Law Enforcement Ethics Do Not Begin When You Pin on the Badge

By Stephens, Norman | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Law Enforcement Ethics Do Not Begin When You Pin on the Badge


Stephens, Norman, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


In every person's life, there are particular dates that can be mentally retrieved in a moment's notice. September 11, 2001, immediately comes to mind. December 7, 1941, is a day "that will live in infamy," and July 4, 1776, is the day the United States gained its independence. Dates of national importance are not the only ones we remember. The birth of a child, the death of a parent, the anniversary of our marriage are just as likely to spark our recollection. For those blessed to be police officers, the day they first recited the police code of ethics can compete with each of these dates.

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to lecture future law enforcement officers in the classrooms of colleges and universities--young men and women making the decision to serve even though they easily could have chosen a safer, more lucrative career path. I also have had the misfortune to counsel equally bright and ambitious young people who, due to poor decision making, will never be afforded the honor of pinning on the badge. Because of those uncomfortable moments, I realized that the characteristics associated with the police code of ethics does not begin the day a person becomes a police officer; it must become a part of the future officer's life as early as teenage years.

Few professions demand as much moral fiber as policing. Indiscretions, easily overlooked in other political arenas, bring shame and mistrust in the field of law enforcement. There is little more ethical expectation of religious leaders than of police officers. The International Association of Chiefs of Police published the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics as a reminder to all those in law enforcement of their commitment to the public they serve. Although the code is over 250 words in length, for the purpose of brevity, I focus on fewer than 65. "I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all ... maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn, or ridicule; develop self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others. Honest in thought and deed both in my personal and official life, I will be exemplary in obeying the law and the regulations of my department."

Now, more than ever, police administrators are not willing to hire average applicants. No longer is simply being bigger, stronger, and tougher a prerequisite for employment. Chiefs, faced with greater public scrutiny and potential civil liability, search for more gifted employees. Seldom will a police administrator overlook deficiencies in an applicant when a potential candidate waiting in the wings may have less baggage. The initial financial outlay required to hire, educate, and outfit an officer has dramatically reduced an organization's desire to give a person a tryout. Instead, there is a renewed interest to hire the right person the first time.

Those who dream of a career in law enforcement often find themselves either apologizing, rationalizing, or, worse yet, misleading potential employers about their past indiscretions. Theodore Roosevelt once said, "No man can lead a public career really worth leading, no man can act with rugged independence in serious crises, nor strike at great abuses, nor afford to make powerful and unscrupulous foes, if he is himself vulnerable in his private character." Inasmuch as all people will have to answer for themselves on judgment day, that day begins for those applying to become a police officer when they fill out the application for employment. Throughout this process, their past will be scrutinized by a number of people. …

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