Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions


Ethics and Policing

What is ethics?

Ethics refers to standards governing the conduct of a person or members of a profession. There are three aspects to ethics:

  • Discerning right from wrong
  • Committing to do what is right
  • Doing what is right

Why is ethics important?

  • There is an inner benefit (virtue is its own reward).
  • There is a personal benefit (virtue is personally and professionally prudent).
  • There is an appreciation benefit (virtue enhances self-esteem and the admiration and respect of others).

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What is policing ethics?

To earn and safeguard public trust, peace officers and administrators must not only comply with laws and regulations, but adhere to higher standards than normally expected or required. “Wrongdoing” is often an ethical rather than a legal concept, so avoiding official or personal ethical misconduct that may discredit an individual or an agency is not only the right thing to do, it’s a vital and effective risk-management strategy.

Why is policing ethics important?

Peace officers and administrators make decisions that can have great consequences. When a member of the force is perceived to be dishonest, disrespectful, irresponsible, unfair, or uncaring, he or she can damage an agency’s image, tarnish the badge, and feed public cynicism, which can erode a community’s willingness to cooperate with and support the police.

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Whose responsibility is policing ethics?

Everyone’s, but it starts at the top. Police administrators should walk the talk by modeling, communicating, and enforcing their expectations and commitment to ethical decision-making. Public trust is best achieved when the police are open and honest about their policies and practices and are willing to discuss, defend, or change those policies.

Do ethics codes work?

Ethics codes don’t make people ethical, make bad people good, or make people with poor judgment wise. But they can help define what’s right, instill an ethical culture, and establish standards of conduct in areas not governed by law. Peace officers are required to go even further – to adhere to professional and departmental codes of conduct so as to avoid impropriety or even the appearance of impropriety.

What values should be implemented?

As public servants, peace officers must use their authority in a manner that produces and preserves the well-being and trust of the community. They must also possess knowledge and skills of an exemplary peace officer. Such an individual is not merely competent; he or she is an extraordinary model who epitomizes character, proficiency, professionalism, and leadership.

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What makes an ethics code effective?

  • It must be inclusive (everyone participates, from senior management on down).
  • It must be valid (content is consistent with standard ethical principles).
  • It must be authentic (policies are enforced and values are reinforced in both word and deed).

What sustains an ethics code?

  • It’s specific. Guidelines are explained clearly using common scenarios.
  • It’s thought-provoking. Peace officers are taught how to analyze situations and make good choices.
  • It’s clear. Legalese, vagueness, jargon, and platitudes are absent. Instead of saying “Avoid improper use of equipment,” explain precisely what is meant with examples and unambiguous language.
  • It’s readable. One shouldn’t need a user’s guide to wade through its provisions. Improve readability with wide margins, large type, breakout quotes, tight editing, and accurate proofreading.
  • It’s concise. The entire U.S. Constitution is shorter than many ethics codes. Avoid complex sentences. Translate dense, multifaceted paragraphs into bulleted or numbered lists.
  • It’s realistic. “Absolutely no personal phone calls” is unreasonable. “Accept no gifts or gratuities” is vague.
  • It’s enforceable. All provisions should adhere to union agreements, police commission or city council mandates, departmental regulations, Constitutional rights, etc. Institute a credible and efficient process for receiving complaints and investigating charges.
  • It’s flexible. Codes should be regularly put to the test. Make additions, omissions, or changes as needed.
  • It’s a process. Most employee cynicism stems from senior management flouting ethical rules. A code’s value is not its prose but the commitment of those who implement it.

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What are the 13 myths of police ethics?

