcement careers, lying will get one fired faster than anything else.

Code of Ethics

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

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.

Representing the Badge

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 every day professional lives? The short and easy answer is "do the right thing." Because ethics are based upon societal values, it is not difficult to discern the difference between right and wrong in nearly any situation.

Ethical 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.

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?

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 reality and that it may not be enough just to be able to justify our actions if they cause the public to seriously question police practices and tactics.

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 police officers are ultimately public servants, they must be cognizant of what the public's perceptions are regarding police both on and off the job.

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.

To Protect and Serve

Whether one chooses to use a test or to trust his gut, the fact remains that ethical behavior and practices are at the forefront of the law enforcement profession. It is absolutely 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 instead of setting a bad example, 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 really begin the work of making a difference in the lives of others.

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