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Becoming an Exemplary Peace Officer
This selection is adapted from the Josephson Institute’s Becoming an Exemplary Peace Officer series, a two-part resource that equips Academy students with the skills necessary to make insightful, ethical decisions in the field.
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Sir Robert Peel established the first police force in England in 1829 to prevent crime and disorder. Although that remains the core mission of all police agencies, the duties, qualifications, and attitudes of today’s peace officers have expanded far beyond mere law enforcement.

Problems occur when agencies 1) recruit individuals who don’t understand the current police mission or have an unrealistic image of who professional peace officers are and what they do, 2) instill old-school tactics and inappropriate mind-sets instead of moral principles that society expects of its police, and/or 3) fail to address the often conflicting advice given to recruits during training at the Academy, in the field, and on the street.

A lapse in any of the above can lead to incidents that could erode the public trust and seriously damage police/community relations. The duty of police management must be to develop not just competent peace officers, but exemplary ones.

This is no easy task as the policing environment has changed radically. The term for a member of the police used to be “law-enforcement officer.” The classic recruit was an ex-Marine/soldier or MP authoritarian, aggressive, and action-oriented. The perception of policing was often the stereotypical view popularized in movies and TV cop series.

Today, police are more appropriately called “peace officers.” Recruits are hired not only for skills and background, but for character, intelligence, commitment, professionalism, leadership, problem-solving, and decision-making. In addition to preventing crime and disorder, police are expected to serve the public, enhance the quality of life, generate and maintain the public trust, and uphold individual liberties and Constitutional rights.

Clearly, there’s a lot on our plate today. To ensure that every peace officer you train, graduate, and hire exemplifies the highest policing standards in terms of character, proficiency, and professionalism, it is essential that you 1) recruit the right people, 2) teach the right methods, and 3) instill the right lessons.

Recruit the right people

A mindless robocop may be efficient, but is that a peace officer your agency or society wants? Such individuals may not understand their role in an open democratic society. During the annual pro-immigration May Day rally in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles on May 1, 2007, protesters began throwing rocks and bottles at officers. As the police cleared the park, they beat news reporters who were attempting to access their news vans and tear-gassed and roughed up scores of innocent onlookers.

The media have the right to attend and report on protest marches. Bystanders, as well as suspects, are entitled to police protection. Although honoring individual rights in certain instances might be contrary to a peace officer’s instincts or personal beliefs, the laws and values that underlie them are non-negotiable. Acceptance of them is not optional.

For this reason, many recruits don’t belong in today’s police force. They don’t understand the modern mission or duty of a public servant. Reading someone his or her Miranda rights isn’t an annoyance; it’s the mission. The Constitution and courts aren’t allies to lawbreakers; they’re our very foundation.

Some recruits also have a skewed image of their role. They think they’ll be chasing bad guys most of the time. Most likely they’ll be helping people, safeguarding people, comforting people. Therefore, to save everyone a lot of time, whenever Dirty Harry wannabes apply to the Academy, politely show them the door.

Teach the right methods

The ethical world of the peace officer today is exceedingly complex. When addressing the subject of ethics during training, make it clear the term “ethics” is not merely academic. Personal ethics, professional ethics, and ethical decision-making are the moral triad of policing and should be emphasized as such in all Academy and field training.

Personal Ethics
There is so much disagreement about moral issues that a common but erroneous view exists that ethics is a matter of opinion. (Whose values are we talking about?) In fact, six universal moral truths transcend time, culture, religion, and personal ideology. They’re called the Six Pillars of Character.

In 1992, Josephson Institute convened a summit conference on character education in Aspen, Colorado, that identified six broad ethical values as ground rules for life. They have been endorsed by major policing institutions as well as educational, governmental, and professional organizations nationwide. They should be the values framework for all Academy and field training. The six pillars are:

  • Trustworthiness
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Fairness
  • Caring
  • Citizenship

Professional Ethics
In addition to personal character, peace officers are subject to professional ethical standards. Accusations of police wrongdoing can harm reputations, drain morale, hinder recruitment, divert attention from the mission and, most important, erode public trust. When public trust deteriorates, citizens’ willingness to assist peace officers or comply with the law lessens. To address this concern, Josephson Institute developed the Five Principles of Public-Service Ethics:

  1. Safeguard the public interest. Public service is a trust. Use it to advance public interests, not personal gain.
  2. Make judgments objectively. Decide on the merits, free from partiality, prejudice, or conflicts of interest.
  3. Be publicly accountable. Conduct your duty openly, efficiently, equitably, and honorably.
  4. Observe the spirit and letter of the law. Honor and respect democratic principles.
  5. Conduct yourself scrupulously. Avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

Ethical Decision-Making
Every day, peace officers make decisions that can have enormous consequences. Each situation requires a choice of what to do and how to do it. Should I make an arrest or issue a warning? Intervene or let the situation unfold? Be aggressive or friendly? A policing decision can be poor, acceptable, good, or exemplary.

