IACP In-service Training Material

IACP In-service Training Material

Training Key® #475
Police Ethics: Problems and Solutions -- Part I

This is Part One of a two-part Training Key. In this first part, we examine the nature and importance of police ethics and discuss some of the factors that affect police integrity in today's world. In Part Two of this Training Key, we will present specific suggestions that may help law enforcement agencies resolve some of the problems identified here.

Ethical Standards in the 1990s

Beyond question, one of the greater challenges faced by law enforcement in the 1990s is establishing and maintaining higher ethical standards for police personnel. Whether the current level of ethical and moral behavior among police officers is any worse today than it has been in the past is sometimes hotly debated. Indeed, some observers feel that the problem of police ethics is no worse now than it has ever been, but is simply more widely publicized today than in years past.

Whether the level of police integrity in the United States is actually worsening or is merely becoming more widely publicized is irrelevant. The point is that there is a problem, and police personnel of all ranks, from the chief down to the newest recruit, need to address this problem and work together to rectify it.

The issue is not a trivial one. Police ethics and morals involves far more than simple issues such as whether or not a police officer should accept a cup of coffee or a free meal from a local restaurant. The dilemma runs far deeper than that. The hard fact is that any lowering of ethical and moral standards among police personnel affects every area of police operations and adversely affects the ability of law enforcement agencies to accomplish the mission that society has entrusted to them. At best, a lack of integrity among a department's personnel leads to a lowering of that department's level of professional competence; at worst, it spreads corruption through the department and leads, inevitably, to lawlessness and brutality among officers on the street. In turn, the very fabric of our society is threatened.

The public-aided in part by widespread media coverage -- inevitably becomes aware of incidents of incompetence, corruption, or brutality within a department. Even though only one or a few officers may be involved in a particular incident, such episodes lead the people of that community to perceive all members of that department as incompetent, corrupt, or brutal. It is a well-documented and unfortunate fact that a few incidents of corrupt or brutal police behavior can overshadow or even negate years of efficient and honest police service and cause long-term damage to an agency's reputation.

Illegal and unethical acts by police officers, as others in positions of authority, often have a long afterlife and have resulted in resignations by police leaders and the undermining of officer morale. This, in turn, generates further problems in the community-increased officer antagonism toward what appears to be an unappreciative or even hostile public, less citizen cooperation, more friction in police-citizen interactions, more invitations to corruption, and more confrontations that may lead to the use of excessive force. It is a classic vicious circle, with worsening community relations, an increase in hostility between police and citizenry, and a concomitant growth of public contempt for the police all generating a downward spiral that far too often ends in tragedy.

The foregoing statements will come as no surprise to perceptive and responsible police agencies in the United States. Many police executives, well aware of these unpleasant facts, have made significant efforts to improve the level of professional ethics, personal morals, and overall integrity within their departments. For example, many departments have drafted and promulgated a code of ethics for their personnel, setting forth the ethical do's and don'ts for that department. Others have approached the issue by developing a statement of values for the agency designed to establish the framework for decision making among officers and to guide them in the use of their discretion on enforcement and other issues. While such codes and values statements are an essential step in the right direction and certainly constitute a helpful beginning, they are not, by themselves, sufficient. To deal effectively with the problem, law enforcement executives and supervisors must do more than admonish their personnel to be ethical. They must go further than that if they hope to succeed, and the first step is to achieve an understanding of the root causes of the problems being experienced today.

Factors Negatively Influencing Police Ethics

Many factors negatively influence police integrity. Recognizing some of the key factors involved is an essential first step in efforts to strengthen the foundation of police ethics. These factors include the following:

Changing moral standards of contemporary society. Most observers agree that the moral standards of contemporary society have fallen far below the norms of the past. This is not just a nostalgic longing for imaginary good old days. All arguments to the contrary, the fact is that the social environment in which we live today reflects a significant and continuing decline in moral and ethical standards in many areas of life.

But this is not to say that the history of police in the United States is free from charges of and documented instances or periods of corruption, brutality, and inefficiency from which police have just recently shown a general decline. In fact, the early reforms of this century were replete with efforts to bring police under some reasonable form of political and community accountability in an effort to stem corruption. Findings of numerous administrative and political investigations of police misconduct over the past 60 years -- such as the Wickersham, Kerner and Knapp Commissions, among others -- have made it all too clear that police can and have failed to adhere to ethical standards. What is being said, however, is that the fabric of American society (if not Western culture) in many important respects has suffered from a change of values that has diminished the importance of such things as personal and social responsibility, virtue, honesty, civility, and general adherence to standards of conduct based on traditionally honored moral codes.

Americans "lack a moral consensus" according to one authority, and are essentially "making up their own rules and laws."1 A representative survey conducted by the same source found that only 13 percent of all people believe in the 10 Commandments and nine out of 10 lie regularly. It is much more difficult for police officers, as well as others in our society's business and social worlds, to hold strong to ethical standards while so many around them -- particularly those who hold positions that should serve as examples to all -- are compromising or failing to adhere to the same code of conduct.

