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The topic of police tactics, including the use of force and deceptive technique, comes under speculation quite often. What is appropriate, what isn’t? Society finds itself asking this frequently. The Rodney King incident, Ferguson, Miranda, as well as countless others have come into public view, provoking questions about the ethical and moral standards police officers should follow. From these incidents and others like them, it is clear that police officers must have a code of conduct that they are required to follow.
Each person has their own personal set of ethics that they live by. These beliefs may be based from religion, or culture. While this personal code may vary from person to person, there are general ethics that are likely to be somewhat universal; such as work ethic, honesty, integrity, and compassion. Personal ethics may be the backbone of more organization based ethics as well.
United Nations Code of Ethics & The IAPC
In 1979, the United Nations listed 8 basic principles regarding the conduct of police officers. They are as follows (UNHR 2017):
· Officers must fulfill their duties by serving and protecting against illegal acts
· Officers must respect and protect human dignity and human rights
· Officers may only use force when necessary and only in the line of duty
· Officers must keep confidentiality unless duty or justice require otherwise
· Officers must not instigate, inflict, or tolerate torture
· Officers must protect the health of those in custody by securing necessary medical attention
· Officers must not commit acts of corruption, and should oppose those acts
· Officers must respect the law and report violations of the law or code of conduct
While this set of rules does not encompass all aspects of the day to day job, it does hit on some of the most critical aspects- the use of force, corruption, and human rights. While most law enforcement offices go on to create their own code of conduct and expectations, these principles remain vital parts as they are the basic outline.
The International Association of Police Chiefs also lists a code of conduct that is expected. It adopts many of the same principles listed in the UN’s code of conduct, but also include stipulations regarding personal life and acting objectively in the line of duty (IAPC 2017). This is important because not only does it also give a baseline of expectations during duty, but an overall set of expectations.
It is important to have a strong set of ethics, and to follow a code of conduct. However, at certain times police officers are placed into situations that the application of certain ethics is not only contradictory to reaching a desired outcome, but can also be dangerous. It is important to understand as civilian members of society that these situations do occur, and occur often. It is also important to understand how one can act the most ethical in a particular situation.
The nature of undercover work is inherently deceptive. An officer lies to suspected criminals about who they are to infiltrate the group, and to acquire information. Sometimes this information is gathered just for the sake of learning. For example, undercover operations inform law enforcement of ways to manipulate customs (for shipping) as well as how drugs may be smuggled and many other key pieces of information. Other times undercover work is done as a kind of in person surveillance. In this instance the officer is personally aware of criminal activity. This type of work is designed to gather evidence to bring about arrest. Some examples include undercover work within drug rings and human trafficking.
There are many moral dilemmas faced in undercover work. As stated, it is incredibly deceptive to begin with. Other aspects that come into question are whether officers themselves engage in illegal activity, if officers illicit the commission of illegal activity while undercover, and if so are the officers still credible. In undercover situations the commission of illegal acts may be necessary to keep cover and gain trust from the targets of the investigation (Hotham 2015). For example, an undercover officer may be trying to infiltrate a major drug ring; he may be required to work his way up the ladder by selling drugs.
When faced with these dilemmas how should an officer proceed? Many agencies provide clear rules regarding how to behave, as well as additional training for undercover work. Often officers are instructed not to solicit illegal activity, such as actively pushing drugs or encouraging solicitation of prostitution; instead they are encouraged to be more passive allowing the person to act independently and choose to seek out those illegal activities (Hotham 2015). Obviously, this is the most ethical choice an officer can make in these situations; however, it is not always a feasible choice. The officer also has an obligation to try to preserve his life, and it some cases even sticking to these marginal ethics can put him in severe danger. At that point the ethics necessary are those of the greater good- one must do what they can to help the larger group, including participation in illegal activity to aid in stopping future illegal activity. This should not discredit the officer.
Anyone who has ever watched a movie or TV program about police is familiar with the concept of corruption. Officers aligning with criminals to receive a payoff, officers stealing things from the evidence locker, officers using authority to gain sexual favors from citizens to prevent tickets; the list of situational corruption could go on and on. According to the UN Code of Conduct, officers are to oppose and report this type of behavior; but that is not always practice (2017). Many officers feel that they owe loyalty to their fellow officers (which is another personal ethic), thus reporting may be seen as betrayal.
In situations of corruption, it is critical to act ethically. Society gives a certain level of authority to police officers because of the nature of what they do; corruption undermines the entire law enforcement branch of the legal system, and causes a significant amount of distrust towards police officers. One example of this is the case of Officer Julian Steele, who used his position and deceit tactics to illicit sexual favors from the mother of an arrested teen (Lynch 2013). Not only was Steele himself arrested and charged with multiple felonies, but it called in to question the integrity of his previous cases. In these cases, the use of ethics is not truly questionable because there is no greater good for society that can come from corruption. Officers must obey and uphold the law, and report those who do not.
