Below is an important article. While it has a “Police Focus”, it works as well for any business or industry, just means that the teacher, supervisor at AT&T or the real estate agent will need to substitute his or her profession for the police office reference.
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Ask ten police professionals what ethics means to them and you will get ten different answers. Many who attempt to define ethics often provide a combination of other undefined standalone words to describe what ethics mean. For example: Ethics is being honest and having high moral standards. This definition includes three distinct sub-elements of ethics: honesty, morals, and standards. Couldn’t honesty carry its own substantial definition and how can we determine high moral standards without knowing whose morals and what their standards are? To define ethics, this definition is vague at best. If an individual adheres to strong values, would s/he be ethical? Most would say yes, but without first understanding what values are, or more importantly, what the individual’s specific values are, we may determine that such an individual is ethical when, upon closer examination, such strong values are based on hate and bias. Most police officers would claim to have integrity with little hesitation, but if officers don’t understand what integrity is, what it really is, beyond a loose collection of conceptual ethical descriptors or clichés written by best selling authors, then how can such a claim be valid?
Ethics are built upon a foundation of lesser but equally important individual components, each with their own unique well-defined meaning and serve collectively as the framework that can offer a sweeping understanding of what ethics really are. The first step to developing this important understanding begins with defining the foundational building blocks of ethics.
Police ethics is a vast subject and one not easily taught through in-service training. Despite this, ethics training has never been more critical in law enforcement than it is today and there is an abundance of training available. There are ethics models, theories, associations and institutes, and an abundance of top selling books that cover every aspect of ethics. We have ethics in departmental policy, law enforcement codes of ethics, and ethical standards written into our mission statements. There are training courses, camps, and mentors. There are highly paid executive consultants, evangelical-style motivational circuit speakers, and law enforcement subject matter experts who teach ethics from police cadets in the academy to officials in the highest levels of law enforcement. When ethics are discussed, a number of collateral issues such as corruption, religion, and diverse personal bias and experience are brought out and discussed with conviction. Because ethics is such an expansive subject, there must be a starting point to identify the foundational basics of ethics learning that will serve as a cognitive springboard to deeper understanding.
A value is simply a belief or philosophy that is meaningful to us. Our values serve as a measure to determine what is important and this determination often controls our behavior. Values, strong or otherwise, are not good or bad; they simply help to define what we believe or don’t believe in. If an individual was asked how important it was to be honest and to measure this importance on a scale from 1-10, s/he is being asked to assign a numerical value to honesty. If honesty was scored very low, then honesty is not considered very important. A low score does not mean that the individual’s belief in honesty is not a value, but rather that honesty is merely viewed as insignificant. A person who does not valuehonesty may likely be a liar or dishonest.
Value-based Leadership is a contemporary term that has gained great popularity in recent years. Books are written about it, leadership systems and comprehensive theories have been developed around it, and consultants and seminar presenters are paid big money to show executives how to apply it. Value-based leadership identifies which values should be held as important or adhered to in order to be successful and exemplify the mission of a particular organization. These carefully selected values can be practiced from individual police officers, who go out of their way to assist a citizen, to fortune 500 companies, who wish to expand to a competitive international market. Examining and defining values allows us to determine if they are beneficial—based on good and right behavior (often determined by family and society) or if they are adverse—values that are detrimental to personal well-being or professional success.
If you took a balloon and filled it with all the primary elements that are conjoined under ethics—honesty, morals, standards, courage, principles, values, etc. and after the balloon was full, tied the stem into a tight knot, that balloon would be airtight, complete, and un-compromised. In other words, the balloon would have integrity in that nothing bad could get in and nothing good could slip out. If you took that balloon and locked it in a room, undisturbed for one year, and upon your return, the balloon was half its original size, that balloon has lost its integrity.
Unfortunately, this is what happens to some officers slowly, even unnoticeably, over a period of time. They start out with unimpaired integrity and in time, if left alone or unsupervised, not held accountable, ignored, untrained, or denied direction, professional standards can be lessened. Lowering our standards or rationalizing our own improper behavior is often the first step toward corruption and this is the critical point where integrity begins to become compromised. This compromise can come in many forms: accepting a free meal; being part of the code of silence; calling in sick when perfectly healthy; or violating policy.
Integrity is unmistakable and unbroken completeness. Having integrity provides personal or professional direction and protects us from being divided between right and wrong. It allows us to determine where to place our professional loyalty; how not to become trapped in the gray areas of ethical dilemma; and eliminates the need to rationalize any behavior, action, or omission that is less than ethical. Ideally, integrity is the incorruptible and unbreakable vault where ethics are safely preserved and protected.