  1. It’s ethical if it’s legal and permissible. Loopholes, lax enforcement, and/or personal moral judgment do not outweigh what’s right or lawful.
  2. It’s ethical if it’s part of the job. Separating off-duty ethics from on-duty ethics can cause decent individuals to justify actions while on duty that they would never do at home. Everyone’s first job is to be a good person.
  3. It’s ethical if it’s for a good cause. People can be vulnerable to rationalizations when advancing a noble aim. This can lead to deception, concealment, conflicts of interest, favoritism, or other departmental violations.
  4. It’s ethical if no one’s hurt. Ethical values are not factors to be considered in decision-making; they are ground rules.
  5. It’s ethical if everyone does it. Treating questionable behaviors as ethical norms under the guise of “safety in numbers” is a false rationale.
  6. It’s ethical if I don’t gain personally. Improper conduct done for others or for institutional purposes is wrong. Personal gain is not the only test of impropriety.
  7. It’s ethical if I’ve got it coming. Being overworked or underpaid does not justify accepting favors, discounts, or gratuities. Nor is abusing sick time, insurance claims, or personal use of office equipment fair compensation for one’s services or underappreciated efforts.
  8. It’s ethical if I’m objective. By definition, if you’ve lost your objectivity, you don’t know you’ve lost it. Gratitude, friendship, or anticipation of future favors can subtly affect one’s judgment.
  9. It’s ethical if I fight fire with fire. Promise-breaking, lying, or other misconduct is unacceptable even if others routinely engage in them.
  10. It’s ethical if I do it for you. Committing white lies or withholding information in professional relationships (such as performance reviews) disregards the fact that most people would rather know unpleasant information than soothing falsehoods.
  11. It’s ethical if I get a few fleas by lying down with dogs. Peace officers are in contact with so many lawbreakers that malfeasance can seem the norm. Concentrating on positive moments where one made a difference or someone expressed gratitude can reduce cynicism.
  12. It’s ethical if I ignore other officers’ misconduct. “Looking the other way” can have severe consequences to one’s job and profession. Times have changed. Acceptable practices in the past can be career-enders today.
  13. It’s ethical if I’m taught different values and methods in the field. Efforts by veteran officers to protect the old-line culture can have serious ramifications. Be skeptical of assertions that Academy training is out of touch, that street policing is the way things really are, or that one shouldn’t rock the boat.

What is Josephson Institute?

Founded in 1987 by Michael Josephson, the Institute is a nonpartisan, nonsectarian, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the ethical quality of society by changing personal and organizational decision-making and behavior. It offers training programs and consulting services to influential leaders across the country in the areas of business ethics, public administration, policing, character education, and sportsmanship.

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What is Josephson Institute’s approach to policing ethics?

“If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law and invites every man to become a law unto himself.”
– Louis Brandeis, Supreme Court Justice

Modern policing takes place in an ethical minefield – from the street to the courthouse, from management to recruiting, from training to on- and off-duty conduct. The mission of our Center for Policing Ethics is to help agencies shape, enhance, and fortify their ethical culture and to prevent misconduct from eroding confidence in the public sector. To accomplish this, the Institute created five core principles for the policing arena:

  1. Place public interest over all other considerations including personal or private interests.
  2. Make decisions on the merits, free from partiality, prejudice, or conflicts of interest.
  3. Conduct police operations openly, efficiently, equitably, and honorably.
  4. Observe the letter and spirit of the law.
  5. Avoid appearances of impropriety or unethical conduct.

What programs and services does Josephson Institute offer?

  • Training and Education

The Center for Policing Ethics offers a variety of approaches for ethics training that address specific needs and that are meaningful, measurable, and sustainable. Center services include:

    • Keynote addresses to peace officers and administrators
    • Staff-meeting modules on how to reinforce ethical responsibilities
    • Orientation modules to introduce new staff to an agency’s values and expectations
    • Ethical-integration trainings on how to weave values into all departmental programs
    • Half-day working sessions to address departmental issues/crises that have arisen
    • Half-day or one-day forums on the importance and sustainability of ethical decision-making
    • One-day trainings to demonstrate how to employ policing ethics concepts
    • One-day advanced decision-making for leaders to focus on critical thinking and problem solving
    • Two-day train-the-trainer Honoring the Badge certification course to help fortify the ethical police culture, build and maintain public trust, deal with ethical wrongdoing, and better manage risk.

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  • Consulting

The Center can also assist departments with customized support. Services include:

    • Plan and develop an ethics initiative.
    • Assess and audit an overall ethical culture (code of conduct, compliance, training, discipline, etc.).
    • Conduct focus groups on ethical strengths and vulnerabilities.
    • Customize a code of ethics.
    • Review existing procedures and practices regarding recruiting, hiring, screening, retaining, promoting, terminating, or disciplining.
    • Design a communication and awareness campaign to reinforce values (posters, table tents, screen savers, e-mail messages, website materials, etc.).
    • Examine internal complaint and investigation procedures and recommend improvements.
    • Provide ongoing consultation and continuing education for management and staff.
  • Publications

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Learn more about our services, including customized consulting, by speaking to our knowledgeable staff.