Ethics and Policing in the 21st Century

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Ethics and Policing in the 21st Century

“The mission of policing can safely be entrusted only to those who grasp what is morally important and who respect integrity. Without this kind of personal character in police, no set of codes, rules, or laws can safeguard that mission from the ravages of police misconduct. No one need choose to be a police officer or to bear the public trust; but those who do so—no matter how naïvely and no matter how misguided their original expectations— must acquire the excellence of character necessary to live up to it.” (Delattre, 2002)

 With the establishment of the London Metropolitan Police in 1829, Sir Robert Peel is recognized as the architect of modern policing. Enlisting the aid of his Commissioner’s, Peel developed nine principals and three core ideas relevant to policing which continue to hold true today. Peel recognized the importance of earning and maintaining public support. As outlined in his second principal, “To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent of public approval of their existence, actions and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.” (Sir Robert Peel’s Policing Principals, n.d.).

From its inception, Peel recognized the success of law enforcement hinged on a strict set of ethical guidelines which would earn the respect and trust of the public it served while impartially and objectively enforcing the law. It is from these principles that Philosopher and Author John Kleinig explores police ethics from three distinct groupings; Professional Ethics, Personal Ethics, and Organizational Ethics. Kleinig surmises the authority vested in police officers is dependent upon the manner in which the police conduct themselves (Kleinig, 1996). In other words, police authority stems from its ethical behavior and enforcement of the law.

Using Kleinig’s model as a reference, I will discuss each of these ethical principles and how I can implement them in my day to day duties. I will then discuss how my leadership implements them within our department and the VA Illiana Healthcare System as a whole. I will begin by identifying and addressing some professional ethics which I feel are vital to a police organization.  I will then discuss some personal ethics and I will finish by addressing and highlighting our organizational ethics. Let me begin by identifying some of our professional Ethics.

When looking for a comprehensive definition of professional ethics, there is no shortage of sources which cite a host of worthy characteristics: honesty, loyalty, and trustworthiness to name just a few. However, the single principal most everyone seems to agree with is the establishment of a Code of Conduct. Kleinig states, “Professionals are generally governed by a code of ethics. The collective adoption of such a code is often taken as a sign of a vocation’s or occupations true professionalization…and is intended to provide a tangible basis for public trust.” (Kleinig).  The very basis of Veterans Affairs (VA) Policing is identified in the VA Police Code of Conduct: 

(1) In order to fully serve the VA mission while accomplishing their specific law enforcement and protective duties, Police and Security personnel will:

(a) Render courteous assistance to patients, visitors, and employees at all times;

(b) Project a favorable image of law enforcement and protective authority through alertness, appearance, and competent performance of duty;

(c) Retain full control of temper when abused or in a confrontation with a belligerent person; and

(d) Refrain from verbally or physically abusing patients, visitors, or employees displaying an arrogant or bullying demeanor, and misusing authority or weapons. (VA Directive 0730, 2012).

 The code of conduct is the moral compass for how VA Police will enforce the law while earning the trust and respect of the veterans we serve. The first line of our code directs us to render courteous assistance. As a supervisor, I am charged with leading by example and I can most effectively do this by utilizing the concept of voluntary compliance. This doesn’t mean I look the other way when a veteran speeds onto campus or raises his voice in frustration. It means that I address the situation with firmness and fairness. My goal is to gain the understanding and trust of the veteran and encourage him to voluntarily comply. In doing so, I illustrate to my subordinates the value of courtesy and restraint.

By holding my subordinates to a high standard, both in their appearance and performance, I strive to project credibility and confidence. As Kleinig points out, “If the government of the day loses credibility, this may well be reflected in the authority the police are seen to possess.” (Kleinig).

It is equally important to ensure that as a leader, I maintain a calm and professional demeanor. I cannot permit myself to let a subordinate or suspect push me to a point where I lose my temper or act out of anger. Losing control of your emotions can lead to acting out of anger or fear and you’ll likely lose sight of the bigger picture. It is imperative to always remain in control, especially when those around you are not.

