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The Future of Police Image and Ethics

By Joseph A. Schafer, Associate Professor, Center for the Study of Crime, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Carbondale, Illinois

ther articles included in this issue of The Police Chief have provided an overview of the contemporary challenges and best practices associated with professional and ethical policing. This article reviews highlights of the advances of professional policing in recent decades and illuminates the obstacles that continue to prevent the image of police from becoming more positive. Also included is a discussion of the future of police ethics, including preservice behavior standards, evolving forms of off-duty behavior that might be problematic for police agencies, the role technology may play in preserving a healthy police image, and the future of accountability to citizens and communities.

Preservice Behavior Standards

Questions and debate surrounding the regulation of preservice behavior are not new. The use of alcohol, and especially underage drinking, by candidates is a long-standing issue. Contemporary manifestations of the behavior standard discussion now center on issues such as youthful experimentation with controlled substances as well as digital and online behavior. In a time of dwindling applicant pools and high employee attrition, some agencies have questioned whether conventional zero-tolerance stances are feasible and responsible.

Agencies currently struggle with the question of whether preservice experimental use of controlled substances should disqualify an applicant. Does such use reflect poor character or judgment, suggesting that an applicant is ill suited for police work? Does it suggest that the applicant might have credibility issues when testifying in court? If some drug use is allowed, what are the parameters on the type of drugs, the frequency of use, and the time lapse since the last use?1

With the rise of computer and network technology comes the need for candidate accountability for digital and online behavior. Would it be appropriate to refuse employment to an otherwise exemplary candidate who downloaded audio, video, or other computer files without proper purchase or permission? Does an applicant who made an illegal copy of a college roommate’s CD have serious flaws in judgment and character? Does the response to these questions differ depending on the position for which a candidate is applying—for example, a local patrol officer position versus a federal special agent position? As with controlled substances and underage consumption of alcohol, the debate focuses on the parameters of acceptable digital and online conduct.

Social-networking sites on the Internet provide people with a portal for connecting with others, sharing information and the opportunity to express their creativity. Today, many future police officers make extensive use of online profiles, photographs, videos, and blogs. Departments have found these sites to be rich in information for evaluating candidates and therefore mine data from these sites during background checks. It has been found that users of the networking sites often feel uninhibited online and express themselves in manners different from how they behave in person. In addition, some users even create false profiles of themselves. Confronted with this new source of personal information about candidates, agencies need to decide on acceptable parameters of creativity expressed on personal Web sites.

Agencies certainly seek to hire candidates of integrity, whose character and conduct will not be assailed on the witness stand. At the same time, those preparing to enter police work may have different views and values about their behavior than their potential employers.2 At present, it is not clear whether an occasional “music pirate” will make a poor or noncredible police officer. Executives would be well advised to consult with local human-resources experts to understand how and even whether to account for such behaviors in the screening process.

Digital Technologies and Off-Duty Behavior

Besides raising concerns at the preemployment screening phase, digital technologies create new opportunities for existing personnel to engage in off-duty conduct that may be lawful but may still promote a negative image of their agency. Recent years have produced many instances where officers of various ranks and their families have been discovered in compromising or morally questionable online behavior. Online conduct that is sexually overt or morally questionable or that demonstrates bias or poor judgment can be a real problem for agencies. How should agencies handle officers using eBay to sell images of themselves masturbating?3 What about officers posting pictures of themselves engaging in group sexual relations? Are there parameters on what officers can post on their blog or personal page at a social-networking site? Arbitration procedures and the courts are constantly shaping the parameters of protected and punishable behaviors. Police departments must keep themselves updated on these rulings.

The moral and legal parameters governing off-duty behavior exemplify the notion of a gray area for a standard of conduct. Currently there is limited information available to guide agencies and executives in setting appropriate and lawful parameters in the personal use of modern technology. As the volume of relevant incidents increases with time, policies and procedures to assist executives in handling these incidents will need to be prepared. Poor handling of these matters may actually compound the problem by bringing media attention and public scrutiny to the agency. Executives considering action against an officer should seek the advice of their agency’s legal counsel to ensure that their actions are within the boundaries of the law.

Technology and the Police Image

In the last decade, in-car video camera systems have become both a tool for law enforcement (e.g., recorded evidence of field sobriety testing) as well as a means of ensuring police transparency. The audio and video images provided by these systems have allowed countless officers to rebut false claims of abuse and inappropriate conduct.4

Video-recording capabilities are diversifying rapidly. Many cellular telephones now incorporate low-resolution recording devices. These first-generation devices are small in size, have limited quality, and may not include audio recording, and they can usually capture video for only a short period of time before reaching the system’s memory capacity. However, as technologies expand into second and third generations, significant improvements are typical. This means that in the next decade agencies will likely deploy small, high-quality wearable video-recording devices in the field with officers. The military is already using expensive and somewhat cumbersome systems in combat zones.

It is only a matter of time before improved, streamlined, and cost-effective systems can accompany officers on patrol. These devices will be able to record every interaction officers have with citizens, creating evidence supporting officers when they perform their duties in an appropriate manner. Averting just a few lawsuits could offset the expense of such a system. But would the culture of a given police agency embrace this technology? At times, officers have resisted in-car systems because of the feeling they create that Big Brother is watching. Although these systems can provide evidence that officers are performing their duties in an appropriate manner, their presence also carries an implicit assumption that officers might not behave in a lawful and respectful manner. Reasonable people can disagree on whether an agency should compel its professional officers to be recorded during the course of their duties. In agencies where they are able to speak for officers, labor organizations likely have views on the use of such devices.

