The International Association of Chiefs of Police (2009) states the following: A police officer acts as an official representative of the government; he is required and trusted to work within the law. The officer’s powers and duties are conferred by statute. The fundamental duties of a police officer include serving the community; safe-guarding lives and property; protecting the innocent; keeping the peace; and ensuring the rights of all to liberty, equality and justice. (As cited in Banks, 2009, p. 31) Ethical standards based on Constitutional principles are absolute because police officers take this oath to uphold them.
The police in the United States are entrusted with enormous power. With such power and immediate capability to deprive a citizen of their liberties, law enforcement officials must adhere to the strictest of ethical standards in carrying out their duties. On a daily basis, police officers must overcome ethical dilemmas while performing the essential duties of the job. It is the duty of the professionals in law enforcement to continuously improve police ethics training. This paper will examine some current issues in policing, in which ethical decision making have become a pattern.
The FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (As cited in Abadinsky, 2009, p. 8). After Twenty-plus years of militant Islamic terrorist attacks, President Bush signed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (U. S. A. Patriot Act), on October 26, 2001, in an effort to strengthen the nation’s counterterrorism resistance.
In Organized Crime, Former Cook County, Illinois Sheriff’s Office inspector, Howard Abadinsky summarized the main points of the legislation: [The Patriot Act] . . . increased the ability of law enforcement agencies to search telephone and e-mail communication, as well as medical and financial records. Under the Patriot Act, the FBI is able to bypass the judicial scrutiny required for obtaining certain categories of records from third parties, such as telephone billing records, electronic communication transactional records, financial records, credit information, and business records through the use of National Security Letters (NSLs). . The act eased restriction on foreign intelligence gathering within the United States and expanded the Secretary of the Treasury’s authority to regulate financial transactions, particularly those involving foreign individuals and entities. The act expanded the definition to include “domestic terrorism,” and the Department of Justice has used many of these powers to pursue defendants for crimes unrelated to terrorism, including drug violations, credit card fraud, and bank theft. (p. 372) The signing of the Patriot Act has impacted law enforcement agencies throughout the nation.
For example, “A 2004 survey reported that highway patrols in all 50 states found themselves with increased responsibilities in homeland security initiatives. About 75 percent of all state police agencies reported significant leadership problems gathering and disseminating intelligence data in their state. State police must also conduct more vulnerability evaluations, which impacts the roles of police officers and investigators” (“Homeland Security”, n. d). Criticisms of the Patriot Act claim the law to be unconstitutional. The ability to modify current Court decisions on Constitutional provisions stirs controversy.
Considering Fourth Amendment rights and the right to privacy, some may argue that the government is granted too much power. Concerns may suggest that an individual working in law enforcement could possibly use the granted power as justification to violate the privacy of persons in order to solve criminal activity not related to terrorism. As Delattre (2006), points out, “terrorists and assassins sometimes say that they are following the orders of God: fanatics carry out racist lynchings and terrorist bombings in the name of conscience . . . ecause they believe that their mission raises them above the law” (p. 333). When an individual feels as if they have “orders of God” they are determined to follow those others, even if innocent people suffering results upon completion. They are serious, in a sense to somehow be of God, and demanding power above the state, hence, questions of individual conscience. Before discussing conscience, I would like to briefly examine social stigma, a concept in which philosopher Roger Scruton considers, “necessary for the formation of individual conscience” (as cited in Delattre, 2006, p. 55). Scruton suggested that, “Stigma is not an act of aggression but a sign that we care about our neighbors’ lives and actions. It expresses the consciousness of other people, the desire for their good opinion, and the impetus to uphold the social norms that make judgment possible. It is the outward expression of an inner orderliness—and a declaration of faith in human nature” (as cited in Delattre, 2006, p. 356). Some may claim that the social stigma facing corrupt officials change with economic development.
The ability to form a rational conscience becomes minimal with a lack of social stigma. Unfortunate incidents have resulted in law enforcement agencies as a result of lack of social stigma. Delattre provides us with the following examples: In 1996 Los Angeles police officers in the Rampart station’s Community Resources against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit shot, permanently crippled, and framed Javier Francis Ovando. By police falsification of evidence and perjury, Ovando, who had no prior criminal record and had committed no crime, was convicted and sentenced to twenty-three years in prison.
In the same year Rampart CRASH officers murdered Juan Saldana. They shot Saldana in the back and the chest, then planted a gun on him and cooked up their story of the shooting while Saldana lay dying. Officer Rafael Perez of Rampart CRASH said of those and other crimes he committed: “When I planted a case on someone, did I feel bad? Not once. I felt good. I felt, you know, I’m taking this guy off the streets. ”20 Other Rampart CRASH officers choked and beat suspects until they vomited blood and broke bones of suspects whose hands were tied behind their backs.
An array of police officers in the United States from New York to Los Angeles has taken “thug code” all the way to torture and murder. (p. 364) The words of Officer Perez demonstrate that this officer did not possess a conscience. Through conscience, human beings determine what is right and wrong. Most views regard human beings as capable of knowing in general what should be done and applying this knowledge through conscience to particular decisions about action. The ability to act on the determination of conscience coexists with the development of the moral virtues, which in turn refines the functions of conscience.
For instance, “An officer who believes, for example, that homosexuality is wrong and therefore ignores abuses of homosexuals… is likely to be prejudiced. . . It is wrong to identify a person merely as a member of a group, and to ignore that person’s individuality” (Delattre, 2006, p. 334). A Police officer takes upon an oath of honor, which promises protection of the rights of people, not people that have matching beliefs. Society holds a high moral standard for law enforcement. Unfortunately police officers commit serious errors in judgment in which their actions fail to meet that standard.
Substantial training specific to ethics could prepare a prospective officer for the dilemmas they will face. For instance, a prospective police officer may find it beneficial to be educated of the most current ideologies and tactics of opposition and resistance used by extremist groups, cults, and gangs they are likely to encounter. In addition, education on the subjects of tactical communication, self-defense, officer safety, and methods for traffic stops will prepare an officer for routine scenarios.
Finally, training educates the officer on maintaining authority without losing control of themselves under stress, which is extremely important because a lack of self control can lead to police abuses of force. At times, police officers will abuse their power as representatives of the law. Though, the abuse of power and corruption are very similar, at which they are sometimes used interchangeably, the ethical focus behind the two terms are quite different. Abuse of force usually involves abusing a citizen.
An oath taken officer who chooses to participate in this type of activity possesses ethical principles of an evil person. Corruption involves abuse of police authority for personal gain. Numerous theories attempt to explain corruption in law enforcement. For example, the society-at-large theory suggests that corruption results from placed in a corrupt atmosphere. Individuals engage in corrupt behavior for a number of reasons, to include influential reasoning, money, lack of integrity, lack of morals, etc.
Anchored in both ideas is a huge amount of disrespect toward not only the law, but society and self as well. In Conclusion, law enforcement officials pledge to the following oath of honor: We are all human, thus we cannot expect perfection. However, with appropriate education and training in police ethics, a positive continuous social stigma, the ability to maintain the inner sense of what is right or wrong in one’s conduct, along with a high level of legitimacy, and trust will encourage police officers to strive for integrity and help them achieve it.