Morals can be defined as a set of personal rules that are adhered to or a code of conduct that is followed. While morals or being moral are usually attached to describe individuals, morality tends to illustrate the rules or laws set forth by society, culture, or religion. Morals or morality are difficult to define with great accuracy as they vary greatly without a pre or post descriptive tag such as Christian morals or moral thinking. Morals are concerned with the principles of right and wrong in relation to human action and character. Morals are an aspect of conscience: our sense, or feeling, of what is right and just. Though we can use “morals” or “morality” to define standards of conduct, particularly sexual conduct, our morals have far greater breadth and depth than that. Being amoral describes those who do not follow the rules of society. Such societal rules are established to encourage or to demand right and good behavior and discourage wrongdoing or evil. Morality often involves limitations on the freedoms of behavior and maintaining good morals is difficult, requiring self-discipline, as these limitations are often in conflict with our own self-interest or desire.
Police officers are often confronted with immoral persons but their actions, while unethical, are perfectly legal. This is where officers must learn to separate legality from morality. Morals, societal laws, or biblical laws of old: “Thou shalt not kill” have developed into statutory law (Homicide), but much of immoral behavior, determined by society, falls short of requiring police intervention (i.e. adultery, lying, or conceptual racism). Police officers who are moral follow the unwritten rules as well as the written rules. The actions of a morally sound officer would never shock the public conscience as these actions are in harmony with what society holds as proper.
Unfortunately, there is an abundance of well-known examples of blatant dishonesty: Watergate, Iran-contra, Whitewater, Mark Ferman, Bill Clinton, and Enron to name a few. Think about the consequences of these major incidents; a military Colonel, once considered a hero, marked a liar and ended his career in disgrace; a President impeached and forced into seclusion and another who dishonored his Presidency and family and subjected the country to international humiliation; and a talented police detective who lied under oath, which contributed to the acquittal of a double-murderer. The importance of honesty is immeasurable.
Those who are honest maintain a balanced fairness and are straightforward with a strict regard for sticking to the facts. An honest person would tell you that the clothes you’re wearing are inappropriate when most others would fib and say you look just fine. Honest people refuse to lie, steal, cheat, or deceive others. It’s honesty that prevents us from purchasing cheaper movie tickets for a 12-year-old when our child is really 13 or padding our police related expenses on our tax returns. Honesty is often the best defender against greed. Where there is honesty, there is truth and our parents have told us our entire lives that honesty is the best policy and the Bible addresses honesty with a commandment; “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”Honest officers who prefer factual accuracy to exaggeration often halt harmful gossip common in the police department rumor mills.
In police work, honesty is all-important because honesty is synonymous with credibility. Without credibility, we would quickly find ourselves unemployed, which calls to mind a popular law enforcement saying, “If you lie, you die” and of course, this quote refers to a professional death. Honesty serves as the foundation upon which trust is developed and tends to enhance one’s dignity. Honest people have a clean conscience and have nothing to hide. Honest people maintain a sincere understanding of the real-life game of truth or consequences.
Principles are similar to morals, however, principles are what we stand on when trying to illustrate our values, though they have greater flexibility in that they are practical: one with principles tends to seek to achieve greater good in the long-term with minimum harm. Consider principles as the rules we set for ourselves in order to apply other ethical qualities; kind of a personal Penal Code of what we will and will not do based on our perception of right and wrong or good or bad.
Principles may include impartiality, objectivity, openness, diligence, trustworthiness, or generosity. These are qualities, traits, or characteristics that might be important enough to be adopted as principles. Once adopted, we use these principles as an operational plan-of-action to practice our ethics. If one of my values (what’s important) was impartiality and I chose to practice impartiality with strict adherence, I would hold this trait as one of my principles.
When we confront an ethical dilemma, our principles serve as that little voice in our heads known as our conscience that sends up the red flags. We can ignore our principles, the ethical guard at the cerebral gate, but if we do, then we risk the consequence of compromising our morals, values, and ultimately our integrity.
A standard is criterion established by authority such as a rule for the measure of value, professionalism, or quality. We create standards to hold and maintain a certain level of something that is considered important. Standards set forth a baseline to serve as a guide that shows where we cannot descend below and provides personal or professional expectations of how we treat or don’t others or how we behave or don’t behave. To fall below this baseline would indicate the particular standard was not met and this is synonymous with failure. While principles serve as the rules by which we practice ethics, standards identify the level or degree where good and just principles won’t go. For example, if one of my values (what’s important) was honesty and I set this quality as a principle (personal rule) to be adhered to and practiced to demonstrate this value, a standard would dictate how honest I was. I may be 100% honest at all times or I may politely fib or tell “white lies” in sensitive situations. The standard of honesty is where we chose to set the level.
