Police Culture:
A Moral and Ethical Standpoint

Written By: Richard T Eckert on 9/13/06
Most would agree that the job of law enforcement is both demanding and very stressful.  Everyday, brave men and women wearing the uniform, stand courageously behind the badge valiantly protecting society; knowing that this day may very well be their last. 

Law enforcement is continuously scrutinized by both the media and the general public.  With all this scrutiny, one can only imagine how law enforcement can satisfactorily achieves their goals.  These goals, which are the foundation of many great police departments, are to protect and serve the law-abiding citizens of this great country.  When examining these goals and how they are obtained, one should realize that law enforcement must utilize certain tools and procedures to make these goals possible.  Through hard work and dedication these goals will hopefully lead to the apprehension and prosecution of criminals, which ultimately help foster safer communities. 

When examining all the issues surrounding law enforcement it’s not surprising to learn that the use of force, which is carried out by the police, receives the most scrutiny.  Some experts believe that the use of force, by the police, is considered a major and contentious issue in policing because the capacity to use force or coercion goes to the very core of the police role (Banks, p. 29).  When we witness events on television such as the beating of Rodney King or the shooting of Amadou Diallo, we find that it brings a tremendous amount of negative publicity upon law enforcement.  Civic groups have even called for the immediate suspension and criminal prosecution of all involved.  According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (1999), incidents involving the use of excessive force by the police frequently receive attention from the media, legislators, and, in some instances, civil and even criminal courts.  These events, which have placed officers under the microscope, have caused many police agencies to initiate tracking programs.  These programs assist agencies in documenting interactions between officers and members of the community.  The encounters that departments are particularly interested in are those that require some use of force by the officer.        

When analyzing the levels of force employed by the police it is important to consider everything from verbal commands, open hand techniques, the use of batons, chemical agents and of course, firearms.  It has been demonstrated that even when taking all levels of force into consideration “research consistently demonstrates that a small percentage of police-public interaction involve use of force” (BJS, 1999).  Various data sources, including police use-of-force reports, civilian complaints, victim surveys and observational methods, confirm this basic finding. 

According to Kleinig (1996), a major issue regarding the use of force is the need for justification when force is applied.  Kleinig believes that granting police the authority to use force is only the first step in justifying the force.  Many would agree that the level of force used should be just enough to carry out a particular goal.  If the officer’s threat level increases, then the officer must understandably increase his level of force to alleviate the threat.  It is apparent that force should only be used when absolutely necessary and not as a form of punishment or retaliation.  Article 35, of the New York State Penal Law, defines those provisions where the use of force would be justified.  The law provides the basic ground rules by stipulating when police officers, and even civilians, can utilize physical force and even deadly physical force.  Many agencies have made Article 35 a yearly training curriculum, thus keeping their officers updated on any addendums or changes in the article.  The hope is to alleviate any possible future criminal or civil penalties.    
Kleinig is certainly not against the idea of police having to resort to force in order to obtain compliance or to achieve their goals.  What Kleinig and others are more concerned with is the unethical, illegal and unjustified use of force, by the police.  Complaints of excessive use of force can only jeopardize their authority, and, to the extent that the complaints are believed, police run the risk of transforming the perception of their actions from demonstrations of authority into exercises of despotic power (Kleinig, p. 99). 

Kleinig details the five factors, which are relevant to the ethical assessment towards the use of force.  The first, which he describes as intentions, is the idea of police applying proper justification when using force on their suspect.  Using force for the sole purpose of punishing an offender is totally without good intentions.  The second is seemliness, which deals more with the appropriateness of the force used by the police.  The third is proportionality; keeping the type of force equal with the type of offense committed.  The fourth is minimization, which is the idea of police using the least intrusive and least constraining force when attempting to achieve their goal.  The last factor that Kleinig outlines is the practicability of the force.  The amount of force must justify the means and be able to contribute to the achievement of what the police set out to accomplish. 

Kleinig’s purpose in writing about the use of force is to show that with strict guidelines and proper justification, police can use force, to the extent where it will not be viewed as torturous in the eyes of the general public.  The police must be able to use force to an extent, but going beyond what is required is completely unethical.  With that, the use of force in any given situation by the police will always be ambiguous, and hence the boundary between excess and adequate force becomes difficult to establish (Banks, p. 31). 

