Unpacking Our Ethical Duties

August 8, 2017

Is there ever a conceivable time that a cop accepting a free cup of coffee would be ethically acceptable? How about a time when a cop telling a lie in their official capacity would be the right thing to do? I can think of times where those two acts might not only be acceptable but the exact thing you should do.

Police officers are routinely placed into situations where it seems there is no good solution. Law enforcement as a profession has come to agree on a code of ethics, which can be read in full thanks to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Our code of ethics claims that our “fundamental duty is to serve the community.” It goes on to tell us that we have a duty to “safeguard lives and property” and “respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality, and justice.” The code demands that we are “honest in thought and deed” and that we have “no compromise for crime.” The code has many requirements that I cannot fully list here, but it also requires that we never accept gratuities and that we relentlessly prosecute criminals.

My problem with this code and with the way ethics are addressed in the police world is the complete lack of theoretical consistency coupled with the judgment of ethical behavior being based on appearance alone. I have heard many times about how “useless” theory is when we work in the “real world.” We are doing ourselves a disservice by ignoring the fact that the main catchphrases of our profession are abstract concepts; justice, duty, and equality.


The Current Picture of Police Ethics Training

Like public school students, officers must take competency and certification exams, which is fine except when we think ethics training works the same way. Competency is defined as a person possession skills and knowledge which allows them to successfully manage diverse tasks and situations.i The competency-based approach to judging the success of everything in our society has made us believe that we can tell if an officer is acting ethically based on the adherence to these poorly crafted ethical codes and policies.

Ethics training for police officers includes telling them not to violate department policies, not to accept gratuities, not to lie, and take responsibility for their actions. We don’t go much beyond those lessons in ethics. The competency mindset has made us believe that acting ethically is based entirely on the form of the officer’s conduct and not their “internal identification with it.”i I believe that we will never have the right kind of ethical mindset until we acknowledge that the realm of ethics is based firmly in the abstract. As cops, we know better than most that there is not one solution for every problem.


A Very Quick Glimpse at Ethical Theory

Deontology is a branch of ethics that revolves around “duty.” This branch of ethics tells us which acts are always mandatory. For example, one primary proponent of deontology says there are no exceptions to the rule that we must tell the truth. Consequentialism bases the goodness of acts on the consequences they produce. For example, if lying to someone increases the overall “good” of the situation then it is acceptable. There are numerous types of deontology and consequentialism and many solid arguments against both positions.

Deontology has been accused of removing all emotion from ethics equations and consequentialism has been accused of authorizing heinous acts. There are other ethical theories as well but these two seem to apply most to our ethical discussion here and are the two most popular theories in ethics.

The Code of Ethics & Our Duties

Our code of ethics does make a good attempt at blending the two main ethical theories. With a little help from a philosopher named W.D. Ross we can formulate a solid framework for acting ethically. Ross framed a deontological theory that realizes we have certain duties but those duties can change in priority based on the situation. He also strives to fix the fact that deontology ignores the personal nature of duty we have based on our relationshipsii (spouse, professional, friends, partners).

According to Ross, our duties areii:

  • Fidelity (keep our promises)
  • Reparation (accept and right previous wrongs)
  • Gratitude (be grateful to others that help us)
  • Non-injury (we should not harm each other)
  • Beneficence (strive to improve other’s situations)
  • Self-improvement (always strive to improve ourselves)
  • Justice (strive to be fair)

You can find glimpses of many of these duties in our code of ethics so we’re on the right track, but we live in a complex world and finding the ethical solution to a problem is more complex than superficial standards.


Most cops I know have internalized these tenets and our agencies should foster that internalization, which means a reexamination of our “ethical values.” I think we would do well to more closely evaluate and understand that useless and abstract side of ethics. After all, how can we know what justice and duty even mean without talking about theory?

i Suva, J. (2012). Challenge of competence-based police ethics education. Internal Security, 4(1). 17-24

ii Simpson, D. (2017). William David Ross. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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1 Comment

  1. Grayowl

    I think you have listed some very good personal ethics, however these may not be consistent with work practice in many agencies. Just look at the FBI. These guys need to read your article and just live up to some of them. The concept of non-injury goes out the window if you include petty Inter affairs investigations. We’ve all seen careers ruined by the brass simply by I.A.-ing a cop into oblivion. The idea of reparation is controversial too. We handle criminal stuff not civil stuff. Just make an accurate and honest report of the facts and file your cases when the elements of the case have been met. Yes, we all feel good when a know dirt bag gets his come up’ens but we can’t let someone being a crime wave color our judgement. Beneficence is a great quality for leaders, especially supervisors. Nothing like helping those who help the community. Helping others has its own rewards.
    It is unfortunate that some police officers and too many politicians have a do like I say – not like I do attitude. The Knapp Commission was full of hypocrites nailing officers for the same unethical conduct they acted out every day. The first law of police work is survive another day. It is a dangerous world where the bad guys have you in a crossfire with politicos, aspiring co-workers and community activists.


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