Unfortunately, these lowered social standards are becoming accepted as normal by our society. Conduct that, a few years ago, would have been considered intolerable has become routine -- even, to some, admirable. Dishonesty is now not only common but almost expected, not just in politics but also in other areas. Drug use is expected. Cheating is expected. Sexual misconduct is expected. Violence is expected. Many citizens are no longer outraged, or even surprised, by such things. As a culture, the United States is becoming numb to the widespread use of drugs, corruption of politicians, and violence in our streets. When these things become so commonplace in the eyes of the community, participation in them takes on a semblance of acceptability and as such, carries far less social stigma as immoral. Some in this environment even come to feel bad about being honest. According to Gary Edwards, Executive Director of the Ethics Resource Center in Washington, D.C., "people come to feel like suckers if they are honest, if companies they are competing against are not."2

Another significant phenomenon we find in this changing moral environment is the increasing number of individuals who reject responsibility for their own actions. The perpetrators of crimes are usually outraged when they are called upon to accept the consequences of their acts. Typically, they blame their actions upon other people and other things -- never upon themselves. Lacking any feeling of personal responsibility, they proceed to repeat the behavior again and again, each time denying personal accountability. Unfortunately, this atmosphere is perpetuated by many of our political and social institutions, including the legal system, which often fails to assign guilt or impose punishment upon the perpetrator, instead blaming the perpetrator's upbringing or environment or a host of other alleged causes of, and purported excuses for, the misconduct. Without a society that sets defined boundaries on behavior and calls wrongdoers to task for their bad or illegal acts, many Americans today feel little inclination to avoid unethical or immoral behavior. They are not required to accept the consequences of their unethical or immoral acts, and thus do not see themselves as bearing any responsibility for them.

The combination of these two factors -- the lowering of moral standards and the failure of individuals to accept responsibility for the consequences of their own acts -- produce a "what's wrong with that?" mentality across a broad spectrum of U.S. society. The abnormal has become normal; the immoral has become commonplace. Obviously, the police are not to blame for this state of affairs; it is a phenomenon of modern society as a whole. However, it would be naive to believe that the police are not directly and drastically affected by it.

One of the effects of society's decline upon the police is very simple and very obvious: Police officers' attitudes inevitably reflect the environment in which they were raised and in which they work.

This is first apparent in the recruiting process. Applicants for police careers are a cross-section of our society, and, in general, they reflect the moral tone of that society. Fortunately, many police applicants are ethical, moral, dedicated people of high integrity, but it is only realistic to expect that, as a class, police applicants bring to their work attitudes of the culture in which they grew up and live in.

In addition, once they become police officers, police personnel are affected by, and may adhere to, the values of the environment in which they perform their police duties. They may not -- and often do not -- understand or accept the idea that, regardless of what they see going on around them, they as police officers hold a position of trust, a very special position in society, a position that demands high ethical and moral standards precisely because of its unique nature.

The Officer's Working Environment

Another of the major factors that negatively affect the moral standards of the police is the very high degree of frustration being experienced by today's police officers. Frustration often leads to disillusionment, cynicism, frustration and anger, and these in turn can result in reduced performance, corruption, and, all too often, brutality.

These frustrations arise from many sources. For example, many (if not most) officers perceive the legal system as being weighted far too heavily against law enforcement and in favor of the criminal. Further, police officers far too often see other individuals or segments of society -- criminals, criminal lawyers, politicians, etc. -- flouting the law and getting away or even being rewarded for it, while the honest cop labors year after year in a relatively low-paid and often dangerous and thankless job.

Of course, there are other causes of job frustration that may or may not contribute in some manner to the deterioration of police ethics or integrity. Slow promotion, inadequate pay scales, departmental infighting, low morale, domestic strains caused by police work, constant danger or threat of danger, frequent temptations, and all the other stresses of modern police work can take a heavy toll. All of these are familiar subjects that have been explored in other publications, and no attempt will be made to discuss them here.

However, there is another, seldom-mentioned factor that contributes significantly to police frustration and the downward spiral of declining ethical standards, and it needs to be understood and addressed if significant changes are to occur: the expectations that are held about police ethics.

Organizational Expectations of the Police

Our society has certain perceptions, images, and expectations of the police, not all of which are realistic or accurate. Failure of the public in general and political and community leaders in particular to gain a clear and realistic conception of the role and capabilities of the police has had serious consequences for law enforcement in the United States. Misinformed or conflicting perceptions of the proper role of the police and conflicting expectations about what is or should be expected from the police often contribute to an environment of confusion built on mixed or even conflicting goals and objectives. This in turn directly affects the working environment of police, their morale, and their susceptibility to corruption and brutality.

For example, the public -- the same public that is itself so often lacking in moral and ethical standards or a feeling of responsibility for its own actions -- generally expects higher standards of the police. Whatever they may think or do themselves, people expect police to adhere to higher norms. Even the perpetrators of the foulest crimes are often contemptuous or even indignant when a police officer fails to follow the rules or otherwise displays a lack of integrity in some manner. Beyond doubt, and with good reason, police are held to a higher standard by the public, and any failure to meet these public expectations usually arouses the scorn of the public and leads to calls for punishment or reform. As everyone in law enforcement well knows, police are expected to be better than everyone else -- to be, in effect, superhuman. This puts incredible pressure on the individual officer, pressure that some officers, not being superhuman, simply cannot overcome. When it comes to police transgressions, there often appears to be little in the way of understanding or forgiveness on the part of the public, the media and others.

