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Back to Archives | Back to November 2006 Contents 

Ethics Training for Police

By Tag Gleason, Captain, Seattle Police Department, Seattle, Washington


very day, police professionals decide and act while balancing competing and conflicting values and interests, frequently with incomplete or inaccurate information, often in highly emotional and dynamic circumstances, and typically under pressure.

Police officers are held to a higher standard of behavior by society, because they are stewards of the public trust and are empowered to apply force and remove constitutional privileges when lawfully justified. They take an oath of office, are expected to comply with professional codes of ethics, and are subject to various laws, rules, and regulations.

An officer develops his or her moral compass, character, or ethical base, from interacting with other individuals and studying ethics. Ethics training for police professionals helps them do the following:

• Readily recognize an ethical problem or dilemma

• Identify various options to address the particular issue involved

• Make a rational and ethically sound choice of which option to choose

• Take prompt action based upon that choice

• Accept responsibility for the outcome

Police professionals cannot simply think ethically; they must also act ethically. Ethics training provides tools for addressing ethical problems, but the police professional must have the courage to act.

Responding to a particular situation has two components: reaction (emotions and thought) and action. The law typically focuses on the action, that is, so long as the action complies with the law, the reason is generally irrelevant.

But ethics considers not only the action but also the motivation for the action. Thus, doing the right thing for the wrong reason is not ethical. Police professionals aiming for ethical excellence must also consider motives behind behavior.

Given this necessary expansion, what should an ethics training program for police professionals include so that thinking and acting ethically become a part of each police professional’s core character and the organization’s culture?

Several elements that should be considered when developing an ethics training program include the following:

• What is the program’s purpose?

• Does the program add value to the police organization and to the community?

• Does the program encourage and support integrity?

• Does the program openly acknowledge the exercise of discretion and provide guidelines for applying it?

• Does the program reduce risk and liability for the individual and organization?

• Does the program encourage excellent
performance?

• Does the program include complementary accountability systems that also promote ethical behavior?

Purpose of the Training
For ethics training to succeed, students must understand its purpose. Ethics training should provide tools that assist the student to think and act ethically in both their professional and their personal lives. Those tools include the following:

• Increasing awareness of potentially
ethical issues

• Providing a vocabulary and thought or decision-making process for addressing the issues

• Instilling a commitment and courage to act ethically

• Creating a nonnegotiable expectation of full accountability for the consequences of any action taken

Value of the Training
Ethics training should add value to the police organization and to the community. Professor Mark Moore of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government notes that the police function as an “assemblage of three components: public entrustment of assets, public entrustment of authority, and moral exhortation/sense of duty.”1 Ethics training should therefore be viewed as contributing to the organization’s assets, an investment that the organization then uses to add value to the community in the form of the fair and ethical conduct of its members.

The police agency and its members must be viewed as fair if the community is going to consider the department a legitimate authority. Fairness is usually defined as the equal treatment of people in similar circumstances. Another definition is that each individual action—or inaction—by a police professional done to a member of the community defines fairness or justice to that individual and, over time, defines what fairness and justice mean to that community. The more that people perceive the police as acting fairly or justly, the more legitimate the police function and the individual police professional become.

Acting ethically is fundamental to acting fairly. Acting fairly equates with acting consistently with the social contract, the implicit agreement between the government (the police as part of the executive branch) and the people, addressing mutual rights, responsibilities, and expectations. The police derive their duty to uphold the public trust from the social contract.

The social contract means that the people have entrusted some freedoms to the government, including the police, in exchange for the government’s safeguarding it. Police professionals are expected to be stewards of this public trust and to act in a way that respects the government’s founding principles. For U.S. police departments, these founding principles are described in the founding documents of the United States, which should be a cornerstone of ethics training for U.S. police professionals.

Encourage Integrity
Ethics training should encourage the police professional to be a person of integrity, as “excellent qualities of character must become integral, not just to certain parts of our lives but to our entire lives, both public and private.”2

Integrity must be both personal and professional, because each person fulfills a variety of complementary yet often conflicting roles. Contorting oneself into a particular role is emotionally unhealthy. Kevin Gilmartin emphasizes the importance of living a whole life in his description of how a police officer can maintain a broader sense of self and avoid emotional burnout: “This capacity to balance multiple significant emotional roles in one’s life is the central defining aspect of an emotional survivor versus an emotional victim.”3

Acknowledge the Exercise of Discretion
Ethics training should openly acknowledge and provide guidelines for exercising discretion. To deny that police professionals routinely exercise discretion is simply inaccurate; police officers must exercise discretion: “Police discretion is absolutely essential. It cannot be eliminated. Any effort to eliminate it would be ridiculous. Discretion is the essence of police work.”4

Yet police officer discretion is not carte
blanche. Ethics training should provide guidelines and parameters to follow when exercising discretion, a vocabulary and a thought process, and acceptable boundaries within which to exercise it. Discretion, properly exercised, makes the law more just. Just as equity softens the impact of the law, so too can the wise exercise of discretion soften the law’s application.

Reduce Risk and Liability
Police agencies should view ethics training as risk management. Risk management’s general goal is to prevent or reduce injury to people, property, reputation, and other assets and to remedy any injury or loss when it occurs; training, encouraging and expecting the police professional to act ethically is good insurance.

Police civil liability frequently results from the following:

• Negligent hiring
• Failure to supervise
• Failure to train
• Negligent entrusting
• Negligent assigning
• Failure to discipline
• Negligent retaining
• Unnecessary or excessive force
• False arrests
• Negligent vehicle operation

While each of these has its unique characteristics, a common thread is the exercise of imprudent judgment that either creates the circumstances leading up to the ultimate failure or precipitates the action or inaction that directly causes the loss or injury.

Merely complying with applicable laws, rules, regulations, policies, and procedures is not necessarily enough to avoid liability, partly because these constraints do not cover every conceivable situation that might arise. Again, the prudent exercise of discretion and sound, ethical decision making can compensate for lapses in judgment or deficient performance.

Ethics training emphasizes the importance of thinking before acting, particularly developing impulse control, especially in challenging or tempting circumstances.

Encourage and Expect Excellent Performance
Ethics training should not merely demand minimum performance; it should exhort the police professional to strive for excellence. Most organizational policies and procedures are directed toward compelling minimum performance and frequently result from some egregious conduct.

Complementary Accountability Systems
Police professionals want to be ethical for many reasons. To accommodate the range of motivations, agencies can use constraints and restraints to manage behavior. Programs that promote accountability (external constraints, such as early intervention systems and internal investigations units) and encourage responsibility (internal restraints) complement any ethics training effort.

Ethical decision making involves options, choices, and consequences. The police professional faces a situation requiring an ethical decision, considers various options, decides upon one of the options, implements the decision, and experiences the outcome.

But the human condition is anything but simple. Sometimes, one does not recognize the ethical dilemma, all the options are not identified or available, the choices are clouded by emotional or intellectual fog, or one does not foresee or accept the consequences. Unfortunately, there are also times when malicious action is intentional.

Certainly, thinking ethically is much easier than acting ethically. It takes courage to act ethically because choosing the right path may be painful and come at a considerable cost, both professionally and personally.

An ethics training program can provide tools so a person can make the right decision, and an agency can create a climate in which ethical actions are possible. Nevertheless, the individual must provide the courage to act on the decision.


1 Mark H. Moore, Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995).
2 Edwin J. Delattre, Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing, 5th ed. (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 2006).
3 Kevin M. Gilmartin, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families (Tuscon, Arizona: E-S Press, 2002).
4 Kenneth Culp Davis, Police Discretion (Saint Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Company, 1975).

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From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 11, November 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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