A Code of Police Ethics for our times

PAIS’s Security Ethics Group recently responded to the College of Policing’s call for feedback on what will be England and Wales’ first Code of Police Ethics. In this post Kat Hadjimatheou responds to commentators who criticise the draft code for demanding too little of police.

From spying on Stephen Lawrence’s family to smearing the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, it seems there are few ethical principles that at least some serving officers are not prepared to violate. What can we do to improve police ethics? Many agree that developing a code of ethics for police is a good place to start. The UK’s College of Policing has done just that, releasing a draft of the first Code of Ethics for policing in England and Wales for public consultation.

Some commentators have derided the Code for containing reminders to officers to fulfil duties that seem basic and obvious, such as treating people with respect, refraining from using unnecessary force, turning up to work on time and not taking too much sick leave. Surely, they say, most officers shouldn’t need to be reminded of the basic differences between right and wrong or between professional and unprofessional behaviour. And if they do, then isn’t this just further evidence of how crooked and incompetent the force really is?

Not necessarily. It’s true that most of us like to think that we don’t need to be reminded to treat people with respect. But police are subject to moral pressures that most of us are not. Constant interaction with the worst sorts of behaviours can induce pessimism or cynicism about human nature. It may lead police officers to start to see the worst in and believe the worst of people. This can make it harder – even when they are aware of the biased perspective their work offers them – for police personnel to treat people with the respect they deserve. Harder, that is, than it is for most of us going about our comparatively benign and innocent daily lives.

Decent, conscientious police might also need reminding about some basic professional standards that others might take for granted, such as acceptable use of sick leave. Police work is physically, psychologically, and ethically demanding. For example, police officers must display superior self-restraint: while individuals often react violently to provocation or attack, and understandably so, police are forbidden from doing so. Yet police are likely to be provoked and attacked much more often than the average civilian. Furthermore, police must be prepared to put themselves in the path of danger whenever necessary in order to protect the rights and well-being of others. Police are not permitted to maintain a strict boundary between their private and professional lives, but must always be ready for duty at short notice. All this makes police work more burdensome and stressful than most other kinds of work.

Officers who are not given breaks from active duty, time to recover between shifts, and access to counselling and other forms of support, may either take sick leave due to stress,  get the breaks they need by claiming time off as sick leave, as many appear to do with startling regularity . Including rules about sick leave reminds officers of their obligation to turn up to work when not genuinely sick. But it can also help those officers who are feeling overwhelmed to discuss this with their superiors and to find ways to improve working conditions. The draft Code is a means of connecting basic working conditions and ethics: police who are experiencing too much stress find it harder to be compassionate, patient, understanding and to make decisions that are ethically sound.

Most of us don’t need reminding to respect people, to refrain from unnecessary violence, or to turn up to work when we’re not sick. But most of us are not subject to the demands and pressures that are inherent to police work. Police have to demonstrate more compassion and understanding, bravery, selflessness and self-restraint than the rest of us do, just to maintain the same standards. Unlike police, we can routinely behave in ways that demonstrate far weaker moral character without becoming liable to moral criticism. Police officers are acutely aware of this. This may be part of the reason why some can come across as resentful of and resistant to criticism, and why some resort to obfuscation of the truth or even smear the victims of police injustice in order to protect the reputations of colleagues.

Police codes of ethics do well to recognise and address the core causes of unethical policing and the moral hazards of the profession. Codes of ethics that are too aspirational, riddled with lofty phrases declaring that police conduct must exemplify the ‘highest possible’ standards, do little good. As we’ve seen, it’s not easy even for decent, well-intentioned police to maintain normal ethical standards. We should concentrate on helping them to do that. If we demand that they behave like superheroes, the public will form unrealistic expectations and police may ignore the code as being impossible to comply with. The draft Code offers a realistic standard and reflects the reality of police work in England and Wales, which is why it seems more mundane than heroic. That is something to applaud.

Kat Hadjimatheou

Dr Katerina Hadjimatheou works on the ethics of criminal justice, especially police ethics, preventive policing, and surveillance. She is a Research Fellow on an EU-funded project on the ethics of surveillance in serious and organised crime entitled SURVEILLE. For that project she researches the ethics of data retention, preventive policing and profiling in border security. She previously was a research fellow on the FP7 DETECTER project where she has worked on the ethics of profiling in counter-terrorism.

3 thoughts on “A Code of Police Ethics for our times”

  1. As someone who used to help teach ethics to Senior Constables in New South Wales — yes, really — the points about the hazards of constantly dealing with people at their worst instead of at their best ring true. The same is often the case with emergency services generally.

    But we should remember that there are things about policing that are not an inherent, immutable part of the job.

    One is the risk-management approach that has dominated for the last 20 years, which targets not behaviour but statistical propensities, and thus treats as suspect things that political scientists, of all people, should celebrate. Active political engagement itself is being treated as one such risk factor, with the result that what used to be an expected part of active citizenship — protest, debate, information-seeking — now becomes evidence of ill-intent.

    Another is the paramilitary organisation and symbolism of the police, from the ranks, uniforms and (increasingly) weaponry to the requirement to follow orders. These norms conflict directly with the code’s too-brief discussion of discretion and the post-Nuremberg rules that removed “following orders” as a defence against committing indefensible acts.

    The draft code might well be sensitive to the real world of policing. But if we expect it to make much of a difference to policing practice in Britain then we are going to be disappointed.

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