Ironically, in attempting to address the problem of police integrity, some agencies may complicate the problem if they send mixed signals to their personnel. That is, most police agencies place great emphasis on, or attach great importance to, making arrests, issuing traffic citations, or other enforcement matters. This is an issue of great political and social significance and is understandable in isolation. The problem comes when law enforcement agencies fail to clearly draw the legal, ethical and moral lines -- in the form of clear policies and procedures, training, supervision, and discipline -- that must be followed in order to meet these enforcement objectives. This often becomes even more acute in communities that are experiencing high and/or growing crime rates and are placing greater pressure on their police agency to do something about it. In an effort to do something about crime, (and also to meet implied or formal agency performance criteria), some officers may feel compelled to bend the rules of due process in order to fulfill their perceived mission. Unfortunately, overzealous enforcement has played a significant role in many cases of alleged police brutality or excessive use of force. Likewise, informal police practices that bend, circumvent, or even overlook personal due process requirements in order to make a case can collectively establish an environment in which such irregularities are condoned, ignored, or even accepted under the theory that the means are justified by the ends (e.g. reduced crime). Carried to its extreme, such an environment can inadvertently support the notion among some officers that they are justified in pursuing criminal activity no matter what they have to do, and, that they are justified in protecting one another in any instances of legal rule bending or rule breaking. These are environments in which police corruption can grow or even flourish.

In the above situation, the agency inadvertently set in motion a working environment where, on the one hand, it demands strict adherence to legal procedure and the police code of conduct but establishes other conflicting or even contradictory roles. Add to this an environment in which many officers feel that the courts are working against their interests and the interests of law and order, and a community that generally does not understand or appreciate their job, and one can come to appreciate the organizational dynamics that often lead to confusion, conflict, cynicism, and, in some cases, corruption.

Due to the standards of the culture in which most officers were raised, the environment in which they work, and the fact that police officers are, after all, only human beings, these departmental pressures may merely add to the frustration level of officers who are trying to do a difficult job in a complex world where the realities of the street are far different from the ideals that departmental personnel are expected to meet. This is not an excuse for police lack of integrity; it is merely one of the unpleasant realities that one must understand if efforts to improve the ethical standards of police departments are to succeed.

The Role of the Police in a Democratic Society

The root causes of corruption in police agencies should also be understood from the perspective of misunderstandings about the role of the police in American society. Unfortunately, it is not just the public that misunderstands this role; often the police misunderstand it as well.

Public Perceptions. The public misunderstands several things about the role of the police in modern society. In some instances, these views are more a matter of socio-political attitudes than true misunderstandings. For example, some segments of the population see the police as an instrument of oppression, maintained by the establishment to crush all opposition or dissent. This viewpoint has been present in virtually every culture since time immemorial; fortunately, it is not presently a majority view in our own society. However, this jaundiced perception of the nature of the police function can be a serious problem in a given community, and cannot be ignored by law enforcement agencies in that community. In the context of the present discussion, this hostile view may be broadened and strengthened when a lack of police integrity in a community leads to overt police misconduct, especially the use of excessive force against a group or individual members of a group. As noted above, a low level of police ethics almost inevitably leads to increased brutality; when this is perceived by the public as being directed at one segment of the community, serious results can ensue. We have had numerous examples of these consequences in recent years, particularly in urban areas.

Less evident, but perhaps even more serious, is another perception about the police, one that is held by the vast majority of the public: that the prevention and detection of crime, the apprehension of criminals, and the protection of the public from criminal activity are the sole responsibility of the police. The belief by the public that crime is the province of the police alone, and that the public in general has no responsibility to take part in this process, places an impossible burden upon law enforcement.

This public perception is, of course, totally erroneous. The simple fact is that, no matter how much the public (and often the police themselves) may wish it to be true, the police alone cannot eradicate crime. Practice and research clearly show that most crime is solved through information provided by or gathered through a cooperative public. Without such cooperation and assistance, police would be ineffective. Until the public is educated to (1) understand this basic reality, (2) accept the fact that they as well as other elements of the criminal justice system (e.g. courts and prison systems) share responsibility for public safety and (3) is brought into a constructive partnership with the police into efforts to control crime, people will continue to expect more of the police than the police can possibly provide. As such, the disparity between expectation and reality will continue to generate a downward spiral of disappointment, discontent, and outright hostility toward the police even among many law-abiding citizens, which will fuel the belief among many officers that they are neither understood or appreciated by the public.

Police Self-Perceptions. Another of the great ironies of the present situation is that the police themselves do not always fully understand their own role and their own capabilities. Often law enforcement personnel, from chief to new recruit, do not accept the fact that even the best police force, however brave, diligent, and skillful its personnel may be, cannot eradicate crime without community cooperation and must not be expected to do so.

Unfortunately, the law enforcement community has to a large extent fostered both the public perception that the police are solely responsible for eradicating crime and the perception of the police themselves that the eradication of crime is their sole province and their sole responsibility. At the upper levels of command, police executives sometimes quite naturally wish to emphasize to the community and the community's governing body the role of their department in dealing with crime and their success in doing so. Further, at all departmental levels, police officers tend to feel that they should (and indeed must) have the sole responsibility for combating crime. Encouraged by political rhetoric about "the war on crime" and the "the war on drugs," officers often come to believe that, as the "soldiers" in the front lines of this "war," only they have the capability to do the "fighting," and they resent any implication that other segments of the community can or should have some of that responsibility.

The result is that the police themselves often encourage the public to expect the police to do the impossible. Again, frustration results, both on the part of the public and of the police. With frustration comes discouragement, cynicism, and eventually (sometimes at least) the feeling among officers that "everybody else does it, so why shouldn't I get in on some of the action too?"

