The United States Constitution was designed to protect individual rights and liberties and to preserve the rule of law. But those principles and laws are powerless without someone to enforce them. Law enforcement officers are “the thin blue line” that protects individuals and preserves peace and freedom. Police officers’ training and equipment allows them to respond effectively to threats to individuals and the public.
Why Ethics Are Important for Law Enforcement Officers
Because police officers are given special power and trust, they must maintain high ethical standards. At its core, ethics means doing the right thing, even in unexpected, unusual, and challenging situations.
When a law enforcement agency’s officers consistently demonstrate good ethics, people in the community are more likely to trust its police officers, cooperate with police investigations, and voluntarily comply with lawful orders. Also, an agency known for good ethics has less difficulty recruiting quality individuals who are motivated by a desire to serve the public.
The opposite is also true. When the public trust in a law enforcement agency is eroded, policing becomes more difficult and dangerous for officers and the public.
Law enforcement officers often face dangerous situations where their lives literally depend on other officers’ faithful performance of their duties. Part of ethics is being professional in the workplace so that officers have good working relationships with each other.
Challenges to Maintaining High Ethical Standards in Law Enforcement
Each profession has its own unique ethical challenges. Some characteristics of police work that expose officers to ethical dilemmas are:
1. High discretion. Officers decide who to stop, search, and arrest.
2. Numerous laws, rules, and policies. Officers are expected to understand and comply with all laws, rules, and policies, applying them in situations where they often must make split-second decisions involving life or death.
3. Threats to public safety. The challenge of protecting people against serious threats to their safety and well-being can cause some officers to believe that the ends justify the means, even if those “means” involve committing unethical acts.
4. Authority. Officers carry guns and other dangerous and deadly weapons, and officers have the authority to use significant and even lethal force under defined circumstances.
Other challenges law enforcement agencies must be vigilant against are the “code of silence” and implicit bias.
Ways to Support Good Ethics in Law Enforcement
Many law enforcement agencies have a code of ethics or a code of conduct. Social experiments have shown that adults are much more likely to behave ethically when in the presence of another person who is behaving ethically. This shows that any officer can have a good influence on his or her team. When supervisors and officers who are natural leaders adhere to the code, they can have a dramatic effect on new recruits and on the culture of a law enforcement agency.
Ethics training can give officers an advantage when faced with exceptionally difficult situations. This can include reviewing recent disciplinary cases involving current issues in law enforcement. Learning from others’ mistakes can prepare officers to detect and avoid making those same mistakes themselves.
Interested in learning more?
PLS offers police online self-study interpersonal perspectives training on a wide variety of practical issues to help police officers make good decisions in challenging situations.