Higher Education and Ethical Policing
Tyre, Mitchell, Braunstein, Susan, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
In March 1991, the now famous Rodney King videotape was first broadcast to television viewers across the Nation and around the world. Suddenly, police ethics were being discussed in editorials, news programs, and on radio and television talk shows. However, concern about ethical police behavior predated this blinding media spotlight by many years. In fact, since the introduction of organized law enforcement agencies, communities and departments have agonized over the sometimes unethical decisions made by individual officers that resulted in criminal acts, decreasing departmental morale, and increased public dissatisfaction.
This article presents a brief overview of the prevailing beliefs among researchers concerning the effects of higher education on ethical policing and explains how these beliefs developed. In addition, the article discusses the results of two recent studies of Florida police officers that measure the relationship between higher education and the ethical behavior expected of law enforcement officers.
ETHICS IN POLICING
The nature of policing dictates that officers must consistently make immediate and demanding decisions. These decisions call into play ethical and moral, as well as procedural and legal, questions and are most often made without recourse to specific directions from superiors or specific policy directives.
Another factor that forces officers to make difficult decisions is the changing role of law enforcement in today's society. As William Scott noted in his article on college education requirements for police officers, the role of officers is changing "... from pure enforcement of the law to one of dealing with people and their problems. Police ... are taking a more holistic approach to the community." (1) This social work/community problem-solving approach creates even more demands on officers, as such a technique often requires them to choose between criminal justice or community service solutions. These decisions may be made with reference to policy, ethical standards, or on the basis of expediency, among other factors.
A further, but often overlooked, reason for ethics education is the myth of full enforcement. In Police Training for Tough Calls: Discretionary Situations, Frank Vandall argues that most formal police training relies on the principles of full enforcement. Practitioners, of course, are aware that full enforcement is impossible, impractical, and undesirable. Consequently, officers often make enforcement decisions with little formal guidance from their training or their departments.
According to Vandall, one result of this is inadequate recruit training in applied ethics. He states, "Since the task of the officer is thought to be simply to arrest when there is a violation, little attempt is made in training to distinguish similar calls or to give examples of how a particular law or department rule (if any) might be applied in different situations." (2)
In practice, enforcement policy is generally determined by the lowest ranks, i.e., patrol officers who interact with the public. In many cases, the decision for arrest is based solely on their discretion. (3) Nevertheless, much police training and education fails to deal with the concept of discretion in law enforcement. (4)
The Benefits of Higher Education
Higher education has been cited as an advantage and even a cure-all since at least 1917, (5) and numerous studies have called for college education for police personnel. (6) Nevertheless, many police administrators meet such proposals with less than whole-hearted enthusiasm.
This could rest in the fact that many police supervisors do not believe that college education produces better officers. (7) Indeed, a field survey of police administrators and supervisors in Florida revealed that many administrators believe that much of the research undertaken at universities is purely theoretical and unsupported by real life experience. …