Remaining in control of your emotions means you must rise above when you are confronted with an individual who is belligerent, abusive or assaultive. Often the veterans we encounter are dealing with depression, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and any number of life-altering events which can have a dramatic effect on their behavior. It is not uncommon to be in contact with a veteran who is self-medicating to relieve some of the pain or stress they live with daily. My job as a VA Police Officer and a veteran, is to help other veterans get the help they need. It is by following the ethical principles outlined in the VA Police Code of Conduct, that I can best implement Professional Ethics in my job and encourage those around me to do the same. How then, does my leadership implement Professional Ethics?

As stated earlier, the VA Police Code of Conduct is the platform which a police department must build upon. The code of conduct is where everything begins, and therefore, my leadership expects that every officer knows and abides by the code. Failure to adhere to the standards outlined in the code can result in disciplinary action.

Apart from the code of conduct, it is expected that every officer performs his or her duties with Integrity. If I fail to maintain integrity as a leader, I will likely lose the respect and trust of my subordinates. John Vanek writes, “As our nation struggles with the current uneasy state of police-community relations police officers – and police leaders – who can instill community trust through their personal integrity are valuable assets. Those who cannot do so are liabilities.” (Vanek, 2015). Additionally, the State of Illinois tracks data obtained from traffic stops to ensure we enforce the law fairly and equitably. My leadership ensures we are tracking the required data to maintain both the integrity of our department, but also the integrity of the study.

Finally, my leadership requires shift leaders to have a monthly discussion with our subordinates regarding ethics. Each month the VA publishes an ethical value to discuss and find ways to implement it within the organization. I am charged with ensuring my subordinates know and understand the ethic of the month, and how we can incorporate that ethic into our daily patrol operations.

Adhering to the code of conduct, maintaining standards, remaining in control, leading with integrity and implementing ethical practices into our daily operations is how my leadership and I integrate professional ethics into our daily operations and within the organization. Now let’s take a closer look at how our personal ethics are applied.

“Personal Ethics is a category of philosophy that determines what an individual believes about morality and right and wrong.” (A guide to ethics, 2014.). Having been a police officer for over three decades, I have successfully navigated my career from a journeyman officer to upper management in military and civilian departments. I have come to rely upon my personal ethics to attain a certain level of achievement and success. Three ethical characteristics I believe are key to my success are discretion, integrity, and empathy.

There are those who believe police should strictly enforce the law without exercising discretion.  If I observe someone going over the speed limit, I am to pull them over and issue them a citation. Without exercising discretion, everyone and every situation would be handled in the same manner. But I have learned through the years that every situation is not the same. A mother speeding her sick child to the emergency room is not the same as a teenager speeding while texting on a cell phone. Both have technically violated the law, but enforcement must be tempered with discretion. Discretion is just one of the ways I can implement my personal ethics.

Integrity is another ethical value which is paramount to doing my job. It is virtually impossible to enforce the law without having integrity. Integrity is often defined as doing what is right, even when no one is watching. Having integrity means I don’t violate the laws I am entrusted to enforce. It means I enforce the law fairly and without prejudice. Integrity means that I must take accountability for my actions, own up to my failures, and correct my mistakes. According to the College of Policing, “Integrity in policing is about ensuring that the people who work for the police uphold the values of the service, strive to do the right thing in all situations and have the confidence of the public.” (Integrity and Policing, n.d.).

The final ethical principal I will address is empathy. Empathy is the process or ability to place yourself in another’s shoes. Unlike sympathy where you have feelings of pity or sorrow, empathy allows you to better understand someone’s struggle by imagining yourself in the same situation.

An example of how I can use empathy in my daily duties can be summarized by an incident I responded to at a homeless veteran complex. I had been dispatched to a domestic disturbance at one of our frequently visited locations. Prior to arriving, I imagined several different scenarios based upon my previous interactions with the residents, none of which had ended positively-I wasn’t looking forward to the encounter. When I entered the apartment, I came face to face with a veteran in the middle of a PTSS episode. It took me a minute to remember my training, but when I gained my composure I was able to use the tools I had been provided to slowly bring the veteran back into the present time. When he had finally calmed down, he was embarrassed and angry. Experience told him we were there to arrest him and he took an aggressive position and lashed out verbally and physically. I could have easily arrested him for attacking me; no one would have questioned my decision or given it another thought. Instead, I told him I was there to help him. I tried to imagine what it would be like to lose control of my emotions only to [wake up] to a room full of strangers. Without forethought or intention, I was displaying empathy for a fellow veteran and it was key to a successful resolution. Over the next few months, I had several more encounters with the veteran and they were increasingly less and less volatile.

