Ethical issues in Policing

The various components of the criminal justice system like the courts, police force, homeland security, corrections etc. face several challenges. Issues with regard to the police force are very prominent and have an immense bearing on the effectiveness of the system. Police ethics is particularly important as it helps police officers to decide during the dilemma situations they frequently encounter in their course of their job. The public image of the police is also improved when they act in accordance with the binding ethics. An important aspect of police ethics is that it is closely associated with law, and both bind police officers.

The area of criminal justice encompasses criminology and includes criminal justice processes, law and administrative issues. The contemporary criminal justice system may be described as a tool to carry out social control. Dangerous behaviors exhibited by people who are very destructive, need to be strictly controlled while people who have destructive capabilities need to be confined or monitored. The agencies associated with justice seek to deter such outlawed people and behaviors by apprehending and sanctioning lawbreakers. Society may have many other informal social controls, like parental and school discipline etc., but these are directed at maintaining morality and not relevant to legality and misbehavior. It is the criminal justice system that has the power to control and punish crime and outlawed behavior. The criminal justices system of today is comprised of three main groups, namely the law enforcement agencies, the court system and the correctional system. The law enforcement agency investigates crimes and arrest suspects, while the court system charges the suspects, put them on trial and sentences them. The correctional system incapacitates those sentenced by the court, and tries to rehabilitate them. The criminal justice agencies may be described as political entities whose framework and functioning is associated with all three branches of the government.

The organizations associated with the criminal justice system face constant challenges. The law enforcement, correctional institutions, courts etc are constantly under pressure to ensure rendering of timely justice. However, like in all other fields, occasional lapses do occur in the rendering of justice although the morality of law holds that even if criminals are not brought to book, it should be ensured that no innocent man is ever punished. Given the enormity of the situation, this however cannot be guaranteed. Although the practices by and large contribute to enforcement of societal justice, there are enormous opportunities for lapses in every aspect of their functioning. Officers in the criminal justice system including enforcement officers, correctional officers, parole officers and judges are always under immense stress of the workload that every case cannot be given its due diligence. The justice process when not undertaken with care and caution can have immense implications for the individual. There are many cases where people have even been set free from the death row due to lack of evidence or faulty trials. The various entities constituting the criminal justice system face issues and challenges in standing up to its demands. The police force of today too face many such issues.

The police force of today is faced with several issues, in the trans jurisdictional area. Although each of these qualify for an in depth individual study, these are all interlinked without any hierarchy or order in its prevalence and relevance. These issues in policing as dealt with in police science include policing styles, policing management, stress and dangers in policing, public accountability and police ethics. Although each one of them is vital in understanding the roles and responsibilities of the police, police ethics is particularly important. This is because ethics is an important aspect of any respectable profession and while it is well developed for most other professions, it is considerably under developed and less perceived in the police force. The codes of conduct that guide appropriate conduct are actually ethical codes based on judgment of right and wrong. Generally most codes of conduct are enforced by laws, and sometimes by morality. The profession of a police officer is no exception to binding ethics. The police profession gives lots of opportunity for its enforcement officers to carry out responsibilities, with each responsibility having its own implications of ethical conduct. It must be noted here that many do not agree on the need for police ethics. This is mainly due to the mingling or close association of law and ethics related to police, since police officers are bound by both.

The ethics toolkit issued by the International Association of Chiefs of Police emphasizes on the dos and donts of the police, with regard to legal and ethical conduct. It identifies accountability as the duty of all officers to truthfully acknowledge and explain their actions and decisions when requested to do so by an authorized member of this agency without deception or subterfuge.  Although the toolkit does not bar police officials from receiving gifts and other items of value, it emphasizes that those receiving unsolicited gifts and items should report the receipt of such things. If required, they should also provide a detailed report of the circumstances under which they were received. Officers should also not buy or keep articles or properties found, impounded, recovered or abandoned. Police officers, through their position in law enforcement, gain access to information which again should not be used for financial gains or benefits. An important misuse of police power is when they use their powers to resolve personal problems (i.e. problems and issues of the police officer or his friends and relatives). Officers should not involve themselves in ordinary roles like arresting, booking traffic violations, etc., when they are not traveling in a marked police vehicle. The duty of a law enforcement officer is primarily to be in self-compliance with the law, himself. The officer should be aware of law enforcements upon himself, when he is on duty, enforcing it. The officer should realize that his presence in the force and the force itself has been established in line with the community welfare aspirations. Whether the officer is engaged at the local, state or federal level, he plays a role in enforcing the community or public will, a will of safety, security and equality of all. Through all his actions, the officer should defend this system and be careful not to encroach upon it. The law enforcement officer should use his powers to arrest offenders, only in accord with all existing laws (IIT, 2008). At time of arresting, the officer should respect the rights of the offender. In executing the arrest, the officer should only use the minimum physical force necessary. The officer needs to conduct himself with respect to self-compliance, to uphold the law, when dealing with both, law abiders and law violators. 

