Home Ethics How Law Enforcement Agencies Can Create a Comprehensive Ethics Policy
How Law Enforcement Agencies Can Create a Comprehensive Ethics Policy

How Law Enforcement Agencies Can Create a Comprehensive Ethics Policy


By Mark Buck, student, American Military University

Each day, law enforcement officers across the country put on their uniforms and go off to work with the intention of doing the right thing. But making the “right” decision can be a huge challenge. Officers regularly face situations that require them to make split-second decisions, often with incomplete information, that can greatly affect other people’s lives. These decisions range widely from deciding to pull over a car with a broken headlight to using deadly force on a fleeing suspect.

The decisions officers make must be legally right—that is, they must align with local, state, and federal laws. But what’s often more ambiguous, and thus more challenging, is that officers must always make the “right” decisions that abide by the ethical and moral standards of society.

While officers spend a considerable amount of time learning the law so they can effectively enforce it, they may not have had training on ethical responsibilities or the ethical dilemmas they’re likely to encounter throughout their career. Knowing the right response to an ethical dilemma can often be confusing, especially if officers haven’t been adequately prepared or trained to identify such situations or know what behavior is expected from them.

Why Agencies Must Develop (and Teach!) Code of Ethics

To teach and enforce ethical behavior, law enforcement agencies must develop and implement a code of ethics policy. The purpose of a code of ethics is to establish a solid moral foundation across the entire unit by providing them parameters for ethical behavior. This policy also serves to maintain operational integrity, transparency, and ensure officers and leaders are conducting business in the most ethical manner possible.

[Related: Keeping Justice in Perspective: Rethinking Codes of Ethics]

Another important reason for developing a code of ethics is to avoid litigation. When unethical decisions are made within an agency, officers and/or agencies can be caught up in litigation that can last for years, which can be expensive. Outlining an ethical code can save an agency, and its officers, a great deal of money.

A clear and comprehensive code of ethics protects individual officers because understanding the boundaries in which they must operate reduces corruption, employee misconduct, and claims of excessive force. In addition, an ethics policy provides legal protection for the agency because ongoing training demonstrates an agency’s diligence towards ensuring officers are reminded of the agency’s ethical guidelines.

What Must Be Included in a Code of Ethics Policy?

A code of ethics policy must clearly identify agency expectations that all members are required to meet. Expectations may include parameters for inappropriate conduct, personal and private life behavior, personal biases and prejudices, and accountability and dedication. It should be emphasized within the policy that the community has placed a great deal of faith in officers and expects them to always act in a highly ethical fashion.

[Related: Studying the Ethics of Criminal Justice Students]

Ethical codes establish a very good foundation from which officers can build so they can make the best possible ethical decisions, both on- and off-duty.

Defining Inappropriate Conduct

Specific guidance should be cited within the code that points to what is considered inappropriate conduct. For example, it must be clearly stated that acts of dishonesty or enticement will not be tolerated. Additional examples of inappropriate conduct include: not creating or planting evidence; lying in court, in reports, or to fellow officers or supervisors; and not accepting goods or services from anyone for personal gain.

Defining Ethical Behavior On- and Off-Duty

Many agencies overlook the responsibilities an officer must uphold when he or she is off-duty. A good code of ethics should include language about an officer’s behavior in their personal and private life, not just their professional behavior. Officers should understand that when it comes to behavior, there’s no such thing as being “off-duty” – once officers take the oath, they are servants of the public, whether they’re wearing a uniform or not. As a result, it’s important that they do not act unethically when they are off-duty and on their personal time. Inappropriate behavior not only reflects poorly on the officer as an individual, but also on the agency as a whole. This can harm the relationship between the agency and the community just as much as when an officer is on-duty.

Addressing Officer Biases and Prejudices

Code of ethics should include a section that addresses biases and prejudices that may impact the decision-making process when dealing with people from various racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds. The purpose of this section is to clearly state that officers shall not allow their personal feelings, biases, or prejudices impact their decision-making process. It should also be emphasized that officers will enforce the law as prescribed, without exercising favoritism or bias.

Accountability and Dedication

Every ethics policy must include a section on accountability and dedication to the community which they serve. Officers must understand that they are responsible for their behavior at all times, on duty and off. From vehicle stops to interacting with people on a public street, officers’ actions are constantly scrutinized by others.

[Related: React Without Reaction: What Officers Should Do When Being Recorded]

Maintaining a respectable public image is especially important in today’s information-sharing environment. Officers have always been subjected to public scrutiny, but people today have the ability to easily take and share video and audio content from anywhere in the world with the touch of a button. Even the briefest encounter can turn into a huge viral sensation due to social media. While officers must be aware of this and treat every situation like they’re being recorded, they also cannot allow themselves to be overly influenced by the cameras. That is, officers cannot “perform for the cameras” instead of doing their job as they’ve been trained because they’re afraid of the potential backlash. Doing so can put the public, and themselves, in danger.

Publishing, Training, and Enforcing a Code of Ethics

Once an agency develops an ethics policy, there is more work to do. It is not enough to merely publish and share a code of ethics. Agency leadership must ensure that expectations are written and taught in a way that staff members, at all levels, can understand and follow.

[Related: Turning Ethical Theory into Practice in Policing]

As with any policy or procedure, a code of ethics is only as good as the people who enforce it. Supervisors and all other agency leaders play a crucial role in the overall success or failure of the agency ethics policy. Supervision and upper-level leadership must constantly be alert and aware of any type of violations of the code, and, once violations occur, must address it in a swift and appropriate fashion.

Agencies must also ensure that appropriate ethical training is developed and implemented at levels within the department. This starts at the basic-training academy, where new recruits establish the foundation and discipline that will carry them through their career. Ethics refresher training should be part of required annual in-service-training as well.

[Related: Police Ethics: Does Education Matter?]

It is vital that all agencies understand the value of creating a clear and comprehensive code of ethics policy. Throughout their careers, officers will always face ethical dilemmas and must treat these situations seriously and have the training and mindset to act appropriately. Ethics is, in spirit, about doing the correct thing, no matter what. Officers must constantly self-evaluate their ethics so they are always acting in a way that is socially and morally responsible. When officers act inappropriately or exhibit less-than-trustworthy behavior, it rapidly deteriorates the trust that has been bestowed on them by the public and their communities.

ethics policyAbout the Author: Mark Buck is a 24-year veteran of the Federal Reserve Police in Cleveland, Ohio where he currently serves as the Chief of Law Enforcement Operations. Throughout his career, he has held various positions including police officer, Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Captain. He has held numerous professional training instructor certifications that include firearms, defensive tactics, use of force, and less lethal weapons while serving as his agency’s training coordinator. He is also a current student with American Military University, completing a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice. He is a graduate of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Municipal Police Officer Training Academy, and began his law enforcement career as a police officer with the Hanover Township Police Department in Pennsylvania. Mark is a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Cuyahoga County Police Chiefs Association. You can contact her at IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

The views stated herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Federal Reserve System.


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