Discretion, integrity, and empathy are ways that I can incorporate personal ethics in my department. How then does my leadership incorporate those ethics into the organization?

The most powerful way my leadership can implement personal ethics in my organization is by encouraging their officers to incorporate and utilize their own personal ethics in their daily duties. Naturally, an individual’s personal ethics will need to be closely aligned to that of the organization. As Kimberly Leonard points out when writing about Ethics within an Organization, “Team member morale improves when employees feel protected against retaliation for personal beliefs. These policies include anti-discriminatory rules, open door policies and equal opportunities for growth.” (Leonard, 2018). Leaders must create an environment where people are able to perform their duties in an ethical manner, knowing that leadership will take the time to address unethical performance. Leadership must allow for its employees to report violations without fear of reprisal.

An example of how my leadership has encouraged ethical behavior is the way they deal with vehicle accidents. It is common knowledge within my department that my Chief expects nothing short of the truth. His favorite saying is, “Bad news doesn’t get any better with age.” He has long had a standing policy regarding vehicle accidents; tell the truth and we can deal with an accident, an accident is, after all, just an accident. I was involved in a minor accident where I struck a curb and damaged the tire and rim of the vehicle. I immediately reported it to the Chief and took the appropriate action according to established procedures. The vehicle was repaired and nothing further came of it. Months later another officer had a similar incident in which he slid on some ice and struck a snowbank on the side of the road. The impact caused minor damage to the front of the vehicle which the officer was unaware of. The officer failed to report the accident according to procedures and the damage was discovered the next day by the oncoming shift. When it was reported to the Chief, he was compelled to take administrative action. The Chief didn’t act because he wanted to, he took the steps necessary to maintain order and discipline. He showed the department through his actions that he was impartial, fair and held people accountable. This is how leadership can implement personal ethics in the organization.

I’ve discussed how professional ethics and personal ethics can be implemented within an organization. Now let’s look at how we can implement an organizations ethics.

 As stated earlier, Peel recognized that ethical behavior was key to gaining the trust and respect of the public. As an organization, the Veterans Affairs has created its Core Values as an ethical guideline for how we treat our most valued customer-the veteran.

The VA’s Core Values are spelled out in the acronym I-CARE (Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence). It is through these core values that my leadership and I can both implement these ethical values within our organization. Let’s take a moment to look at each of these values independently.

Integrity. Integrity is doing the right thing always, even when others aren’t looking. It is the foundation of the core values because, “When we operate from integrity, we gain the trust of other people.” (Schwantes, 2015). In recent years, the VA has been highlighted in the news for its failures and dishonest scheduling practices. The lack of integrity of those responsible has made it difficult for the veterans to ever place trust in the VA again. It would be easy to perform my duties in the same dishonest manner, but I have an obligation to treat our customers with honor and respect. I must accept accountability for the failures of the VA and work even harder to gain back the trust that was compromised. It is by fair and impartial enforcement of the law that I can best integrate integrity into the organization. It is by holding me accountable for my actions and the actions of my subordinates that my leadership applies integrity.

Commitment. Being committed means that you are devoted to a person or a cause. Commitment means you have placed a distinct emphasis or importance toward something or someone you believe in. As a veteran, I was committed to serving my country and those around me who served. As a husband and father, I am committed to my wife and children. I am dedicated to their wellbeing and safety. As a VA police officer, I must be committed to the veterans whom I serve. My commitment to the veteran means that I will ensure a veteran in crisis is given the opportunity to receive treatment, where otherwise he might be arrested. Commitment means that I am available to assist the elderly veteran who can’t find his car, or stop and listen to a lonely veteran who has a story to tell. Commitment means that I thank a fellow veteran for his service.

