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personal and police ethics

Updated on May 28, 2014

One should never need to sacrifice the ethics of a professional code for one’s personal ethics, nor the other way around. This white paper is a review of a personal code of ethics and how it compares to the code of ethics for a police officer.

As we grow up, hopefully our parents and teachers instill within us a code of ethics. If you cheat at a test, you will be punished. Don’t hit your baby sister. This is also approached by religions to cover, supposedly, all possible values necessary to be a “good” human being.

As an adult, the personal code of ethics is basically the Ten Commandments, with an appendix on ecological issues, a push for nondiscrimination, and a dash of do-no-harm. With such a general code, each instance of ethical decision needs to be weighed and decided as it occurs. And there is the possibility of not even realizing that a situation in which one finds oneself is in reality an ethical dilemma.

It’s been said that United States police have the highest level of ethics by profession. A police officer, is constantly facing ethical questions. Obviously, s/he would want to be honest and therefore want to engender honesty in the people for and with whom s/he will be working.

The police officer interacts constantly with the community and the government in an effort to not only enforce the laws, but also to help out both groups of people in small and large ways. Therefore the police officer needs to have more than a passing knowledge of all ethical standards governing his or her city, including codes of conduct (for police, government and citizens), gifts and hospitality, planning and licensing codes, the protocols for government/officer relations, and issuances from the Standards Board. This not only helps the officer know where the boundaries are which s/he must enforce, but also what the boundaries are for his or her own actions.

It is difficult to compare one's personal ethical code to the police professional conduct code because this changes (if it is even documented) in each district. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police,

“Simply stated, the law enforcement profession does not have a concise, powerful and universal process by which officers are able to periodically reaffirm their ethical values and beliefs. Of course, we all take an individual oath of office, and some of us also take an oath derived from the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, but neither of these processes lend themselves to continuous and convenient application in public and professional settings. The Oath of Honor fills that void, provides the profession with a tool that is easily institutionalized, understood and remembered. Summarizing our values in a simple statement, it lends itself to tasteful and appropriate administration in a wide spectrum of settings.”

The personal code of ethics is more far-reaching than the average professional code, since the person not only wants to be sure to follow and enforce the laws, but s/he would want to rebuild the bond between a police officer and his or her beat. This means going further in building relationships with the citizenry on the beat, and knowing more about the government structure to be able to advise the citizens when they need help beyond what the officer can do in his capacity.

The unwritten code for a police officer has greatly to do with image – good appearance, polite language even in the face of anger, and no drinking on duty, for instance. There also must be careful language usage in the face of legal issues further down the road, such as ensuring that the Miranda is read and understood, and avoiding any derogatory remarks that could throw the officer’s testimony out of court.

Police officers must work closely with the District Attorney’s office to ensure that an arrest will lead to prosecution. Even in simple cases such as a speeding ticket, the officer must be sure that he acts ethically and completely within the law. This is not simply a matter of proper procedures; the officer must always follow an ethical path, which includes avoiding such acts as planting evidence or lying to cover another officer. The personal code of ethics demands that when he is alone (with or without a suspect) he act exactly as he would if the Chief of Police was watching.

Personal ethics would have a hard time with one of the unwritten codes for police officers. Because the image of the police is very important, and officers constantly face dangerous situations, if an officer makes a mistake, he and fellow officers often cover up the mistake. An ethical officer would have to report such actions to his superior officer and hope that he doesn’t get embroiled with Internal Affairs. In a corrupt district, this can have devastating repercussions, possibly costing him his job or forcing a transfer.

Personal ethics help resolve dilemmas because not all things are black and white – there is a sliding scale of values. When an ethical dilemma arises it is usually because both – or neither – outcome seems to be as good or bad as the other. So one needs to prioritize the choices to determine which path to follow. For instance, human beings are more important than animals.

Recently a woman’s pet ape, which she’d reared since infancy until he was like a child, attacked and killed the woman’s best friend. Killing the ape would not be a matter of revenge but rather prevention, so that this wild animal would no longer be viewed as domestic and thereby be given the opportunity to harm another human. On the other hand, the victim’s family then sued the woman for a huge amount of money. This is ridiculous; not only did this woman lose her best friend at the hands of a “family member”, but she also lost a pet that she’d had for many years which was as close to her as a son. She is already suffering in a way that will probably never heal. To sue for money on top of this is simple greed. The questionable ethics in this situation belong to the victim's family.

There is a constant battle between civil courts and legal courts. The most glaring example of this is when a person such as OJ Simpson is cleared of wrong doing legally, yet loses everything he owns in a wrongful death suit.

Another example may be found in politics. What if your brother was running for the senate seat in your state, but you didn’t agree with his plans for when he got in office? At the same time, you had been following the record and aspirations of your brother’s opponent, and felt that that person would be a much better senator. Despite love and loyalty to family, you should vote for the opponent. That’s the beauty of the privacy of the voting booth. Since a senate seat allows a lot of power to further the hopes of the state and the nation, it is more important to elect someone who will help the country rather than one’s brother.

The basic framework of the personal ethical code is:

  • Obey all laws, of the country as well as of one’s religion.
  • If you want it you must earn it.
  • Protect and support country over town, family over stranger, humanity over all other life forms.
  • Spread love and compassion by example.
  • Tolerate all differences as simply being different rather than good or bad
  • Use whatever talents and powers you may have to the betterment of mankind and the earth.


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    • Bonnie-Jean Rohne profile imageAUTHOR

      Bonnie-Jean Rohner 

      6 years ago from Williamson, New York

      Aww, shucks.... this is a time of blurred ethics, perhaps because the influence of religion has fallen off - or been warped, as with Islam. And ethics in any profession usually consists of 'rules' in a handbook. When I taught business systems analysis, and even databases, I always spent quite a bit of time on ethics. In business, I grew up leqarning all sorts of unethical methods - it's a constant battle.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      6 years ago from Taos, NM

      Great hub! I wholeheartedly agree with your personal ethic code. I find that the ethical line has become blurred and is constantly moving around at this point and time in history. No one seems to have a personal ethic code other than 'if I want it I take it.' I wish more people would read this and understand how important personal ethics are to a civil society. We wouldn't have half the problems we do today if everyone followed this ethical code you give. Thank you for an interesting and informative article and a code we all should follow.


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