Defining Police Ethics
Defining Police Ethics
Defining Police Ethics
The concept of ethical behavior has been a part of human society for centuries. Philosophers from Ancient Greece were some of the first people to delve into the issue, with Socrates initiating discourse on ethics. At the time, the discussion talked about ethical solutions to various problems facing the government. Over time, the concept of ethics has expanded considerably and now covers a wide range of areas including religion, governance, medical practice, teaching and policing. Ethics refers to principles and ideals that are founded on a universal understanding of the moral duties and responsibilities that people have and dictate the way that people should carry themselves in different situations. One important area where ethics apply is law enforcement. Considering the nature of the work done by law enforcement officers, it is important for there to be a strong understanding of the moral ethics guiding their conduct.
Defining Police Ethics Using six Pillars of Character
Recent decades have seen a significant expansion of the concept of police ethics. The proliferation of mass media has placed the spotlight on incidences of brutality and corruption. The widespread attention given to these incidences has made the issue of ethics in policing markedly. Guthrie (2008) states that in the current world, police officers’ actions are visible to the public and subject to much more scrutiny than they were before. Despite these new factors, the idea that ethics and integrity are important pillars of law enforcement is one that analysts and scholars have touted for a while. According to Guthrie (2008), police ethics, relate to doing the proper thing in the right situation and manner. These ethics are important because citizens have certain expectations of police officers regarding the values that they live by.
Guthrie (2008) evaluates police ethics using six pillars of character. The pillars act as standards by which the behavior of law enforcement officers can be measured. The first pillar is trustworthiness. It is important for the public to be able to trust the police in a wide range of situations and circumstances. For an officer to be trustworthy, they need to have integrity, loyalty and honesty. Such values would make it easier for them to deal with civilians, fellow officers and suspects. Another important pillar that Guthrie (2008) uses to judge police ethics is respect. It is important for officers to be courteous and treat the people that they are dealing with well.
The third pillar of character is responsibility. Police officers need to understand that they have a duty towards themselves, their community and the citizens of the countries they serve. This means that they must be accountable for their actions. In addition to being accountable, law enforcement officers should carry out their duties with high standards and in pursuit of excellence (Guthrie, 2008). Another important pillar that officers should abide by is justice. It is important for officers to be fair and just in the way that they deal with various situations. They should not be prejudiced in any way or judge people by their race, ethnicity, age, gender or socio-economic class. Additionally, justice in the duty of a police officer also entails consistency. This means that law enforcement personnel should strive as much as they can to handle similar situations in a comparable manner (Guthrie, 2008).
The last two pillars that Guthrie (2008) relates to police ethics are caring and citizenship. Law enforcement personnel will often find themselves in situations that are highly emotional for them, the victims or other people who may be involved. Police ethics dictate that officers act kindly and compassionately in such circumstances and deal with other people in an understanding way. It is also important for officers to be empathetic and relate to the problems that other people are dealing with. The last pillar of character is citizenship. Law enforcement personnel should understand that they are citizens of the country just like everybody else, meaning that they are subjected to the same laws and regulations as other citizens. Police ethics dictate that policing personnel follow the laws of the land in all circumstances.
Integrity and Police Ethics
One unique thing about police ethics is that they are not applied blindly in every situation. While looking at these ethics, Alpert and Noble (2008) focused on honesty in the work of a police officer. Guthrie’s six pillars of character included trustworthiness, a pillar that dictated that officers should always strive to be honest with the people that they are dealing with. However, Alpert and Noble (2008) argue that officers may sometimes lie depending on the situation that they are in and the circumstances. Law enforcement personnel are known to be deceptive in that they manipulate people and situations to their benefit and for the purpose of their work. While this contravenes the value of being trustworthy, it is a necessary practice in their line of duty with officers being encouraged for successfully deceiving people in some cases.
According to Alpert and Noble (2008), a lie refers to any deceptive message that a person sends intentionally through written or verbal communication. Lies are a small aspect of the practice of deception. Experts consider some kinds of lies that the police tell to be excusable. These lies are acts of deception where there is very little likelihood of any actual harm occurring. Normally, the lies entail exaggerations, embellishments and slight jokes (Alpert & Noble, 2008). Police officers normally tell these lies as part of their day-to-day interactions with other people including colleagues, family and friends. Alpert and Noble (2008) argue that these lies are such a recurring part of our everyday interactions that they are almost impossible to regulate or control.
Law enforcement personnel sometimes tell lies that are justifiable in the line of duty. In these cases, they deceive the people they are dealing with for the sole purpose of carrying out their duty. Alpert and Noble (2008) argue that the Broken Windows theory is a good example of police deception in practice. The theory argues that small crimes that are neglected normally lead to criminal acts of higher magnitude. Dealing with the small crimes usually creates a false perception of security leading to an actual improvement in the area. The deception in this case is that members of the public are falsely led to believe that a certain area is much safer than it actually is (Alpert & Noble, 2008). Lies such as these are justifiable because the police use them to perform their duties. Additionally, they also benefit the entire community and not just the law enforcement officers themselves (Alpert & Noble, 2008).
Even though police officers routinely lie and deceive people for different reasons, integrity remains a key part of their work. Integrity in law enforcement authorities has always been a problem linked to corruption, with analysts considering the depths of corruption to be indicative of how much integrity a certain force has. Klockars, Ivkovich, Harver and Haberfeld (2003) consider integrity to be a high measure of ethics within a police force. This is because the work of a police officer is full of opportunities that could allow an officer to engage in misconduct for their own benefit. Measuring the level of integrity within law enforcement authorities can act as a good indicator of the ethics that the workers in a certain force have. Additionally, Klockars et al. (2003) argue that the lack of ethical behavior within certain officers is not simply a problem affecting individuals, but an issue involving entire departments or forces. This means that the study of ethics within the police should be carried out with an organizational approach.
