Ethics and character are very important issues especially in law enforcement because they provide standards for excellent service delivery and performance. All the players in the criminal justice system are supposed to uphold the highest standards of ethics to protect the name and the integrity of the system. Law enforcement personnel are expected to be beyond reproach meaning that they should demonstrate exemplary character and avoid anything that would compromise the name and the integrity of the profession (Delattre, 2006). This paper presents an interview I conducted on two police officers in my home city of New York. The two are Corporal Alex Hoffman and Sergeant Jerome Downing who serve in the New York City police department. Corporal Hoffman has been in the force for eleven years. Eight of them were served in the NYPD while Sergeant Downing has been in the force for nine years, all of them served in the NYPD. Both are graduates of the federal law enforcement training center based in New York. While speaking to the two officers, it was evident that the two love their job and they concur that ethics and character are very important prerequisites that determine performance in the criminal justice system. This interview had sets of questions that were administered to each officer.
The first question about the importance of character and ethics in the law enforcement system was directed to Corporal Hoffman who started by stating that ethics and character go hand in hand meaning that it is almost impossible to observe ethics in the law enforcement system if you do not have character. The officer claimed that character is important because law enforcement officers are the face of the law itself and without character, the officers would find it hard to enforce the law. Law enforcement officers cannot apprehend people for breaking the law if the officers themselves are breaking the same law. According to the officer, the officers must be above reproach for them to influence the public positively to follow the law. “Law enforcement officers are public servants whom the society has given the responsibility of protecting its people and the property”, quips Corporal Hoffman. He says that without character, the trust that the public has bestowed on the police officers would be eroded meaning that the responsibility that t society has placed on the law enforcement officers demands the highest levels of character and integrity.
Character ensures that law enforcement officers shy away from integrity-degrading activities like corruption, double standards, and police brutality. The same officer also talked about the relevance of ethics in the law enforcement scene. Every officer in the criminal justice system is bound by a code of ethics. This code of ethics requires them to safeguard lives and property, protect the people from oppression, deception, and violence. According to the officer, ethics in the law enforcement scene are very important because they ensure that the officers respect the constitutional rights of the citizenry and ensure that there is equality and justice in their service. The code of ethics also ensures that the private lives of the law enforcement officers remain untainted because they are supposed to be examples to the entire society. The officer further said that ethics enable the police officers to exercise self-restraint and also ensures that they mind the welfare of others.
Law enforcement officers are supposed to exercise the highest levels of honesty in their personal and official lives and this honest cannot be realized if the officers are not driven by ethical considerations. Ethical considerations according to Corporal Hoffman enable the law enforcement officers to obey the same law they are supposed to enforce and the regulations set by the respective police departments. He also said that ethics are very important in the force because they prevent the law enforcement officers from using their prejudices, hostilities, friendships, and feelings to influence the decisions that these officers make in the line of their duty. They ensure that favor, malice, and ill will are not employed and also prevent the officers from using excessive force and violence in their day-to-day operations. The overall implication is that ethics in the law enforcement scene set standards that the law enforcement officers must maintain. Without these ethics, the entire force would be chaotic.
The second question in this interview was addressed to Sergeant Downing and I wanted him to tell me whether he feels that police are more ethical today than they were ten years ago. This officer was very straight and candid in his answer. He said that police today are more ethical than ever and the trust that people have in the police is at an all-time high because of higher levels of ethical considerations. According to this officer, contemporary police officers are more educated and receive additional guidance than their counterparts who served ten years ago. He also said that the modern law enforcement environment has additional tools and information that have enabled them to behave more ethically “Ten years ago, police were not monitored as closely as they are monitored today” the officer said. He also claimed that standards have also gone up because of the increased awareness of the rights espoused by the constitution which means that law enforcement officers are dealing with a more enlightened public as opposed to ten years ago when the awareness of constitutional rights was not as high as it is today. The rise in awareness means that police officers cannot violate the constitutional rights of the people and walk away scot-free. People are utilizing legal machinery against the police more than ever and this has forced them to uphold the ethics espoused in the law enforcement code of conduct.
