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Ethics and Law Enforcement Essay

Regardless if anyone knows it or not, everyone actually lives in accordance with some sort of ethical standard. Some may refer to it as a code, a creed, or even a motto; however ethics itself is defined as a set of moral principles or values (Meriam-Webster). Ethics is an extremely important aspect of society in general and is applicable in every profession, however it holds a higher regard in law enforcement. Law enforcement officers are entrusted by the public to not only uphold the laws and order of our society but also live by and obey them; they are given the highest authority in the United States; to take a citizens life if it is required. Without ethics there would be corruption which would lead to chaos and an unstable society being the polar opposite of what law enforcement stands for and represents. Ethics may be interpreted in many ways whether it is based by religion or by laws themselves but may also be summed up by doing what is right.

There are different parts of ethics as well; a written standard, example, and enforcement that all combine to form what is known as ethics. Ethics can be interpreted as a set of rules regulating the manner in which an individual or group of individuals should act. The meaning itself is hard to single out as it can be defined by many different opinions. Is ethical behavior the same as being a law abiding citizen? Absolutely not; laws are more often than not based on ethical standards however some laws can easily deviate from what is considered to be truly ethical (Manuel Velasquez). For example, relative to what is presently considered unethical are the pre Civil War laws allowing slavery. During that era it was acceptable and lawful to be a slave owner and remained unchanged until the final period of the American Civil War.

Throughout our history, federal ethics have been have been implemented in a responsive manner to issues that have surfaced and finally being accumulated in 1962 with the formation of Chapter 11 Title 18 United States Code. In 1989 former President Bush enacted the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 which attempted to ensure uniformity of ethics regulation throughout the government. Law enforcement agencies regardless of the jurisdictional level are all subsidiaries of the government and all agencies have a common goal which is to ensure justice fairly and uniformly; “one team, one fight” is a good descriptor for this commonality. Ethics is the same way, in order for law enforcement to accomplish its goal every agency must operate in a uniformed manner allowing for proficiency and efficiency.

If law enforcement did not operate in such a way then order would be nonexistent and create chaos which leads us to integrity. Integrity is defined as a firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic value (Meriam-Webster). A practicable explanation of integrity is, “doing the right things, for the right reasons, even when no one is looking”. What good is an ethical standard if there is no integrity towards it? After creating the standard law enforcement must have the integrity to carry it out even when no one is looking; it is only then that the mission succeeds. Ethics can be broken down into three categories: a written code, leadership by example, and fair and vigorous enforcement. Any code of ethics should not only be known by the officers it covers but also by the public. By providing the ethical code in a written form this can be accomplished, then through initial training and periodic reinforcement it can continuously be disseminated to both audiences.

An example of this is written code is as follows: “As a Law Enforcement Officer, my fundamental duty is to serve mankind; 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 men to liberty, equality and justice. I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all; maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn, or ridicule; develop self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others. Honest in thought and deed in both my personal and official life, I will be exemplary in obeying the laws of the land and the regulations of my department. Whatever I see or hear of a confidential nature or that is confided in me in my official capacity will be kept ever secret unless revelation is necessary in the performance of my duty. I will never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, animosities or friendships to influence my decisions.

With no compromise for crime and the relentless prosecution of criminals, I will enforce the law courteously and appropriately without fear of favor, malice or ill will, never employing unnecessary force or violence and never accepting gratuities. I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of the police service. I will constantly strive to achieve these objectives and ideals, dedicating myself before God to my chosen profession…law enforcement” (Diltz). Each individual agency has some variance of the aforementioned ethical code and it serves as a moral guideline for its officers to live their personal and professional lives. Let’s analyze this code; what does it mean? The exampled code simply explains that the law enforcement officer’s duty is to enforce the laws and safeguard mankind; while in the performance of these duties it is imperative and right that the officer also respect the rights of the citizens.

It further explains the professional conduct of the officer as not allowing personal feelings to affect their decisions and acknowledges that the badge is a symbol of public faith given to him and any deviation from an ethical behavior compromises that public trust. Law enforcement officers are expected to be the example and must preserve that expectation through their conduct and relationships with the communities. Everyone has heard the phrase, “Lead by example” at some point in their life. This is especially true in law enforcement because if we do not act in the same manner in which we expect our citizens to act our credibility becomes questionable. This concept is effective throughout the entire chain of command of any agency as well; if the upper echelon of leadership begins to cut corners then the idea of “if it is ok for the boss to do it, then it is ok for me to do it” will spread like wildfire.

