Ethics play an important part in law enforcement because they reinforce credibility and public trust. When ethics are violated, this impacts how the police are perceived by the public this can reduce the effectiveness of policing. For these reasons, ethics is a tremendous force in creating an effective police agency.
On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was stopped by the Los Angeles police, after a high-speed car chase. Officers pulled him out of the car and beat him brutally. The scene was captured on film by amateur cameraman George Holliday (Biography, 2015). This incident provides a view of how ethical violations can create severe consequences. After committing ethical violations, the police involved in the incident were found “not guilty” and this would begin the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. These riots ended with 53 fatalities, 2,383 injuries, 3100 businesses burned, and over one billion dollars in property damages (Biography, 2015). The riots started on April 29, 1992 and lasted until May 4, 1992 (History, 2014). The police involved in the incident would have to be brought to court on Federal charges of civil rights violations. Two of the officers involved were found guilty and imprisoned while two others were acquitted and released (History, 2014). This incident would cause a severe issue for the LAPD in which the agency lost credibility and was continuously accused of corruption and police brutality over the next 10 years (History, 2014). The Rodney King case is a powerful example of how unethical behavior can have significant negative consequences for policing in the long term.
Unethical police behavior can take many different forms such as brutality, corruption, and police misconduct. One of the key features that can be learned in these types of situations is that ethical issues often arise in situations where police culture becomes closed and overly protective of itself. Due to the risk and inherent danger in the work, police culture often becomes closed and secretive expressing itself in an “us against them” type of thinking (Scaramella, Cox & McCamey, 2013). So strong is this culture, that it can bar police from reporting unethical behavior and making police feel compelled to take part in it (Scaramella, Cox & McCamey, 2013). Police have been known to be ostracized and retaliated against in the extreme when they crossed this cultural barrier. This is known as the “blue wall of silence” (Scaramella, Cox & McCamey, 2013). The wall is a code that police become part of which enforces silence when wrongdoing occurs (Scaramella, Cox & McCamey, 2013). In order to reduce the risk of this problem, police must be held to standards that deter unethical behavior. The culture must be made to uphold ethical behavior and standards. This often starts at a top-down approach beginning in leadership.
There are a variety of methods for controlling unethical behavior. These methods include:
- Positive Leadership
- Political Influence
- Authority and Responsibility
- Policies and Procedures
- Internal-Affairs units
- Field Associate Programs
- Integrity Testing (Scaramella, Cox & McCamey, 2013).
By applying standards and rules, unethical behavior is deterred through accountability. Much like other fields, ethical standards and practices also need to be taught, reinforced, and enforced. This is an ongoing effort that must be practiced in order to achieve high levels of ethical behavior. Leadership must instill police agencies with standards. These standards must be understood and available to all law enforcement members. The standards for behavior must be embedded in the culture of the organization.
According to Schafer (2014) ethical decision making is the result of ongoing consistent ethical training, accountability, and behavior. The ability to make ethical decisions becomes ingrained in the process of police work. Within this framework, ethical behavior can be guided best when ethics are built into the mission and vision of the police agency such that it can focus behavior at all levels of the agency.
Biography (2015) Rodney King
History (2014) Riots erupt in Los Angeles
John R. Schafer, M.A. Making Ethical Decisions A Practical Model FBI Law enforcement Bulletin Course Material PDF
Scaramella, G. L., Cox, S., & McCamey, W. (2013).Introduction to policing the police culture.