The ongoing fight against corruption in the country is another factor that has led to more observance of ethics by law enforcement officers. Corruption is a vice that goes against the ethical codes that regulate the law enforcement officers but in the past, police have been receiving bribes from the public and private entities for them to provide certain favors. However, the anti-corruption environment prevailing in the country is so hostile that modern police officers do not have an option other than following the laid out code of ethics. According to the officer, a combination of these factors has made contemporary law enforcement officers be more they used to be ten years ago.
The third question in this interview was addressed to Corporal Hoffman and I wanted him to outline several factors that lead police officers to involve themselves in misconduct. To start with, the officer said that lack of character is the major factor that makes the police officers involve themselves in misconduct. He claimed that without character, police officers can easily fall into temptations that may compromise their ability to observe the relevant ethical codes. Disgruntled police officers also involve themselves in misconduct. Officers who are dissatisfied with the departments they are serving may turn to misconduct as an escapist strategy. Police remuneration has been an issue in the United States of America and there is a general feeling that the law enforcement officers are underpaid bearing in mind the level of risk they expose themselves and their families too.
This feeling has been responsible for engendering corruption among law enforcement officers, especially in New York. Some law enforcement officers also believe that they are above the law which has led them to infringe the constitutional rights of the very people they are supposed to safeguard. According to Corporal Hoffman, such police officers are often rude, brutal and usually break the law with a lot of impunity. According to the officer, a policeman is not supposed to beat up a citizen, neither are they supposed to enter private residences without search or arrest warrants but some officers break these constitutional provisions by infringing on the rights of the people, and this is one of the most common misconducts among the law enforcement officers.
The fourth question was directed to Sergeant Downing and the question was about the level of training offered in ethics in police training academies. Is that training enough? According to the officer, the training is enough but the problem arises because there is a lot of information pumped into the trainees during their short training period and this information is sometimes overwhelming meaning that the officers cannot retain some of the contents. Instruction in police ethics needs to be more specific, precise and should fit within the limited time (Delattre, 2006). According to Sergeant Downing, the problem is not the amount of ethical content but the methodology used to impart the content to the officers. He also claimed that refresher courses for the police officers tend to ignore the code of ethics and this is where the main problem lies. “Refresher courses should begin with re-teaching the officers about the ethics they are supposed to uphold in the line of their duty,” says Sergeant Downing.
This led me to ask him whether ethics training should be offered as an ongoing process for law enforcement officers and sergeant downing said that this would be a very effective move because all the contents of ethics for the law enforcement officers cannot be exhausted during the initial training and refresher courses. “The society is very dynamic and police officers are encountering newer challenges that require contemporary information to tackle”, Sergeant Downing said. He also said that police education especially on ethics and character should be upgraded to match the dynamic trends in society. He also recommended frequent counseling sessions for the police officers conducted by professionals because this will enhance the performance of the law enforcement officers. Frequent counseling programs, he felt, would reduce instances of misconduct by the police officers and would also improve service delivery because the sessions will continuously impart ethical ideals unto the police officers.
As I concluded the interview, I posed the final question to Corporal Hoffman and I asked him whether education and training in ethics would reduce incidents of corruption among the law enforcement officers and he had both positive and negative answers to this question. The officer agreed that training and education on ethics would play a very important part in the reduction of cases of corruption among law enforcement officers because ignorance and lack of access to information have often contributed to corruption among law enforcement officers. Training and education, according to Corporal Hoffman, provide a better foundation for the development of ethical behaviors and practices among law enforcement officers. However, he also felt that some officers are unscrupulous by nature meaning that any level of training and education cannot change their character.
The interview with the two officers gave me important insights into the issue of ethics in the criminal justice system and the findings from the interview are consistent with what Delattre wrote in his book titled character and cops. It is important to note that character and ethics are increasingly becoming important in the criminal justice system especially in the line of law enforcement. They help the officer’s in their performance and in their relationship with the citizens they are supposed to serve (Delattre, 2006). This means that a lot of resources should be directed towards the training and education of police officers on character and ethics because they provide a background that enhances efficiency in the force. Without ethics, the integrity of the criminal justice system and the law enforcement scene would be damaged irreparably and this would pose a big problem to the entire nation because the people responsible for safeguarding their lives and property are supposed to be unquestionable character and above reproach. This is why police departments should focus on character and ethics more than anything else.
Delattre, E. (2006). Character and Cops, Ethics in Policing, Fifth Edition.WA: AEI Press.