High-ranking officers in police department have powers and privileges given to them, to help them to perform better in their duty of service to the public. When these are misused, used with bias, or unused for reasons of personal interest they defeat the purpose for which they have been established. In doing so, the relevant officers have used their powers and privileges to harm the society, instead of using it to help society. Police department personnel should avoid relationships that can be interpreted as being unfair or partial. They should realize that accepting gifts and favors are not too far from direct bribes, as these too must carry a sense of gratitude and obliging. Favors particularly, keep flowing out for any police staff, either on duty or off duty. Small time favors that dont look bad include free transport, low pricing, meals and refreshments, and home-based deliveryservices. Even if the officer accepts these with a mindset of not going to oblige, or go out of the way to repay the favor, the provider of the favor expects one. It is unethical if such a gesture is not repaid. If these are unconsciously accepted at the initial stages, an urge to receive more, gradually develops, which soon gets transformed as a right to receive. The community and police service expect law enforcement personnel to lead a honorable and decent life. Inappropriate conduct in private life, disrespecting the law or seeking special privileges reflects appropriately, not only the officer but also the police service as a whole. Police officers need to refrain from accepting such favors in the course of executing their duty. Most department members do not hesitate to seek favors directed towards cutting departmental expenses on most occasions. This looks normal to the police higher officials too, as they are under instruction to reduce expenditures. Sometimes they may have received administrative orders too, saying that repair or replacement would take time, or cannot be done till the close of the financial year. Such policies only encourage the relevant police staff to look to external free sources. These include repair and maintenance of their premises, small stationary requirements, convict needs etc. It is unfortunate that no one within the government machinery is either aware or realize the negative consequences of such policies. These officers need to realize the extent of public participation in law enforcement, in accordance with binding ethics. Even in their interaction with their own suppliers, the department can be benefited with higher quality and lower costs, when the officers concerned stand up to the same without accepting favors.

Legitimacy and trust are among the important factors of policing. Legitimacy refers to the righteousness or fairness associated with policing while trust relates to the procedural justice associated with it. Legitimacy and trust are associated with the following indications.





The police require the public to perceive them in good light with respect to the above indications, which are the four cornerstones of trust. Researches suggest that police visibility is the only aspect of policing that can be associated with these indications. This visibility is evident in the patrolling of the neighborhood. With image being everything, police can be observed doing anything. Being seen accepting bribes, sleeping in a car, threatening etc. would not contribute to the image of the police. With regard to action and service, there is a serious role conflict between the two, an action based crime fighter and a service based public servant. The conflict between these two roles causes a police subculture. A group thinking occurs in police cultures resulting in everyone adopting similar thought and actions. It becomes necessary to show loyalty to coworkers, thus facilitating immorality and corruption to be veiled by it. Whistle blowing is also not encouraged. When police try to execute both roles, they deviate at both ends. Thus under enforcement is as much a problem as over enforcement. Leniency shown under a due process is a similar problem to zero tolerance under crime control. It becomes difficult to tread the middle ground in such situations of role conflict. The role conflict is also associated with the lovehate perception of the public. People love police when they see them confronting enemies. They however hate police when police attempt to serve all people without any enemies.

