by Jack Ryan, Legal and Liability Risk Management Institute
On any given day one can pick up nearly any newspaper and find a story about some person in law enforcement who has committed an act that brings disrepute upon his agency and tarnishes his own badge. In most cases, the decision made by the officer or deputy was one that involved an ethical dilemma. Bill Westfall, a nationally recognized expert and trainer on law enforcement leadership, is often heard telling those whom will listen to "do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason." It is this type of overriding principle that will lead to appropriate ethical decisions and ethical conduct when an officer is faced with a difficult ethical problem.
Law enforcement agencies throughout the United States have numerous policies that direct officer conduct. What should an officer do when he or she cannot remember what the policy directs? This is one of the times when following the ethical principle will put the officer in a safe position with respect to how they conduct themselves. Unfortunately, many of the reported cases of unethical conduct are not the result of difficult ethical decisions, instead they are cases where officers conduct themselves in ways that step far outside the bounds of proper conduct, and in many cases even amount to criminal conduct. Instead of having prescribed ethical principles for the officers to follow, an ethics policy is needed to remind all employees of their obligations and to drive their conduct.
A policy on ethics covers a multitude of issues. A proper policy would direct officers not to abuse their position or use their position for personal gain. The policy should cover areas such as requiring the impartial and equal application of legal authority such that the agency and officer cannot be accused of abusing their position for selective prosecution. The policy should make all officers aware that when they act, they act on behalf of the agency and on behalf of the public they serve. Any breach of ethics not only casts disrepute upon the officer, but also casts disrepute on their agency and law enforcement as a whole.
Additionally, the breach of an ethical standard violates the public trust. The public places trust in officers to make some of the most important and difficult decisions that a person can make. These decisions include the decision to deprive someone of liberty or even to deprive someone of life. Without the public trust, law enforcement loses the power granted to it by law-abiding citizens.
It is unfortunate that a very small percentage of law enforcement officers have such an impact on those who act ethically and with integrity every day. The vast majority of officers are heroes who willingly place themselves in peril for the sake of their community on a daily basis. It is the few who need a policy to remind them of the ethical standards they should be following. It is the few who have to be directed on how to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.