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Chief's Counsel

Ethics and Professionalism: No Lying, Cheating, or Stealing

By Craig E. Ferrell Jr., Deputy Director (Retired), Houston, Texas, Police Department; and Counsel, Thompson and Tredennick Attorneys LLP

All police chiefs want to communicate to their employees some sort of ethical standard. But how does a chief create a culture that not only embraces ethics and professionalism but also establishes these principles in an infrastructure that will be in place long after the chief leaves? This is one of the most vexing problems chiefs face at the start of their careers and throughout their tenures as leaders.

I have reviewed the general orders and the policies and procedures of the Houston, Texas, Police Department; the Major Cities Chiefs Association; the International Association of Chiefs of Police; and various other federal law enforcement agencies. While the policies and procedures are consistent overall from administration to administration, each department may have a different perspective and philosophy concerning certain policies or particular levels of discipline.1 All agree that their officers should hold the highest ethical standards as professionals.2

Unfortunately, most policies are written by lawyers, for lawyers.3 For the average officer, this generally means that these policies are far too long and wordy to remember.

Yet most lawyers want to make sure that a department’s policies will not only conform to constitutional mandates but, in the case a police officer is challenged in court, will also convey and convince a jury that the city is following best practices consciously and deliberately sensitive to an officer’s training and supervision needs. So how does one meet this seemingly conflicting problem of keeping policies simple, clear, and concise while also maintaining policies that will survive the challenges of litigation? This installment of Chief’s Counsel is intended to assist all police managers in drafting such a policy.

Where to Start

The first step in creating an ethical behavior policy is to review your department’s current policies and procedures and determine if they are updated, relevant, and have been reviewed recently by the city attorney. For most chiefs, we can begin by preparing an attention grabbing message that explains that you are pleased overall with the guidelines currently in place to assist employees in understanding their assigned tasks and the department’s expectations. The message must go on to remind employees of the department’s dedication to the concepts of community oriented policing and its strong philosophy concerning individual ethics. The Houston, Texas, Police Department did this a few years ago by coming out with a circular that simply stated: “My rule against lying, cheating, and stealing.”

Some attorneys and chiefs will think this is silly or stupid to do when their policies already have sanctions against lying, cheating, or stealing, and while the current code addresses this type of action in more sophisticated and legally accepted terminology.

This is exactly the reason to repeat expectations in simple language. By putting the rules in clear, concise, everyday English, you will construct the department’s best known and most easily recited rule—I promise you. When an officer is interviewed by your local news media or is on the stand in court and is asked what policy covers ethical guidelines, he or she can simply say, “I don’t remember the exact policy number, but you’re talking about our ‘rule against lying, cheating, and stealing.’ ”

Initiate, Monitor, Enforce

We all know ethics remains the greatest training and leadership challenge facing police administrators today. Police professionalism requires that modern police officers have specialized knowledge and understanding of criminal laws, laws of procedure, constitutional guarantees, relevant court decisions, and many more complicated and detailed matters. Yet at the core of police professionalism is the requirement that police know the standards and the ethics set out by the profession. August Vollmer, a pioneer in police professionalism, once said that the public expects police officers to have the “wisdom of Solomon; the courage of David; the strength of Sampson; the patience of Job; the leadership of Moses; the kindness of the Good Samaritan; the strategic training of Alexander the Great; the faith of Daniel; the diplomacy of Lincoln; the tolerance of the Carpenter of Nazareth; and, finally, an intimate knowledge of every branch of the natural, biological, and social sciences.”4 With such high societal expectations, whenever and wherever chiefs can summarize a policy in five to seven words (as was done in Houston), they should do so.

It is the responsibility of all supervisors to develop an organizational culture that is consistent with the state’s police officers’ code of ethics and to ensure that that police officers are sufficiently sophisticated and educated to know, understand, and recognize the difference between accepted and nonaccepted behavior.5 Often, the longer a policy is, the more likely the officers will look for a way to justify their actions as falling within the policy. On the other hand, when a policy is simpler, the troops are more likely to buy in and hold themselves accountable.

Further Progress through Expanded Training

Basic law enforcement training requirements were established in the 1950s. Today, every jurisdiction mandates peace officer standards and training (POST) or POST-like programs, although the requirements vary considerably from state to state.6 What seems to be emerging is that each state either has or is now incorporating ethical training mandates into such training programs.7

As several IACP articles have stated in the past that ethics training has been integrated into most law enforcement training programs, and calls for expanded training in police ethics are being heard from many corners. A comprehensive resource for enhancing awareness for law enforcement ethics, called the Ethics Toolkit, is available from the IACP and the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at (accessed August 29, 2012).

