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Criminal Justice Ethics for Everyone

Criminal Justice Ethics for Everyone

Sergeant Betsy Brantner Smith

In the general orders or in the personnel manual of virtually every police organization there is language about “ethics” and “integrity.” But what exactly does than mean? Ethics is an easy word to throw around and yet very hard to define.

Police officers are held to a higher standard than the general public, both on and off duty, but do we really understand why that is and how an organization can be confident that its employees always act with integrity? Here are just a few thoughts for all law enforcement personnel to ponder, from the chief executive to the newest recruit.

Ethics Must Come From The Top

The foundation to real world ethics has to come from management. A police manager who implements a “no gratuities” policy for his officers but thinks nothing of taking that weekly free dinner from the city’s best restaurant is going to soon lose control of his agency. The director who expects her troopers to enforce the traffic ordinances to the “letter of the law” regardless of who they pull over cannot expect those same cops to look the other way when she helps her neighbor get out of a speeding ticket. The sheriff cannot require his deputies to sell tickets to his re-election fundraiser and expect them to say “no” to that half price sandwich and free drink at the local diner.

If they really want an ethical organization, police managers have to take a long look in the mirror and decide to hold themselves to an even higher standard than they do their personnel.

Can You Train Someone To Be Ethical?

The problem with most police ethics training classes is that they aren’t particularly realistic. Does taking a free cup of coffee or a half price burger mean you are on a slippery slope to taking bribes from the guy who runs the local crack house? Of course not. But these courses tend to be filled with silly quizzes and scenarios (“a liquor store owner on your beat offers you a free bottle of pricey booze to walk with him to the bank’s night deposit drop in a high crime neighborhood, what do you do?”) that don’t really help cops make good decisions.

Police agencies need to find training that goes beyond the “just say no” theory of ethics and integrity and gives cops the real world tools to deal with the conflicts and temptations they may face on a daily basis.

Take Control

Regardless of where you work, you control your own ethical behavior. The word “ethics” literally means “habits.” Webster’s defines “integrity” as “a firm adherence to a code of especially moral values.” Regardless of how your managers, supervisors and co-workers behave, you have to make a conscious decision about your own moral and ethical behavior.

One of the reasons we get hired as cops is because we probably passed a rigorous series of tests and background checks that determined we were moral people. Police agencies tend to hire people with certain values, but then fail to do any “values maintenance” on those same employees.

Often, good cops begin to let go of their own moral codes when they become frustrated with management, the community, and the general arduous nature of the job. Don’t let this happen to you. Understand that you, and you alone, control your own beliefs and behaviors. Rationalizing reasons to lower your own standards based on the conduct of others or your own frustrations is dangerous on several fronts.

You are taking the central control of your own life and giving it away to others, which can lower your own self esteem and lead to a feeling of victim hood and eventually, entitlement. Philosophers such as Aristotle taught that we should study ethics if for no other reason that for our own happiness and well being.

When I’m Off Duty, I Can Do Whatever I Want, Right?

I teach a class titled “Tactical Intervention,” which focuses in part on our behavior off duty and how to successfully intervene when you see a fellow law enforcement officer engage is some potentially life altering and/or career ending behavior, ranging from driving drunk or risking their family life with an affair.

I not only teach officers how to get involved, but why they are obligated to do so. Many of us feel that what happens off duty stays off duty, but do you want to wake up in the morning after a night out with your shift mates and see the newspaper headline “Intoxicated Off Duty Cop Kills Family of Five in Fiery Crash?”

Ethics doesn’t just involve following the written rules; the core of ethical decision making and behavior is “doing the right thing.” Cops are supposed to serve as an example to the rest of the world on how to behave, and as individuals, we are obligated to be role models and teachers not only to the rookies, but to our friends, our subordinates, and especially ourselves. A great way to help decide what to do in a given situation is to ask yourself “can I live with myself and this decision tomorrow, next week, and next year?”

Too often we try to complicate the study of ethics by finding the gray areas. The important thing is to have clearly defined, black and white ethical standards and live them each and every day so that they become “habits” for all of us, regardless of position, assignment, or agency.

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