Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing

Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing

Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing

Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing


From dark streets and hallways where criminals prey on their victims to the corridors of power where political agendas set policy, law enforcement officers face demands upon their courage and morality. What does it take to enforce the law and keep the peace honourably?


Chesterton's description of police activity as romance will strike some people responsible for enforcing the law and keeping the peace as naive, or at least incomplete. Police work involves boredom, suffering, anxiety, danger, and disappointment as much as romance, challenge, satisfaction, and success.

Still, in spite of much literature that describes police as cynical, alienated, disaffected, and unhappy, my own experience with police of all ranks indicates that many love their work and find great fulfillment in it. They understand, with Chesterton, that civilization does not come into existence or survive by accident, and they take seriously their place in sustaining it.

Civilization depends on people who are committed to civility and decency. Not everyone is. People have a mixture of motives; some are high-minded and some are not. Even the best among us have weaknesses. Some of us are downright dangerous -- to ourselves, to other people, or to both.

Human beings are neither angels nor beasts, and they differ in attitudes, beliefs, motives, purposes, and ambitions. This makes civilization difficult to create and preserve. For the same reason, there must be "unsleeping sentinels who guard the outposts of society." Simply put, civilization cannot defend itself: people must stand up for it. The specific people who are on the front lines -- the police -- are thus essential to civilized life, even though there are limits to what they can do.

In the end, of course, the citizens must do much for themselves in their own daily behavior and in educating the young. No police force can safeguard the ideals of civility and decency from a public determined to destroy them or lacking the courage to stand up for them. But even when many citizens are basically respectful of each other and of the law, there is never enough decency, never enough restraint, to enable people to live well together without someone who can step in when civility breaks down. So some of us must be entrusted to guard the public safety, to enforce the laws, to keep the peace, to help the helpless.

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