There are no simple quick fixes for the problems outlined above. However, clearly one of the steps necessary to resolve some of these difficulties is to redefine the role of the police in our society.

The public must understand that it is not just the police, but the community as well, that bears the responsibility for combating crime. Only then can the misunderstandings and frustrations described above be resolved.

Not only must the community understand the true role of the police, but the police themselves must understand it as well. Such insight will greatly reduce the frustration being experienced by police personnel today, particularly at the street level.

This redefinition of the police role includes the requirement that police officers understand what they must be, and what they must do, both individually and as police officers. This in turn requires a clear understanding of what is expected (and in fact necessary) in terms of police ethics and conduct.

There are many different views as to what the role of the police is (or should be) today. To attempt an exhaustive definition of this role is beyond the scope of this Training Key. However, in the context of police ethics, it is clear that, no matter how it may be defined by politicians, sociologists, etc., the police role includes certain elements that must be articulated and understood, both by the public and by the police themselves.

To begin with, everyone concerned must understand both the meaning of, and the need for, law and order. Unfortunately, the term "law and order" has, to many minds, become a synonym for oppression by the "establishment," with the police serving as the instrument of that oppression. This attitude must be addressed and refuted. Notwithstanding the fulminations of the demagogues, no society can survive unless it is governed by law. But the laws must be just laws, and they must be administered in a manner that maintains order while preserving the individual rights and freedoms upon which our country was founded.

It is the role of the police to assist in this task. For there to be "law and order" -- and justice -- in our society, there must be what has been termed a "social compact" between the public and the police, a mutual obligation in which each segment -- public and police -- performs its part. In addition, there must also be a similar social compact among the police themselves -- a realization by all departmental personnel of the need to fulfill their role in a manner that contributes to law and order, rather than endangering it. Adhering to principles of due process for the accused cannot be regarded as an abstract principle to be employed when convenient or dismissed when deemed irrelevant, troublesome, or cumbersome. To deny these fights or employ them only when convenient is inconsistent with a democracy and counter to the very principles that police officers, as agents of government, were sworn to uphold. To act otherwise is to bring law enforcement down to the same level as the wrongdoer. One may be better able to achieve conformance with the law by removing all restrictions on the police, but these very restrictions are what separates the democracy from the totalitarian state.

This is where ethics, morality, integrity, and personal responsibility play such a large role. Police officers must realize that they occupy a position of unique trust, and that, whatever may be the norm of the society in which they work, the police officer who fails to maintain appropriate standards of behavior violates his or her responsibilities both to the public and to fellow members of the law enforcement community. Police personnel must clearly understand that unethical or immoral police behavior at any level endangers the social compact, reducing respect for the police and severely damaging the ability of the police to fulfill their role in upholding the law and maintaining a safe and orderly society.

Enhancing Integrity in Law Enforcement

It is the responsibility of police executives and supervisors to work to reduce police frustrations and help their personnel to understand their role and their responsibilities. This task has many facets, but if it is to be accomplished, a clear perception by all personnel of the necessity of upholding appropriate standards of conduct is essential. Police personnel must understand what a police officer should be and how a police officer should act.

But, as previously noted, this cannot be done merely by posting a code of ethics on a bulletin board. Officers must comprehend not only the necessity of professional ethics and personal morality, but also the meaning of these terms in the police context. And, above all, they must understand why these qualities are essential to law enforcement and to law enforcement officers in today's society. This is a challenging task, given the difficulties involved. But it is a challenge that must be met if our society is to survive.

In the second part of this Training Key, we will discuss specific steps that can be taken to realize these objectives.


1 See J. Walter Thompson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth: What People Believe About Everything that Really Matters, as quoted in "Values" by Cornelius J. Behan, Issues in Policing: New Perspectives, Autumn House Publishing, Lexington, KY, 1992.

2 Ibid, p.41.

* * *


The following questions are based on information in this Training Key. Select the one best answer for each question.

1. Which of the following statements is true?

(a) The issue of whether the level of police integrity has worsened is an issue of debate.

(b) Media coverage of unethical or corrupt police practices sometimes fuels a public perception that there is widespread police wrongdoing.

(c) Police wrongdoing and citizen reactions to those acts often create a vicious circle of increased friction between the police and citizens.

(d) All of the above are true.

2. Which of the following statements is false?

(a) Many observers believe that today's society is in a moral decline that negatively affects the efforts of all professions to adhere to high moral and ethical standards.

(b) In comparison to today, the police profession of prior decades experienced very little police corruption or wrongdoing.

(c) In some social settings, lowered ethical standards have become the normal or accepted way of doing business and living life.

(d) Not all people in the United States recognize or agree with what is "right" and what is "wrong."

3. Which of the following statements is false?

(a) The frustrations experienced in police work sometimes fuel officer disillusionment that can contribute to police wrongdoing.

(b) Police are not generally held to a higher standard of ethical conduct than is the general public.

(c) Officers sometimes "bend the rules" in order to be more effective in crime control and prevention.

(d) In U.S. society, the police are generally and improperly regarded as solely responsible for crime control and prevention.


1. (d) All of the statements are true.

2. (b) The police of prior decades, like those today, faced charges of police corruption and wrongdoing.

3. (b) Police are generally held to a higher standard of ethical conduct.

Have you read...?

Edwin J. Delattre, Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing, The AEI Press, Washington, DC, 1996.

