Police misconduct is not a frequent news headline. Yet, when incidents of police conduct do hit the news, the reason is the serious nature of the misconduct and its widespread impact. Even with the recognition that police misconduct cannot be completely eliminated, preventive measures and strategies to mitigate the impact of misconduct need to be in place. Existing measures and strategies also need continuous evaluation to support the necessary reforms to address emerging issues on police misconduct. Media frenzy, public outcry, and politicization of police misconduct often complicate effective response to this issue. When this happens, it helps to go back to the foundation of ethical police behavior and ask how and why police misconduct is ethically wrong. The discussion attempts to elucidate these questions.
How Police Misconduct is Ethically Wrong
Police misconduct came to be unethically wrong because our democratic society dictates that there are ethical and unethical behaviors for law enforcement and police misconduct is bad police behavior (Banks, 2009). Individuals and the community accept and applaud good behavior of police officers. In complying with standards of good police behavior, police officers are able to effectively perform their duties and achieve law enforcement goals. People protest bad police behavior. In committing police misconduct, not only do police officers fail at their jobs but also they are likely committing crimes and deviant behavior that they swore to combat. Although notions of the line between good and bad police behavior is not always clear-cut and perceptions of ethical and unethical practice may change overtime, standards of ethical and unethical behavior for law enforcement remains constant.
Distinction between good and bad behaviors of police officers and determination of police misconduct as ethically wrong find expression in the U.S. Constitution, Supreme Court jurisprudence, state laws, department policies and procedures, law enforcement code of ethics, and oath of office (Dempsey, Forst, & Carter, 2016). The U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, contain provisions for the protection of civil rights and civil liberties. Civil rights, such as freedom from unequal treatment, provide the individual rights that demand respect from law enforcement officers. Discrimination-based police misconduct is unlawful and unethical. Civil liberties, such as the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and the right to a fair trial, provide the limits to acceptable and unacceptable law enforcement. As such, warrantless searches and illegal detention are unlawful and unethical.
Police code of ethics provides standards on ethical practices, which the law may not encompass. A formal police code of ethics emerged in the United States in 1928 as a means of professionalizing the police and regulating police behavior; while the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics by the International Association of Chiefs of Police came out in 1991 to standardize ethical police practice worldwide (Banks, 2009). The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics provide guidelines on the primary responsibilities of a police officer, performance of the duties of a police officer, discretion, use of force, confidentiality, integrity, cooperation with other officers and agencies, personal/professional capabilities, and private life. Standards of ethical practice provide guidelines on good police behavior. These standards reject police misconduct and designate it as unethical because these prevent police officers from performing their primary responsibilities, reasonably exercising discretion and use of force, and keeping a respected and trusted position in the community.
Why Police Misconduct is Ethically Wrong
Police misconduct is ethically wrong because of its adverse widespread and long-term impact on the police officer committing misconduct, the police department, the entire police force, the relationship between law enforcement and the community, individual victims, and the wider community (Dempsey et al., 2016). Misconduct negatively affects the reputation of all implicated police officers and the department where they work. Morale of the police force suffers during internal investigations of police misconduct. Police misconduct also destroys hard-earned trust of the police by the community. Victims and their families also suffer physical and psychological trauma from experiencing police misconduct. These effects are may be difficult or even impossible to reverse.
Consideration of the behaviors comprising police misconduct indicate the extent of impact of this unethical practice. Scaramella, Cox and McCamey (2011) categorized behaviors comprising police misconduct into (1) corruption and (2) physical or emotional abuse that are committed by individual police officers or by a police organization. Corruption refers to acts prohibited by law, regulations or ethical codes that involve misuse of position with the expectation of material benefit. Examples of corruption are “sale of illegal drugs, shake down of drug dealers, taking protection money, burglary, theft, misallocation of police resources, home invasion, armed violence, kidnapping, false arrests, planting evidence, transporting prostitutes, and similar activities” (p. 252). All of these examples result to direct and indirect harms to individuals and the community. Physical and emotional abuse refer to “perjury, emotional abuse or harassment, physical abuse, excessive use of force, assault, murder, discrimination, hostility, and discourtesy (p. 268-269). Dempsey et al. (2016, p. 238) identified other forms of police deviance as “drug-related misconduct, sleeping on duty, police deception, sex-related misconduct, domestic violence in police families, and biased-based policing”. Many allegations of police misconduct occur in relation to arrests, but the less frequent cases of police misconduct do serious harms to victims and the community, including children, such as kidnapping of civilians and sale of narcotics.
An alarming trend on police misconduct is its tendency to become systematic and widespread (Bowman & Primozic, 2014). Police officers exercise wide-ranging authority and discretion (Scaramella et al., 2011), which provide them with numerous opportunities to commit police misconduct. In the case of corruption, it can spread horizontally and vertically across the police force and when high-ranking officials participate in corruption, it becomes systematic or organized. This has the effect of magnifying whatever adverse effect corruption may have when committed by individuals or small groups of police officers (Dempsey et al., 2016). Systematic corruption may also cause the absorption of police misconduct or some of its forms into the police culture, with the result of emboldening more police officers to commit misconduct or commit misconduct more frequently to make the problem very difficult to resolve (Bowman & Primozic, 2014). When the media and the public become complacent about police misconduct, it creates an uncaring attitude (Bowman & Primozic, 2014), which allows further commission of police misconduct and worst harms to individuals and the community.
Police misconduct came to be ethically wrong because it negates what society deems to be good and acceptable practice for police officers. Constitutional provisions, state laws, and police codes of conduct all consider police misconduct to be unethical behavior. Police misconduct is ethically wrong because of its adverse widespread and long-term harms that have the propensity to cut across the moral fabric of our democratic society. Police misconduct necessitates regulation. When faced with the dilemma over managing police misconduct, it helps to go back to how and why police misconduct is ethically wrong in the first place.
Banks, C. (2009). Criminal justice ethics: Theory and practice (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Bowman, T. L., & Primozic, D. T. (2014). Chapter 6: Police misconduct and moral crimes against self: A philosophical analysis. In B. D. Fitch (Ed.), Law enforcement ethics: Classic and contemporary issues (pp. 121-138). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Dempsey, J. S., Forst, L. S., & Carter, S. (2016). An introduction to policing (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Scaramella, G. L., Cox, S. M., & McCamey, W. (2011). Introduction to policing. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.