Then the public will observe this mentality and begin the same activity creating a full system breakdown in society. In regard to fair and vigorous enforcement this concept has the highest impact on society and ethical code. If the perception of unfair treatment and enforcement occurs then the entire system becomes invalid and fails. In order to help prevent this there must be a definitive explanation between core principles and tangents of those principals. A properly functioning system should be constructed to be proportional, nontrivial, and practical (Lenox). Ethical behavior is the action of applying the code of ethics to one’s own life. This action accomplishes the goal of fair and vigorous enforcement through the sense that not only must there be fair and vigorous enforcement of the code but also of the citizens.

Law enforcement as a whole is incapable of completely deterring and serving justice alone; it is through the cooperation and assistance of the community in which we serve that we accomplish the mission wholly. Whether it is an anonymous tip or a confidential informant, those pieces of intelligence assist law enforcement agencies in solving crimes, deterring crime, and ultimately keeping the communities safe. It is through the ethical behavior of the officers that interact with the community that preserves this relationship with the public. If ethical behavior became a low priority the entire system as a whole would eventually begin to collapse. Let us examine the public’s opinion of law enforcement compared to that of other social institutions. Throughout the past, various polling organizations have sought the public’s opinion of different social institutions and in 1993 law enforcement was added to that polling list.

On average, law enforcement ranked from second to third place for having the public’s confidence and trust. Through ethics and upholding ethical behavior, it is possible for law enforcement to perform their duties efficiently and maintain the public’s opinion of them. In the same data the criminal justice system as a whole was ranked as having approximately twenty-four percent of the public’s confidence. According to The Administration of Justice Program at George Mason University, it is possible that the public associates the majority of the criminal justice system with lawyers who are “viewed by the public as among the least honest and ethical professionals, generating levels of confidence similar to those who sell cars and insurance. Another possibility is that the public is responding to the mission and motivations they attribute to police. If the police mission is seen as bringing wrongdoers to justice and helping those who are wronged, then that is a simpler, more easily conceived mission than one for the criminal justice system.

The courts in particular, operate in theory at least as an adversarial system in which one side tries to convict wrongdoers and the other attempts to get them acquitted or minimize their punishment. Such a construction has a zero-sum quality, where the more one side wins, the more the other loses. Faced with assessing a more complex role, perhaps many citizens select one aspect or the other, and invariably find the courts wanting when they attempt to accomplish both simultaneously” (Catherine Gallagher). Regardless of the manner in which the data was determined by the public it is consistent with the idea that law enforcement is held to a higher standard and it is clearly imperative that law enforcement must continue to maintain strict integrity to their ethical standards. Through this the public faith will continue to maintain and even grow. In conclusion, we have defined ethics and integrity acknowledging the importance of both and there necessity in law enforcement as a whole.

The ethical standard that law enforcement adheres to is truly important not because law enforcement is thought to be better than the average citizen but because they are held and expected to be of higher standard. If ethics was not held in such high regard than who would police the police? An ethical standard can be created but it is only through it existing in written form and being disseminated appropriately, followed by all through leadership by example, and enforcement to reinforce its importance that it becomes effective.

With these aspects fulfilled it then becomes practicable and applied to the law enforcement officer’s life in his or her behavior. The public holds law enforcement to a higher standard because they see them as role models of society and expect them to act accordingly both professionally and personally. Any compromise to this expectation causes mistrust amongst the public towards police and leads to disorder. Law enforcement’s objectives in responding to calls for service are gaining control or compliance and resolution. With a lack of ethical conduct and mistrust or lack of faith in police these objectives become nearly impossible to achieve in a proportional manner.


Catherine Gallagher, Edward R. Maguire, Stephen D. Mastrofski, Michael D. Reisig. The Public Image of Police. 02 10 2001. 16 05 2011 . Diltz, Chuck and Ruth. Police Officer Code of Ethics. 2 12 2002. 16 05 2011 . Lenox, William. “Outline Of Rules Of Ethics For Employees And Officials For A Securities Regulatory Agency.” 5 4 2006. 12 5 2011 . Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer. What is Ethics? 2010. 16 05 2011 . Meriam-Webster. Defenition of Ethics. 1999. 12 05 2011 .

—. Definition of Integrity. 1999. 17 05 2011 .

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