Virtually all police departments have some kind of formal "Code of Ethics," or guidelines that tell the members of the police force what is and is not acceptable behavior. The people these officers are sworn to serve and protect expect ethical behavior from those officers, and in fact there are times when public or individual safety depends on the officers' determination to act in ethical and honest ways. Meanwhile, we hear horrific stories about police force abuse, including cases where police officers have been caught selling drugs to the incident in New York some years ago where a suspect in custody was terribly abused while in custody.
Of course, the great majority of police officers go to work every day and are routinely prepared to put their lives on the line for others, conduct their professional with dignity and good judgment, and never once commit an offense that would place their name on a list of officers who had violated the public's faith, or any laws. Nevertheless, the police in any community have tremendous power, and it's important that the officers to whom the public entrust their safety act in honorable and ethical ways.
Because of the Internet, it is possible for concerned citizens and anyone else to view the Codes of Ethics for many police departments across the country. This paper will compare and contrast the Code of Conduct for Washington, D.C. And two other cities -- Denver and Detroit. It will compare Washington, D.C. And the other two cities because of a remarkable coincidence: Denver's and Detroit's Codes of Conduct are nearly identical, word for word.
Washington D. C.'s Code of Conduct was written by Interim Chief of Police Sonya T. Proctor after a period of turmoil in that police department. It reads,
The power of the police to fulfill their functions is dependent upon securing and maintaining community respect and approval, which includes obtaining the community's willingness to cooperate in the task of ensuring safety. The extent to which the community will cooperate with the Metropolitan Police Department is dependent upon its respect for, and confidence in, the police. The extent to which the community's respect and trust can be secured is diminished when a member of the department acts in an unprofessional, improper, dishonest, or unlawful manner.
In any effort to strengthen the citizen-police officer relationship, the personal conduct and attitude of the police officer is of paramount importance. Each member of the force must understand that the basis of the police service is a desire and a willingness to serve the community. In order to earn the respect and trust of the community, all sworn and civilian employees of the Metropolitan Police Department must subscribe to the following:
Members shall regard their office as a public trust and, in the discharge of their duties, be constantly mindful of their primary obligation to serve the community honestly, efficiently, and effectively.
Members shall administer the law in a just, impartial, and reasonable manner and shall not accord to some more reasonable treatment than to others. They shall recognize the limitations of their authority and at no time use the power of their office for their own personal advantage.
Members must observe, uphold, and enforce all laws without bias or prejudice, and without regard to the individual or individuals involved.
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.
Members shall cooperate fully with all other public officials to the end that the safety and general welfare of the community will be insured.
Members must conduct their private and professional lives in such a manner as to avoid bringing discredit upon themselves, the department, or the community. The community must regard them as examples of honesty, stability, fidelity, and morality.
Members must not conduct themselves in a manner which might be construed by the community as immoral, indecent, or unprofessional.
Members shall not engage in any relationships which might be construed as evidence of favoritism, unfairness, partiality, or unfair advantage. Members shall serve all members of the community in a fair, impartial, and professional manner (Proctor, 1997).
This Code of Ethics is particularly remarkable because it was written by one person. However, that person was responding to a need at the time.
Denver, Colorado's police department covers both the city and the county. Its Code of Ethics is shorter, and the source states that it was revised in April of 1999:
As a Law Enforcement Officer, my fundamental duty is 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; and to respect the Constitutional rights of all men to liberty, equality and justice.
I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all; maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn or ridicule; develop self-restraint and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others.
Honest in thought and deed in both my personal and official life, I will be exemplary in obeying the laws of the land and the regulations of my department. • Whatever I see or hear of a confidential nature or that is confided to me in my official capacity will be kept ever secret unless revelation is necessary in the performance of my duty.
I will never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, animosities or friendships to influence my decisions. 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 and never accepting gratuities.
A 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 (Denver, 1999).
In fact, putting the first eight words of Denver's Code of Ethics brought up not only Detroit but pages and pages of links to Codes of Conduct that were word for word, or nearly word for word, identical. A search of multiple sites never gave any attribution regarding authorship.
Geoffrey Hunt, an expert on ethics, says that the contents of codes of ethics can be divided up into three sections: substantive (about the content of the code); formal (about the 'shape' the code takes), and external factors (such as how to implement it) (Hunt, 1999). He suggests that the first section should address both legal and moral issues. In fact it is somewhat difficult to separate what the codes state by placing them into one section and not another, as the Codes are tightly written and the sentences and paragraphs address multiple concerns simultaneously.
Legally, the Washington Code addresses those concerns with these statements:
Members shall administer the law in a just, impartial and reasonable manner...They shall recognize the limitations of their authority and at no time use the power of their office for their own personal advantage..." And Members shall regard their office as a public trust and, in the discharge of their duties, be constantly mindful of their primary obligation to serve the community honestly, efficiently, and effectively."
The statement used by Denver, Detroit and so many other municipalities says:
respect the Constitutional rights of all men to liberty, equality and justice... I will be exemplary in obeying the laws of the land and the regulations of my department
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 and never accepting gratuities."
The format of the Code, or the shape it takes, is a little harder to judge. Both codes open paragraphs that emphasize that providing protection for those who need it is a primary responsibility. By placing it in the first paragraph, both Codes give that issue special emphasis.
When it comes to moral issues, however, the two statements differ some. Certainly the possibility of graft or other corruption is a moral as well as a legal issue. The Washington, D.C. Code states.".. At no time [shall the police] use the power of their office for their own personal advantage."
That statement is direct and to the point. The Washington, D.C. Code focuses on professional behavior. The Code used by Denver, Detroit, and many other cities, however, goes much further, stating, "I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all... Honest in thought and deed in both my personal and official life...." The Code does not state what "unsullied" means. Does it mean that officers must never engage in extra-marital affairs, or never cheat on their income taxes?