Chapter 7: Discretion, Supervision, and Leadership

7.4 Loyalty

Most branches of law enforcement are paramilitary, having a formal rank structure while still possessing some traits of a civilian organization. One of the characteristics of a military environment is loyalty and camaraderie: loyalty to other members of the agency, loyalty to the system of rank structure, and loyalty to the values possessed by the agency. Correction guards and other law enforcement personnel work most of their careers in an unsafe environment, in which they have to rely on one another for their safety. In this context, when a law enforcement member is in danger, that member must be secure in the belief that fellow members will be loyal to him or her, even in dangerous situations or situations involving emotional risk. Loyalty is critical for ensuring law enforcement members understand that their colleagues will be willing to ignore danger and assist them regardless of the peril. Without loyalty and camaraderie, law enforcement personnel would be ineffective as they would likely be reluctant to put themselves in harm’s way.

Police investigators for one agency often assist other investigators in different agencies. Part of this compelling duty to assist in an investigation is because of a sense of loyalty to other members of the same profession. The loyalty felt by officers fosters teamwork in investigations and in general duty or patrol work. Loyalty and teamwork in all branches of law enforcement are critical in preventing crime, investigating crime, and guarding prisoners.

While loyalty is important, there are limitations; officers should be aware of how far their loyalty extends before they report misconduct. Westmarland (2010) surveyed police officers about corruption and the “blue code” of silence. Specifically, Westmarland sought the following:

  • What officers think about violations of rules
  • When to inform superiors of rule breaking
  • Whether informing superiors of rule breaking is just as bad as the behaviour of the original rule breaker
  • Behaviour the officer would definitely not report on
  • What the appropriate punishment would be for each sort of behaviour

The survey included scenarios that ranged in seriousness from off-duty business interests to theft and assault. Scenarios varied and included themes that were acquisitive (where greed was the motivating factor, such as theft), administrative or internal disciplinary infringements (rule bending), and noble cause corruption. The survey was administered to 171 serving police officers in the United Kingdom. Based on the survey results, Westmarland concluded the following:

  • Acquisitive cases were regarded by the officers as being the most serious.
  • Officers in judging acquisitive cases severely depended largely on the perceived dollar amount that was taken.
  • It is not clear whether the money amount, or the way the money/property was taken, is correlated to the perceived seriousness of the case.
  • Of the acquisitive scenarios, taking bribes (95% of respondents), stealing at a crime scene (99% of respondents), and taking money from a wallet (95% of respondents) were described as very serious.
  • Of these acquisitive scenarios, taking bribes (82% of respondents would report to their superiors), stealing at a crime scene (95% of respondents would report to their superiors), and taking money from a wallet (88% of respondents would report to their superiors) were highly reportable.

Of particular interest is that some officers who stated that these offences were serious said they would not report them to a supervisor. For example, 95% of officers described taking money from a wallet as very serious. However, 88% stated they would report to their supervisors, meaning 7% who considered this as very serious would not report something that they thought was very serious to their supervisor. This is a demonstration of officers who value loyalty more than the morality of other officers. Westmarland also concluded the following:

  • Officers generally appear to be forgiving of noble cause corruption, brutality, and rule bending.
  • Officers were generally unwilling to report the behaviours related to noble cause.

Westmarland’s study provokes the following questions:

  • Are police officers right in grading the seriousness of the infringements?
  • Are officers who do not report infringements as guilty as those who commit the original infringement?
  • Does loyalty stop police from reporting infringements?
  • Are questionnaires of this nature reliable, or do officers respond only in a way in which they think they should respond?

Police officers who breach loyalty to report minor ethical violations may be seen to damage the overall team or structure of a law enforcement agency. The importance of loyalty within law enforcement is an inhibitor for reporting instances of ethical misconduct, and law enforcement officers are required, at times, to alter their loyalty from individuals in their agency or profession to their agency or society at large. This requires a more comprehensive world view that looks past the individual and focuses on the values of the organization or society. The reporting officer will inevitably have his or her loyalty questioned by other officers in the agency; however, it is the loyalty of the officer participating in the misconduct that should be questioned, and that person should be viewed as disloyal to society and to the  goals and values of his or her organization.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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.

Share This Book