Chapter 4: Key Ethical Issues within Law Enforcement

4.2 The Ethics of Power and Authority

Law enforcement officers possess enormous amounts of power, which can be used against citizens to deprive them of their freedom, search them and their dwellings, seize their property, and use force against them. These powers are legally permitted under specific circumstances, and law enforcement officers are trained to know when these powers can be legally applied. As law enforcement officers rank among the most powerful occupations in society, what compounds their ability to use their power is that they are often in contact with relatively powerless and disenfranchised citizens who may be unable to resist an officer’s illegitimate use of that power. These powers are legally prescribed, and law enforcement officers are well aware of them. It is important that law enforcement officers not misuse their power for the following reasons.

  • Because of the psychology of citizenship.
    Citizens, for the most part, want to participate in the “social contract,” to be a part of mainstream society and carry out their citizenship responsibilities. They want to belong to society and will do what they think is required by authorities to accomplish this. As a result, they will often try very hard to respond to what law enforcement requires and may be susceptible to unreasonable requests by law enforcement.
  • To maintain due process.
    Every law enforcement officer should acknowledge the importance of due process. The abuse of power runs directly contrary to the notion of due process, and officers who misuse their power are creating an environment in which due process cannot flourish. Ideally, all officers in the criminal justice system should be focused on due process, and the police have a role in accomplishing due process by being fact finders and apprehenders (Manning, 2010). Along with this, law enforcement officers who are under pressure to charge a suspect must resist the power they are afforded when charges or other actions such as search and seizure are not warranted (Reiner, 2010). Police officers, in particular, face the challenge of weighing crime control against due process, in which they are faced with opportunities to misuse their power. Officers must make decisions on when and in what situations they should use their power. Officers must reflect on how the use of their power would look in a court of law under close scrutiny.
  • To safeguard discretionary power and therefore efficiency.
    As mentioned previously, law enforcement officers exercise power through discretion. Radical criminologists propose that the police have too much discretion, with the end result being “too much street justice” for the poor, while ignoring crimes of the powerful, of which the police are a member (Box, 2008, p.274). Box argues that the way to eliminate this lack of due process is to place restrictions on discretion. Should law enforcement officers desire to maintain the discretion that they have, which is critical for efficiency, they must not abuse their power.

Power and authority are tools that law enforcement officers must use judiciously and ethically. Without an ethical life, this power will be misused, creating a power imbalance that is bad for the officer, the agency, and society.


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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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