Dirty hands and Dirty Harry. Can a code of ethics clean up the police?

Louise Westmarland and Helen Kaye

International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research

The Open University

Questions of police ethics and integrity are hardly new but have risen to prominence recently, not least because of changes in police governance. Essentially, to cut a long story short, last year the UK Home Office created a ‘College of Policing’ (‘the professional body for policing’) to centralise issues such as policy, training and discipline for officers in England and Wales. One of the first public documents the College produced was a code of ethics.

The College management has stated it hopes to emulate professional associations such as  those for nursing and medicine. The College will be the place where working practices will be debated and ruled upon, and it claims that it  ‘places the Code of Ethics at the centre of all decision making’. The Code begins as follows:

Following extensive consultation we have arrived at nine policing principles. They are built on the Nolan principles for public life, with the addition of ‘Fairness’ and ‘Respect’. Our nine policing principles are:

Accountability Integrity Openness
Fairness Leadership Respect
Honesty Objectivity Selflessness

In her Foreword to the document, Dame Shirley Pearce, the Chair of the College, states that: These principles underpin and strengthen the existing procedures and regulations for ensuring standards of professional behaviour for both police officers and police staff. This gives the profession and the public the confidence that there is a system in place to respond appropriately if anyone believes that the expectations of the Code of Ethics have not been met.  

Professional police?

As a brief introduction to the code of ethics, the principles listed above provide a glimpse of the current direction of travel for policing ethics in England and Wales. A formal Code of Ethics is part of an attempt to ‘professionalise’ the police, and to bring them into line with other professions, such as in medicine and law, with publicised rules around the behaviour of its members. The Code seeks to encourage – or perhaps demand  certain behaviours and personal morals. There are problems with this approach which were first raised in 1991 by Davis, an academic concerned with police ethics. The question he asked was ‘whether police really need a code of ethics?’

In raising this question, Davis suggested that the police have to deal with society’s ‘low life’, those whom most people would not want to encounter. So-called police misdemeanours, he said, should be exempt from considerations of high moral standards and we should even accept that ‘dirty’ methods are essential for the police to operate effectively.

This raises two further  areas for discussion.

  • First: whether, given the huge array of rules, regulations and disciplinary controls to which the police are subject, do they need more?
  • Second: whether ‘the public’ (however defined) really care whether the police need the rules if it means dangerous offenders are apprehended?

In answer to the first question, the answer is perhaps no, because aside from the existing rules which surely cover most of the principles, above, most people would take for granted that someone being appointed as a police officer would already display the qualities to which they refer. Further, and somewhat differently, how, on a practical level, could words like “Fairness”, “Honesty” or “Integrity” be codified in a document to which officers should refer?

The answer to the second question is also no, according to Klockars (1983),  who has argued that the public could be quite happy for the police to bend the rules as long as it leads to the ‘bad’ people being arrested and prosecuted. An associated point that is sometimes made is that as lawbreakers do not operate within a recognisable code of ethics, police officers should not have to do so either. As Westmarland has argued in the past, police officers see themselves as putting their lives on the line to protect the public, and sometimes have to make instant decisions which, with the benefit of hindsight, might not have been the best course of action. In this sense, to expect them to abide by a set of written moral principles and standards – a total of 19, made up of 10 standards and 9 principles-  may seem unreasonable. Furthermore, the cop cultural world view is influenced by the need to ‘lock up the bad guys’ and their moral view is reinforced by those of their colleagues who also believe this to be their overriding aim. So the ends (may) justify the means.

This brings us back to the question of whether the police should have to abide by a code of ethics.  It might be claimed, due to the large degree of discretion which is available to the police as the servants of the criminal justice system, that ethics and integrity are paramount.

If it is agreed that  there is a need for ethical guidance and that the College of Policing’s Code of Ethics is an attempt to create a framework within which training or staff development could be implemented, there remain  potential problems. Not least of these is the Code’s complexity and length – as mentioned above, in addition to the nine principles, it also has ten ‘standards’ of professional policing. Whilst they are comprehensive and seem to cover issues which are more specific to the police than the more general ‘principles’ (above), they do raise numerous ambiguities. As Westmarland has argued, implementing a code is a complex and problematic process.

  •  Implementing the Code

A range of examples of potential problems concerned with implementing the Code is presented in the following typology. Set out in bold are the ten ‘standards’ and the comment below each suggests ambiguities or potential problems.

  • Honesty and integrity

This should to be a ‘given’ for police officers who are supposed to uphold the law.

  • Authority, respect and courtesy

Again, that the police should treat people with respect and courtesy seems obvious, but what about ‘authority’, is this contradictory in any way?

