What Is Law Enforcement Ethics

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I am often asked  – What is law enforcement ethics and does it differ between police forces around the world.

My response is that the concept of law enforcement ethics is the same all over the world. However the difference is the ability and willingness of the law enforcement agency to implement & enforce ethics throughout its organisation.

Every law enforcement agency in the world has adopted governing laws to regulate departmental and personal behaviour of its employees, whether it is for frontline officers, executive command or public sector support staff.

However laws and regulations on their own are not sufficient and a law enforcement agency must ensure the implementation and enforcement of law enforcement ethics using five (5) core pillars.

Pillar 1 – Positioning Ethics Within The Law Enforcement Agency.

The law enforcement agency must establish thorough policy & regulations, and make the agency’s expectations very clear to all employees and the community.

The law enforcement agency must ensure that it can adapt to community expectations and provide avenues for leader development to all employees.

The law enforcement agency must provide employee development-training that thoroughly teaches each employee the ethical behaviour and expectations of the agency.

The law enforcement agency must create a non-cumbersome internal system that ensures allegations of ethics breaches are quickly dealt with, either exonerating or disciplining the offenders of ethical violations.

Pillar 2 – Respect For Constitutional Rights.

No person has a constitutional right to violate the law; neither may any person be deprived of their constitutional rights merely because they are suspected of having committed a crime. A law enforcement agency employee who lawfully acts within the scope of their authority does not deprive persons of their civil liberties. The employee may within the scope of their authority make reasonable inquiries, conduct investigations, and for those with legislative authority, arrest on probable cause. However, when a law enforcement agency employee exceeds their authority through unreasonable conduct, the employee violates the sanctity of the law which they are sworn to uphold, and breaches a key pillar of law enforcement ethics.

Pillar 3 – Use Of Force.

In a complex urban society, law enforcement agency employees are confronted daily with situations where control must be exercised to uphold the law, affect arrests and to protect the public’s safety. Control may be achieved through advice, warnings, and persuasion, or by the use of physical force. While the use of reasonable physical force may be necessary in situations which cannot be otherwise controlled, force may not be resorted to unless other reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or would clearly be ineffective under the particular circumstances. Law enforcement agency employees are permitted to use whatever force that is reasonable and necessary to protect others or themselves from bodily harm.

Pillar 4 – The Reporting Of Misconduct And Prevention Of The Escalation Of Misconduct.

A law enforcement agency that provides a non-discriminative mechanism that obligates an employee to report possible misconduct by another member of the agency is crucial to law enforcement ethics. Furthermore, an employee who observes serious misconduct must take appropriate action to cause the misconduct to immediately cease and the employee who has taken action must be protected from any repercussion. The community expects and deserves a law enforcement agency and its employees to possess a high degree of integrity. Any employee who is perceived, justifiably or not, to be condoning or concealing misconduct impairs the trust of the public. Law enforcement agency employees must respect and be aware of their responsibility to freely and truthfully report all acts of misconduct and to act, if necessary, to prevent the escalation of those acts. This is essential if the employees and the law enforcement agency is to maintain the trust of the public.

Pillar 5 – An officers image.

Integrity and professional competence, and the courage to make the right decisions at the right time is the bedrock quality upon which a law enforcement agency’s employee’s image will be built on. You cannot succeed as an employee of a law enforcement agency without these character traits, but it is also the image you form in the minds of the public as well that is important. Creating an ethical image will be achieved by displaying 3 quality traits;

Personal Integrity – is the foundation upon which the standing of a law enforcement agency employee rests in the mind of subordinates, associates, superior officers and the public. Integrity is personal honesty, self discipline, objectivity, impartiality, being free from favoritism or bias and showing no desire for personal gain in the line of duty.

Performance Integrity – is the very best effort in achievement of duties within the law enforcement agency employee’s capability. Your individual performance represents you and defines your image.  Your peers and the public will respond to your performance; act with excellence and your peers and the public will see an image of excellence, perform your duties in a sub-standard manner and with little care and your image will reflect accordingly.

Professional Competence – the importance of integrity as the base or foundation for a law enforcement agency employee’s image cannot be over-emphasised. But integrity, standing alone, is not enough. A structure must be built upon it. A law enforcement agency employee must know his or her job, and the law enforcement agency’s command and public alike have a right to expect that a law enforcement agency employee is proficient in their duties. The professional competence of a law enforcement agency employee must be demonstrated in daily contacts with colleagues as well as the public, in the same manner and for the same reasons that the law enforcement agency employee’s integrity must be held under continual observation.

So in my professional opinion, the core of Law Enforcement Ethics for any law enforcement agency must be;

positioning ethics within the agency;
respecting constitutional rights;
applying strict use of force principles;
creating mechanisms to report mis-conduct and protect reporters; and
maintaining a professional image.