We must own our ethical failures

“If every law enforcement officer and agency must suffer in loss of credibility from charges of unethical behavior by other officers, we cannot afford to take a passive view, shrugging the matter off as if none of our business”

Recently, while teaching a class on ethics to law enforcement officers, I showed this quote to the class and asked how many students agreed with the sentiment. Not surprisingly, nearly everyone did. They were a bit shocked to learn that the quote actually came from a report written by
The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, which was published in 1967. Does that say something about the evolution of ethics in the law enforcement field? If a quote taken from a report nearly fifty years ago can still have relevance today, have we really come very far in our pursuit of professional ethics?

While I take some solace in the fact that the class members at least identified with the purpose of the quote, it is still a bit unsettling that we still find our profession struggling to overcome the ethical lapses of our own members. And these aren’t minor ethical lapses either. If you need a reminder of just how far we need to go to achieve the ethical and moral ideals of our profession, pick up a newspaper or turn on the news. On second thought, don’t. It won’t help your blood pressure.

The point of the quote, then and now, is that our cultural passivity to unethical behavior must be defeated from within, or it will never be defeated. We must stop looking the other way, as though these self-inflicted insults upon our profession are none of our business. Yes, members of other professions within our society also have ethical lapses. And yes, those ethical lapses don’t seem to undermine the status of those within those professions in the same way that our ethical lapses cause us all to lose credibility. It might not seem fair in comparison. But then, the very nature of our purpose and position within society has no comparison either.

We, as police professionals, exist to serve the public. We offer to do so with honor and with an ethical code that we use as evidence of our worthiness to serve. In return, we are entrusted with an unmatched level of authority and power over the very people that we serve. But the issuance of that authority comes with a contract, and inherent in that contract are certain expectations. Those expectations include adherence to those professional values, morals, and ethical behaviors that we hold high and claim to be our own. If we own them, so must we also own our corresponding ethical failures.