Achieving Buy-in

Police administrators and supervisors have struggled with acceptance of their departments’ established ethical standards since the beginning of policing. Having been a police officer for more than 34 years (the last 20 as a command staff member for the Houston Police Department), a law enforcement trainer, and current college professor, I have found that one of the easiest means to gaining an officer’s acceptance of the policy is to explain how and why it is in an officer’s best interest to follow the ethical standard.

I usually start by explaining the obvious: An officer being sued is a reality that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, and ending up in the courtroom is an occupational hazard in U.S. law enforcement. Lawsuits are brought by the public against police officers and supervisors on a regular basis (as are, with increasing frequency, lawsuits brought by law enforcement officers against their supervisors and agencies).8 The nature of police work and the fact that access to court is a highly protected constitutional right in U.S. society assures us that police legal liability will always be an important concern.9 Police officers and supervisors must, therefore, learn to live and cope with the reality of frivolous, as well as well-founded, lawsuits.

Comprehensive information on legal liabilities is available only in a few organized materials on legal liabilities in Texas and in other states. However, it is extremely important that police officers know the rights they enjoy while performing their duties. Besides being conducive to good policing, when the officers have knowledge of their liabilities and rights, police administrators can be assured that the ethical standards they are trying to convey will be accepted.

When I talk to police officers, I always explain that no matter what else they do (even if they happen to have made a mistake), they will not be liable for damages in a civil case if they remember that in most cases where police officers were found responsible, the officer showed poor judgment or malicious conduct.

(Note: Reflecting on the types of behavior that will subject officers to civil liability always grabs their attention and provides enormous incentive to avoid such behavior.10 The key to many of the practice pointers I stress is to remind all officers to act responsibly and professionally.)

I always teach cadets, police officers, and college students my golden training nugget: If you treat others the way you would want them to treat you if your roles were reversed, then even if you don’t happen to remember your department rules or how you’ve been trained to handle a matter, you will be dealing with the situation in a legally defensible manner.

In other words, treat everyone with respect and follow an ancient piece of advice referred to as the Golden Rule and referenced in scripture. If officers act in this way, they will be entitled to qualified immunity in any civil rights lawsuit (and thus not personally liable for injuries or damages even for a mistake made in the way the situation was handled, as the officer would have been acting in an objectively reasonable manner with the good faith belief that the action was both lawful and proper).11 This is a legal defense to any police civil rights lawsuit.12

Will the course of action detailed above solve the problem? No; this article is not intended to nor can it provide a comprehensive guide to establishing the perfect ethical code for a particular police department. But this advice does start the process of changing a department’s culture and gives officers an ethical framework by which to judge all their actions, thus, providing officers with an excellent step in the right direction. ♦

1See, for example, Houston Police Department General Order 200-08, Section 1; and International Association of Chiefs of Police, “Model Policy of Standards of Conduct,” Section IV, (accessed August 29, 2012).
2Houston Police Department General Order 200-08, Section 1.
4Michael D. White and Gipsy Escobar, “Making Good Cops in the Twenty-First Century: Emerging Issues for the Effective Recruitment, Selection, and Training of Police in the United States and Abroad,” International Review of Law, Computers, and Technology—Crime and Criminal Justice 22, no. 1–2 (March 2008): 119–134.
5The Justice Department’s preferred path to reforming a department is to have the police managers “take ownership of responsibility for the conduct of their officers.” See Steven Rosenbaum, Chief of Special Litigation, Civil Rights Division of the DOJ on a public radio broadcast “Cop Brutality,” Weekend All Things Considered, March 15, 1998.
6Samuel Walker, The Police in America (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing, 1992), 317–319.
7Heather Wyatt-Nichol and George Franks, “Ethics Training in Law Enforcement Agencies,” Public Integrity 12, no. 1 (Winter 2009–2010): 39–50.
8Wyatt-Nichol and Franks, “Ethics Training in Law Enforcement Agencies,” 40.
10Proactive efforts to educate law enforcement officials will reduce lawsuits at a greater rate than the threat of litigation. See Rachel A. Harmon, “Promoting Civil Rights through Proactive Policing Reform,” Stanford Law Review 62, no. 1 (2009), (accessed September 7, 2012).
11Court reverses denial of qualified immunity for police officers because they had an objectively reasonable basis for acting. See Ryburn v. Huff, 132 S. Ct. 987, 989 (2012).

Please cite as:

Craig E. Ferrell Jr., "Ethics and Professionalism: No Lying, Cheating, or Stealing," Chief’s Counsel, The Police Chief 79 (November 2012): 10–11.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. , November 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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