Police Codes of Conduct Essay

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Codes of conduct applicable to police have been designed and implemented in the United States and internationally. The overarching purpose of these codes is to lay the foundation for accountability and internal discipline within the law enforcement agency (LEA). The codes create ethical standards that supplement the laws and regulations applicable generally in the jurisdiction; that is, they demand that law enforcement officials (LEOs) be held to a higher standard due to their privileged position within society.

As the function of policing is generally similar within and across jurisdictions, the types of problems of policing are shared across these geographies, whether at the federal level in the United States (e.g., Federal Bureau of Investigation), the state and municipal levels in the United States (e.g., the New Jersey State Police, the New York City Police Department), the international level (e.g., United Nations Peacekeeping Operations), or other countries’ LEAs (e.g., the Metropolitan Police Service in London). These problems occur within a sliding scale, ranging from ordinary police misconduct (e.g., accepting gratuities) to corruption (e.g., taking bribes) to predatory policing (e.g., extortion). Moreover, unlawful or selective discrimination in enforcement of the law creates additional problems in society. The causes and explanations of these undesired phenomena are ascribed to individuals (“rotten apples”), departments (“rotten barrels”), and institutions (“rotten orchards”), singly or collectively.

The codes have been developed to supplement law in controlling this official misconduct, effectively enhancing the administrative capacity of the police to mete out discipline beyond the arm of the law and to direct LEO conduct both officially (i.e., carrying out police duties) and unofficially (i.e., private actions independent of police duties). Without the codes, the control over police conduct emanated from criminal prosecutions (e.g., official misconduct as a felony, U.S. civil rights violations) and civil litigations (primarily, tort actions such as assault and battery), which were initiated by the state or by aggrieved individuals of classes of individuals as victims. As police conduct is difficult to monitor and victims are often in a formally conflicted role—frequently as a person being charged with an offense by the police and alleging wrongful conduct by the police—the existence of a well-designed and implemented code empowers administrative control over the risk of police misconduct, serving to prevent police misconduct.

The Structure of the Code

Codes are generally twofold in structure, characterized by a code of ethics and a code of conduct. The code of ethics is a summary set of statements of value that indicates the importance of personal attributes such as integrity, dignity, and honor. The code of conduct is a detailed set of policies, practices, and procedures that identify that which is prohibited. The code of conduct serves as guidance for LEOs and signals the commitment of the department to due process, equal protection, and other noble objectives. Early developers of the concept of the code were former LEOs under the aegis of LEAs. These included August Vollmer, former chief of police of Berkeley, California, and Orlando W. Wilson, formerly representing the Wichita, Kansas, municipal police department, who created the Square Deal Code in the early 1930s. Independent organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in the early 1950s and the United Nations in the late 1970s, with the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, contributed and enhanced concepts and guidance in the development of the modern codes.

The codes are designed to affect LEO public duties and state actions, minimizing traditional psychological and sociological practices such as the code of silence and the blue curtain. Moreover, the codes are designed to affect LEO personal conduct and private action, minimizing the risk that LEOs’ conduct outside the job impairs and discredits the integrity and reputation of their LEA. Specifically, codes are designed to control the independent variables that may predict police misconduct: (1) demographic, such as age, gender, race; (2) dispositional, such as attitude toward ethics, cynicism; (3) situational, such as social consensus, real LEO practices and issues; and (4) organizational, such as reinforcement through actual administrative feedback, departmental responsiveness/nonresponsiveness.

By creating expectations of integrity in-and-out of uniform and uniformity in administration of alleged wrongdoing, the codes communicate high ideals and formal rejection of the rule of the privileged, elevating the rule of ethics nearer the rule of law.

Current Issues

Police misconduct is a highly serious peril for society at large. As LEOs act under the authority of the state, their use of violence and force in maintaining law and order and their role in contributing to the detention and imprisonment of suspects and criminals are pressing concerns both to the individuals directly impacted as well as to the wider network of actors within the state. The legitimacy of the government is at risk where police are perceived to abuse their authority. Whether this misconduct is limited to supporting the bad apple, noble cause, or other explanation, the so-called Dirty Harry problem of unethical/unlawful LEO tactics poses a threat to social acceptance of the rule of law.

Demanding compliance with codes is a preventive measure to control the reality shock experienced by LEOs as they transition from the safe environment of the police academies and other training media to the real world as negotiated and managed by their more experienced and senior colleagues. As LEAs are used by the state in more diverse applications (e.g., intelligence gathering, defusing social assemblies and protests) the conduct of LEOs becomes more intrusive (e.g., threatening privacy and free speech rights).

The hazards of policing, whether emanating from focused traditional police work such as investigation of domestic violence, the drug trade, or from expansive modern police work such as infiltration of well-organized criminal networks, loosely organized terrorist cells, and so on, are increased where LEOs are perceived to abandon the rule of law and adopt the tactics of the objects of their investigations. The codes emphasize the value of the dignity of the individual both as object under the state and the police and as subject rendering implied or express consent to the state and police of their legitimacy to govern.


While research has tended to support the hypothesis that codes of conduct generally improve the ethics and morality of covered actors in commercial activities (e.g., prohibitions against excessive gift-giving, offering/accepting commercial bribes), specific effects on LEAs and LEOs are less clear. To date there is a paucity of persuasive evidence of the effectiveness of the codes in the context of policing. The general problem of managing police effectively while maintaining compliance with the values and objectives of the codes may most successfully be addressed in three-pronged approaches: (1) endogenously through the use of internal controls by the LEA, (2) exogenously through the oversight of independent regulators, and (3) jointly through the insertion of independent monitors that work within the LEA to initiate positive change and continuously audit and measure progress.

Though the codes have not transformed modern LEAs and LEOs into examples of the high ideals expressed therein, whether measured within the United States at the federal, state, and local levels or outside the United States at the global, international, and foreign state levels, they have been accompanied by positive and beneficial changes within policing. By expanding the definitions of wrongful police conduct to include private actions by LEOs that discredit their LEAs and enhancing record keeping and reporting of private and official actions that fall short of the codes’ objectives and values, the codes have served to advance both the expectations of society at large and the demands of LEAs on their LEOs to commit to transparency and exposure of the commission of wrongdoing and attempted concealment of such by the chain of command.


  1. Davis, Michael. “Do Cops Really Need a Code Of Ethics?” Criminal Justice Ethics, v.10/2 (1991).
  2. Dean, Geoff, Peter Bell, and Mark Lauchs. “Conceptual Framework for Managing Knowledge of Police Deviance.” Policing and Society, v.20/2 (2010).
  3. Gregory, Josie. “Ethics: A Strategy for Change.” International Journal of Police Science and Management, v.3/2 (2000–2001).
  4. Kargin, Vedat. Criminal Justice: Recent Scholarship: Peer Reporting of Unethical Police Behavior. El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2011. Masiloane, D. T. “An Enemy From Within: A Critical Analysis of Corruption in the South African Police Service.” South African Journal of Criminal Justice, v.20/1 (2007).
  5. Molina, Luis F. “Comments on the ‘Universality’ of the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials.” Third World Legal Studies, v.1990 (1990).
  6. Owen, Jennifer A. “Character, Deviance, and Integrity in Policing: A Critical Review of Current Literature.” Criminal Justice Review, v.21/2 (1996).

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