Ethics are the moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour in the conduct of an activity. It involves making moral judgments about what is right or wrong, good or bad. Ethical behaviour is important in every profession, especially in law enforcement. In law enforcement, ethics is the foundation of right and wrong.
Law enforcement ethics is the special responsibility for adhering to moral duty and obligation. This duty and obligation is inherent in law enforcement work. Therefore, ethics for law enforcers is very important because:
- They have discretion to make decisions which affect the life, liberty and property of other citizens.
- They have the power to use intrusive, covert and deceptive methods.
- They have a duty to enforce the law.
- They have a duty to protect the rights of citizens.
- They have a crucial role in protecting hard-to-reach minority groups.
- They are appointed guardians of the public’s interests.
- They are the gatekeepers of citizenship and respectability.
Culture of Law Enforcement
The culture of law enforcement is crucial in the explanation of law enforcement behaviour and attitudes. This culture is a product of the various situations and problems which law enforcers confront and to which they equally respond. Law enforcement culture contains accepted practices, rules, and principles of conduct. These practices and rules include protectiveness, supportiveness to one another and shared attitudes, values and understandings. They also include shared views of the world. This results in a closed law enforcement society.
Elements of the culture of law enforcement include:
(a) Presence or potential for danger.
Officers perceive their working environment to be laden with danger or the risk of danger. They are often described as being preoccupied with the danger and violence that surrounds them. The element very integral to law enforcement work. Danger therefore has a unifying effect on officers. It works to separate them from the public.
(b) Coercive authority.
Law enforcement officers are unique in that the law grants them the legitimate use of coercion. This, however, should not be perceived as a license to cause drastic harm to others. The power to use coercion as well as display of their authority often work to reinforce the perception of danger in the law enforcer’s environment. However, no matter what circumstances officers come aginst, the law and their superiors expect them to create, display, and maintain their authority.
The relationship between law enforcement officers and their supervisors is dominated by a feeling of uncertainty. Their superiors expect them to enforce laws but still require that they follow the proper procedural rules and regulations even though these may hinder law enforcement. Failure to adhere to procedural rules can result in disciplinary action. Therefore, officers often feel that proactive work only leads to the potential for procedural errors and exposure to negative evaluation. They shy away from proactive work and await to follow orders. This organizational uncertainty is the counterpart to the perceived physical danger within an officer’s occupational environment.
Law enforcement officers are involved in many sensitive operations and investigations that often require secrecy. Secrecy in law enforcement often extends to keeping silent about thier fellow officers’ deviant and even criminal behaviour.
Each officer is acutely aware of his or her human side and the vulnerabilities that come with their job. Due to these vulnerabilities, officers are aware of the potential for complaints from the public. They also know that they are prone to violation of departmental rules and regulations. Officers therefore believe that only fellow officers can come to their aid as only a fellow officer will be empathetic with their situation. Under such circumstances, law enforcement officers rarely trust anybody outside the law enforcement circle. They develop an “us versus them” mentality and maintain an adversarial perception of officers versus the public. Thus, they tend to maintain a solidarity and support for one another.
(f) Social Isolation
Because of the nature of their work, law enforcement officers feel isolated from the public. They tend to have a perception that the public is pitted against them and maintain the belief that the general public dislikes them. However, officers are guilty of self-imposing this isolation on themselves due to the lack of trust they have for others outside their circles. Furthermore, research indicates that the public overwhelmingly feels positively toward law enforcement officers.
Public Perception of Law Enforcement
The public perceives law enforcement culture as being:
- Overly conservative