Improving American Police Ethics Training: Focusing on Social Contract Theory and Constitutional Principles

By Moll, Monica M. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Improving American Police Ethics Training: Focusing on Social Contract Theory and Constitutional Principles


Moll, Monica M., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

Ethics in government seems like an oxymoron to many American citizens. They are becoming increasingly cynical in their view of politicians, appointed officials and other public servants at all levels of government. Scandals and abuses of power are reported in the local and national news on a weekly basis, further eroding trust in government. At no level does this lack of trust have more serious implications than on the front-lines of American government--the local police.

Each nation strikes a different balance between order and liberty. The purpose of police in every society is social control. The police are called upon to maintain the balance between freedom and security that the government has established. The United States of America has historically placed more weight on the side of freedom and has been described as an experiment in ordered liberty. Delattre points out that the police play a central role in the success of this experiment, and therefore, "America's government is also an experiment in law enforcement and peacekeeping" (Delattre 2006, 18).

Police represent the arm of American government that is authorized to use non-negotiable coercive force on its citizens (Bittner 1985, 23). The police in the United States are entrusted with enormous power. No other government official legally holds and regularly uses the power to detain citizens, search their personal belongings, use physical force against them or otherwise deprive them of their normal liberties. As a result, people of all demographic backgrounds fear the police, but rarely does the average citizen express fear of the President of the United States or of their representative in Congress. With this awesome power comes the responsibility to use it for the public good in accordance with the democratic principles our republic was founded on. How can American citizens ensure that police officers take this responsibility seriously?

Before delving into the main topic of this paper regarding ethics training for police officers, it must be noted that ethics training alone will not increase the level of trust in the police or end abuses of police power and authority across the nation. Improving ethics training for American police officers is one crucial component of a series of changes that need to be implemented within the profession. A popular debate within police ethics literature centers around the question of whether corruption and misconduct are the result of rotten apples or a rotten barrel. The author's experience has revealed that departments with widespread problems usually suffer from both. Improved ethics training may begin to repair the rotten barrel over time, but rotten apples can be avoided if police agencies devote a great deal of effort on the front end by carefully selecting individuals of good character. A selection process that incorporates thorough background checks, polygraph examinations, psychological tests, personal interviews and assessment scenarios should be used to find the best available candidates for the position of police officer.

As Delattre notes, it may be difficult to find people in their early twenties that have had their character tested through experience and who have developed habits of excellence as a result (Delattre 2006, 86). At the very least, police departments must hire people who want to do the right thing and have shown that they have attempted to do so up to that point in their lives. Successful candidates should be those who view the opportunity to become a public servant as a privilege rather than those who are attracted to the power that comes with the position. They must understand and accept the fact that they will be held to the higher standards that apply to all public servants. No amount of ethics training will change the behavior of a person who is attracted to the occupation for the wrong reasons, who is not particularly concerned with what is morally right and who does not seem very concerned about his/her character. …

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