With regard to prison settings, prison officials have three strategies to have control over their prisoners namely the use of coercion, their legal authority and their personal authority (HM Prison Service, 2004). Although there are guidelines on how prisoners are ought to be treated under the law, in practice officials see these in conflict with how they should be practically treated, to uphold the penal order. There are cases where actions by officials not only breach the law but also the spirit of the law. These are then also defended by the officials as being necessary to preserve order and discipline. When such developments become the norm, the prison becomes devoid of law, and prisoners life is dependent on their relationship with the officers. Officials make negotiations based on factors unrelated to law, which may or may not be very discriminating, but however not open to public scrutiny or legal accountability. Prison officials no doubt work under harsh and risky circumstances and are accountable to both the society and prisoners. This however doesnt justify their unilateral actions, particularly when it is against the interests of the prisoner or society. When prison officials fail to take decisions on legal or ethical grounds, the prison becomes a place of manipulated or negotiated law, where prisoners are ironically brought for breaking law.

Police excesses in the form of brutality and torture, are an important aspect of police ethics. Police brutality is the use of excessive force to achieve a lawful purpose by the police. It often goes unnoticed because police themselves are part of the machinery that checks these offences. Police brutality in the form of unwanted shootings, beatings and kicking may sometimes result in serous injuries or even death of the suspect. When such unfortunate situations happen, police are quick to come out with a denial of charges and put a suitable theory to account for the happenings. Apart from the need to extract information, police resort to brutality for several other reasons like, personal vengeance or hatred against a particular community or race. The accused or suspect is also brutally assaulted when the police have had a tough time in apprehending him. The methods adopted by the police in the course of their brutality is highly diverse and unimaginable. Apart from the physical injuries, the victims also suffer from a mental trauma. The laws and punishments are formed to appropriately deal with the crimes caused. Thus extreme brutality by the police adds to the decided punishment. Although brutality may be a requirement for the police, it should not be misused at the will and fancy of the policemen. Since it is not possible to prevent police brutality, society can benefit by regulating it, and actions of the police made more transparent and accountable. The Human Rights Watch group acknowledges that police too are prone to making mistakes, as they sometimes need to take instant decisions. Any amount of training, counseling or monitoring cannot make policemen perform perfectly. Therefore they need to be under severe scrutiny to ensure that their actions are justifiable (Human Rights Watch, 2007).

Torture is another issue associated with policing, in the fight against terrorism. Police officers require to consider the use and effectiveness of torture, against the ethics they violate and the society in whose interest they act. There is no doubt that torture might help in enforcing public security, but when needless torture is used, the police force become no different from the enemies they fight against. The situational response and dilemma associated with torture of apprehended terrorists is compounded by the fact there is public support for torture too. Therefore in their efforts to ensure effective policing, police personnel find themselves in several difficult situations. For instance resorting to torture or just rely on interrogation techniques to gain information is a difficult choice. Thus police find themselves entangled in a dilemma of refraining from torture and abiding by the law or resorting to illegal torture to provide for the society. The ticking bomb scenario has been widely stated to prove the need for torture on terrorists. The use of torture in extracting information on an impending catastrophe so as to prevent it and save lives is logical. When a terrorist threatens violence, it is paramount to terrorism, and qualifies for torture tactics when permitted. However there needs to be a difference between a threat of violence and actually committing that violence.

According to Carl Wellman, use of coercion or threat of violence is non-violent terrorism. Instances of non-violent terrorism include judges imprisoning criminals to prevent future crimes, blackmail and teachers threatening their students with failure (Wellman, 1979). Violent terrorism and non-violent terrorism need to be perceived differently, in the use of torture.

Another area of immense debate and conscious action is in profiling. Profiling is an important aspect of police responsibilities. Based on the clues existing for a given crime, behavior experts generate a profile of the offender. The profile will have traits that are common for those types of crimes and criminals, and also have specific details and qualities of the particular offender. The profiling can suggest details of the offender like the offenders age, gender, built, profession, passions, place likely to hang around etc. Profiling becomes an ethical issue when it gets associated with ethnicity and race in identifying suspects. Racial profiling is evident when police stop and inspect people solely on the basis of their race, religion or ethnicity. Instances of racial profiling are evident when certain passengers are frisked in airports, drivers in highways, visitors crossing borders etc. Arguments that support racial profiling are based on statistics that blacks are more likely to smuggle drugs and that high offender rates are evident in minorities. There has been a divided opinion on the measures adopted, with many favoring the measures adopted and many calling it a breach of civil liberties.

