Police Ethics: The Creed

In his famous speech given at West Point, 12 May 1962, World War Two hero General Douglas MacArthur explained the obligation of soldiers with three words: “Duty, honor, country.” Nothing could be closer to the American ideals of our fighting forces. To law enforcement officers those three words also apply, but so too, do: “Integrity, courage, allegiance.”

It is surely every law enforcement officer’s (LEO) daily practice to live safely, to protect and serve, to stand beside and to back-up fellow officers and . . . to always do the right thing. Safety is mostly a matter of practicing rules of common sense. There is little temptation to violate safety procedures. Not so, ethical matters.

Temptations abound to subvert those of power to commit lapses in discretion for the gains of favor.

To a LEO ethics means, no lying, no cheating, no stealing--no exceptions, no excuses. Ethical behavior is also defined as a set, or system of, moral values and principles that are based on honesty and truthfulness and have been accepted as professional standards. To police officers the ethical mind-set additionally includes:  Integrity, courage and allegiance.

Integrity: A strong unyielding adherence to a code of moral uprightness. Non-police personnel transactions might be honest and moral within their vocation while straying from their ethics in private life. Professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, may hold to high standards of ethics while dealing within their trade, but involve themselves in questionable behavior in their private lives and still be acceptable to their colleagues. Not so, police officers.

LEOs must have Integrity and embrace ethical and moral conduct in all their private as well as public comings and goings. Conduct unbecoming an officer applies to on-duty as well as off-duty comportment.

Courage: It may take a lot of courage for a lawyer to face a jury or for an iron worker to scale buildings. But to act when other lives are in sudden and immediate life-threatening danger is an obligation that only applies to police officers.

Not only must the man or woman with the badge be courageous, but they must also remain ethical while facing duty-bound lethal risks. Engaging in a firefight where the bad guy is shooting at you takes courage. But, racing to the scene where the shooting is occurring involves a much higher level of valor. An immense amount courage is also required to stand your ground when reporting the illegal conduct of persons who, with their political or financial powers, can get you fired--or worse.

What’s worse? Public smear campaigns that drive your family apart and destroy your reputation, because you exposed the wrong-doing of some scumbag who happens to have power.   

Allegiance: Sworn to act with ethical integrity and courage; add now the requisite of loyalty to their profession, their fellow officers, all of the laws, court rulings and constitutional mandates.

This does not in any sense mean a devotion to any form of “code of blue silence.” “The good ol' boy," "blue code of silence," “blue-flu” schools are not conducive to professional stature. This type of trust falsely conveys a belief that if an officer covers-up, shirks his or her duty, or keeps quiet about improper activity he or she can be trusted as backup when things get really scary.

Professionals who stake their reputation on keeping their mouth shut when they are under a sworn oath not to, are not worthy of the honor of being one of "America's finest.”

Cops, being individualists, sometimes need unquestioning steadfastness from their fellow officers. When a LEOs back is exposed during a lethal force or other dangerous situation, this officer needs to know that his or her partner/backup, can be counted on to defend him or her to the death.

Being the kind of officer who has mastered the "code of blue silence" is not any indication of how that officer will respond under conditions of extreme stress. An officer who is known for unquestioning honesty, however, would be the type of officer who couldn't in good conscience - not take risks to cover your backside.

Police officers are in the business of honesty. This is their stock-in-trade, forte, signature, persona, identification and what differentiates them from other professions. The addendums—integrity, courage, allegiance—to the simple definition of ethics is what separates police officers from everyone else. To serve in this capacity marks a citizen as the epitome of what America is and what every decent, law-abiding, citizen aspires to be.

All this "yea-team, feels-good" rhetoric most certainly instills confidence and champions the great American spirit. But when events start to get out-of-hand— insurrection, riots, foreign invasion, martial law—the significant issue is: who are you really obligated to serve: The public (per se)? Individual citizens? The agency that signs your paycheck? Your state Constitution? The Constitution of the United States? Yourself and your family? A military officer? All of the above? None of the above?

To a non-LEO, the answer might be found in the lyrics of the 1960s Bob Dylan song: “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”

To the American police officer the reaction will always be faith in the law officer’s creed: Integrity, courage and allegiance.

© 2012 Chuck Klein

Chuck Klein is the author of Lines of Defense, Police Ideology and the Constitution and other books, articles and columns. He may be reached at www.chuckklein.com.


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