Ethical Issues in Law Enforcement: Preventing Police Misconduct

According to USA Today, at least 85,000 law enforcement officers in the U.S. were investigated or disciplined for misconduct in the decade leading up to 2020. More officers are terminated based on ethical violations more than any other reason. And yet ethics is not a big focus of training in most agencies. “How do we expect officers to be good at decision making if we don’t start it in the academy?” says Lyla Zeidan, legal program manager for the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Training Academy and a board member for the Institute for Constitutional Policing. Zeidan’s recent session at the 2023 International Association of Chiefs of Police conference focused on ethical issues in law enforcement.

The big takeaway: An agency’s policies, procedures and training need to address the ethical concerns we’re seeing so as to prevent misconduct from occurring – not just address it after the fact.

4 Key Ethical Issues for Law Enforcement

Although police misconduct can take many forms, Zeidan outlines four areas that create ethical dilemmas for law enforcement officers:

  1. Use of force – The line between what’s appropriate/necessary and what’s excessive force is not always clear. And when it comes to certain tactics, the line has changed in recent years. “A lot of agencies have changed their policies, which is a great idea,” Zeidan says, “but we’re still being scrutinized about the force we’re using.”
  2. Acting impartially and profiling – While bias-based policing is always wrong, maintaining impartiality can be difficult in small jurisdictions, where you “start seeing the same people over the over,” Zeidan says.
  3. Off-duty life – “Law enforcement is one of the very few professions where you have to be on your best behavior 24/7,” Zeidan says. Once an officer does something off-duty that’s inappropriate, it’s flashed all over the media and can have repercussions on their career and on the agency’s reputation.
  4. Upholding the law while protecting people’s rights – Officers take an oath to protect community members’ constitutional rights – but they also must enforce the law. Occasionally, these two factors can conflict.

Policy Implications

Promoting ethical behavior in the police department starts with policy, the foundation of officer accountability. Zeidan outlines some policy areas law enforcement leaders must address to prevent unethical behavior.

Off-Duty Carrying of Firearms
Recently, the Los Angeles Police Department faced a rash of incidents involving officers who were intoxicated, off-duty and carrying firearms and became involved in criminal acts. The department lacked a policy addressing these situations, relying instead on the “conduct unbecoming” portion of the agency code of conduct.

Zeidan says this is not sufficient. “We have to change our culture, so there is more accountability when people are armed and off duty,” she says. “If you do not have some sort of policy, you need to get one … Because you don’t want to learn the way LAPD did.” At the same time, the policy must be carefully written to address impairment – and define what impairment is. Another good option to consider is broadening the policy to address more than just alcohol, but any substance that can impair an officer’s actions or decision-making.

Zeidan urges leaders to address ethical issues in law enforcement right away, not to push these issues to the back burner.

Lexipol’s best practice guidance for addressing off-duty firearms use and impairment is captured in our Firearms Policy: “Firearms shall not be carried by any member, either on- or off-duty, who has consumed an amount of an alcoholic beverage, taken any drugs or medication, or has taken any combination thereof that would tend to adversely affect the member’s senses or judgment.”

Law Enforcement Off-Duty Marijuana Use
Like many states, New Jersey legalized recreational use of marijuana, causing the mayor of Jersey City to issue an order prohibiting officers to use marijuana, even off-duty. Less than three years later, the department faced a lawsuit from an officer who used cannabis-infused gummies, then failed an impromptu drug test and was fired after she admitted to the use. The case went to the appeals court, who ruled in favor of the officer.

The reason? Zeidan stresses that the problem was the department did not provide evidence showing how the cannabis use impaired the officer’s job performance. The situation is still unfolding, with Jersey City now suing the state over the policy permitting off-duty cannabis use.

For states where recreational marijuana use is legal, agencies that wish to ban such use among officers must tread carefully, considering laws around medical marijuana use as well as how they will demonstrate that marijuana impacted the ability to do the job.

Law Enforcement Social Media Use
So many headlines abound about law enforcement officers getting disciplined or fired due to their social media posts, it hardly needs to be included in a list of ethical concerns. But many departments still lack sound policy and training around social media use.

“Make sure you have social media policies about what they should be posting,” Zeidan says. “This should start at the academy level. Is anyone checking social media ? And we need to enforce it early on.” Preventing officers from getting into trouble with social media is even more important because of the impact not just on the individual officer, but on the agency. An officer who is disciplined for social posts that may affect their bias or truthfulness creates a Brady issue for the department, requiring their actions to be disclosed to the defendants of any case they are involved in, potentially jeopardizing criminal prosecutions.

Duty to Intervene and Mandatory Reporting
Lexipol policy has long included the duty to intervene when observing unreasonable or unethical force of ethical misconduct, and in 2020, expanded the duty to situations where a law enforcement officer observes unreasonable force by any other law enforcement officer, within or outside the agency, as well as by members of the agency.

The 7th, 8th and 11th Circuits have all ruled that officers have the duty to act, regardless of whether they are subordinate to the person using force. Zeidan notes that following the murder of George Floyd, it has become even more essential to address the duty to intervene in policy. “A lot of you were doing it already, but now, at least 15 states have put it into law,” she says, noting that it’s equally important to protect the reporter from retaliation.

A related policy issue is mandatory reporting of unethical behavior – not just excessive force, but any observed unethical behavior. “We need to require this in policy, not just suggest” it anecdotally or in training, Zeidan says. Lexipol’s Standards of Conduct Policy states that “failure of any member to promptly and fully report activities on their part or the part of any other member where such activities resulted in contact with any other law enforcement agency or that may result in criminal prosecution or discipline under this policy” is cause for discipline.

Promoting Ethical Behavior

In addition to addressing ethical concerns through policy, Zeidan recommends starting ethical training in the academy and revisiting it often, through roll call discussions and scenario-based training. Ongoing training is especially important, she says, because misconduct frequently occurs with officers who have at least seven years on the job: “It’s not the rookies or the veterans.”

She suggests agencies adopt the IACP Code of Ethics and Oath of Honor. “Have this up at your academy and all over your department, make it a part of roll call training,” she stresses. Formal programs, such as the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) program, can also help promote a culture of accountability and ownership, so the concepts of watching out for one another and stepping in when intervention is needed permeate the entire organization, and are not just limited to excessive force situations.

On an individual level, leaders can also help officers evaluate ethical decisions through a series of quick questions:

  • Am I acting out of greed, anger or lust?
  • Is it legal?
  • Would I do it if my family were here?
  • How will I feel about it in 20 years?
  • Is it worth my job and career?
  • Would I do it if I was being recorded?

Zeidan urges leaders to address ethical issues in law enforcement right away, not to push these issues to the back burner. “We all have good intentions, but what matters is what we actually accomplish,” she says. “The public doesn’t look at our intentions, they look at our actions. We are judged by what we do.”

Shannon Pieper

SHANNON PIEPER is senior director of Marketing Content for Lexipol and former editorial director for PennWell Public Safety, publisher of FireRescue magazine and Law Officer magazine.

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