This is a comprehensive treatment of the issue of ethics as it affects the full range of police activities.

Training Key® #476
Police Ethics: Problems and Solutions -- Part II

This is Part Two of a two-part Training Key. In Part One, we examined the nature and importance of police ethics and discussed some of the factors that may have contributed to a decline in police integrity in today's world. In Part Two, we present specific suggestions that may help law enforcement personnel and their agencies resolve some of the problems previously discussed.

In Part One of this Training Key, we noted that the generally lowered moral standards in our society and the increasing failure of individuals to accept responsibility for the consequences of their own acts have produced a "what's wrong with that?" mentality across a broad spectrum of the population. Today, it is not an exaggeration to say that morality has become a relative concept rather than a time-honored, commonly accepted code of conduct. It has been said that U.S. society -- if not Western society -- lacks a moral consensus and, in many sectors of our society, immorality has become commonplace, even accepted as the norm.

Obviously, the police are not to blame for this state of affairs; it is a phenomenon of modern society as a whole and the result of many social factors beyond the scope of this document. But it is naive to think that police and policing have not been affected by these changes. The ethical standards of law enforcement personnel have been affected by the changing moral standards of our society just as the profession has been changed by innumerable other social dynamics. Scholars clearly agree that the police, as other professions, inevitably reflect the communities and the culture from which they are drawn and in which they must work. But the norms and standards of conduct of modern society are not always consistent or compatible with the level of integrity that is expected of, and necessary for, police officers.

Like the problems that affect the moral fabric of our society, there are no quick fixes to the problem of police integrity. The issue is far too complex for easy answers, and those who cling to simplistic solutions will surely be disappointed. However, the law enforcement community can take concrete steps that can have a significant effect upon the problem. In addition to their complexity, some of the measures that must be taken may not always be met favorably by law enforcement personnel. However, if meaningful inroads are to be made to positively improve police ethics and provide continuous support for ethical decision making, some difficult decisions and actions are necessary. Each police agency, as well as each police executive, supervisor, and officer, must interpret and apply these concepts in a manner that is compatible with the department's particular circumstances. Each of these steps is an integral and essential part of the overall effort. Therefore, these elements should be considered as part of a comprehensive program to improve and fortify ethical conduct within the law enforcement agency.

Individual Responsibility

Developing and maintaining a high standard of integrity in a police department ultimately hinge on the commitment and will of the individual officer. Personal integrity and a conscious decision to do the fight thing even in the face of sometimes overwhelming pressure to do otherwise are where the rubber hits the road in the ethical decision-making environment. Affirmations of integrity and formal adoption of a code of conduct, code of ethics, statement of values, or other declarations are important. But these are meaningless unless these precepts are internalized and practiced on a daily basis by all members of the agency. A moral and ethical working environment requires that everyone, from the chief to the newest probationer, accept and integrate the precepts of moral and ethical behavior into his or her daily life and recognizes personal responsibility in meeting those responsibilities.

Every member of the department must make a conscious decision (a) to determine what is or is not appropriate conduct and (b) to accept the responsibility for ensuring that, in any given situation, that individual, and his or her fellow officers, will do what is right. Without each person's accepting the need for high ethical standards and committing to accepting personal responsibility for seeing that high standards are maintained, this effort cannot succeed. Thus, regardless of what specific steps are taken by a law enforcement agency to raise the level of that agency's integrity, acceptance by each officer of that department of personal responsibility for his or her own actions is vital to achieving that end. The importance of this factor will be emphasized frequently in the discussion that follows.

Zero Tolerance for Corruption

Experience has made it quite clear that if the necessary standards of police integrity are to be achieved, there must be a policy of zero tolerance for corruption in any form within the agency. Many authorities have come to recognize and subscribe to what has been called the slippery-slope concept of corruption -- the unpleasant reality that even seemingly trivial matters such as accepting a free cup of coffee can establish improper precedents and examples and serve to create a climate that can undermine the integrity of individual officers and the department as a whole. Accepting a free cup of coffee, a free meal, or other items can help create an attitude that such things are incidental perks of the job. It is not a significant leap from this attitude to one that views these same perks as entitlements of the job.

Once an officer develops this attitude, it is not difficult for the officer to begin to expect more of the same, even to demand these things if they are not automatically offered. It is difficult to convince some officers that there is any harm in accepting what appear to be minor favors from those with whom they come in contact on the job and who may even be attempting to express genuine gratitude. Yet the progression down the slippery slope from the trivial to the tragic is all too easy, as has been demonstrated.

Another aspect of this problem is the image that is created among the public that may be exposed to officers who accept favors or gratuities or who otherwise reap personal and unofficial gain by virtue of the position they hold. Such acts, as witnessed by or which become known to the public, can serve to create a negative image of the department and its personnel -- an image of police exploitation of the public rather than public service and one of misuse of office as opposed to dedication to duty. Such negative and often unfair images can have long lasting effects and can serve to undermine the public trust in all officers within the agency, not just those involved in illicit activities.

Agency Values

Developing an agency values statement that all personnel can subscribe to is an important part of an overall program of building ethics, preventing corruption and brutality, and establishing a commitment to efficient and effective service. Most patrol officers function largely in an unsupervised manner. Policy, procedures, and rules used to govern and structure police actions can never, by themselves, be fully effective in regulating officer conduct. Conduct, as previously noted, is governed more by personal beliefs and attitudes than it is by threat of sanctions imposed by law, or through department rules or regulations. Values are not rules or regulations but are statements of underlying moral and ethical precepts and beliefs. They are or should be the foundation from which rules and regulations, as well as many policies and procedures, flow. But unless an agency defines and clarifies these principles and police officers understand, accept, and internalize them, the rules and regulations that flow from them will have limited meaning.