Beyond audio and video recording, other technologies are enhancing the level of transparency within police operations. Some departmental Web sites allow citizens to map recent crimes in their neighborhood.5 Computer systems and expanded telephone/voicemail networks (for both entire agencies and specific officers in an agency) make an organization more open and improve access to employees.

At the same time, the expansion of inexpensive, handheld video-recording technology in the hands of citizens has also enhanced the transparency of policing, although citizens have used these devices mostly to highlight cases where officers have overstepped their rights in effecting arrests.

Proper use of audio, video, and Web-based information systems can help to create an image of police officers and agencies as open, honest, and accessible. Agencies should continue to work with technology manufacturers to develop new tools and applications that will both preserve the integrity of policing and enhance the image of police professionalism.


Regrettably, there are daily reports of officers and agencies that have allegedly violated their oath and duty to the community they serve. While many of these allegations will ultimately be found frivolous, others illustrate failures in ethics and accountability systems. The volume of national news on this matter obscures the tremendous advances the police profession has made in recent decades. Although each contemporary misdeed still provides cause for concern, it is important to recognize the achievements in improving officer professionalism and agency accountability. Unfortunate incidents do occur, but policing has succeeded in laying the foundation for a strong and pervasive culture of integrity. The remaining question is how to improve street-level police operations. Although accountability mechanisms, higher educational standards, and ethics awareness training are all laudable steps, do they suffice to bring about a fundamental improvement in the routine behaviors of police officers on the street?6

Agencies must embrace the development of new technological applications not only to enhance officer safety and improve the success of prosecution efforts, but also to allow citizens to better understand crime and policing in their community. Police executives need to provide effective leadership to ensure a culture of true integrity and accountability in their agency. Those who design ethics training and other educational seminars must seek out ways to move beyond simply telling officers to do the right thing; ethics training should ideally empower officers to anticipate the complex moral choices they must make, sometimes in a matter of seconds. Agencies must continue to reinforce the notion that officers and agencies serve the public; this service includes an element of transparency and accountability.

Plan for the Realities of Tomorrow

For decades, police agencies have struggled to generate and sustain a positive police image and an ethical organizational environment. Numerous advances have been realized, but the process continues. Police officials and community leaders must continue their dialogue in the search for ways to strengthen their organization’s culture of integrity. In looking toward the future, police executives should consider how technological and social change creates both new challenges and new opportunities. Shifting social values and behaviors mean different prior experiences that prospective employees bring to an agency. These values, coupled with emerging technologies, also modify how some officers will express themselves when off duty. Professional organizations must begin to explore the legal and ethical parameters of preservice and off-duty behavior, with the goal of providing executives with a better understanding of the rights of employees and agencies.

Technological and social changes also represent an important opportunity for agencies to enhance their image and improve their ethics. Technological applications provide new ways to monitor officer conduct, which has the potential to enhance officer safety, improve offender prosecution, and protect officers from frivolous complaints and lawsuits. At the same time, however, these benefits can be offset by potential opposition from officers and labor associations that view these technologies as invasive and unnecessary.

Agencies now have increasing opportunities to provide transparency in various aspects of their operations. Transparency enhances accountability and can improve the overall image of an agency, yet it can also provide critics with ammunition to make distorted claims. Police executives must understand both the opportunities and difficulties presented by technological and social change. The implications of these developments may vary from agency to agency, but the key for all police executives is to plan today for the realities of tomorrow.■

1See William J. Woska, “Police Officer Recruitment: A Public-Sector Crisis,” The Police Chief 73 (October 2006): 52–59.
2See generally Sameer Hinduja, Music Piracy and Crime Theory (New York: LFB Scholarly, 2006); R. B. Kini, H. V. Ramakrishna, and B. S. Vijayaraman, “Shaping of Moral Intensity regarding Software Piracy: A Comparison between Thailand and U.S. Students,” Journal of Business Ethics 49 (January 2004): 91–104; and H. V. Ramakrishna, R. B. Kini, and B. S. Vijayaraman, “Shaping of Moral Intensity regarding Software Piracy in University Students: Immediate Community Effects,” Journal of Computer Information Systems 41, no. 4 (2001): 47–51.
3City of San Diego, California, et al. v. John Roe, 125 S.Ct. 521 (2004).
4According to the 2004 IACP In-Car Camera Report, police officers are exonerated in 93 percent of complaints when incident video is available; see International Association of Chiefs of Police and Community Oriented Policing Services, The Impact of Video Evidence on Modern Policing: Research and Best Practices from the IACP Study on In-Car Cameras, 2004,, April 26, 2007, 15.
5The Chicago Police Department exemplifies an agency that has invested considerable resources to make community crime data accessible to the public. Their Citizen Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting (CLEAR) program is the latest version of an effort that dates back to the early 1990s (see for details).
6Samuel Walker, The New World of Police Accountability (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2005), 171–173.



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 6, June 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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