Attitudes towards the Police Code of Ethics
In defining police ethics, Raines (2006) uses a variety of frameworks, sources and studies to understand the mentality and attitudes of officers towards these ethics, as well as the ethical requirements of police officers as they fulfill their duties. Currently, police ethics are determined by a code of conduct that the International Association of Chiefs of Police developed in 1991. This code explains several ethical mandates that the officers should use whenever they are in need of guidance in their work. This code of ethics outlines various issues regarding the ways that law enforcement officers should conduct themselves. Key issues in the code revolve around the use of force, discretion of the police officer, integrity and confidentiality (Raines, 2006).
In 1997, the National Institute of Justice carried out a study regarding the attitudes and perceptions of police officers towards different situations (Raines, 2006). The NIJ study collected data from police officers who had been in the force for as many as twenty years from thirty different law enforcement agencies in the country. The study theorized that the attitude that police officers had towards misconduct and punishment largely determined their ethical actions within their duty and roles. This means that the code of ethics used by police officers all over the world is to a certain extent meaningless, depending on the officer’s specific attitudes and perceptions (Raines, 2006).
Defining Police Ethics using Misconduct
Scholars trying to define police ethics have also applied a different approach where they look at the kind of unethical behavior that law enforcement personnel engage in and the reasons for the misconduct. Police misconduct is a major issue affecting law enforcement authorities all over the world. Klockars et al. (2003) attribute the prevalence of this misconduct to the availability of numerous situations and opportunities that the officers can take to better themselves at the expense of their duty and responsibility. Additionally, the situations surrounding the acts of normally make it difficult for the officers involved to be investigated.
A very important issue involving police ethics and misconduct is the code of silence. Law enforcement personnel share a strong bond with each other that is typified by a strong code of silence, where officers do not report each other’s acts of misconduct. Raines (2006) argues that the code of silence is one of many issues that affect the ethical behavior of police officers. This code extends through the different ranks of officers. Low ranking officers rarely ever report the misconduct of their colleagues, while the higher-ranking officials will sometimes deny that certain vices such as corruption even exist (Raines, 2006).
The fact that such a strong code of silence exists implies that the law enforcement authorities have a different set of ethical guidelines that officers follow. These guidelines place the duty of these officers to each other above that to their community. Interestingly, the existence of these codes of silence also alludes to the ability of the law enforcement personnel to behave in a loyal and trustworthy manner (Raines, 2006). Law enforcement offices that were able to break this code of silence consistently maintained high level of ethics and loyalty from their offices meaning that the loyalty that the personnel had bestowed on each other could be transferred to the community and their duty (Raines, 2006).
Another kind of misconduct that can help in defining police ethics is malicious deception. Alpert and Noble (2008) argued that police officers often find themselves in situations where they have to lie as a way of completing their work or to assist civilians. Such situations are understandable and acceptable. However, some lies told by police officers are unacceptable and are considered misconduct. Unlike justifiable or excusable lies, malicious deceptions are unacceptable. Normally, unethical officers tell such lies for personal gain and they usually exceed the acceptable lines (Alpert & Noble, 2008). A good example of a malicious lie is false testimony given in court to gain a conviction against a suspect. Law enforcement personnel also tell malicious lies as a way of covering up other acts of misconduct such as police brutality.
Malicious lies are rather indicative of the fact that officers understand the ethical guidelines under which they operate and that there are consequences for flouting the regulations that their code of conduct stipulates. When an officer of the law lies to protect him or herself from other acts of misconduct, then they are inadvertently acknowledging the fact that they were aware of the regulations that they flouted. Other situations involving malicious deception are unique because they show that the officers are determined and committed to their work.
For instance, an officer may lie or omit certain details concerning a case in an attempt to get the suspect convicted. In such a case, there is the possibility that the officer is sure that the suspect is guilty and willing to do anything including risk his or her career to have them jailed. Alternatively, the officer could be targeting an innocent person unfairly. Regardless of the situation, law enforcement departments should never tolerate malicious lies. However, the nature and context of some of these lies sometimes shows that the police officers are determined to perform their duty and even go as far as to break the rules towards that end.
The concept of police ethics refers to a wide and diverse number of issues relating to the ways that police officers should behave themselves. These regulations dictate the behavior of law enforcement officers both on and off duty. Ethics guidelines for police officers are founded on trustworthiness, integrity, citizenship, respect, responsibility, justice and caring. When officers abide by these pillars, they are able to perform their duties with excellence and serve their communities well. Scholars consider some pillars within this code to be more valued than others are. Integrity is one of the most important pillars and facets of police ethics. While international codes of ethics have helped to determine the regulations governing officers, the understanding of police misconduct also helps to explain the different ethical codes and standards that law enforcement officers adhere to within their organizations. The code of silence is an excellent example of such regulations and even though police officers use it to shield each other from prosecution, it shows that they do understand the meaning of ethics systems and the value of having one.
Alpert, G.P. & Noble, J.J. (2008). Lies, truth lies, and conscious deception. Police Quarterly, 12 (2), 237-254.
Guthrie, S.D. (2008). Police ethics. Law Enforcement Journal, 16, 33-41.
Klockars, C.B., Ivkovich, S.K., Harver, W.E., & Haberfeld, M.R. (2003). The measurement of police integrity. National Institute of Justice, 12, 1-11.
Raines, J.B. (2006). Ethics, integrity and police misconduct: Analyzing ethical awareness, standards and action of law enforcement officers in the United States. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). North Carolina State University, Raleigh.
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