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Why we should establish a police code of ethics.

During the past three decades, a number of substantive changes have occurred within American society that have affected our perspectives about law enforcement officers and the organizations in which they serve. Many of these changes have resulted from social initiatives, foremost among them the civil rights movement and the women's movement. Both have altered our society in a way that has redefined what is acceptable behavior. The waves set off by these movements have shattered old barriers and helped to resolve dilemmas of ethics that previously were insurmountable.

Officers no longer have to face the issue of enforcing racially or sexually discriminatory laws because our society has determined that these laws are not legal or proper. Thus the ethical dilemma that an officer might have had to face thirty years ago of whether to arrest a black person for failing to move to the back of the bus no longer exists. The institutional standards for employment and promotion that allowed discrimination based on race or sex have been determined to be illegal. Unthinkable now are the separate, unarmed black-neighborhood-only black patrols of the beginning of the century. The question of whether women are capable of handling patrol duties has been rendered obsolete, this issue having been resolved by the evidence of women police officers performing their law enforcement duties with great efficiency, strength, and dedication.

The moral dilemma faced by a recruiting officer, whether to enforce institutionally discriminatory hiring practices against minorities or women, has been resolved by statute and case law. Of course, this does not mean that discrimination no longer exists, nor does it mean that a member of a law enforcement organization, in making personnel decisions, is not faced with adverse institutional pressures. However, the recruiter does have the law to comply with, and the institution has a standard of fairness and equality that it must meet in the discharge of its responsibilities. Where discrimination occurs, the official and the institution can be sued, held liable, and forced to make substantial damage payments.

Daily challenges to a police agency's ethics remain. Today the greatest of these are like to be presented by the culture of violence that has become pervasive in many U.S. cities. We do not seem to be able to get guns off the streets because they have been legitimized. They frequently end up in the hands of people who are mentally disturbed and bent on criminality. In a street encounter, more often than not, an officer faces down someone he does not know, and yet he frequently has to make a judgment or decision within a matter of seconds about whether he is going to use his weapon. What does the law allow? The law may say he can use his weapon whenever life is endangered, but that does not resolve the moral dilemma of whether it is absolutely necessary to shoot. An officer may be justified in using a lethal weapon, but that does not mean that he should use it.

Officers on the beat face many pressures under diverse conditions. The ethical framework from which an officer performs his duties and meets his obligations to the profession and to society is of considerable importance to the well-being of the community in which he works. It is imperative, therefore, that a strong code of ethics be established as a guide within the law enforcement agency, that this code be well understood by all officers, that it be made second nature through training, and that it be faithfully enforced through example by the departmental chain of command. The department must establish rigorous controls and apply appropriate disciplinary measures when required to make certain that the code of ethics is taken seriously by all officers. The need for diligent enforcement of such a code is made all the more critical by the changing dynamics of our society, by the complexities of its ethnic and racial fiber, and by the difficult that officers face in attempting to enforce often unpopular laws.

Some of our leading police agencies --very often the ones serving the most diverse populations--have been engaging for some time in a discussion of "values" in policing. By values they refer to those commonly accepted guidelines of human behavior that can help police officers decide between competing moral demands in the discharge of their duty. In other words, agencies have been striving to delineate professional codes of ethics.

Yet, people will argue, with such diversity in our society and in our police departments, how can police agencies and municipalities reach agreement on an acceptable code of ethics? I propose that any policing code of ethics should be based on that which lay the foundations for our government and our democratic way of life--the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution is the framework underlying the very laws that our police departments enforce. It contains everything that we need, so long as we do not blink at the implications of its provisions, so long as we are willing to apply its tenets fully and equally to all. For example, if our society had fully applied the Fourteenth Amendment, we would not have had decades of police enforcement of discriminatory practice, for the amendment extends to all equal protection under the law.

Therefore, I commend our republic's democratic values to police officers as unsurpassable guides. The more devotedly officers keep faith with our democracy, the higher they will rise in the public's esteem, for they will be seen as the community's true servants. The more observant they are of the Constitution's principles, the higher the standards of the profession will rise, and it is ever higher that the profession must strive, for its potential is great.
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Author:Williams, Hubert
Publication:Criminal Justice Ethics
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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