Rajendra Dhar

The vast majority of police officers may be honest and ethical, at least in their personal life, but all of them pay the price for decreased public confidence and trust when there is little respect for police ethics.

Three causes of public mistrust for police ethics are:

1. The perception that a police sub-culture exists that either turns good officers bad or tolerates evil in the midst of policing.
2. The perception that most of policing is mean’t for the benefit of the rich & elite & for the politicians.
3. That the police is a tool in the hands of the politicians mean’t only for protecting the rotten systems & the those who on a daily basis are further degenerating the already stinking systems that are there.

These perceptions affect all of policing, go to the heart of police role in society, and involve ethical issues.
Trust is the main ethical issue in this approach to police ethics, and in learning about trust, we also learn about other irrational forces in society, like fear. This kind of focus on police ethics is also a focus on societal ethics. Facts make little difference here, as it doesn’t matter whether we can trace the roots of public mistrust to any specific event; what matters is perception, and how those perceptions influence the morality of a nation as a whole is what matters.

Legitimacy and trust are complex issues in policing.

The indicators of shared priorities and respect are specific indicators of trust and the indicators of competency and dependability are specific indicators of legitimacy. The police need the public to have positive perceptions on all these indicators, which are usually seen as the “four dimensions of trust” in police studies. Whether or not police officers stop to informally talk with anybody doesn’t matter, and neither does any attempt by police to engage in community policing. All that matters is that police are seen out-and-about, presumably doing their job.

Image is everything, and a police officer who just needs to be seen, can be seen doing anything, as long as it’s not ridiculous. From the point of view that visibility is the only thing that matters, being seen sleeping in a PCR would be a worse offence than being callous toward citizens.

It’s been called the “impossible mandate”, the “ambivalent force”, and the “unprofessional profession”, among other terms, but the key idea is that a serious ROLE CONFLICT exists in policing — a conflict between the role of action-oriented crime fighter and the role of service-oriented public servant. This conflict between being a crime fighter versus being a public servant is what causes a police sub-culture to exist. Loyalty to co-workers is essential, and whistle blowing is extremely discouraged. Loyalty has a dark side, and corruption and immorality can easily hide behind it.

Codes are like firearms; they have their value and they have their dangers. One of the more interesting questions to ask is why police created a code of ethics in the first place. It may be that codes contain historically important clues to the contextual mandates for policing, but more often than not, they represent aspirations toward the future without any clear directions for how to get from one place (the past) to another (the future). The police code (illustrated below) is designed to be like an oath of office, and the effectiveness of making someone say “I will…” over and over again is debatable. The Canon of Police Ethics is more interesting, but again, consists mostly of value statements that an officer is supposed to subscribe to. Goals and attitudes are nice, but something a little “deeper” might be called for.


While the bottom line for a private sector employee is economics, the bottom line for a public service employee is ethics. Public service ethics is sometimes known as a public service ETHOS because it’s much broader than a professional ethics, and doesn’t just involve integrity on the job, but the “calling” that comes before taking the job, the challenges on and off the job, and the principles one maintains after the job (never an “ex” employee, but a former employee). The notion of serving the “public good” is what differentiates public from private service, and once having shouldered some responsibility for the public good, one becomes committed to a lifelong interest in it, if only to think about crafting solutions for the vital interests of society. Ethos is the added value one brings to public service, and ethos is important to be cultivated or else we lose what it means to be a “public servant.”

As public servants have access to the coercive powers of government, watchdog groups and the media expect public servants to be subject to a higher level of scrutiny than shareholders expect of a company’s general managers. The reason is that public servants must be held accountable “to the people.” This accountability is often at the level of policy determination, but does not preclude some accountability at the implementation level. It is imperative that the policy decisions of government are subject to scrutiny and public discussion, but it is dangerous if every act of policy implementation is blocked. The public servant must be allowed to do their job, but they should do more with the public interest in mind than blindly follow orders or see the job as nothing more than crime fighting.


Duty consists of the responsibilities attached to a role; discretion is the ability to choose between two or more courses of action; and discrimination occurs when a group or individual is treated differently for no justifiable reason. These three terms are discussed together because they shed light on the problem of what is the right thing to do when it is so often the case in policing that there is no perfectly “right” thing to do. Take the duty to protect citizens, for instance. A police officer’s time is valuable, and short, little, by-the-book encounters probably don’t fully do justice to police duty in this respect. Because of either culture or policy, police cannot usually promise to become personally involved or commit the resources of the department beyond what the short encounter calls for. This can have negative consequences of unfulfilled duty when in comes to domestic violence victims, for example. Any officer who takes seriously their duty to protect would likely be over-involved (in their department’s eyes), and be acting upon their personal ethics rather than police ethics, and then the problem becomes what kind of personal ethics would help such an officer survive the emotional turmoil that an attitude other than callousness provides.

How officers use their discretion (to file a report or not, to answer a call or not, to stop and investigate or not) is likewise a matter involving personal ethics. Police discretion has been studied at length as a matter of style (legalistic, watchman, or service) or personality type (idealist, optimist, enforcer, realist), but the fact is that full enforcement of the law is not impossible.

Corruption is a sub-type of immorality, and all corrupt actions are a sub-type of immoral actions. However, not all immorality is corruption, and not all immoral acts are corrupt acts. For example, minor lawbreaking by a police officer might count as immoral without being an act of corruption. Also, negligent acts are sometimes immoral, but not necessarily corrupt. Corrupt acts have a number of properties that other immoral actions do not possess, such as (1) corruption involves manifestation of a regular disposition or habit on the part of the officer; (2) corruption exists when the law is seen as hopelessly inadequate and irredeemable, such as when guilty offenders go unpunished; and (3) corruption is driven by narrow, personal or collective self-interest, such as the financial gain of a group of employees or the career advancement of employee(s).

Much has been written on theories of corruption and how it can be prevented, and yet even more writing has examined the debate between whether a strong Police Complaints Authority or a strong Civilian Review Organisation works best. Certain causes of corruption not mentioned in those places include the belief that society is to blame, since there are some laws (usually vice-laws) that nobody seems to want enforced. Unenforceable laws usually lead to corruption. Another cause is lax management. Corruption seems to breed when there is bad management.

Pay raises, rewards and meaningful career paths would go a long way in preventing corruption. So would civilianization and the upgrading of educational qualifications. Shift duties & posting rotation is also a technique as it moves employees around so that they don’t spend time in any one place.

THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE, AS RIGHTLY SAID IS, “Any compromise between good and evil only hurts the good and helps the evil” (Ann Rand).

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