Term Paper: Police Codes of Ethics Virtually

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[. . .] Some might disagree with that. A case could be made to keep a Code of Ethics short and to the point, and then the police departments should develop ways to deal with violations. Internal management of ethical as well as criminal violations is a complicated task and perhaps cannot be addressed adequately in a Code of Ethics. However, the final paragraph in the Denver, Detroit, etc. Code addresses this issue to some degree:

recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of the police service. I will constantly strive to achieve these objectives and ideals, dedicating myself before God to my chosen profession...law enforcement."

Presumably, Washington, D.C. police officers know that if they break the law or departmental regulations, they will have to face some sort of consequence, but Codes of Ethics cannot serve the purpose of a detailed employee manual nor as detailed departmental policies. But the fact that Codes of Ethics must necessarily be brief and concise emphasizes the groundwork that must be laid if those sworn to uphold that Code are to understand the meanings and implications. Thus during academy training, police cadets must receive instruction in criminal justice ethics. Stewart (1998) makes the point that if this instruction is too esoteric or abstract, it may not result in effective teaching, and that such instruction should take place within a practical framework of police work. Given such instruction, police officers should understand the full ramifications of the statements contained in Codes of Ethics.

Grundstein-Amado (2001) argues that codes of ethics should serve three purposes: to inform the public about the goals of the organization; to encourage an ethical climate within the organization; and provide a structure for resolving ethical questions. However, it could also be reasonably stated that informing the public about the goals of the organization might be better done with a mission statement and that no code of conduct could be detailed enough to provide a plan for resolving ethical questions, which could range from charges of decision-making based on race to taking bribes to unwarranted violence against arrestees.

Whole articles and chapters of books have been written on individual issues touched upon in codes of conduct, such as corruption. Perry (2001) notes how complex the issue can be, in some instances representing an isolated instance and in other instances reflecting what he calls a "double standard," where corruption is tolerated to a lesser or greater degree among subgroups within the organization. Clearly, a formal Code of Conduct cannot cover all possible ethical and professional issues. In fact, although Detroit has a Code of Ethics, in 2000 the mayor of Detroit, Dennis Archer, addressed the issue of excesses by the Detroit police, stating "This afternoon, I want to assure the people of Detroit that on my watch, the City of Detroit will never tolerate a return to the police harassment and over-aggressive law enforcement that hindered Detroit's police and community relations in the past." (4)

This raises an interesting question. Washington, D. C.'s Code says,

Members shall administer the law in a just, impartial, and reasonable manner," and Members shall recognize their responsibility as public servants and shall be particularly attentive to citizens seeking assistance, information, who desire to register complaints, or give evidence," suggesting a restrained approach to the execution of their jobs. By comparison, Denver's and Detroit's Code of Ethics says, "With no compromise for crime and with relentless prosecution of criminals, I will enforce the law courteously and appropriately without fear or favor, malice or ill will, never employing unnecessary force or violence." That might be interpreted as sending a double message: officers are supposed to "serve mankind, to safeguard lives and property, to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation, and the peaceful against violence or disorder," which again takes a more stern approach."

While the Code of Ethics used by Denver, Detroit, and so many other cities would benefit from putting less emphasis vague moral statements. It could be argued that it is not the business of the Police Department what police do when they are off-duty. Even if an officer becomes a compulsive gambler, this is a concern if it leaves the policeman vulnerable to graft, but the police department should not be in the position of diagnosing a gambling problem before it has made a work problem. Second, these cities should consider writing their own Code of Ethics that reflect their unique communities instead of using a pre-written statement used by police departments all over the country. The process of sitting down to write a unique Code of Ethics would provide many opportunities for officers from all levels of the department to participate and to explore and think about what they really think represents ethical police behavior. Finally, this Code of Ethics makes absolutely no mention of a police officer's responsibility to report ethical violations of fellow officers. Incidents such as physical abuse of an arrestee or taking bribes rarely happen in such total seclusion that no one else becomes aware of it. It might make sense for police departments to put forth Codes of Conduct that require officers to report graft, corruption, racist incidents and corruption when they see it.

If the Washington, D.C. police department has not done it yet, they should also form committees and write a Code of Ethics that reflects the input of as many people as possible. No one person knows everything there is to know, and the process of writing this Code would stimulate discussion and consideration of the serious issues a Code of Ethics should address. Second, since the community will look at this Code of Ethics carefully, they should make sure that their Code, which is clearly stated, also reflects the community the police serve. For instance, if racial relations are a concern, they might consider making sure that their Code of Ethics specifically addresses that concern. Finally, they should consider including the issue of the "code of silence" within police departments that encourage one officer to remain silent when they know that something is going on that should not be, such as graft, planting weapons, racial provocation, or excessive force. If such issues aren't even mentioned in the Code of Ethics, it may help create an atmosphere where cover-ups of serious problems become more common.


City of Detroit. DATE. "Detroit Police Department Web." The Official Web Site of the City of Detroit. Accessed via the Internet 2/22/04. http://www.ci.detroit.mi.us/police/police/html/coethic.htm

Denver. 1999 (April). Law Enforccement Code of Ethics. "Operations Manual for the Police Department of the City and County, Denver, Colorad." Accessed via the Internet 2/22/04. http://www.denvergov.org/police/opmanual/introa.pdf

Grundstein-Amado, Rivka. 2001. "A Strategy for Formulation and Implementation of Codes of Ethics in Public Service Organizations." International Journal of Public Administration, 24:5, pp. 461+.

Hunt, Geoffrey, Ph.D., Professor of Ethics, Ersta University College. 1999. "Twenty Things To Think About!" In How to Write A code of Ethics / Conduct. Accessed via the Internet 2/22/04. http://www.freedomtocare.org/page25.htm

Perry, Frank L. 2001. "Preventing Corruption within Our Ranks." The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Feb.

Proctor, Sonya T. Interim Chief of Police. 1997. "Statement of Interim Chief of Police Sonya T. Proctor on Metropolitan Police Department Ethics and Integrity." December 15. Accessed via the Internet 2/22/04. http://www.dcwatch.com/police/971215.htm

Stewart, Bradley. 1998. "Constitutional Conscience: Criminal Justice and Public Interest Ethics." Criminal Justice Ethics, June 22. [END OF PREVIEW]

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