Ethics in Police Decisionmaking

By Payne Dennis M. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 1993 | Go to article overview

Ethics in Police Decisionmaking

Payne Dennis M., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Modeling the Corporate Method

In the business community, when an unethical corporation hurts consumers, the government steps in and implements controls on the public's behalf. Private industry must practice self-regulation or risk government regulation. Many professions, such as physicians, bankers, and engineers, use codes of ethics as a means of self-regulation. Interestingly, in "Institutionalizing Ethics into the Corporation," noted ethicist James Weber does not mention police departments as an example of those entities having codes of ethics.(1)

Yet, many police departments do have ethics codes. Unfortunately, without a means to institutionalize such codes, they have little operational significance. Indeed, a statement of moral standards or department values is one thing, and a workable code of ethics is quite another.

Thus, like corporate executives, police managers must practice self-regulation or suffer the consequences. They must ensure that their officers make ethical decisions at every level of the department, in the day-to-day business of policing, or risk losing the public's trust. When citizens mistrust the police, whether this mistrust is real or perceived, they will eventually react and exert control by lodging complaints, filing lawsuits, or demanding external police review boards or new legislation.

Granted, ethical behavior has been implicit in policing for many years. However, the complexities of a pluralistic society with fluctuating values dictate more than ethical codes. They require that ethical behavior and decisionmaking be explicit. This article focuses on how police managers, like business leaders, can institutionalize ethics into their departments.


With the current emphasis on community and problem-oriented policing, police executives should seriously consider institutionalizing ethics. Though the term "institutionalization" may sound academic, it means, simply, getting ethics formally and explicitly into the daily business of the agency. It means making ethics a regular, normal part of policing. It requires putting ethics into department policymaking at the top management levels and through formal codes.

Institutionalizing ethics also means integrating ethics into daily decisionmaking and work practices for all employees. Weber recommends three ways to accomplish this task: Develop and implement a code of ethics, establish a formally designated ethics committee, and offer a management development program that incorporates ethics into the curriculum.(2)

Develop a Code of Ethics

A code of ethics has three distinct advantages. It provides a stable, permanent guide to acceptable and unacceptable conduct; offers guidance to resolve ethically ambiguous situations and conflict-of-interest issues; and acts as a partial check on the autocratic powers of employers.

Police managers must make ethics a top priority and establish a strong code that reflects the needs of the department. While the code should not supersede existing department regulations, managers can emphasize important regulations by including them in the code. For example, possible areas of concern include labor disputes, community relations, political activities, conflicts of interest, equal employment opportunity, gifts, use of force, and personnel grievances.

Once they establish the code, managers should make it available to the rest of the staff. They should also review it periodically, making revisions as needed.

Most importantly, managers must enforce the code. They may consider using incentives, such as recognition, commendations, and monetary awards, to encourage compliance. Conversely, they should investigate all cases of alleged unethical behavior. When unethical behavior occurs, managers should correct the situation and punish those officers involved. Punishment must conform to existing laws, collective bargaining agreements, and department disciplinary procedures. …

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