A Closer Look at the Ethics of Police Work

Though once regarded as a safeguard against threats of danger and injustice, police presence now faces harsh scrutiny from the communities its officers swore to protect. Too many negative incidents have caught the media and nation’s attention, and smartphones with direct uploads of live feeds or pictures to social media have created a new narrative concerning policing. Rather than further the divide between opinions, the ethics of police work must be a conversation held at the law enforcement level and with the general public.

The Value in Policing

While used interchangeably around the globe, the term police or policing takes on a new meaning according to the environment where it is used. There are thousands of law enforcement agencies and services across the nation, and each unit has its own leadership and adherence to core values. These differences and the personal choices of those working within the agency manifest themselves in policing.

A functioning, democratic community requires a delicate balance between the police, state, and community members. Those who serve in the ranks of law enforcement must be held to a higher standard of values and ethics to inspire regulatory and ordinance obedience and the respect to address issues of law infractions, malicious intent, or civil disobedience. This position places emphasis on the character and conduct of a police offer to ethically serve the public, not just in areas of enforcement but in behaviors that provide solutions to a range of community problems.

The Ethics of Policing

It is the responsibility of each individual who wears the uniform to control their own actions, but a unit or department position that incorporates emotional intelligence, strong leadership skills, and well-understood values reduces the risk of negative incidents or alarming behaviors. Police ethics refers to the personal and departmental habits that are in practice during the course of fulfilling law enforcement duties, and they are not mutually exclusive of each other. A department that enforces ethical behaviors impacts an officer’s activities while on duty.

Everyone has a part in the discussion of ethics, as officers bring their own ideas or habits to the table, and citizens of the community have their own expectations, as influenced by their culture, ethnicity, education, or background. Having a department establish a code of ethics reduces the risks of inappropriate or illegal behavior, but this code must be inclusive of all those who have a stake in the final outcome of policing.

The Long-Term Goal of Policing

Each department should re-examine the code of ethics that governs departmental actions or decision-making, as doing so can illuminate areas of weakness or exposure to litigation. With every move being securitized, mitigation strategies (starting with re-defining policing) can help limit the number of claims a department sees each year.

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