  • Poor. It’s illegal, unethical, and/or ineffective. Such a decision can jeopardize lives, destroy relationships, and undermine careers.
  • Acceptable. It legally, ethically, and effectively accomplishes the primary policing purpose.
  • Good. It legally, ethically, and effectively accomplishes the primary policing purpose without causing unintended and/or undesirable consequences.
  • Exemplary. It employs expert knowledge, excellent skills, superior judgment, and extraordinary respect and professionalism in performing all tasks.

Example: A motorist stops next to a patrol car at a red light and asks where the football stadium is.

Poor decision: The officer ignores him, waves him off, or says he doesn’t know or have the time.
Acceptable decision: The officer gives him just the stadium’s cross streets.
Good decision: The officer directs him in detail, including an alternate route around a traffic snarl he knows is up ahead.
Exemplary decision: Because the light’s about to change, the officer invites the motorist to pull over ahead whereupon he provides detailed instructions. This engenders appreciation and good future relations and will help enhance the quality of life in the community and build public trust.

Instill the right lessons

Everyone enters Academy training with preconceptions of what it’s like to be a peace officer. Unfortunately, some of those ideas come from popular films or TV series in which one-man-army avengers take on incredible odds without backup, rebels flout laws and disobey orders, or intimidators use threats and violence to pursue suspects. If such media heroes existed in real life, they would be fired and/or imprisoned.

Thus, it’s imperative to give trainees real-world reality checks and reiterate what putting on their uniform and badge really constitute. Interrogating suspects and making arrests are only a fraction of what peace officers do. Most of the time they resolve disputes, work with the community, take reports, regulate crowds and traffic, and aid people in distress.

It is during field training when trainees’ illusions will most likely and severely clash with reality. As they transition from Academy training to field training, the instruction and advice they receive from their assigned field officer, classmates, and veteran officers may conflict with what they were taught in the Academy. The shock can leave many officers feeling lost and confused.

This off-the-record education may disparage Academy precepts or methods in favor of “more realistic and effective” tactics or values used on the street. This is not to say some of these applications aren’t sound, practical, effective, or even vital. There are things that trainers don’t or can’t teach in the Academy because policing is often conducted in a fluid and changing environment requiring improvisation, local information, and street savvy.

The problem arises when recruits are pressured into fitting in with this anti-Academy, old-line culture. Veterans need to assure themselves that trainees will respond their way. Some may have an ax to grind at “unnecessary” Academy changes or feel the instructors are out of touch. Others just want to continue doing what they’ve been doing for years. Still others feel it necessary to drill into newbies’ heads that loyalty to each other is more important than loyalty to the law or their oath.

What should police management do? What messages should we impart to the next class of peace officers?

During a moving graduation ceremony marking the transition of 40 men and women from police academy cadets to sworn officers in the Long Beach Police Department in California, the officers were uniformed but had no badges. Without that emblem, their uniforms were undistinguished. Once the shields were affixed, however, the uniforms and the individuals in them were transformed.

The badge is not just an official symbol of authority and responsibility. It’s also an insignia of honor that others look up to and we must live up to. No one enters or leaves the Academy with perfect character. Character development is a lifelong process. No matter how ethical candidates are, they can be better. Without good character, all the knowledge and skills taught at the Academy will not make someone a good officer.

Although the graduates’ badges were highly polished that day, it will take constant vigilance and integrity to keep them untarnished.

See that they do so.


Michael Josephson is the founder and president of Josephson Institute and the author of Becoming an Exemplary Peace Officer: An Introduction to Peace Officer Training and Becoming an Exemplary Peace Officer:The Guide to Ethical Decision Making written in collaboration with the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. The publications augment the Institute’s Honoring the Badge professional-development initiative for peace officers and administrators. For more information, call 800-711-2670 or view our schedule of upcoming seminars.

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