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Police Ethics: Identifying Opportunities for Improvement
Many people have are afraid of the police, and some would even argue they are afraid for good reason. Indeed, sensationalized and high-profile accounts of police brutality, corruption, sex scandals, malfeasance and abuse of power in the mainstream media have fueled this mindset in recent years. Further exacerbating this negative image of law enforcement are popular views of police extortion in the form of receiving free food and beverages wherever they go, even if these are freely offered. In this environment, identifying opportunities for improving the ethical image of police officers represents a timely and valuable enterprise. To this end, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning police ethics and how ethical training can help achieve this goal. A summary of the research and important findings are provided in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
For some Americans, the fear of the police is only outweighed by their contempt. For instance, according to Cohen and Feldberg (1999), "Segments of the contemporary general public seem to hold the image that a significant proportion of police officers are lazy, corrupt, intolerant or brutal, and that the moral standards of the 'average' police officer are pretty low" (p. xi). These perceptions are reinforced over time when the public witnesses police officers engaging in less-than-ethical conduct. In this regard, Cohen and Feldberg add that, "Put another way, many Americans assume that, at this very moment, a large proportion of their local police officers are down at the doughnut shop, swigging free coffee and chatting with the waitress" (1999, p. xi). These types of perceptions are important because they serve to shape the public's reaction to and cooperation with the law enforcement community. For example, Pfeifer (2003) emphasizes that, "It may be argued that police are perceived as upholders and exemplars of the law and that such a position affords its holders power, status, and respect. This position, however, results in extraordinary expectations and, as such, police personnel are expected to be mindful, dutiful and, perhaps above all, ethical" (2003, p. 124). These public perceptions of the police are also important because of the unique status of police officers in the United States. In this regard, Moll (2007) emphasizes that, "The police in the United States are entrusted with enormous power. No other government official legally holds and regularly uses the power to detain citizens, search their personal belongings, use physical force against them or otherwise deprive them of their normal liberties" (p. 37).
The natural concomitant of the delegation of this much power in any one group in a free and democratic nation means that the police in some cases are regarded with fear and contempt, a dangerous combination unless the police take active steps to counter it through ethical practices and behaviors. As Moll points out, "People of all demographic backgrounds fear the police. With this awesome power comes the responsibility to use it for the public good in accordance with the democratic principles our republic was founded on" (2007, p. 37). Furthermore, the disconnect between what the general public actually observes in their police force and what is expected is the extent to which the police will be held in high regard or with contempt and fear. In this regard, Owens and Pfiefer (2003) emphasize that, "Specifically, police agencies and their members are understood to not only uphold the law, which may be described as a formalized system of ethics, but also serve as examples of unfailingly ethical behaviour. In fact, it may be argued that more ethical precision is expected from the police than from almost any other segment of society" (2007, p. 37). Like an individual's self-esteem that is shattered when life works out differently than what is expected, when the public perceives the police behaving in unethical ways, the high expectations of ethical behavior are also crushed. For instance, Owens and Pfeifer also note that, "When this expectation is breached (e.g., an officer engages in ethically questionable behaviour or makes a poor ethical decision) the attention of society becomes riveted upon the 'offending' member and trust in the profession as a whole may be compromised" (2007, p. 124). Because ethical dilemmas span the entire range of the human condition and there are countless opportunities for ethical missteps, police officers may need some formal training to help them make ethical decisions. In this regard, Owens and Pfeifer add that, "It is clear that a broad and deep understanding of ethical decision making, not simply the letter of the law, is a vital component of police training as with other professions" (Owens & Pfeifer, 2003, p. 124).
In the past, unethical police officers were explained away with the "rotten apple" theory: that a few bad police officers created a bad reputation for all police and this theory remains popular among some theorists today. To help overcome this perception, Moll (2007) suggests that ethical training can only go so far in assisting officers make the difficult choices that are involved in ethical dilemmas and recommends a more thorough selection progress to help weed out the rotten apples before they ever have a chance to infect the rest of the barrel. According to Moll, "
Improved ethics training may begin to repair the rotten barrel over time, but rotten apples can be avoided if police agencies devote a great deal of effort on the front end by carefully selecting individuals of good character" (2007, p. 38). The search for the best candidates for police officer positions can be facilitated through the use of screening tools such as background checks, polygraph examinations, psychological tests, personal interviews and assessment scenarios (Moll, 2007).
Because the types of ethical dilemmas that are encountered by police officers on a day-to-day basis vary so dramatically, ethical training should also include real-world examples and vignettes that can help illustrate ethical points, behaviors and practices (Moll, 2007). This guidance is congruent with the research to date concerning developing optimal ethical training programs for the law enforcement community. In this regard, Moll advises that, "Situational variability in ethics calls not only for ethical instruction to be included in a wide range of classroom work, but also across activities. This approach is supported by the training literature as well as by research into the ethical climate of the organization" (p. 38). Indeed, the ethical climate of the law enforcement organization will have a great deal of influence on how police officers conduct themselves. According to Moll, the ethical climate in a police department begins at the top but it extends throughout the entire department. According to Moll, "Organizational ethics research indicates that the effective delineation and communication of ethical standards may positively impact both individual accountability and knowledge regarding organizationally sanctioned expectations and limits" (p. 39). A growing body of research confirms that most people tend to act in accordance with the prevailing ethical climate in their organizations. In this regard, Moll points out that, "Findings indicate that the predominant effect of the organizational ethical climate on individuals is that people tend to act in accordance with their perception of the 'average' moral standard of others in the organization (i.e., people behave in ways they feel will be morally acceptable to others in the organization)" (p. 38). Consequently, novice police officers in particular will be highly influenced by the prevailing ethical climate that is in place in the department (Moll, 2007). It is important to point out, though, that even the most ethical candidates for police officer positions may lack the other attributes needed to be a good police officer, but these qualities are equal or even subordinate to the overarching need for ethical conduct. For instance, according to Miller, Blackler and Alexandra (2006), "Mere possession and exercise of such expertise is…[continue]
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