For example, it is important to ask whether, in the case of the use of force, an officer does the right thing because he or she is afraid of being caught and subsequently prosecuted or disciplined, or because he subscribes to an underlying belief in fair and just treatment of all persons. An officer who understands and subscribes to these basic values is far more likely to do what is proper on a consistent basis in this and other critical decision areas than is the officer who acts only from fear of being caught.

What are these values? Values must be agency specific and emphasize the importance of certain characteristics or qualities that are required of officers. But many value statements have common themes that stress personal responsibility for action and dedication to duty, honesty, reliability, fairness, integrity and loyalty, and respect for other human beings. One police agency identifies eight essential values, as follows:

1. Human Life: We value human life and dignity above all else.

2. Integrity: We believe integrity is the basis for human trust.

3. Laws and Constitution: We believe in the principles embodied in our Constitution. We recognize the authority of the Federal, State and local laws.

4. Excellence: We strive for personal and professional excellence.

5. Accountability: We are accountable to each other and to the citizens we serve who are the source of our authority.

6. Cooperation: We believe that cooperation and team work will enable us to combine our diverse backgrounds, skills and styles to achieve common goals.

7. Problem-Solving: We are most effective when we help identify and solve community problems.

8. Ourselves: We are capable, caring people who are doing important and satisfying work for the citizens of (this jurisdiction).1

Each of the above values is given greater clarity by the use of defining statements. For example, under the heading of "Human Life," the agency makes the following affirmations:

  • We give first priority to situations which threaten human life.
  • We use force only when necessary.
  • We treat all persons with courtesy and respect.
  • We are compassionate and caring.

In establishing a values system for a police agency, several issues should be kept in mind.

First, management must avoid attempting to impose values on its personnel by executive order. To the greatest possible extent, all members of the department, regardless of rank, should be involved in the process of formulating that department's values. It must be the result of an organization-wide effort that incorporates input from all levels of the department. The perspectives and attitudes, the concerns and problems, of everyone in the department should be solicited, and every member of the department should be involved in its creation, if not personally, at least by representation. Inevitably, there will be disagreements among personnel, and a substantial degree of discussion will invariably revolve around defining and explicating specific values. Nevertheless, involvement and discussion at all levels will enhance support for the values once it is constructed, and will also clearly signal to those who have not previously lived up to the proper standards that it is not just management but also their peers within the department who expect them to conform to these attitudes, beliefs, and values. Involving the entire department in values development will heighten their ultimate acceptability and, as such, will allow all officers to serve as role models.

Second, developing a values statement should form the cornerstone of the department from several perspectives. For example, only when an agency has a clear consensus on the principles and beliefs that are most valued by them can they realistically establish specific goals and objectives for their agency. Values also underlie nearly all decisions regarding agency policy and procedures and are the essential first building block in developing an agency manual. By the same token, training must be based both on agency policy and procedures and upon the underlying goals that drive those procedures. In turn, supervision and personnel performance evaluations must flow from the standards of performance identified and defined in the agency's training procedures and agency policies, procedures and rules. By taking the time to examine, analyze, and formalize the central ideals, beliefs, and values of a police agency, the agency can chart a clear course for all of these interrelated functions.

Organizational Climate Supportive of Ethical Behavior

Formulating a code of conduct is an essential first step in establishing an ethical work environment. Beyond this, the police agency must establish a climate within the organization in which integrity is not only possible, but is actually nurtured and rewarded. There are several aspects to this.

Avoid conflicting signals. Police agencies must be careful to guide their agencies in a manner that is at all times consistent with values and policies and procedures that have been developed. There is no such thing as situational ethics when it comes to basic principles of right and wrong. This is not to say that some allowances should not be made in the case of rule infractions where unusual situations dictate. What it does mean is that the basic principles of an agency should be regarded as applicable to all officers and not subject to negotiation. The department must make certain that officers adhering to the proper standards are rewarded, and that officers failing to adhere to those standards are censured. Any failure of command and first-line officers to observe this basic principle indicates to departmental personnel that the agency's values are selectively applicable, and violations of the code of conduct may not be reasonably enforced or may even be ignored under certain situations.

Recruiting. It goes without saying that police agencies should always try to hire the best possible people for the job, and much has been said and written about the need for, and difficulties involved in, that effort. In the present context, however, it should be noted that it is vital that the recruiting process do more than just bring in persons who score well on psychological tests, pass a medical examination, and lack a criminal record. The use of psychological and personality profiles has become a standard recruiting tool, but, unfortunately, these tests are more useful for screening out those who are clearly unqualified than in identifying those who are the best qualified for police work.

Obviously, more is needed. The recruiting process should stress the importance of hiring (and retaining) not just those who survive screening tests and background checks, but also those who have demonstrated in the past their interest and involvement in activities that reveal a concern for the community and its people. The world of policing is changing, and the coming years are, inevitably, going to bring a demand from our society for a police force that is more sensitive to the needs of the community and those who live in it. Therefore, when recruiting new officers in the years to come, a willingness to serve the community in ways that go beyond traditional conceptions of criminal apprehension will be (indeed, already is) an essential trait of a good police officer. A background that reveals a recruit's motivation to participate in constructive group activities is perhaps one of the better indicators of suitability for the job of being a police officer in the society that we see developing around us today. Past interests and activities of an applicant will often prove to be a far more accurate indicator of the values, attitudes, and overall character of the applicant than any psychological screening test.