As the UN’s code of conduct specifies, force should only be used when necessary and in the line of duty (2017). There can be no exemption to this, and no questionable ethics. The term force may be used to describe the use of physical actions (i.e. hitting) or the use of weapon (gun, baton, taser, etc.) Because of the training officers receive, they are more well equipped to use both their weapons and their body as a weapon in comparison to civilians. The use of force can be deadly when applied by an officer.
One of the biggest controversies in society regarding police is the use of force and when it is appropriate. Should an officer be allowed to hit, use rough maneuvers to subdue, or kill an individual? The UN’s code only states that force may be used when necessary. In cases in which police use extreme force the incident is often deeply investigated to ascertain whether their actions were appropriate. For example, when the video of the Rodney King incident emerged to many it was very obvious that the level of force used by the officers was excessive. While they were originally acquitted, the Supreme Court found that the officers had acted inappropriately (Nazaryan 2017). In some cases it is understandable to use even deadly force, such as when the life of the officer or another individual (a victim) is in immediate danger. While extreme force was inappropriate in the King case, it has been necessary in many other cases.
While society cannot determine the level of danger an officer perceives at any given moment, we do expect that they use sound and rational judgment in those situations. In 1989, the US Supreme Court assessed what level of force is acceptable in the case of Graham v. Connor. The case centered around the treatment of a diabetic man that was falsely suspected of criminal behavior (Clark 2014). The outcome of this trial established what expectations are regarding force. Justice Rehnquist was quoted as saying “The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight” (Clark 2014). This explains that each situation may require a set of actions that in hindsight we may think of as unnecessary, however that in the moment those actions are reasonable.
Interrogations are another area of police work that comes under scrutiny. This is because of the implementation of various tactics to gain information. Officers may outright lie, they may pit people against each other, they exaggerate, they may be incredible vague, as well as employ other strategies. The goal from each is to get more information than they currently have. Deceit is again what cases the majority of ethical dilemma in this case.
It should also be noted that during interrogations, the use of force as well as torturous conditions is also a concern. Popular culture has represented interrogations as encounters in which an officer “roughs up” the suspect to get them to confess. One case of this is in regard to an incident in which a Milwaukee officer repeatedly hit a handcuffed suspect in the interrogation room; while claiming that he was trying to obtain information and keep control of the situation, experts on the use of force say that these actions were unnecessary (Holloway 2015). Putting people in extreme situations like hunger or sleep deprivation may constitute a type of torture. Depending the persons mental capacity also has bearing. In one study, of 40 false confessions it was noted that 17 were from people who were mentally ill or mentally retarded (Zahneyah 2014). This indicates that the use of deceptive and unethical tactics can result in incorrect and unusable ‘evidence’
The application of ethics in interrogations is very complicated. This is because deception, as well as implementing techniques like the use of force and torture, are unethical. The situation greatly affects the ability to act ethically. In some cases, lying may be the only way to achieve getting information, and should not be necessarily considered unethical as it serves a greater good. Examples of this are in crisis situations like kidnapping or apprehending a rapist. Stating that there is certain evidence (although it may not be true) may aid in more expediently gaining information like a confession or the location of a missing child. In other cases, lying is may or may not be necessary such as when officers lie to gain entrance for a search. In this example lying may be ethical if it is a crisis (like searching for a missing child); and conversely may not be if it is just to fish for evidence (like in the case of a door to door canvas). Force should only be used when necessary, during interrogations it is not.
In most day to day interactions, police officers should strive to employ strong ethics. They must be objective, vigilant of human rights, and focused on lawfulness. These scenarios include routine traffic stops and general investigations. Acting in an unethical manner is generally not acceptable in these cases because there is no greater good to be achieved, and no crisis to advert. Examples of unethical day to day interactions would be stopping people based upon race or gender, ignoring claims of a victim because it would be too much work to follow up, and holding fellow officers to a different standard than civilians.
Officers are also held to certain standards in their personal lives, sometimes at a higher degree than civilians due to their positions of authority. Again, in their personal lives officers must abide by not only their personal code of ethics, but by their employer’s code of conduct as well (IAPC 2017). Generally, this includes upholding the law and abiding by the laws they enforce; but may also include an expected level of professionalism in their personal life as well.
At times police officers must operate in ways that generally conflict with typical ethics. This is because of the nature of what they do. However, police officers must still strive to be as ethical as possible in all situations. This can be accomplished by following a strong code of ethics.
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