Ethical Issues in Police Departments


Ethical issues in police departments have become a major topic for discussion with regard to the police force as a law enforcement department of the government and society as a whole. Ethics as a branch of philosophy tends to be concerned with moral issues of right and wrong that are used as a guide to society with regard to what is acceptable and or what is not acceptable within the societal setting (DeLattre, 1989, p. 26). Therefore, the paper presents some of these key ethical issues ranging from privacy, loyalty vs. integrity, use of force, and racial profiling and Xenophobia amongst others in a bid to unveil the areas that the police department needs to focus on for better results and positive comments from the public.

Privacy Issues

As an arm of the government, the police department has access to information that may be considered private and confidential only under specific circumstances. This privileged information can be accessed by an officer by virtue of his/her duties for law enforcement purposes and not for personal use outside work. There are instances when a police officer uses his/her position to access personal information of other citizens for an unlawful use. There have been instances when members of the police force have been found to abuse this privilege by releasing information about other people unlawfully to different parties for different reasons (Kevin, 1998, p.6). There are known instances where a few members of the police force have sold or secretly released investigation reports to the media industry for sensational publishing. This has happened in collaboration between the police and media houses in cases where there is a lot of public interest and a form of a gag order from the authorities on the matter. In other instances, members of the police force have used their access to private information to find out information about people they have fallen out with using the same information to pursue these parties for the sake of settling personal scores. This move is unethical with regard to the police code of conduct that prohibits the use of their public trust position for personal gain in any way. There have been reported incidences where some members of the police force have been accused of working for criminal gangs by leaking out information about people or witnesses in criminal investigations or cases thus breaching the witness protection rule that prohibits the same (Harfield, 2012, p.75). This has exposed witnesses in such investigations and cases to dangers ranging from intimidation to actual harm thus perverting the course of justice. The police, being a critical component of the government that enforces law besides being responsible for protecting the public, is as well a trustee of public information. It is supposed to handle any information in its custody with lots of care according to the rule of law as well as the rule of natural justice. Any breach in handling of private information leading to negative consequences is unethical and not acceptable at all.

Loyalty vs. Integrity

Loyalty versus integrity has become one of the most disturbing ethical issues in the police department that continues to rouse a lot of debate with time. Loyalty on one part is a very fundamental issue that defines people’s existence within their environment, as well as those with whom they live. The police as human beings have their loyalties lying with things and people around them that make up their society. This can be family, friends and colleagues at work, neighbors, and even tribes. At the same time, the police oath of honor requires them to be loyal to their badges, the public trust bestowed in them, as well as the constitution (Wyatt-Nichol, 1998, p.47). Between the two parts of loyalty that they have to serve, their loyalty to the force should come first. This case is challenging because, under natural circumstances, their loyalty to their community comes first because it is intuitive in nature and has a greater force to bind one to the oath of office. The oath of office can be described as an acquired one. Thus, it takes an individual’s effort to internalize it in a bid to make it part of him/her. When loyalty to the force is compromised, the officers lose the integrity that comes with the job that bestows public trust into their hands thus making it unethical (Ronald, 2009, p. 399). Instances cited have happened in cases where an officer fails to take action when a person close to him/her like family commits a crime. In this case, the officer tends to take no action so that he is not seen as a betrayer within the society within which he/she wants to be counted to earn respect. This revelation is an automatic compromise on his/her integrity that renders the officer unfit to hold office as he/she cannot be trusted with protecting the public interest according to the law. In some instances, there has been a breach of integrity within the police department when the police have moved in to cover up their own people or fellow officers who have been found culpable in matters of law and order (Hinman, 1998, p.14). Many cover up cases have been reported when the same law enforcers have been found to break the same law they are supposed to uphold and enforce. This case happens when the whole department’s people engage to protect one of their own people with the view that the same can happen to them one day.

Use of Force

The use of force within the police department has also become an ethical issue for debating or discussion over a period now. The law has permitted the police to apply the use of force to create order. This use of force varies depending on the circumstance. Therefore, it can be described as the use of reasonable force depending on the circumstance (Pinizzoto, 2012, p. 9). This force can be mild in terms of simply tackling an offender at the process of arrest or the use of lethal force as a way of apprehending the offender. When force is used commensurate to the offence and circumstance, it is very ethical. In the enforcement of the law, the police have a duty of protecting the public from harm as well as themselves to any form of danger that might come with it and hence the permissible use of force. There are incidences when the force used to apprehend an offender has been deemed too much according to the circumstance of the arrest thus making it unethical on the part of the police. Such instances like when an offender or a suspect has been shot when not armed falls in this category where the police are deemed to use too much force. Too much force is simply an unnecessary force. Police have been accused of being trigger-happy when they have gone ahead to shoot armed offenders who have already surrendered after being asked to do so. Ideally, armed suspects should first be asked to surrender by dropping the weapon or raising their arms into a position where an armed officer can move in and disarm them. Any resistance to this command can force an officer to move in to shoot the suspects either to disable them or to kill them as a way of protecting the interests of the larger community (Scott & Nestor, 2000, p. 290). This case is part of a standard procedure for making arrests as permitted by law. Force can also be used when stopping demonstrations or illegal mass activities. Thus, the application of reasonable force comes in to play in this case. Excessive force is not just when bullets are used. Rather, it also comes in when too much force that is beyond the necessary is used like in the use of tear gas and rubber bullets to stop peaceful demonstrations. This scenario is unethical as it goes against the police code of practice, which is supported by the law.

