Ethics In Law Enforcement

The issue of Ethics is essential to everyone who is in Law Enforcement or thinking about a career in Law Enforcement. Here is a question:

Should people who work in Law Enforcement (police, corrections, border services, etc.) have a higher standard of ethics and behaviour than we expect from everyone else?

The answer is YES!

Let’s look at the issue of a found wallet on the street. What do you do? Here are the options:

  1. Ignore it and leave the wallet where it is.
  2. Look through the wallet, take the money and throw the wallet away.
  3. Look through the wallet, take the money and return the wallet to the owner.
  4. Return the wallet to the owner with the money still inside the wallet.

What would you do?

For someone in law enforcement, there should be no hesitation, and they should always pick option #4.

Let us focus on police officers for the moment. Society places a tremendous amount of trust in police officers. We entrust them with certain powers and the proper use of discretion, such as deciding to arrest someone or issuing a traffic ticket. More than public trust, do officers have the ethical values to do the right thing when no one is looking?

For example, a police officer arrests a drug dealer, and a search reveals 40 grams of cocaine and $18,000 in cash that they rationalize is drug money. Nobody knows how much is here, it does not belong to anyone because after all it is drug money. Officers might consider splitting the money and justifying their actions because of its origin.

The obvious procedure would be to seize the drugs and money and log it as evidence. There is NO alternative.

In another example, an older person dies of natural causes in their home with no obvious next of kin. The police attend, and part of the officer’s job is to inventory valuables in the house, including money and jewelry they will secure in a locked police facility until they confirm the beneficiary. No one knows how much money the deceased kept in the house. The officer could take the money, and no one would know.

The BEST and ONLY action is to honestly and ethically inventory all property and money and ensure it is secured until it can be released to the appropriate beneficiary.

What are Ethics?

Before answering this, let us look at laws and morals, two systems that play into ethics.

Laws are enforceable rules made by the government and have penalties for not complying. Laws can be just or unjust, and they can change over time.

An example would be the marihuana laws, where it was once illegal to sell or possess, and then it changed where under specific rules, it is legal to sell and possess marihuana.

Morality (morals) is an informal system (no official rules/laws) of values, principles, beliefs and customs. Morality may vary from group to group, and enforcing those morals is done informally within the group. Sometimes, a group holds so firmly onto the morals that an individual automatically complies with it without thinking about whether it is good or right.

You can follow the moral code without thinking based on religious or group beliefs where people might say, “It’s always been this way.” If you lived in a time where the law permitted slavery and the society in which you lived considered that as morally correct, would you accept it or evaluate it on an ethical level and come to your conclusion?

Ethics is deciding what you should do. That requires applying your values, principles and beliefs to a given situation. Even if you agree with all the laws and the moral rules of the group, it may not cover every possible situation or decision you have to face. People are not born with ethics; they develop over time. There are influences over right and wrong from parent(s), family, friends, school, religion and laws.

It does not have to define you, even if you were with bad or poor role models. You have a choice and can consciously decide to have high ethical values in how you conduct your personal and professional life. What are the ethical values of a law enforcement officer? A general umbrella term would be integrity.

What Is Integrity?


Integrity can mean many things, but regarding a law enforcement officer, it is:

  • Trustworthiness (trusted by other officers and the citizens),
  • Accountability (can justify their actions and the law and society in general support it),
  • Respectful and compassionate (how they treat the most marginalized people and people in general), and
  • Courage (not only being decisive in dangerous situations but the courage to make the right decision when there is a real potential for personal or professional cost).

Law enforcement officers have rules to follow, such as the Criminal Code and the Highway Traffic Act. They also have professional codes of conduct that cannot cover every possible situation. If you are considering a career in law enforcement, you need to look at yourself in the mirror and decide on using ethical values in how you live your personal and work life. When you look in that mirror, you should eventually see someone you and others are proud of and can say that person has high integrity.

Glen Smyth,
Instructor: Ethics and Accountability Course

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