Ethics and Public Service for Law Enforcement: Service Members and Police Officers in Security Roles

Ethics and Public Service for Law Enforcement: Service Members and Police Officers in Security Roles

By Brigadier General (ret.) Juan Carlos Gómez Ramírez, International Committee of the Red Cross Armed and Security Forces Delegate, Mexico and Central America
June 14, 2021

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Law enforcement officers have a professional obligation to be effective in providing security and protection. To do so, they are governed by high standards of respect for life and personal integrity. The power that the law grants them to fulfill their duties does not guarantee, by itself, that they cannot commit excesses or arbitrary acts. Their correct performance depends mainly on the competence and quality of their actions. Ethics and honor play a central role in the fulfillment of their duties.

It is ethically and morally inconceivable for members of a state security institution to be the alleged perpetrators of an illegal act. The fact that a soldier or a police officer breaks the law is exceedingly serious. People’s trust in their military and police forces plummets.

To enforce the law, police officers and service members do not follow a mathematical model; they need to reason and find the best way to solve problems — that is, to understand the spirit of the law.

Many of the situations they face are violent, and they are expected to figure out the best way forward in circumstances that are usually riddled with grey areas. There are no perfect answers on security issues; the truth is that the actions of security forces must comply with the law. Appropriate and reasonable use of powers and instruments granted by the State must guarantee the fulfillment of their mission and duties, in full compliance with the legal framework.

Honor and ethics in the law enforcement mission

To discuss the prevention of excessive use of force by armed and security forces, it is indispensable to address the concepts of honor and ethics. The moral fulfillment of military and police responsibilities doesn’t necessarily make them happy, but it does make them worthy of happiness.

Ethics in professional development dictates the path they must follow to achieve the vocational fulfillment of serving society. In addition to knowing the powers and faculties that the law confers on them, police officers and service members must understand the damaging and potentially corrupting effects that this power may have.

It’s normal for law enforcement officers to feel, on occasion, that there are inequities or imbalances between the duty of law enforcement and what some consider “the freedom of some individuals to commit crimes.” But this is where we must make a clear distinction between the mission and values that guide the action of law enforcement officers, as opposed to those who break the law.

Group and community ethics

It isn’t enough for a police officer or a service member to understand that their actions must be lawful and not arbitrary, since knowing the legal framework doesn’t necessarily imply that their behavior will adhere to the norm. The highest level institutions must always follow up with audits, disciplinary actions, and criminal proceedings that prevent any overflow of legal powers at the individual and group level.

Group and environmental pressures can negatively influence the behavior of individuals to the point that actions that are unthinkable from the viewpoint of personal ethics can materialize at the group level. This happens when responsibility for behavior that is unacceptable according to personal ethics is transferred to the institution that one represents: “I’m not breaking the law, it’s the organization to which I belong.”

A hostile work environment exposes law enforcement officers to justifications for unlawful behavior, regardless of whether they are fully aware of the difference between what is legal and what is illegal.

It’s serious to think that a public officer working in security might argue that breaking the law is necessary and acceptable under certain circumstances. As a group, we might think that those who seem to break the rules get what they deserve.

Personal ethics and group ethics are different: Members of a social group can be pressured by or confronted with a group ethic that leads them to act in a way that they individually would not be willing to engage in.

For this reason, it’s very important that military commanders whose troops are engaged in public security roles, as well as police chiefs, routinely assess the behavior and attitudes of their elements at the individual, group, and institutional ethics level.

There are numerous examples of countries and institutions where questionable ethics at the individual or group level raise doubts about an entire institution and its members, undercutting the majority, who serve and protect the community with dedication, honor, ethics, and nobility. Military and police institutions must maintain discipline as a cornerstone and fiercely protect their source of moral power, sustained by the legitimacy and credibility that the community places in the institution and its actions.