Managing for Ethics: A Mandate for Administrators

By O'Malley, Timothy J. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Managing for Ethics: A Mandate for Administrators


O'Malley, Timothy J., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Law enforcement has experienced both organizational and operational changes in the last several years. These changes, coupled with a formidable and entrenched police culture, call for fresh approaches to managing for ethics in police work.

Unfortunately, little has been written concerning the impact of these changes on the ethical framework of law enforcement agencies. Moreover, only a limited number of studies have analyzed the topic of police ethics as it is currently framed. As a result, today's law enforcement managers must piece together ideas from a patchwork of commentaries.

This article explores the impact of specific factors on police ethics. It also reviews current literature available to help police executives manage for ethics, identifies areas where additional research is needed, and offers thoughts for promoting ethical conduct in law enforcement.

FACTORS

In the last few years, ethical issues in law enforcement have been affected by three critical factors--the growing level of temptation stemming from the illicit drug trade, the challenges posed by decentralization, and the potentially compromising nature of the police organizational culture. These factors make managing for ethics today far more different and demanding than it was in the past.

Greater Temptations

Police officers face greater temptations than they did just a decade or so ago. Many of these enticements can be traced to the explosive and lucrative illegal drug trade. A tremendous amount of illicit cash fuels this market. Potential profits for mid- and upper-level drug dealers continue to climb as criminal sanctions grow stiffer. Consequently, today's officers may be tempted by sizable payoffs from criminals and enticed by opportunities to steal large sums of illicit cash.

The potential for corruption in drag work may be compounded by the nature of officers who excel in this area. Drug investigations rank among the most fast-paced and proactive of any in which officers participate. Undercover work makes up an integral component of these cases.

A recent study established that fast-talking, outgoing, assertive, and self-confident risk takers represent the best candidates for undercover work. While this may come as no surprise, the study also concluded that these personality traits "are often the same ones predisposing [an officer] to corruption and psychological distress."(1)

Decentralization

Police managers also must consider the growing impact of the community-oriented policing (COP) approach on police ethics. Historically, police agencies have relied on a strict chain-of-command structure to ensure accountability.(2) While individual officers exercised some discretion, they generally required supervisory approval for consequential decisions and for extensive contacts with citizens or community organizations.

Community-oriented policing has revolutionized traditional methods of control and accountability. Attempts to regulate ethical behavior by imposing strict controls have proven counterproductive under the COP approach. Indeed, decentralizing authority is one of the basic tenets of community-oriented policing.

The COP philosophy encourages officers to be creative problem solvers. It also encourages them to work closely with citizens and to initiate contacts with community organizations. Partly because of the sheer volume of these contacts initiated within the COP framework, these activities often go unmonitored, resulting in less accountability. This new freedom necessarily exposes officers to more opportunities for corruption.

Organizational Culture

Finally, managers must consider the influence of some longstanding features of police organizational culture. Many observers have cited what one called "a police culture that exalts loyalty over integrity."(3) Many also recognize that an implicit code of silence can infect a department from top to bottom. …

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