Another aspect of law enforcement is the use of deception.  Police investigators have placed an even greater reliance on deception as a means of accessing both material and verbal evidence (Kleinig, p. 123).  When looking at the use of deception in law enforcement, one finds a great and important tool in conducting criminal investigations.  From the field interview to the formal interrogation by detectives, the use of deception, no matter how small, has shown to be very rewarding. 

Kleinig assimilates deception with lying, but it is important to realize that deception, throughout the years, has played a very important role with investigating everything from simple crimes to serious violent crimes.  Society must understand that those individuals, who are labeled as strong suspects, will try everything in their power not to be detected.  With this in mind, it is very important that law enforcement is allowed to use some form of deceptive practices in their investigatory role.  What Skolnick (1982) has found is that detectives who typically use deception are not seeking to promote their own self-interest.  On the contrary, the deception that is employed by detectives to either lure drug dealers or to elicit a confession from a murderer is used solely for public interest.  Police have argued for the use of deception by stating that the standards of proof required of the state and the constitutional restraints under which they operate are there for the protection of the suspects (Banks, p. 49).  During a criminal investigation, investigators will sometimes find that the only way in which to successfully apprehend a suspect is either through wire taps, informants, surveillance or other forms of deceptive practices.  They see deception has a necessary tool that should not be taken away or restricted.    

With law enforcement being such a highly scrutinized profession, the techniques used by the police must be held to the highest of standards.  Many of these standards, which have been handed down by prior court decisions, outline those forms of deceptive practices which law enforcement can legally carry out.  Many of these legal cases have been brought before the United States Supreme Court, who in turn has found that many of these practices are both legal and justified.  It is only when these practices are used through physical intimidation or perjury should they not be considered and used against the suspect.    

   A third area of law enforcement experiencing ethical scrutiny is the police use of discretion.  Police discretion was a taboo topic until about 1956 when an American Bar Foundation study “discovered” it.  (Walker, Pg. 48)  Police administrators looked at discretion as the deviation from those already accepted procedures.  If an officer deviated or strayed from those written procedures then it was obviously a form of corruption, which had to be stopped. 
Discretion is the making of choices from among a number of alternatives (Smith, 1981).  With that, there are those who argue that if police are permitted wide discretion, a high level of accountability should match it (Banks, p. 26).  Some also believe that any deviation from what is written in the law books is a clear form of corruption and should not be tolerated.  To an extent this statement is correct; for those crimes where the seriousness cannot allow for discretionary actions, police are obviously bound to what has been written in the books.  When looking at those offenses, which have been deemed to be minor offenses, some form of police discretion should be allowed.  These minor offenses can range from simple traffic violations to non-traffic violations and infractions. 

Kleinig’s attitude towards police discretion stems from his belief that police discretion is a very limited resource.  Since police officers are often not considered professionals, their level of discretionary power is based more on general departmental or societal will.  In part this is true; police are sometimes bound by both departmental procedures and what the citizens have expressed to be an important issue.  Outside of this, police are given extensive power in deciding how certain situations will be played out.  Whether deciding to give law enforcement the title of “professional”, police will always have the power to handle situations in their best judgment.  Police, through their academy and continued training, are aware of what level and to what extent, their discretion can be utilized.  If an officer decides to work beyond what is thought to be “legal” through his training, then criminal, civil, or departmental sanctions can be enforced. 

It is important to remember that discretion is not simply what the officer thinks, but what is based on societal norms, which officers have sworn to uphold.  One must also remember that no matter what actions a police officer takes they will be hated by some and praised by others.  It is a difficult job which many would never consider doing.  Fortunately there are those men and women who have decided to take on the job in the hopes of making a positive difference for society.

Banks, C. (2004). Criminal Justice Ethics: Theory and Practice. California: Sage Publications, Inc.

Bureau of Justice Statistics (1999). Use of Force by Police: Overview of National and
            Local Data. Washington, DC: U.S. Office of Justice Programs. 

Kleinig, J. (1996). The Ethics of Policing. New York: Cambridge University.

Skolnick, J. H. (1982). Deception by Police. Criminal Justice Ethics, 1(2), 40-53.

Smith, D., & Vishner, C. (1981). Street-Level Justice: Situational Determinants of
            Police Arrest Decisions. Social Problems. 29: 167-177.

Walker, S. (1993). Taming the System: The Control of Discretion in Criminal Justice.
            New York: Oxford Press.
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