Advocacy. To be an advocate for a veteran means that I do what I can to advance the interests of the veterans I serve. When I am dispatched to an incident with a disorderly veteran I frequently arrive to a very stressful, chaotic scene. The veteran is worked up because he or she feels they are not receiving the attention they need, and the staff member is agitated because the veteran has started yelling. When the parties are separated and you get to the crux of the issue, often the veteran just needed someone to listen. At this point I can advocate for the veteran by getting him or her a new appointment, escorting them to the pharmacy to pick up their medications or take them to the patient advocate to lodge a formal complaint. When a veteran feels you have taken time from your day to assist them in navigating the often-confusing VA system, they realize that you have their best interests in mind.

Respect. To show respect means you treat those that you serve with regard and dignity. Respecting veterans can be accomplished in many ways. The first, and perhaps most significant way to show a veteran respect is by honoring their history of service to their country. I personally have never met a veteran who isn’t proud of their service and willing to share their stories with anyone who will listen. Respect means you maintain the privacy and confidentiality of those you serve. Working in a clinical environment exposes you to information you are bound to protect. Respect means that you are empathetic and compassionate toward those you serve. It requires that you strive to gain voluntary compliance with the law rather than issuing a ticket for minor infractions.

Excellence. According to VA definition, excellence means, “Strive for the highest quality and continuous improvement. Be thoughtful and decisive in leadership, accountable for my actions, willing to admit mistakes, and rigorous in correcting them.” (Washington VA Medical Center, 2011). Excellence means that I will take the time to be the best at what I do. It means not taking shortcuts. It means taking advantage of every opportunity to grow as an employee and leader. Excellence also means encouraging my subordinates to strive for excellence.

Ethics within any organization is vital to its success and is tied directly to the support afforded by the public. In the case of the VA, the veterans it serves. Those ethics can be broken down into professional ethics, personal ethics, and organizational ethics. I began by addressing how the VA Police Code of Conduct, integrity and ensuring my subordinates clearly understand ethics is how we integrate our professional ethics into our organization. I then discussed the personal ethics of discretion, integrity, and empathy and how I can best implement them in the organization while my leadership can best implement the personal ethics of impartiality, fairness, and accountability. I finished by summarizing the VA Core Values of Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence. By implementing professional, personal and organizational ethics in our day to day police operations, we can fulfill the dream President Abraham Lincoln expressed in his second inaugural address, which later became the motto of the Veterans Affairs, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” (Lincoln, 1865)

References

  • Delattre, Edwin J. Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing. AEI Press, 2006.
  • “Sir Robert Peel’s Policing Principles.” Law Enforcement Action Partnership, lawenforcementactionpartnership.org/peel-policing-principles/.
  • Kleinig, John. The Ethics of Policing. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • “VA Directive 0730 Security and Law Enforcement.” Optimize Energy Use | WBDG Whole Building Design Guide, 12 Dec. 2012, www.wbdg.org/ffc/va/physical-security/0730.
  • John Vanek. “Why Individual Integrity Is a Fundamental Value in Police Leaders.” PoliceOne, 2 July 2015, www.policeone.com/police-leader/articles/8640835-Why-individual-integrity-is-a-fundamental-value-in-police-leaders/.
  • “A Guide to Ethics.” Music 242 Spring 2014, Habitat Degradation, pages.stolaf.edu/ein/disciplines/personal-ethics/.
  • “Integrity and Transparency.” Undercover Policing Guide | College of Policing, www.college.police.uk/What-we-do/Ethics/integrity-and-transparency/Pages/Integrity-and-Transparency.aspx.
  • Leonard, Kimberlee. “The Importance of Ethics in Organizations.” Small Business – Chron.com, Chron.com, 28 June 2018, smallbusiness.chron.com/importance-ethics-organizations-20925.html.
  • Schwantes, Marcel. “3 Huge Reasons Why Integrity Is So Important.” LinkedIn, 2015, www.linkedin.com/pulse/three-biggest-reasons-why-leadership-integrity-so-marcel-schwantes.
  • Washington VA Medical Center. “Washington DC VA Medical Center.” Our History – Washington DC VA Medical Center, 15 July 2011, www.washingtondc.va.gov/about/va_core_values.asp.

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