Law Enforcement Code of Ethics

Ethics are principles of upstanding behavior applied on the job, combining knowledge of the law and individuals’ rights. For police officers, ethics means treating individuals equally with dignity and respect and letting the judiciary decide who is innocent or guilty. Ethics in law enforcement means pursuing the application of the law regardless of who is involved.

In October of 1957 the International Association of Chiefs of Police publishes a law officer code of ethics that begins: “As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve the community; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality, and justice. “

The code goes on to equate an officer’s personal life and conduct with professional ethics, says an officer should never allow his or her personal feelings or politics interfere with their duties, and that officers should never act out of preference or allow themselves to be influenced.

Police Code of Ethics

Basic Principles

The fundamental ideas behind the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics are:

•    Serving the Community - Preserving the safety of the people, protecting them and their property, guaranteeing that their rights are respected. 
•    Lead by Example – Keeping private lives and professional duties separate. Acting with courage, honesty, and honor.
•    Remain Impartial – Decision-making process must be free of personal grudges, beliefs, and prejudices. Law must always be upheld without compromise. 
•    Respect the Badge – Officers must always remember that the badge is the symbol of justice and every action that they take reflects upon that symbol and its public perception. 
•    Responsibility – Officers are responsible for keeping and improving the standards of professional conduct.  

Ethics in law enforcement are the foundation of a society ruled by laws. If the police allow themselves to be corrupted by favors and they target one class of people for enforcement while allowing others to break the law, the entire system becomes corrupted.  Ethical police officers also inspire public confidence in the law and by itself encourages law-abiding behavior. If people believe that justice is blind and applied evenly they are more likely to support the efforts of law enforcement.

Ethical Challenges

Law enforcement officers have a lot of things to juggle on the job, and they’re getting more challenging with the advent of new technology, the rebirth of racial and ethnic tensions, and demands placed on officers for training and knowledge. Most police officers are required to take a class on ethics when studying for a Bachelor’s degree.

To perform in a job with high expectations and constant unpredictable public interaction police officers must be indoctrinated in ethical conduct and how to perform their jobs to high standards. Ethics are taught both in classrooms and on the job, and by the example of senior officials.

Law enforcement ethics became a course of study in the 1990s and began teaching officers to go past textbook situations to examine moral implications of situations and to apply morality to the job. Many departments require ongoing training using real-life situations including ethically murky areas such as the behavior of fellow officers to test officers’ reactions. College educated officers are frequently lost to higher-paying jobs in less-stressful industries, leaving departments to train less-desirable candidates who may not grasp or embrace ethics as readily.

Leadership in a department sets the tone for ethics, according to an entry on an FBI blog. If officers regularly see their chief and other leaders acting ethically, including being in the office rather than on the golf course, speaking respectfully about elected officials and members of the public, not abusing or tolerating abuse of expense accounts or other perks; attending training sessions, supporting ethical behavior and disciplining amoral actions, and applying standards of behavior evenly, then officers are likely to follow suit.

Law Enforcement Code of Ethics

Ethics Lapses

The City of Baltimore is a dismal example of ethics gone awry. After officers manhandled a suspect, Freddie Gray, who died in custody of a severed spinal cord, residents rioted. Police attempted to retaliate for charges against the arresting officers by refusing to make arrests. City officials tried to make the police accountable but it was too late: a report released in 2018 showed that corruption was widespread in the department, including police selling guns and drugs, police planting evidence, and police attempting to doctor body camera footage to fake evidence.

Police officers must be exemplary when defending the law. Behavior like excessive force, biased decisions or prejudice against a group are unacceptable.