In law enforcement, standards are usually inflexible and fixed. We don’t have a choice in how we follow organizational standards. Officers cannot fib in court or tell a white lie to their supervisor. Policy, general orders, and department procedures are written standards. A standard, which is lessened, is not a standard anymore; it’s nothing and is tantamount to disregarding policy or breaking a rule. In performance evaluations, there are performance standards with descriptions that must be met to achieve certain levels of performance. One standard, if met might yield an exceed standards evaluation while the performance of another officer might not meet the minimum baseline (standard) of acceptable performance and thus, result in a below standards evaluation.
Ethical courage is not running into a burning house to save lives. It is usually found in the form of being confronted with a difficult problem and making the right decision despite potentially adverse personal or professional consequences. This form of courage is ethical strength and is called upon when we must willingly risk exposing ourselves to choosing between right and wrong while knowing that choosing the right path will be the most difficult. Those with ethical courage have a bias for action and such potential negative consequences do not deter them from becoming involved. Demonstrating ethical courage can come with a wide variety of risks and there may be a cost to this involvement.
Those with longevity in law enforcement have seen ethical courage at its finest, but have also seen those who lack courage. Officers lacking courage go along with the program whether it’s good or bad and say nothing. They don’t speak up in staff meetings when the record needs to be set straight and when they do offer an opinion or decision, it’s self-serving or done in strict obedience to those in power. They allow inequities to occur because confronting the issue may cause problems or may not be viewed as the popular thing to do. Organizational cowards don’t rock the boat; they blend into the crowd and while they curse poor decisions, bad policy, or weak leadership, they smile in silent frustration and maintain the status quo.
Possessing and applying ethical courage is the recipe for positive organizational change. It’s often one ethically courageous officer who takes the metaphorical hits that lead the way for effective changes to ineffective practices. Ethical courage that is embraced and rewarded by police organizations serves to deliver a powerful message and creates the motivation for others to model the same desired behavior.
We seem to be living in an atmosphere of social disharmony with regard to how we treat each other. Qualities like rudeness, impatience, anger, distrust, sarcasm, selfishness, and greed can be seen from simply driving on the freeway. Politeness and respect are viewed as signs of weakness that take a back seat to aggression and intolerance when dealing with day-to-day problems. Fathers with kids in their car go berserk, screaming profanities because someone else pulled into his desired parking space. Young adults talking aloud in a movie theatre will respond to being shhhhed with a middle finger. Mothers and fathers at their child’s soccer game will become fanatic and rise to the level of physical violence because the referee made a bad call against their child.
When we discuss society that includes mothers, fathers, drivers, and everybody else who must confront problems, we certainly have to include police officers. One of the most common citizen complaints filed against officers stems from how they treat people. “That officer had an attitude.” “The officer was sarcastic and talked down to me like I was stupid.” “That officer was rude and impatient and he did not let me explain what happened.” Many of these complaints and the dissatisfaction of an officer’s contact can be easily eliminated with the application of civility.
Just being nice can make a huge difference. How difficult is it to be nice? Certainly there are those encountered in police work that niceness will not apply to, but that is where flexible civility and some interpersonal skills come into play. Officers don’t have to be gushing with overt kindness to show a degree of respect or spend a few extra minutes to listen. The tone of one’s voice serves as the message behind the words. Officers can say, “Have a nice day” and truly mean it, however with a slight change in the tone of this statement, the exact same spoken words can deliver a sarcastic message that says, “Go screw yourself.”
The true test of civility for police officers is found in its application to those who don’t seem to deserve it or make it hard to be nice. Giving someone respect or extra effort when you don’t have to or want to is civility. Showing respect to those who are not worthy of it is civility. Civility can be considered as the delivery method for ethics—it’s how we treat others. Civility is good manners and being accountable for our actions and our behavior. In a society that no longer believes in moral absolutes, civility can be applied when and where needed and as the springboard for the practice of ethics, has the vast power to shape public opinion. Ideally, if civility were a virus that infected the world’s population, war and crime may cease to exist. A simple smile or acknowledgment from a police officer can change the course of another’s day and that is a powerful weapon to have on our ethical tool belt.
The list of ethical tenets identified in this article are not conclusive, but illustrative. Certainly other canons such as honor, virtue, character, altruism and a number of other ethical descriptors fall under the umbrella of ethics and are worthy of consideration. Knowing what these doctrines are and their relationship to ethics is good. Understanding each of these doctrines and how they work is even better. Considering these ethical standards as the rules in life’s game book and practicing these rules through tangible application is enlightenment. Professional police officers practice professional ethics and as this highly valued practice begins with the basics; officers must start by first defining and understanding the building blocks