In a nation of laws, it is important to understand that the laws we are required to hold are based in large part on ethics derived from a moral set. One may even go so far as to suggest that policing requires a set of ethics that is very much like Kantian ethics, with a moral imperative beyond which no police officer can go and still remain ethical. For example, we often have a rule which states, essentially, that “no police officer should ever take a bribe.” That is a sentiment that everyone can agree with, and it becomes a moral imperative beyond which no police officer can go. We also believe that police officers can, in the line of duty and in the context of their duties, kill people, but beyond that, going to murder, no police officer should ever go. That would be a Kantian categorical imperative.
But let me make a distinction between ethics, morality, and the law. Ethics comprise a set of values within which a person operates in his or her professional life, or his or her personal life, and the two may be entirely different. Morality is something that appeals to a higher authority, as, for example, one may subscribe to the Ten Commandments, a set of ethical values related to ethical behavior that was presumably given by a higher authority than the individuals who are predisposed to follow it. The law is, in a broader sense, an imperative, beyond which no one can go without penalty. It is within this system as police officers that we operate.
Ethics and integrity are important for law enforcement officers in the conduct of their responsibilities with the public. Everyone wants police officers who are operant within the law (police officers don’t take bribes, they don’t murder people, they don’t steal from the evidence locker, and so on), and it’s important for the public to believe that this is true of all of the police officers on the force. Otherwise, the police force is no different from the criminal population that they are asked to police, and when there is no difference, there is no security for the public, and that represents an abject failure on our part to carry out our responsibilities entrusted to us by the very public we are expected to protect and to keep safe. The public expects police officers to be helpful, to care about them as citizens who pay us, through tax revenues, to do what we’re supposed to do. And while that attitude about this may seem naïve to those of us who have been in police and law enforcement for a long time, that belief still holds, and that is the lens under which we operate daily.
As a police chief, it is my responsibility to the public and to the officers in my command to make decisions based on an ethical model of decision-making that is just and fair to everyone, such as the one prescribed by Klein (2012), in which every law enforcement officer (LEO) agrees to “live safely, to protect and serve, to stand beside in backup fellow officers and… to always do the right thing.” To a law enforcement officer, ethics requires that there is “no lying, no cheating, no stealing, no exceptions, no excuses.” These are in line with the professional standards that I personally subscribe to, and expect from my officers.
No one, in fact, would argue that the decision-making power of the police authority be based on an ethical model of decision-making that is just and fair to everyone. In this regard policing is no different from the law, or medicine, or academics. Each of our disciplines have codes of ethics that we follow, and in general, our codes of ethics or codes of conduct, that we expect our professional police officers to be bound, have been upheld by the courts (Dwyer, 2008). Likewise, we have an ethical obligation to help those in the communities that we serve, and to serve them in such a way that they are safe places in which to live and work.
An ethical decision that I have personally to make is to treat our various communities within the larger metropolitan area as culturally and racially sensitive areas, and I will use the appropriate statistical data on crime rates in each area, and extend policing to those areas that have higher crime rates than to those that do not. It doesn’t matter if it is a black or Hispanic community, or an Asian community, or largely white community. Police officers will be dispatched to areas that have shown a tendency to have high crime rates, regardless. I think, personally and professionally, that that is the ethical thing to do.
And, as well, I believe that it is the ethical thing to do to expect all of my officers to conform to those standards that we set for them as law enforcement officers, regardless of what they may personally believe or that they have been accustomed to previously. My office sets high standards, and I expect them followed by everyone, and let me make that clear: everyone.