Police Corruption: An Analytical Look into Police Ethics

By Martin, Rich | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Police Corruption: An Analytical Look into Police Ethics


Martin, Rich, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Although studied and researched, the topic of police corruption, in large part, remains a mystery. Sir Robert Peel was credited with the concept that the police depend on citizen cooperation in providing services in a democratic society. As such, the detrimental aspects of police misconduct cannot be overstated. In terms of public trust for law enforcement, recent polls show that only 56 percent of people rated the police as having a high or very high ethical standard as compared with 84 percent for nurses. (1)

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Over the past few decades, great strides have occurred in the law enforcement profession. To begin with, many police agencies have avoided hiring candidates who have low ethical standards and have identified those onboard employees early in their careers who might compromise the department's integrity. In addition, research has discovered new methods of testing candidates for their psychological propensity to act ethically. However, unethical conduct by the nation's police officers continues to occur in departments large and small.

Research into police corruption offers some understanding of the phenomenon in the hope of rooting out this behavior that serves to undermine the overall legitimacy of law enforcement. Theories on the role of society in law enforcement, the negative influence of an officer's department, and a person's own natural tendency to engage in unethical behavior have been offered as explanations of police corruption. (2) So, the author poses the question: Is this noble goal to rid our nation's police organizations of unethical behavior possible and plausible?

Integrity

First of all, the discussion of ethics as related to law enforcement must begin with a definition of the word integrity. One researcher has said that it is "the sum of the virtues required to bring about the general goals of protections and service to the public." (3) He created a list of characteristics that he feels officers must possess to have integrity.

1. Prudence: the ability to discern between conflicting virtues and decide the best action to take

2. Trust: loyally and truthfulness in relationships between officers and citizens, fellow officers, and supervisors

3. Effacement of self-interests: without this, officers may exploit their authority to further themselves

4. Courage: the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness

5. Intellectual honesty: not knowing something and being humble and courageous enough to admit it

6. Justice: not in its normal context, but, rather, adjusting what is owed to a particular citizen even when it may contradict what is strictly owed

7. Responsibility: intending to do the right thing, clearly understanding what the right thing is, and being fully aware of other alternatives that may exist; taking responsibility, rather than finding excuses for mistakes or poor judgment

Leadership

Leadership constitutes an integral part of police work, and the head of an organization holds the ultimate responsibility for its shortcomings. Conversely, this individual greatly can influence the success of an agency. As such, leaders have a significant impact in preventing corruption.

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In working toward the goals of a department, the top executives play a primary role in forming the organizational climate. Those who strive to maintain a high standard of ethical conduct can serve as the key to prevent corruption and maintain the public's trust. (4) As one researcher explained, principled leaders do not act to protect their own egos, try to put on a good appearance without substance in their decisions or efforts, or attempt to intimidate those under them. Instead, principle-based executives who work with their subordinates can take an important step toward creating an ethical climate by developing an agenda that explains the moral purposes of the department. …

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