Police Ethics and Integrity: Code of Silence in Law Enforcement
What is police ethics?
Ethics is the study and practice of moral principles. In practical terms, every aspect of law enforcement includes some element of ethics because policing is concerned with the cause of justice, which is the underpinning of a democratic society.
Police ethics includes honest reporting of facts, respectful and unprejudiced treatment of individuals, and an even application of the law. A recent emphasis on police ethics began in the 1990s, following a societal push for professionalization of many occupations that began in the 1980s. In 1988 the International Association of Chiefs of Police identified ethics training as an urgent need. As a result, ethical training has been added to the curricula of police academies and is part of continuing education for current officers.
Issues that indicate a need for police training on ethics include:
- writing tickets to generate revenue
- abuse of authority
- racial profiling
- increased citizen complaints
- falsification of reports
- calling upon the Blue Wall of Silence
The Black Lives Matter movement has again pushed police ethics to the forefront of the national conversation about blind justice and the police role in the school to prison pipeline. Reports of racial profiling, illegal activities, and manipulative behavior such as officers “striking” or refusing to enforce the law when there’s pressure for accountability all indicate ethical problems.
Repairing police ethics
Leadership is a primary driver of ethical behavior, according to the IACP, which offers ethics training to superior officers. Part of their focus is developing an environment that fosters positive ethical behavior, such as mentoring junior officers and modeling ethical behavior. Senior officers must also practice ethical behavior daily and may not look away or make excuses for others who do not do the same.
Each police department should publish and distribute a manual that describes how situations should be handled in an ethical manner, including basic daily practices such as procedures for arrests, court appearances, investigations, use of force, and other conduct on the job. When officers understand and witness that their superiors abide by the same code, the standards of the entire department are elevated. In addition, creating a safe and confidential procedure for officers to make complaints about illegal, unethical, or abusive behavior within the department is key to convincing officers that the leadership is serious about enforcing standards.
Establishing and modeling an official code of conduct, as well as posting it in prominent places throughout the police department may have the effect of emphasizing ethics and keeping them top of mind. The United Nations adopted a code of conduct for law enforcement that includes:
- police will respect the rights of civilians
- police will use only the amount of force necessary to do their jobs
- confidential information shall not be shared by police
- law enforcement officers will not cause pain or practice degrading others to procure a confession or extract other information
- police shall attend to medical needs of anyone in custody
- corruption cannot be tolerated
Current issues in police ethics
Police use of body cameras are a new area of ethics that have come into question recently. While the cameras that record police activity and interactions with suspects are meant to provide transparency and support police justifications for arrests, they have frequently recorded misdeeds. Also, body cameras have created a new issue with privacy of people who are innocent until proven guilty.
Overcoming traditional police attitudes and behaviorare significant challenges to changing the ethical environment of a police department. Police officers frequently close ranks around fellow officers when an issue of ethics arises. They protect one another by not testifying, or by testifying falsely, knowing that they may need the accused officer’s assistance in a life-and-death situation at some point in the future. This is the way the “Blue Wall of Silence” works.
The implications for corrupt and unethical police behavior are serious: proven cases of corruption can result in convicted criminals being released on technicalities and the public’s trust in law enforcement may be seriously compromised. This has recently happened in Baltimore when a significant portion of the police force was found to be falsifying evidence and dealing drugs. Another case was thrown out in New Jersey when police officers agreed not to include an incident of brutality in an incident report.