Racial profiling and Xenophobia

Racial profiling and xenophobia have been identified as some of the unethical issues afflicting the police force, as they are unlawful. In this case, it happens when an officer persistently targets members from a certain community for questioning, arbitrary arrests, or simply by using racial slur against them. In most instances, it happens when members of these communities are a minority group in the area thus pushing some or all members of the majority groups to view them as unwanted or intrusive (Cook, 1999, p. 30). Therefore, harassment happens as part of a campaign to drive them out of the area or simply making them feel inferior to the other groups. The act is thus a form of psychological torment. The force code of ethics states that officers should be above reproach on such matters to serve all the public according to the statutory provisions according to absolute ethical practices. When police officers take sides in such matters, they compromise their integrity as public servants. They will thus be deemed unfit to hold their positions as a matter of public security. It is unethical for a police officer or department to have a practice that suppresses members of other communities (Yung-Lien & Jihong, 2010, p. 689). There have been cases when police officers have shot suspects from other races due to stereotyping and typecasting. There is no statute that paints a group of people coming from a certain community in one way different from others. Therefore, officers who are supposed to strictly work under the law will be in breach of the same when they cast people according to color, race, or country of origin (Kane, 1996, p. 68). Research indicates that, in some places, there is a high prevalence of members of certain communities to commit crime. This does not allow blanket condemnation of members of the said community because a criminal case or identity is individual-based and not community-based as per the law. Therefore, it is very unethical when members from the police department engage in racial profiling and xenophobic practices towards fellow members of the public who they are supposed to protect.


Integrity as an ethical issue has afflicted the police department since time immemorial. It stands out a matter that seems to stay forever with the police. Under integrity, one topic that comes out strongly and one that has thus become synonymous with integrity is corruption. Corruption has bedeviled the police department for so long in different ways that not a single solution can be found to it. Corruption deprives members of the society justice that they are entitled to under the constitution (Johnstone, 1995, p. 27). Corruption leads to parts of the society thriving at the expense of others thus depriving one part of the society equality. This makes it unethical and unacceptable especially when members of the society who are supposed to be protectors and enforcers of the law perpetuate it. There have been instances when police officers have been accused of taking bribes to let go of offenders who have committed crimes thus exposing the society to further criminal activities. By taking a bribe, the police officers compromise their integrity thus stopping to be law enforcers to become criminals. This change of role takes away public trust entrusted to them. Victims should therefore be relieved of their duties (Wickham, 2012, p. 21). When members of the police force accept gifts from people they are investigating or people who are of questionable characters, this becomes a total compromise towards the oath of office and codes of conduct and therefore unethical. Ethical standards by the police should be applied at the ethical absolutism point whereby a police officer’s ethical standards should be at the highest level beyond the written ethical rules and standards. Integrity by officers involves full disclosure of their engagement with parties being investigated, full disclosure of recovered items, as well as disclosure of any favors being proposed by the parties being investigated (Vlahos, 2012, p. 65). This stands out as the kind of ethical threshold that is required by an officer as a way of developing public trust and confidence as a way of regaining lost trust besides maintaining ethical standards. Maintaining integrity is a big challenge to officers due to their human nature, which seeks satisfaction of the different human needs. Therefore, when this satisfaction comes between an officer and the oath of office, it becomes a great challenge to his/her ethics.


In conclusion, ethics as a parameter for governing societal interactions is fundamental in the administration of the rule of law and justice. Ethics as a governor of society is a form of unwritten rule that makes humankind coexist with each other harmoniously. Thus, it varies from one level to the other in the society. Ethical standards vary from one place to the other depending on the different roles people play in society. Some positions in the society call for a very high level of ethical standards due to the trust they are bestowed with to take care of the larger society. Yet, some positions in the same society require just the minimum level of ethics as long as it is acceptable (Felkenes, 1987, p.24). Ethics are universal in nature. However, when they vary, they vary for different reasons. Ethics in the police department is a very fundamental issue due to the role the police play in the society and more so the role of maintaining peace, law, and order. Thus, a compromise on ethics is fundamentally unacceptable.


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