  • Equality and diversity

It seems that the police have been searching for ways of ensuring fair and equitable treatment to all those inside the organisation as well as the publics they encounter for some time now.

  • Use of force

This is probably to remind officers they should only use reasonable force and be able to justify it afterwards.

  • Orders and instructions

Officers have to give, take and follow rules and regulations.

  • Work and responsibilities

This seems to be saying officers should take their role seriously.

  • Confidentiality

Except where the whistle needs to be blown?

  • Fitness for work

An expectation that people will maintain a level of personal fitness.

  • Conduct

Behave like a cop? But does this say anything about how  to do so?

  • Challenging and reporting improper conduct

Officers should report colleagues’ misdemeanours.

Some of the comments below the Standards seem obvious, but as the observations below each one attempt to illustrate, there are implementations issues with many of them. For example, ‘fitness for work’ is vague, and headings such as ‘use of force’ seem to be saying nothing new about how officers should behave.  Critics might argue that all of these ‘new’ rules or so-called ‘standards’ are already covered in existing police orders and conditions of service. They also raise new questions about the need for officers to be regulated within a code of ethics. With regard to ethical behaviour at work, a number of problematic concepts are brought to the surface and traditional working practices may be challenged. One of the reasons for this is that there seems little recognition of police occupational culture throughout the Code of Ethics. The new code takes no account of existing standards or beliefs which are based on a set of characteristics first identified by police researcher Robert Reiner.

The main characteristics of police culture, as stated by Cockcroft are outlined below.

  • Sense of mission
  • Cynicism/pessimism
  • Suspicion
  • Isolation/solidarity

The whole ethos of police culture may be changing but there are still enduring characteristics which can be seen in these characteristics. For example, police officers say they like to ‘fight crime’ but are cynical and pessimistic about their overall efficacy. As Westmarland argues, they are generally suspicious of everything and everyone until proved wrong, and feel isolated from general society while at the same time deeply bonded to their colleagues.  

As a result it is likely that working practices will always have an effect on the way codes of ethics are accepted and implemented. The ambiguous nature of some of the ‘principles’ and standards could cause a clash of loyalties. For example, studies of police behaviour have shown that the unpredictable nature of the danger associated with the work tends to encourage group and occupational solidarity.

This solidarity extends to other situations, such as when officers are required to give evidence in court. One of the tests of loyalty is demonstrating  that you will protect a colleague, not only from physical assaults but also other attacks, and adhere to the unwritten rule that you don’t snitch on a colleague.  There are many examples in the literature of officers telling lies in the courtroom, despite potentially serious outcomes in terms of their careers and liberty. Any officers found guilty of misleading a court, or law-breaking of almost any type, can be disciplined, dismissed and possibly imprisoned, whereas in other occupations a similar offence might be less serious.

In addition, some of the aspects of ethical codes or principles will be difficult to enforce because they impose potentially unworkable sanctions that prevent the business of the organisation being carried out ‘effectively and efficiently’ – another police mantra which may collide with the Code of Ethics. This may not be a problem however as some of the College of Policing’s principles, listed above, are so general – ‘use of force’ for example – as to be meaningless. Furthermore, they tend to describe behaviour already enshrined in disciplinary codes, such as ‘accountability’ – all public servants are accountable to someone; ‘fairness’ to whom, and what, exactly, is the definition of ‘integrity’ they are assuming everyone signs up to? In times of austerity and the drive for ever more demanding efficiency targets some officers might ask what the priorities of senior managers are – fighting crime, or being ‘ethical’, whatever that means.

Of course from the public’s point of view, and probably from a police manager’s perspective, it would be preferable to achieve all objectives, namely to fight crime, keep the peace and protect the public, whilst abiding by ethical standards of behaviour.  Police officers – and many other public sector workers – are entrusted with a great deal of power with which they can affect the lives of the individuals they encounter in the course of their work. To what extent it is possible to control this power, in other words to temper discretion with moral and ethical codes, is debateable. Indeed, whether the ‘ends justify the means’ and to what extent certain ‘dirty tricks’ should be allowed is of concern because many police officers operate within a secret, largely unregulated world.  Another aspect of this debate is that rule bending is not necessarily driven exclusively by acquisitive motives, but can be ‘noble cause corruption’. This means that as a central part of police culture is to ‘lock up the bad guys’, doing the ‘right thing’ to achieve that aim might involve actions that are not viewed as ethical by some, but in police cultural eyes they may be perfectly acceptable. When the ends are seen as justifying the means, how can a code of ethics help, in an environment where the police might say that doing the right thing, for the right motives, might not always accord with the code of ethics?


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