Focus On Ethics: The Law Enforcement Oath of Honor

By members of the IACP Police Image and Ethics Committee

By Chief Charles Bennett, Lynchburg Police Department, Virginia; Deputy Chief Keith Bushey, San Bernardino Sheriff's Department, California; Assistant Commissioner Patrick Cummings, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; Superintendent Ann Marie Doherty, Boston Police Department, Massachusetts; Chief Larry Hesser, Georgetown Police Department, Texas; Chief Mike Jahn, Midwest City Police Department, Oklahoma; and Chief Richard Melton, Los Alamos Police Department, New Mexico

Summary:

Among the initiatives of the IACP is the adoption by all law enforcement agencies of the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor. At present, the effort is being spearheaded by the Leadership Subcommittee of the IACP's Police Image and Ethics Committee. While much remains to be done, the Oath of Honor is one of the foremost issues of discussion among law enforcement executives nationwide, and has received an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response.

Text:

Among the initiatives of the IACP is the adoption by all law enforcement agencies of the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor. At present, the effort is being spearheaded by the Leadership Subcommittee of the IACP's Police Image and Ethics Committee. While much remains to be done, the Oath of Honor is one of the foremost issues of discussion among law enforcement executives nationwide, and has received an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response.

The Oath of Honor is a critical initiative designed to fill a long-term need and eventually be institutionalized throughout the criminal justice profession worldwide.

There is little disagreement among law enforcement administrators that upholding professional ethics is the most critical issue facing our profession. From recruiting and selection, through promotions and assignments, to training and field activities, no other factor weaves such a powerful web through every aspect of policing. There is a critical need to heighten the awareness and visibility of our ethical standards, both internally and externally, and the implementation and institutionalization of the Oath of Honor is a major step towards that goal.

Understanding the Need

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.

For those executives who have historically had a deep "buy-in" with the old Codes of Ethics (the authors of this article included), it is time to recognize that a simpler, shorter and more powerful message can be better anchored into officers' long-term memories, so that it automatically flashes through their minds when they are confronted with ethical dilemmas.

Does the Oath of Honor replace the Code of Ethics? Absolutely not! It is important, however, to understand the distinction between these powerful processes, and to recognize that they are mutually supportive and not in conflict with one another. The Code of Ethics, even as modified to reflect local values, is a very powerful and comprehensive document that provides considerable specificity and detail with respect to ethical values and expectations. It has and will continue to have significant applicability. The Oath of Honor reflects these same values and expectations, but in a more easily understood and powerful manner. The Oath of Honor will greatly facilitate institutionalization through verbal reaffirmation, incorporation in training materials, placement on brochures and equipment and continual reinforcement through a variety of media.

Practical Application

Reasonable reaffirmation and appropriate visibility are the keys to the effectiveness of the Oath of Honor. Although we would like to think otherwise, we must be honest in acknowledging that ethics can be a perishable commodity that will suffer erosion if not continually reinforced. The Oath of Honor provides a continuous and powerful reinforcement for our employees and our organizations. The notion that human beings are more likely to remember something that is short and concise than something long and detailed is supported not only by conventional wisdom but by a significant body of physiological research. Because it is so concise, the Oath of Honor lends itself to immediate retrieval and personal reinforcement during stressful events.

It is envisioned that the Oath of Honor would be used in a number of applications, including spoken as a form of voluntary reaffirmation at assembled public and internal gatherings of law enforcement officers (public ceremonies, promotional events, law enforcement conferences, etc.); placed on signs and conspicuously displayed throughout law enforcement facilities; printed on the back of business cards and other types of agency materials; incorporated at every opportunity in policies, procedures and training materials; referred to by administrators in conversation and correspondence; and referenced in both positive and negative personnel actions.

The Next Step

The implementation of this powerful tool, and its institutionalization in the profession as a whole as well as individual departments, is in your hands. The IACP is working hard to ensure that you have access to the materials necessary to make the Oath of Honor a reality in your agency. Materials are available including a video that introduces the Oath of Honor, photo-ready copies of the oath, an attractive parchment version suitable for framing, laser-cut wall plaques of the oath and other promotional items. We hope you will take every opportunity to administer and reaffirm the oath in appropriate settings, seek the support of your personnel in embracing the oath and all that it stands for, incorporate it in your printed materials and institutionalize it throughout your organization.

It's up to you.

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