Such activities might be of many different types -- even a history of participation in approved extracurricular activities in school may be some indication of the way that the applicant thinks, how he or she will relate to people, and how well the new recruit will fit into the new world of policing that we will face in the remainder of this decade and in the next century. Many activities will provide this indication. Past exposure to and demonstrated ability to communicate effectively, solve problems, work effectively in and to develop groups, creativity in facing unusual problems or circumstances, good people skills, self-motivation, and related skills are among those that will receive greater emphasis as police agencies continue to reach out to the communities they serve and involve them more intimately in their crime prevention and control activities.

Training. Most recruit training today pays very little attention to instruction on the ethical standards expected of police officers by their departments and the public whom they serve. In some instances, this lack of attention to ethics is excused on the grounds that (a) there isn't enough time to cover such "minor" matters and (b) you cannot teach someone to be ethical. Neither of these objections is valid. Every police recruit should leave the training academy with a clear understanding of what is expected of him or her in terms of professional ethics and personal morals. Integrity is not a "minor" matter; it is one of the more vital subjects that can be offered in any police training course. Furthermore, an academy graduate who knows exactly what conduct is or is not acceptable is far less likely to make ethical mistakes and is one who understands clearly where the line in the sand is drawn and that there is no tolerance for those who cross it.

However, this training, to be effective, must be more than a mere review of the code of conduct of the department. Ethics training in police recruit classes must be reality-based and must involve more than just a simple discussion of integrity. The training must be candid and involve a free discussion of the potential problems and pitfalls that challenge police officers on the job. It must include discussion of the temptations that they will face, the stresses of police work, the effects of a career in law enforcement on personal life, and related matters.

Such courses must also help recruits understand their role as police officers. The training should help the recruits understand the role of police work in contemporary society, as that role (and that society) is now developing. It must also emphasize to the recruits that, whether they work alone in the field or with other officers, they are ultimately individually and personally accountable for their actions, not only to the department but to the courts and to the public whom they serve.

Although many applicants may deny this, many recruits join the police force based upon preconceived and usually erroneous notions of what police work is all about. Much of this is gleaned from television and movies, and it is often a source of major disappointment to new recruits when they discover that police work is largely service-oriented rather than the characteristic apprehension of major criminals so often portrayed in the media. Thus, the realities of police work must be explored with new recruits; myths must be dispelled, and recruits must be made to understand the true nature of the job, including its problems and frustrations.

Realism about the functions, duties, responsibilities, and problems in police work will do much to diminish the skepticism, cynicism, and frustration that we so often see developing in new officers when they go into the field and, hopefully, make officers more prepared to confront the stress and corrupting temptations of the job.

Policies and Procedures. Once officers are on duty with the department, clear and consistent policies and procedures are essential to let these officers know what is expected from them, what the acceptable limits are on their discretion, and what means and methods are or are not permissible in performing the job. Such policies and procedures, well-drafted and evenhandedly enforced, are essential to establish acceptable behavior patterns. They also help to develop performance criteria against which personnel can be evaluated, held accountable, and, if necessary, disciplined.

Supervision. Supervision, particularly first-line supervision, is a critical element in maintaining proper ethical standards among police officers. Supervisors must (a) believe in the standards set by the agency, (b) observe them personally, and (c) enforce them consistently and fairly in their departments. If first-line supervisors such as sergeants and field training officers (FTOs) have not themselves accepted the values established in the department's code of conduct, no effort to improve standards of departmental integrity can succeed. The implications for careful selection and training of first-line supervisors are obvious.

In this respect, the role of the FTO deserves special note. In the past it has not been uncommon for FTOs to provide instruction consistent with their personal philosophy and way of doing business. Under such circumstances, the recruit may be instructed -- by word and deed -- that some things are acceptable that may not be consistent with training received in the recruit academy. For example, this may include instruction that may not be consistent with principles of use of force taught in the academy. Obviously, such an attitude on the part of the old-timer undermines the value of academy instruction -- not just in the area of use of force, but in related areas concerning ethical conduct, the role and significance of individual rights under the law, and the proper role of police in relationship to citizens in a democratic society.

Consequently, FTOs must be the first and most enthusiastic proponents of ethics and integrity in police work. In many instances, FTOs are chosen for their record of productivity and effectiveness (arrests, tickets, etc.). The importance of these skills cannot be diminished, and new officers should be properly indoctrinated into law enforcement using the most talented officers as mentors and instructors. But while these things are important, it is also important that the attitudes of the prospective FTO, as demonstrated during his or her service in the department, be scrutinized before an officer is assigned as an FTO.

Discipline. Holding personnel strictly accountable for their actions is the backbone of accountability. But the system of discipline must be rationally based, reasonable, and consistently and fairly administered. Perhaps even more important, the system must not only decree punishment for infractions, but must also provide rewards for positive behavior. Discipline without positive reinforcement is destructive and demoralizing. Those officers (of any rank) who violate the department's ethical standards should be disciplined; those who demonstrate the ability to do what is right should be held up as positive examples for the entire organization.

