Chapter 1: Ethical Behaviour

1.3 As Employees in Law Enforcement Agencies

Democratic countries walk a fine line between the anarchy and civil violence of collapsed states and the suppressive citizen controls exerted by highly authoritarian regimes. It is through the commitment of the police to the citizenry, their capacity to control crime, and their ability to act according to the rules they enforce—that they are also not above the law—that democracy survives (Caldero and Crank , 2004, p.17)

Inevitably this question arises: “why is it so important to be a moral law enforcement employee?” There are several reasons why people employed in law enforcement are required to be moral and to have sound moral values. Ironically, morals can at times be a hard sell to law enforcement officers, who, when dealing with exigent situations in which they are concerned not only for their safety but for the safety of all citizens, consider that the manner or means of how safety is achieved is not as important as the end result of achieving that safety. In other words, for officers who are dealing with their own personal personal safety as well as the safety of others, may consider the notion of philosophizing about the right thing to do as not being overly important.

However, law enforcement careers come with a number of duties and responsibilities for which moral behaviour is mandatory. The primary ones include discretion, power, and public service.

  • Discretion. Discretion in law enforcement is necessary in order to efficiently manage call loads and to mediate minor incidents. Law enforcement personnel have enormous discretionary power throughout every rank, regardless of seniority, and are given great freedom to make operational decisions from the moment they start on the job. Discretion in law enforcement includes whom to arrest, whom to investigate, whom talk to, and whom to interview. More importantly, in these decisions officers have the power to deprive people of their freedom (Pollock, 2014). It is critical that law enforcement officials possess moral character so that the enormous decisions they must make are balanced and fair.
  • Power. Because law enforcement officers exercise much discretion they also wield great power. They have the power to arrest, detain, search, seize, and question. The government grants officers these powers so they can enforce laws and maintain the peace. We live in a country in which due process protects civilians from the abuse of government agents and in which certain freedoms are expected. Thus, we expect law enforcement officers to use their discretion with due process in mind (Pollock, 2010).
  • Public service. The state employs law enforcement officers to carry out the state’s mandate: enforcing the law and keeping the peace. The trust the state places in law enforcement and other public officials to carry out this duty in a responsible fashion is called public trust. Public trust ensures that those tasked with these duties will not abuse their power. Public trust also ensures that all public officials will be held to a higher standard than those they serve. The ultimate test of public trust is that law enforcement officials “walk the talk” or “practise what they preach,” and that they never engage in behaviour that, if performed by others, would be considered to break the law (Pollock, 2010).

It is important that employees of all government agencies possess and display a sense of justice in which all individuals are treated fairly. “Justice,” as defined by Rawls (1999), means that all citizens are treated equally and fairly regardless of, among other things, their class, social position, intelligence, or strength. Rawls (1999) emphasizes that there is no greater need in government than for its social institutions to act with justice as the primary goal. For the police, this notion takes on even more importance, as the police are the most visible representatives of government at the street level, and the high level of discretion they exercise makes this notion of justice all the more critical (Lipsky, 1980). In order to achieve justice, police agencies must use their moral and ethical discretion at all times or they risk losing legitimacy, trust, and confidence.

Without ethical conduct, police lose legitimacy, and without legitimacy, the police are ill equipped to carry out their duties (Punch, 2009). One of the main characteristics sought by police recruiters in individuals applying to become police officers is that they possess positive ethics and moral values, which are reflective of society’s expectations (Ellwanger, 2012).

In pursuing moral behaviour within policing, recruitment and training are utilized respectively in an attempt to ferret out immoral applicants who are dishonourable and do not exhibit integrity. This is done through extensive background checks during recruitment and later, and moral principles are reinforced through scenario training. Police officers are trained and educated as recruits so that they will be able to cope with the peculiarities of being a police officer in an ethical fashion (Allen, Mhlanga, and Khan, 2006; Braswell, McCarthy, and McCarthy, 2012; Renkema, 2007).

How do law enforcement officers know if they pass the ethics test?

  1. Officers should ask themselves if their agency were aware of their current moral and ethical life on and off the job, would the agency still hire them? If the answer is no, then officers should consider changes in their behaviour.
  2. Officers, when confronted with a moral and ethical dilemma, should reflect on what their recruiting officer would consider to be the ideal action. Officers, in turn, should consider what action they would like to see an applicant to the agency make when faced with the same moral and ethical dilemma?


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Ethics in Law Enforcement Copyright © 2015 by Steve McCartney and Rick Parent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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