Advocates of civil rights say that the government is stretching too far and not respecting the fundamental rights of several sections like immigrants and foreign people. The US Patriot Act that was enacted with almost total support in the legislature provides for enhanced surveillance and detention with respect to non citizens (Chishti, 2010). Critics of the governments policies point out that the enforcement actions are directed towards certain religions and communities. Profiling of the members of these communities are considered as ineffective and crude way of gathering information. Critics also point out that the practice of profiling violates constitutional freedom and discriminates individuals based on religious and ethnic backgrounds. Profiling leads to stereotype working in the police force and is ethically and morally wrong. It also provides for a public perception that policing is biased so much that even if multicultural policing were projected, it would be seen as attempts to improve public perception.

Just like economics remains the bottom line for a private sector employee, ethics is the bottom line for a public service employee. Given the broad perspective of the public service ethics compared to professional ethics, the public service ethics are also referred to as ethos. Public service doesnt stop with integrity while being employed, it is also associated with the aspirations prior to being employed and the principles held after employment. One never becomes an ex-employee but only a former employee. The lifeline of law and order for any society is obviously its police force. Only when the police are seen to be righteous, the people would have respect and confidence on them. The public would be willing to cooperate and help police personnel, only when they remain trust worthy. It is therefore very important for the police personnel to command the respect and goodwill of the people, to function effectively. The public-police relationship is vital, for maintaining law and order, and this relationship can be strengthened only when police conduct themselves in appropriate manner.  Every police officer must realize that they need to be law-abiding citizens too, and serve the society with an unbargained commitment and desire (Proctor, 1997). Members of the police department have to adhere to a code of morality or ethics, if they have to win and retain the trust and respect of the society they serve. It is only when they act in an unfair or inappropriate manner, compromising on their responsibilities and values, that they fall low, in public esteem.

The police officers of today face a tough challenge of maintaining law and order in the society like never before. The enforcement officers of today combat crimes, law and order situations and risks that were not relevant ever before. Life style changes, technological developments and international relevance for all happenings, have made the job tougher. There is no doubt that for the compromising officer, such situations open up newer avenues of quick money and wealth. But for the honest officer, he would be without all such illegal benefits. Tainted officers may go free, enjoy their ill-gotten wealth but it is the money earned by honest means that give the satisfaction and peace of mind. Apart from satisfaction, there is an immense sense of self-value, that one would cherish forever. Living on legitimate earnings, is in several ways, a pride to the family and the community, to which the officer belongs. An honest officer needs no certificate. He is easily identified and respected by the public and his very own colleagues. The most capable and respectful officer is perhaps one, who can say each day to himself I dont fall for money or favors. The character of a police officer is evident in the way he executes his work, in all what he does or doesnt.

It is evident that police officers, who are properly educated and trained, are able to respond better to ethical and moral situations demanded by their professions. It is very important for police officers to be able to overcome their moral and ethical dilemmas, for them to perform their duties and obligations in a professional way (Pagon, 2003). The police officer should be familiar with the principles of police ethics and needs to be trained in moral reasoning and ethics based decision-making. Supervisors have an important role in establishing and promoting the spirit of the code of ethics. They should be role models in the communitys effort of delivering impartial, effective and professional policing service.  The supervisors should ensure that individuals under their guidance and responsibility develop their professional performance. They should question and address behaviors, which violate conduct codes, apart from reporting wherever appropriate (NIPB, 2007). The supervisors responsibility of maintaining professional standards and integrity can be facilitated by advice, corrective or appropriate action. When complaints of misconducts are brought by public, the supervisor must investigate and take appropriate actions. He should send a message that there would be no compromise on any actions by any staff that are directed to personal interests.

It requires an honest and duty bound officer to turn down benefit aspects and execute the job. Honest and straightforward officers carry with them the credibility of their department. It requires self-commitment and voluntary adoption of ethics to perform in a manner worthy of public respect. It is indeed sad that many police officers have preferred to amass wealth through their disrespect of integrity. As these officers are mostly part of the law enforcement machinery, they often get away unchecked. The only way such tainted officers can be reformed is by self-judgment and choice, rather than external enforcement. Although there are several such dishonest and corrupt policemen, it is only those few, who uphold values and ethics against all adversities, that the department still commands respect and trust.


Post a Comment