Police Culture. "Police work is not just a job, nor is it a vocation; it is a way of life."2 Much has been written about the influences that the culture of policing has on police officers and police conduct. Innumerable scholars and observers of the police profession have held that, more than any other factor, the attitudes, beliefs, behavior, and actions of police officers are determined by the working environment within the police organization and on the street. Their reaction to that environment -- both good and bad-defines what sociologists like to refer to as the police subculture.

New officers often find themselves thrust abruptly into this closed environment of police work, where officers all too often become isolated among themselves. The result can be development of a us-against-them mentality and the isolation of line personnel (including first-line supervisors) from the department's management and from the public in general. Observers of police behavior and organization point to several aspects of this subculture that are extremely negative in their effects and threaten the willingness and ability of police officers to do the right thing.

Probably the more significant among these effects is the silence, solidarity, and secrecy that are so often evident among police officers. The community of police work and the resultant camaraderie of police officers are important sources of positive support for officers and their families. However, the negative side of this support system can be a misguided sense of interpersonal loyalty that overlooks or even covers up misdeeds and wrongdoing. The tendency to transform mutual support and feelings of kinship into mutual protectionism is understandable, but when the code of silence is invoked in the face of unethical behavior, corruption, or brutality, the culture of policing takes on a sinister and destructive character. When officers instinctively tend to focus on protecting their coworkers, rather than on the wrong that has been done, they are abdicating their personal and professional responsibility as peace officers. Such action suggests that officers, in spite of their professed beliefs, do not believe that they are accountable to their agency, the law, or the public that has entrusted them with the power of their office. This is not the role of policing in a democracy, and it suggests problems not only for officers involved but also for the police organization as a whole.

Police organizations should take whatever steps possible to direct loyalty, fidelity, and fellowship into positive efforts to maintain the ethical standards that are so essential to law enforcement today. These efforts are not always easy and may often require major changes in organizational styles as well as management and supervisory practices. All these are beyond the scope of this Training Key. For purposes of this discussion, it may suffice to say that the police culture must be recognized as a source for positive reinforcement and support of police agency values and ethics. Ethics becomes an integral part of the police culture when officers understand the role and importance of ethics in their lives and their profession, internalize those roles, and hold their colleagues accountable to the same high ethical standards as they do themselves. Under such a system, all officers become examples to their colleagues.


In summary, the police working environment must be geared to encouraging -- and allowing -- all of its personnel to be examples of the best in the police profession. When the entire organization subscribes to an ethical, value-based system, all officers can serve as role models, both to their colleagues and to the community.

Authorities who have studied the police profession often advise that one of the better ways to accomplish this goal is to transform police agencies from the traditionally autocratic paramilitary forces of the past into more democratic organizations-broad-based agencies in which individual officers' talents and ideas are encouraged and used constructively, and in which management and line functions are working in a compatible and mutually supporting manner. This environment must be based upon mutually accepted, goal-directed efforts that are founded upon a value system that is clearly defined and firmly accepted as a result of the joint endeavors of all members of the department.


1 Statement of Values of the Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department.

2 Edward A. Thibault, Ph.D.; The Blue Milieu: Police as a Vocational Subculture, in John W. Bizzack, Ed., Issues in Policing: New Perspectives, Autumn House Publishing, Lexington, KY.

* * *


The following questions are based on information in this Training Key. Select the one best answer for each question.

1. Which of the following statements is false?

(a) Personal responsibility for one's actions is the cornerstone of building and maintaining police integrity.

(b) The "slippery slope" concept of corruption holds that even minor misconduct helps establish the climate in which wrongdoing can grow.

(c) Minor favors from the public are gestures of gratitude that officers should be permitted to accept.

(d) Conduct is governed more by an officer's underlying beliefs than by the fear or threat of punishment.

2. Which of the following statements is false?

(a) Agency values statements are not rules or regulations.

(b) Agency values statements are statements of underlying agency and officer moral precepts and beliefs.

(c) All officers in an agency should be involved in the formulation of the agency's statement of values.

(d) Development of agency values is the responsibility of the agency chief executive alone.

3. Which of the following statements is true?

(a) Good character and moral integrity can be determined by testing recruits using psychological exams.

(b) Ethics and integrity are not subjects that can be effectively taught to officers and prospective officers.

(c) The development of clear and consistent agency policies and procedures is essential to let officers know what is expected of them.

(d) The behavior and actions of police officers are generally influenced by the "culture of policing."


1. (c) The acceptance of even minor gratuities or favors from the public is not acceptable in that such gestures can come to be regarded as expectations or "perks" of the job.

2. (d) A police agency's statement of values must involve all officers in the agency to the degree possible if officers are to fully endorse, accept, and follow those values.

3. (b) Ethics and integrity can be taught and used to help persons build and maintain character and personal integrity in both their jobs and personal lives.

Have you read...?

Building Character and Reducing Drug Corruption in Police Departments, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Alexandria, VA 22314 (1989).

This research study of drug corruption presents recommendations for police agencies in their efforts to stem the influence of corruption created by illegal drug trafficking.

Training Key® published and copyrighted © 1996, by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Inc., 515 N. Washington St., Alexandria, VA 22314-2357. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in any system or transmitted in any form or by any means electrical, mechanical, photocopying, recording or other means without prior writtenpermission of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Inc.

Integrity and Ethics Training Material
Course Material
The International Association of Chiefs of Police: IACP Homepage