Ethics and Law Enforcement

By Grant, J. Kevin | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Ethics and Law Enforcement


Grant, J. Kevin, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Many people consider the U.S. justice system, comprised of various organizations, such as the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the FBI, as one of the best criminal justice systems in the world. Nevertheless, the system still has concerns that it deals with on a regular basis, such as ethics and ethical conduct.

The topic of ethics and ethical behavior has existed for centuries. Many people believe that Socrates was the first philosopher to delve into the issue of ethics, specifically the ethical treatment of problems in government. (1) Plato documented Socrates' discussions concerning ethics in The Republic.

Ethical Standards

As society has evolved, the questions and concerns that involve ethics and ethical behavior have grown more difficult to address. Ethical standards have become both more complex and scrutinized by the public than at any other time in history. Therefore, law enforcement personnel must carry out tasks assigned to them while the rules and laws constantly change and their freedom to perform the necessary tasks becomes obstructed. Citizens expect law enforcement officials to operate in an efficient and professional manner without expressing personal views and emotions. To accomplish this, law enforcement personnel must have a strict and unwavering adherence to a code of ethics and a code of conduct.

Law enforcement officers are professionals; they work in a skilled occupational group whose prime consideration constitutes providing a service that benefits the public. Because law enforcement is a profession, ethics and ethical conduct play an important role. Ethics and ethical standards involve doing the right thing at the right time in the right way (2) for the right reason. (3) With this in mind, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) established a code of ethics to govern the conduct of its members. This code of ethics, originally written in 1957, was revised at the IACP conference in Louisville, Kentucky, on October 17, 1989. The IACP membership reviewed and finalized these revisions. In October 1991, IACP members unanimously voted to adopt the new codes. (4)

U.S. citizens have a set of values and norms that they expect all law enforcement (local, state, and federal) to practice. To follow these norms and to gain respect, law enforcement personnel must remain ethical and conduct themselves accordingly at all times, both on and off duty. The law enforcement code of ethics and the police code of conduct represent the basis for ethical behavior in law enforcement. In addition, these codes encourage law enforcement's classification as a profession. However, these codes simply constitute words. For them to be effective, law enforcement officials and their leaders must consider them as the bible for law enforcement. Law enforcement personnel must not only believe in the codes but also follow them and display conduct that supports them. Thus, law enforcement officers must live the code. (5)

Any criminal justice system represents an apparatus society uses to enforce the standards of conduct necessary to protect individuals and communities. (6) The laws of this nation, designed to protect and defend the public, provide the framework for a democratic society. Law enforcement officials must perform their duties according to these laws. Law enforcement personnel must have guidelines to perform their duties to act in an ethical manner and to enforce specific standards of conduct. These guidelines exist in the form of the law enforcement code of ethics and the police code of conduct.

The law enforcement code of ethics is used as an oath of office during the graduation ceremony for many law enforcement personnel. Prospective law enforcement officers offer the oath to the state in exchange for the employment they receive. (7) This oath remains morally binding throughout the officer's entire length of service in law enforcement. …

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