Why We Should Establish a Police Code of Ethics

By Williams, Hubert | Criminal Justice Ethics, Summer-Fall 1992 | Go to article overview

Why We Should Establish a Police Code of Ethics


Williams, Hubert, Criminal Justice Ethics


During the past three decades, a number of substantive changes have occurred within American society that have affected our perspectives about law enforcement officers and the organizations in which they serve. Many of these changes have resulted from social initiatives, foremost among them the civil rights movement and the women's movement. Both have altered our society in a way that has redefined what is acceptable behavior. The waves set off by these movements have shattered old barriers and helped to resolve dilemmas of ethics that previously were insurmountable.

Officers no longer have to face the issue of enforcing racially or sexually discriminatory laws because our society has determined that these laws are not legal or proper. Thus the ethical dilemma that an officer might have had to face thirty years ago of whether to arrest a black person for failing to move to the back of the bus no longer exists. The institutional standards for employment and promotion that allowed discrimination based on race or sex have been determined to be illegal. Unthinkable now are the separate, unarmed black-neighborhood-only black patrols of the beginning of the century. The question of whether women are capable of handling patrol duties has been rendered obsolete, this issue having been resolved by the evidence of women police officers performing their law enforcement duties with great efficiency, strength, and dedication.

The moral dilemma faced by a recruiting officer, whether to enforce institutionally discriminatory hiring practices against minorities or women, has been resolved by statute and case law. Of course, this does not mean that discrimination no longer exists, nor does it mean that a member of a law enforcement organization, in making personnel decisions, is not faced with adverse institutional pressures. However, the recruiter does have the law to comply with, and the institution has a standard of fairness and equality that it must meet in the discharge of its responsibilities. Where discrimination occurs, the official and the institution can be sued, held liable, and forced to make substantial damage payments.

Daily challenges to a police agency's ethics remain. Today the greatest of these are like to be presented by the culture of violence that has become pervasive in many U.S. cities. We do not seem to be able to get guns off the streets because they have been legitimized. They frequently end up in the hands of people who are mentally disturbed and bent on criminality. In a street encounter, more often than not, an officer faces down someone he does not know, and yet he frequently has to make a judgment or decision within a matter of seconds about whether he is going to use his weapon. What does the law allow? The law may say he can use his weapon whenever life is endangered, but that does not resolve the moral dilemma of whether it is absolutely necessary to shoot. …

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