Leading a law enforcement agency (LEA) is a complicated, high-pressure position that requires wide-ranging capabilities for overseeing a staff with different levels of competence, dispositions and tasks. Involving life-and-death issues, crime, politics, funding concerns and beyond, it’s even more difficult when having to deal with workforce misconduct, from petty issues to substantial corruption and criminality. Understanding the whys and wherefores of such conduct, and the challenges they can cause, are essential for developing strategies to eliminate such misbehaviors and hold problematic personnel accountable.
Ethics, morality and legality in LEAs
The term ethics indicates honorable principles, morality concerns right and wrong behavior, and legality relates to the law. These are foundational to defining and handling criminal activities, and our justice system cannot operate effectively without all three.
In 1957, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) established the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics (LECE). Within six short paragraphs, it eloquently defines ethical and moral behavior by sworn officers, starting with the basic job: “Serving communities, safeguarding individuals, protecting the innocent and respecting citizens’ rights,” followed by the obligation for officers to keep their private lives exemplary and unsullied, to live honestly, courageously, obey all laws, be mindful of the welfare of others and to never allow “personal feelings, prejudices, political beliefs, aspirations, animosities or friendships” to affect professional decisions.
The LECE also prohibits any acts of corruption or bribery and requires a promise to participate in any investigations into such activities. Finally, officers swear to “take every reasonable opportunity to enhance and improve (their) level of knowledge and competence.” The IACP also created the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor, wherein officers swear that they will never betray their badge, their integrity, their character or the public trust and promise to behave with courage and accountability.
Introduction to Criminal Justice: Practice and Process by Kenneth J. Peak, former chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada, includes a chapter titled “Ethical Essentials: Doing Right When No One Is Watching,” which describes how to develop a moral and ethical character and what leads to the so-called slippery slope, which will be addressed later.
“Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
Peak offers questions designed to determine ethical and moral behavior, such as whether or not one is using common sense, how comfortable officers would feel if the public and news media found out what they had done, if their activities caused pain for someone else, if their behavior was worth jeopardizing their career and so on.
A 2016 Northwestern University Graduate Program of Law and Criminology publication explores related issues, such as the importance of how ethical behavior impacts police engagement with their communities and, conversely, how communities relate to the police in return. When citizens experience LEOs as honest and ethical, the community is likely to treat the police more fairly. Similarly, the Wales College of Policing website offers a page on ethics that looks beyond whether or not local police are involved in clandestine corrupt behavior and surveys communities’ direct experiences of unfair and dishonest treatment. “If the public doesn’t trust the police to be fair and act ethically and in their best interests … they will be more likely to break the law and (be) less inclined to help the police.”
Challenges that LEA leaders may face
As with any organization, LEA leaders need to rely upon the integrity and ethical behavior of their personnel. However, unlike most other businesses, the repercussions of LEA employee misbehavior can have more serious, possibly even life-threatening consequences.
Police corruption involves some form of attaining personal gain through the misuse of authority. Peak notes that such corruption occurs on a spectrum, from relatively inconsequential behavior, such as expecting a local sandwich shop to provide free lunches, to major wrongdoing, like shakedowns or illegally selling weapons. It may start small, such as accepting minor gifts, but unethical activity can easily lead to that “slippery slope,” whereby officers begin to expect and then demand gifts of greater and greater value.
A 2016 Bowling Green State University study funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) identified almost 7,000 cases involving the arrests of some 5,500 sworn officers across the U.S. between 2005 and 2011, indicating that LEOs were getting arrested nearly 1,000 times per year, with 40% of those crimes committed on duty.
One of the biggest challenges that LEA leaders face is an unwritten code that has long persevered, referred to in a 1968 issue of the Journal of Law and Criminology as the “informal code of police deviancy.”
A University of Texas professor, Ellwyn Stoddard, described eight practices of this code:
- Mooching. Expecting gratuities on the beat, such as free meals and small items.
- Chiseling. Demanding discounts and freebies.
- Favoritism. Misusing official channels to gain undeserved immunity and privilege.
- Prejudice. Routinely treating minorities unfairly.
- Shopping. Shoplifting when a store entrance is found to be unlocked.
- Extortion. Demanding money, goods or services in exchange for canceling a citation or arrest.
- Bribery. Receiving cash or gifts with promises of preventing future prosecutions.
- Shakedowns. Stealing expensive items during the investigation of a break-in or burglary.
- Perjury. Expecting and demanding that fellow officers lie and alibi co-workers accused of unlawful activity, also known as the blue code of silence.
An NIJ study called “The Measurement of Police Integrity” reported on attitudes toward misconduct and corrupt behavior by officers from 30 U.S. agencies, such as cops running off-book, private security firms while still on the force; getting free meals, cigarettes and other “gifts” on their beat; pocketing valuables from crime scenes; and choosing to not report a fellow officer who was found to be drunk behind the wheel at an accident, among other such scenarios.
The NIJ researchers determined that most LEOs would not report a fellow officer who had committed what they perceived to be minor misconduct, such as running a private security business, accepting gifts and causing minor accidents. However, most said that they would report those who stole from a crime scene, accepted bribes to overlook criminal behavior or used excessive force on a nonviolent suspect. The researchers also found significant variations in the “environment of integrity” among the agencies surveyed.
Most states require some ethics education at the academy level before an individual becomes a sworn officer, but the length and quality of such preservice training varies widely. Also, over 80% of U.S. police recruits have only a high school education and no academy training. In addition, on-the-job, in-service ethics instruction is virtually nonexistent in America’s 18,000 or so LEAs.
How LEA leaders may best address these ethical issues
Previously mentioned NIJ research, along with other related studies, noted that there is little systematic, quantitative research examining police corruption and the environment of integrity. The NIJ offers two broadly different concepts related to LEAs who exemplify integrity. One is the administrative/individual theory of corruption, where misbehavior is seen as morally faulty and will not be tolerated. Therefore, all those who seem prone to such behaviors are expunged from the organization. The other paradigm is the organizational/occupational culture theory of corruption, where the agency has managed to cultivate an atmosphere that is highly resistant to corruption. Both models rely primarily on the characteristics of leadership.
To establish and maintain an environment of integrity, ongoing ethics training for the entire staff is indispensable. Personnel must grasp the connections between agency policies and their conduct on the street through practical, hands-on training that underscores the rules and expectations. Regularly scheduled, job-specific ethics training for all ranks and agency positions should combine unambiguous decision-making models, the values involved and critical thinking skills and should continue throughout each one’s career. Funding to support such training is available through Police Grants Help, which regularly reports on available financial support for LEA projects and may also be available from the POST program, Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), NIJ, BJA and similar agencies.
As detailed in the Public Integrity Journal, leadership by example is essential in creating and maintaining an environment of integrity. On observing the ethical conduct of their supervisors, LEOs will tend to model their behaviors upon that. Leaders must also learn about behavior related to promoting moral and ethical conduct, such as routinely informing personnel of what is acceptable and unacceptable through consistent, timely rewards and consequences, which then tends to motivate officers to report unethical behavior by their peers.
Another area for leadership is understanding the factors known to erode ethical resolve due to the nature of the job, particularly an overemphasis on the risks and perils. The dangers of police work must be represented truthfully to moderate an unrealistic picture of how threatening it truly is.
LEOs embody a unique occupation with tremendous authority to help or harm the communities they serve, and there are many ways to behave immorally, illegally and unethically. It’s the LEA leader’s job to address and counter such malfeasance decisively and with resolve, as well as to reign in misbehaviors without exception and to maintain an atmosphere of ethical, moral and legal conduct throughout their agency.