Ethics, Discretion & Professionalism in Policing

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  • 0:02 Police Integrity
  • 2:04 Ethics in Policing
  • 4:07 Discretion in Policing
  • 5:44 Professionalism in Policing
  • 8:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

There are three main concepts used to define integrity in policing. They are ethics, discretion and professionalism. This lesson explains why ethics, discretion and professionalism are important in policing today.

Police Integrity

The last few months of 2014 were marked with widespread demonstrations and rioting. People are frustrated with the number of recent cases in which police used deadly force against young black men. Many people believe the force in each case was unnecessary, that the officers made unfair judgments about the men and that the cases represent police misconduct.

How can the community trust and respect the police when they believe the police abuse their authority? They can't. Effective crime control depends on mutual trust and respect between law enforcement and the community. People must trust the police to protect the community and uphold the laws. The police must trust the people to report crime and refrain from crime.

This partnership requires police integrity. Police integrity means that the police are functioning within their legal authority, in accordance with established police practices and in a fair way that is consistent with what the community expects.

The U.S. Department of Justice says the police integrity is the inclination among police to resist the temptation to abuse the rights and privileges of the occupation. Police officers do enjoy unique rights and privileges within a community due to their position of power. To dissuade an abuse of these rights and privileges, experts need to know what factors determine and encourage police integrity.

Research shows that three core concepts determine integrity in policing: ethics, discretion and professionalism. Let's take a closer look at each of these concepts.

Ethics in Policing

Police ethics refers to a system of moral values that are generally accepted as professional standards in policing. In policing, ethics includes values such as allegiance, honesty, loyalty and courage.

Basically, ethics is 'doing the right thing.' For example, a police officer is expected to stop and help a stranded motorist or have reasonable suspicion of a violation before initiating a traffic stop. But we know these things don't always happen.

It's important to note that police ethics are separate from the police department's written rules and regulations. However, ethical behavior would include following any written rules, formal regulations and laws. Things like stealing evidence or falsifying a report would be against the department's explicit rules and also against the law.

When considering unethical behavior, notice that an officer's personal ethics are important, too. Think of a recent news story that involved the misbehavior of an off-duty police officer. In my city, an officer made the television news because he was arrested for drunk driving. He was in his personal vehicle, and on his own time, but he's already been fired. If he had been a businessman or a banker would he have been fired? Probably not. Police officers are expected to display moral behavior at all times.

If we question an officer's personal ethics, then we question his or her decision-making skills. If we question an officer's personal decision-making then we question that officer's professional decision-making, and we no longer have trust and respect for our police. Police integrity diminishes.

Discretion in Policing

That brings us to police discretion. This means the police have freedom to decide what should be done in any particular policing situation. For example, let's say an officer observes a speeding motorist. The officer has the authority to pull the driver over and issue a ticket. However, because the driver is within ten miles per hour of the speed limit, and there's no other traffic on the isolated road, the officer chooses not to stop the car.

Discretion contributes to police integrity when it's used to promote a fair and just result. Let's say the motorist was speeding in order to get to the hospital with an injured child. Most of us would agree with the officer's choice.

However, discretion can also lead to a loss of trust and respect for the police. Consider the police shootings we discussed at the beginning of the lesson. Many people believe the police are quick to use deadly force against young black males, but not against other classes of people. When discretion leads to a sense of discrimination, or other unfair treatment, then it diminishes police integrity.

Also notice how an officer's personal ethics affect his or her use of discretion. Police are presented with a multitude of unique situations on a daily basis. These situations require decisions. An officer's personal judgment, and ethics, will be exercised in his or her decision-making.

Professionalism in Policing

Now let's look at police professionalism. Professionalism refers to the conduct and qualities that characterize a particular profession. Professionalism in policing necessitates viewing the position of police officer as a profession, rather than simply as a job. A profession is a calling that requires specialized knowledge and particular academic training.

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