“The ethics of excellence are grounded in action — what you actually do, rather than what you say you believe. Talk, as the saying goes, is cheap.”
— Price Prichett,
Business advisor, speaker, author
Peace officers have the monumental responsibility of protecting the public and enforcing the law — duties that require far more than simply following statutes and department protocols. They are grounded in an overarching expectation to meet the highest possible ethical standards.
In a general sense, ethics are the moral actions, conduct, motives, and character of an individual. They involve a person’s values and integrity, such as knowing what is right and being able to do the right thing under pressure. An ethical person practices personal responsibility, fairness, objectivity, and trust.
In theory, high ethical standards sound easy to meet, not requiring much more than common sense. However, when presented with real-life dilemmas, a peace officer may find that practicing ethical behavior is not so clear-cut.
For example, imagine you found out that your partner took $1,500 cash from a suspect’s vehicle during a traffic stop and OVI arrest. You know your partner should have reported the money as part of the inventory process, but you also know he has been having financial problems at home. What would you do?
Situations like this are difficult to discuss, but it’s good to think about your response before you are presented with an ethical problem. The Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy can help law enforcement officers accomplish that. OPOTA offers helpful online and regional courses on ethics and professionalism that provide examples of ethical scenarios for peace officers to think through.
It’s important to recognize the factors that could trigger an officer’s unethical behavior. Some of these are (1) trying to find a healthy work and family balance; (2) having poor leadership in the department; (3) consistently working long hours and facing a heavy workload; (4) receiving little or no recognition; and (5) having insufficient resources. These problems may cause peace officers to cut corners in their work quality, abuse leave time, lie, and put inappropriate pressure on others.
In fact, the most common unethical behavior among peace officers is falsifying reports. An officer may distort the truth for his own benefit by “forgetting” or exaggerating details. This behavior is a slippery slope that can lead to more dishonesty, such as lying under oath at a hearing or trial or lying during an internal investigation against a fellow officer.
To avoid these pitfalls, remember the importance of serving the public with objectivity at all times. Don’t let your personal beliefs interfere with your day-to-day tasks, no matter how difficult. And don’t allow your emotions to impair your judgment of what is fair. Instead, try to maintain self-respect, uphold the law, treat everyone with courtesy, and display professional behavior at all times.
Also, think about the ramifications of your decision. A peace officer’s unethical behavior on- or off-duty may subject that individual to disciplinary action, humiliation, loss of trust, civil liability, or incarceration. An officer’s actions also may negatively affect his family, friends, department, and community.
So, when presented with a problem, ask yourself three questions that will guide you through many decisions you may encounter on the job:
- Is what I’m doing legal?
- Is what I’m doing fair?
- Are there any alternatives that may be better suited to address the problem?
Morgan A. Linn
Assistant Attorney General and Legal Analyst