Police Ethics

There are two paradigms of policing: (1) the traditional crime fighter role and (2) the more recent public service or community policing role (Pollock, 2007). In the United States, although crime control is the major role of policing, both paradigms can be seen. The public service paradigm is predominant in Europe. The public service paradigm can be identified with community policing, where the police are people’s friends, mingling with them in the community and aiming at social peace. The spirit of service is primary. The goal is to abide by the code of police ethics and be ideal protectors of the people, as expected by social contract theory. Under this paradigm, a criminal is viewed not as a member of a distinct group but as somebody from the neighborhood who has gone astray (Pollock, 2007).

Whereas the public service paradigm is more rights based and duty oriented, as prescribed by ethical formalism, the crime control paradigm is less formal and subscribes to utilitarianism. Under the crime control paradigm the police are seen as an army to fight crime and catch criminals by whatever means necessary (Kleinig, 2008; Pollock, 2007). With the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the crime control paradigm has gained prominence. Criminals are viewed as enemies, and the police consider themselves as distinct from the people they serve. This gives rise to the police subculture in which loyalty is the code of honor and the “blue wall of secrecy” is maintained. “Noble cause” corruption is tolerated within the departments, thus allowing police use of excessive force, as in the film Dirty Harry (Pollock, 2007). The police subculture also allows officers to carry out unethical behavior at the individual level. Increasing diversity in the police force, police unions, and civil litigation are causing police subcultures to weaken (Pollock, 2007).

The Police Subculture and Police Ethics

It should be mentioned that subcultures are prevalent in some form in almost every police agency in the world, ranging from the United States to the United Kingdom. It is important to note that police subcultures may directly contribute to unethical employee behaviors. Unlike probation and parole officers, who may work alone, police officers are heavily influenced by their peers. Walker and Katz (2008) contended that the police subculture provides officers with rationalizations and motivations that allow them to engage in unprofessional behaviors. Some scholars have argued that there is a profound need to eliminate the negative effects associated with the police subculture (Souryal, 2006).

It is also possible that the police subculture allows law enforcement officials to commit unethical acts in the presence of other officers. Ward and McCormack (1987) stated, for example, that there are some citizens who strongly feel that “the great esprit de corps in the police force inhibits officers from investigating suspected corruption of fellow officers” (p. 21). Other scholars have noticed the lack of cooperation between officers of different ranks (Toch, 2002). Souryal (2006) argued that this builds a sense of unity among low-ranking patrolmen who may be tempted to isolate themselves from senior officers or cover up each other’s mistakes. Pollock (2007) also contended that there is an enormous amount of discord between police administrators and their underlings. Some scholars also argue that the police subculture inadvertently excludes certain types of police officers (Holdaway, 1996; Miller, Forest, & Jurick et al., 2003). In the United Kingdom, discrimination has been said to exist toward other officers as an indirect result of police activities that occur outside of work, such as shift parties and get-togethers (Holdaway, 1996). According to Holdaway (1996), certain officers, usually women and members of minority groups, are excluded from these events. This is consistent with Miller et al.’s (2003) contention that homosexual police officers also have limited access to the police subculture. Even though some officers are more entrenched in the police subculture than others, much of the current literature contends that it promotes attitudes that lead to cynicism and unethical behaviors among police.

Police Corruption and Police Ethics

In 1972, the Knapp Commission exposed unethical behavior and police corruption at virtually every level within the New York City Police Department (NYPD). During these official proceedings, corrupt officers were considered to be either “grass eaters” or “meat eaters” (Pollock, 2007). Grass eaters were officers who accepted gratuities yet did not demand any of the services they received (Souryal, 2006). Meat eaters, on the other hand, aggressively demanded bribes in exchange for specific types of favors. The Knapp Commission discovered that both of these types of police officers permeated the entire police department.

In the Knapp Commission inquiry, two police officers, Frank Serpico and David Durk, of the NYPD, went public with allegations of corruption and graft (Maas, 1973). During this formal investigation Serpico testified against many of his fellow police officers and helped to expose the ineffectiveness of the NYPD’s internal investigation department (Maas, 1973). Not long after his testimony, Serpico was shot in the face during a routine drug bust; although his coworkers did not come to his immediate aid, Serpico survived the attack (Maas, 1973). After the Knapp Commission, the NYPD pledged to eliminate officer misconduct and corruption (Pollock, 2007).

In addition to accepting bribes or engaging in organized corruption, police officers may engage in other types of unethical behaviors during the course of their 8-hour shift. Some research, for example, has shown that police officers engage in unscrupulous sexual acts while on duty (Barker & Carter, 1994). Souryal (2006) contended that this is because police officers have a high degree of power and are relatively isolated from their supervisors. It has been well documented that some police officers have had sex while on duty (Barker & Carter, 1994; Souryal, 2006). There have even been instances in which sheriffs and chiefs of police have partaken in unethical acts. In one recent case, for example, a high-ranking police executive of Wallkill County, New York, was allegedly caught having an intimate encounter in a patrol vehicle (Souryal, 2006). In other instances, however, the acts may be much more serious and are often motivated by greed and self-interest (Pollock, 2007).

Additional Types of Unethical Police Behaviors

There are many types of unethical behaviors in which police officers engage besides sexual deviance. These acts can range from abusing sick time to brutality (Barker & Carter, 1994). Some law enforcement employees may also sleep on duty, even in instances when they are expected to be vigilant and alert (Souryal, 2006). There are also officers who may expect businesses to provide them with special perks, such as free meals and coffee (Souryal, 2006). Police officers may also be tempted to falsify reports and even commit perjury (Barker & Carter, 1994; Pollock, 2007).

It is important to note that many countries besides the United States have police officers who have acted unethically. In fact, virtually every country has had at least one type of instance in which police officers have acted unprofessionally (Reichel, 2002). Mexican law enforcement officials, for example, are perceived by many scholars to be notoriously corrupt. In Peru, it has been said that corruption is so rampant that police officers may overlook traffic violations for bribes as small as candy bars (Reichel, 2002). In other countries, unethical police behaviors are equally as serious, if not more so, and may range from torturing pretrial detainees in Egypt to trafficking child pornography in Australia (Reichel, 2002). These examples illustrate that unethical employee behaviors exist in virtually every type of police organization on a worldwide scale.

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