The following code of ethics is proposed for a fictional police department, and one operating within New York City. Both setting and organization are selected because each represents specific challenges in law enforcement conduct; as large urban areas typically have greater levels of crime, so too are the police departments more brought into conflict with the citizens, and police and communities experience stress. The code then exists as follows:
1. The officer’s primary duty is to obey the laws of the land and the city, and simultaneously place the protection of the public as their consistent and overriding concern.
2. All officers will maintain an active awareness they their work exists within the public trust, and violating their duties or upholding of the law results in the destruction of that trust, and weakens or harms the interests of all concerned.
3. The officer treats every citizen with respect, regardless of race, religion, orientation, age, and social/economic standing, and in equal ways to all citizens.
4. The officer applies force only when absolutely necessary, and does so at such times mindful of possibly endangering others in the vicinity.
5. In responding to any situation, officers will consistently be guided by their training, experience, discretion, and as full an understanding of the situation as may be gained at the time.
6. Officers will treat their peers in the force or elsewhere with respect, as they will report on any unethical or illegal conduct made by a peer. Similarly, all officers understand that they are obligated to support an officer placed in such an unfortunate circumstance, and maintain solidarity with the officer so reporting, as upholding the integrity of all.
7: In any contact with the media or the citizenry, officers will convey information only as needed and with due professional discretion, while also expressing the truth of their experience and knowledge as relevant to the inquiry.
8: When not on duty, officers will nonetheless always be mindful of their roles as stewards of the community, and refrain from any behavior unbecoming to an officer of the law.
The eight elements, as is true of most ethical codes, only provide a framework, as law enforcement ethics is such a multifaceted matter. Each, however, serves a vital purpose, and the general statement is the maintaining of standards of professionalism, decency, and the responsibility to the public. The first item, for example, addresses the noted reality that crime is an intense problem in larger cities, and it is all too likely that police direct energies more to countering it than preventing it, or serving the welfare of the surrounding public. Items two, three and four similarly lay out an ethical foundation centered on, not fighting crime, but securing the public from harm. The second item in particular also addresses a concern creating increasing tension in the society, as in police racial profiling and/or abuse of minorities. It is reasonable that police are entitled, as professionals, to have some input into how they function (Allen, Sawhney, 2015, p. 324). At the same time, however, any such greater autonomy must rely on the just and equal application of each officer’s power. The eighth item encompasses those preceding it, as five, six, and seven more relate to professional concerns.
For the officer, and plainly, the code is a critical guide, and one not necessarily lacking in specificity. As the officer’s relationship with the community is so important, the noted professionalism based on ethics must be in place. For example, communities are well aware of the “blue line,’ or officers protecting the transgressions of others. Public trust is eroded because:
“The code of silence…develops into a subcultural attitude on how one must behave to be perceived as a “good” officer by peers” (Wolfe, Piquero, 2011, p. 335). New York City and the society itself know how officers look out for one another, and this is an enormous barrier in serving the community correctly and gaining its support. In understanding the damage this reality causes and in abiding by ethics instead, the officer builds trust with the community on which they themselves rely. Turning to the department’s point of view, the simple fact that the city in question is so defined by diversity alone mandates the ethics code, and because a large, diverse population presents limitless challenges to law enforcement conduct. If the items are generalized, they still have pragmatic force as parameters, as when officers must decide on degree of force to use which, if likely to overcome a criminal, threatens others nearby.
Lastly, as to promoting compliance, I would devise periodic training in which officers are tested as to hypothetical scenarios. Ethical codes are hardly new in law enforcement, but: “They are also a reflection of system failure over many years” (Walsh, Conway, 2011, p. 67). This being the case, training and testing in ethics must be handled as important exercises, rather than as routine policy matters. Officers should know that performing poorly on an ethics examination carries consequences. I would as well implement mandatory discussion groups, possibly monthly, and supervised by the ranking officer. In these, the officers would be encouraged to discuss any concerns they have in a safe atmosphere, and this may well generate new policies helpful to the specific communities. The point, ultimately, is that the code is offered as a means of installing ethics within the department as impactfully as any other police training or education. .
- Allen, J. M., & Sawhney, R. (2015). Administration and Management in Criminal Justice: A Service Quality Approach, 2nd Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
- Walsh, D. P., & Conway, V. (2011). Police governance and accountability: overview of current issues. Crime, Law and Social Change, 55(2-3), 61-86.
- Wolfe, S. E., & Piquero, A. R. (2011). Organizational justice and police misconduct. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 38(4), 332-353.