Customized Code of Ethics

By Fitzpatrick, Colleen A. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 1992 | Go to article overview

Customized Code of Ethics


Fitzpatrick, Colleen A., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


People choose law enforcement careers for a variety of reasons, but if asked, most admit that they become police officers because they "want to make a difference." In accordance with their personal values and beliefs, these men and women want to do something for the common good. So, to be able to do this, they select a profession that society not only finds acceptable but one also steeped in rules and guidelines (laws) that govern their actions.

Laws serve as formal written rules of society. They define behaviors accepted by society and those that society believes to be wrong. And, the basis for laws depends on the value system of the society that develops them. As Pollock-Byrne succinctly states in her book, Ethics in Crime and Justice, "The law serves as a written embodiment of society's ethics and morals." (1)

Ethics, on the other hand, can be defined as a "... set of standards or codes, developed by human reason and experience by which free, human actions are determined as humanly right or wrong, good or evil." (2) Like the law, the attitudes of a society also shape its ethics. However, unlike laws, ethical standards are rarely written, which leaves them open to interpretation. And, a police officer's responsibilities include not only enforcing the law but also exercising the power of discretion when doing so. Renowned scholar Edwin Delattre writes in his book, Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing, "'Police are granted discretion because no set of laws and regulations can prescribe what to do in every circumstance." (3)

Given the fact that laws, ethical standards, and the power of discretion govern police behavior, it is imperative that police officers take their roles seriously and readily adopt a code of ethics. Like the laws they enforce, every police officer's action rests on the fragile balance of the rule of law and the rights granted to citizens by the U.S. Constitution.

Unfortunately, at times, some police officers fail to maintain this balance. They adopt an us vs. them attitude, which can lead to the misuse of police powers. In addition, loyalty to the brotherhood of police officers perpetuates this attitude, and an underlying code of silence prevents others from divulging any infraction of rules and regulations.

This is where ethical management becomes critical. Unbeknownst to many administrators, their behavior sets the moral tone lot their departments. Police leaders communicate department standards through their actions or by their silence, for failure to correct inappropriate behavior gives the department's endorsement to such behavior. Therefore, management must take steps to improve and encourage ethical behavior.

Many department administrators endorse the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics adopted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. This code not only serves as a guideline for professional behavior but also advances the standards essential for any profession.

However, the vague language of the code prevents it from fulfilling its intended purpose. The code embodies the "spirit" of law enforcement--the ideal, not necessarily the reality. Instead, what each agency, and each police officer, needs is a more realistic and "human" code, one that develops the true "professional" desired by law enforcement. This does not imply that the current code of ethics has no place in today's society. It merely means that a more specific code must be developed and understood by all who choose law enforcement careers. …

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