Police Ethics: Defining the Forgotten Principles of Law Enforcement

by | Sep 28, 2020 | Community Organizing | 0 comments

Ethical Reform of American Policing

My pathway into law enforcement began unexpectedly as a ‘you got no choice’ assignment during my enlistment in the U.S. Airforce during the Vietnam War.  Upon discharge, I began my California peace officer career in the mid-1970s in the San Francisco Bay Area, a choice I made primarily to support and provide for my young family.  As a youth in Shreveport, Louisiana, I excelled at music, with aspirations of becoming a music teacher—but that’s another story.

During the 1970s, in California and around the Nation, the philosophy and management concept of community policing was experiencing a nascent revival, with much public and professional emphasis on de-escalation in the use of force.  Building trust by respectfully working closely with all citizens in all communities being served and protected was its primary goal.   Professional and legally certified peace officer standards and training requirements reflected this emphasis, though the founding principles of law enforcement were not conveyed as indoctrination throughout the policing profession.

This more humanistic approach (i.e. less-lethal force) was well-considered and promulgated in the late 60s and beyond by law enforcement leaders like Ramsey Clark, United States Attorney General, 1966-1969, whose statements and perspective at the time were controversial to some in the profession and the country. Clark was a powerful proponent of community policing in partnership with citizens.  He wrote, “Law enforcement was once a relatively simple task. Times have changed. Perhaps no activity in modern society is more complex—calls for as many skills—as police work.” Studies and research show that when policing became mobile, where a single officer could handle many more calls for service than an officer on foot, this was generally regarded as when police departments began losing important personal interaction with the local citizenry for greater (response) efficiency. Chief August Volmer of the Berkeley police department was the first to use automobiles in policing. Later, Vollmer adapted radios to police units, creating even greater response efficiency.

In context, it is important to point out that full-time professional policing is still a relatively new idea—less than 200 years old.  Before the 1829 establishment of “Peel’s Principles of Law Enforcement”—nine principles summarizing the ideas and work of Sir Robert Peel and the British Parliament. Peel created the first organized police force in England, that defined highly ethical and professional police officers where the military had been responsible for law enforcement previously. http://www.vcpionline.org/pdfs/Peel%27s%20Principles.pdf Peel’s ideas were based on ‘preventing’ crime by developing and instilling police forces with professional officers who were even-tempered, reserved, intelligent, unbiased, and under government control.

The foundation for contemporary policing in America comes essentially from Peel’s England where, during early colonization, American citizens (themselves) were responsible for law enforcement in their communities (kin police). Citizen law enforcement has evolved many times over America’s history with both positive and negative effects (i.e. slave patrols) on a diverse people and their communities.  There are also claims that the modern police department was born out of the desire of the wealthy to restructure society. The swelling population of urban poor, whose minimal wages could hardly sustain them, heightened the need for police protection.

When I was introduced to community policing as an academy trainee, I found the idea of valuing all citizens and treating them with respect regardless of skin color, gender, religion, etc., miraculous based on my personal cultural experiences.  I believe in these principles into these troubling times. The strong desire to serve human kind and to help people is the behavior most required in a peace officer.  Without that natural human emotional capacity, along with not knowing or understanding one of the prime directives of law enforcement, that of allegiance to the people, has been lost in some socially argumentative quagmire.  Former FBI Director, James Comey said, “All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty.  At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”

Comey continues, “There is significant research showing that all people have unconscious racial biases.  Most cannot help their instinctive reactions, but law enforcement officers need to ‘design systems and processes’ to overcome that very human part of us all.”  James Comey, F.B.I. Director, 2015

Empowering Aggrieved Communities and the Exemplary Peace Officer Model

Today, the most intense, highly publicized, and visceral grievance (among many citizens) regarding law enforcement in America derives from the many fatal shootings of unarmed African American young men, boys, older men, and women. These shootings continue in situation after situation where reasoning and logic does not support the much-used claim, certified by the Supreme Court, ‘I was afraid for my life.’ This deadly form of apparent immunity regarding these shootings goes on and on, seemingly without end. Prosecutions of police officers in most shooting investigations, has yielded few convictions.  And yes, police shoot all kinds of people.

To find realistic and honest remedies to outcries from grieving families, diverse politicians, and social and political activists, body cameras were deployed, and these cameras are documenting much of what is happening in varying incidents. But, the effect of video recordings has not resolved what a lot of people think is wrong. I doubt the Supreme Court (Tennessee v Garner, 1985 and Graham v Conner, 1989) intended to allow the use of blunt or deadly force because a detained or in-custody subject or suspect was reaching for a wallet or vehicle registration from their person or vehicle, when requested by the officer. There are a lot of guns out there that cops must worry about, but such a policy would neutralize the prosecutorial and judicial functions whose role and solemn duties are to determine guilt or innocence and appropriate penalties. 

In 2009, the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) and the Josephson Institute of Ethics (JIE) developed a basic academy training course for building and maintaining career-long police ethics training to allow peace officer trainees in the basic academy to strengthen their character by adapting knowledge, abilities, and skills to become an Exemplary Peace Officer (EPO). An EPO is excellent-an exemplary model. http://lib.post.ca.gov/Publications/EPOII.pdf  EPO training reinforces respectful treatment, making good versus bad decisions and applying intelligent and objective judgment. This excellence should translate into better community service and a safer, more successful, and more enjoyable career for officers. This is relevant to current concerns and the divisiveness about policies guiding peace officers use of force.  

Career peace officers most often do not receive continuous career long training the principles of law enforcement. The dedicated promulgation and reinforcement of the ethics and values enshrined in Peel’s Principles of law enforcement affirms their understanding of the principle of allegiance to the people. Using just the force necessary to obtain compliance and no more, and dedication to the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence, upon which democratic citizen policing is founded are essential to the purpose of protecting the public.  Over time, the courts have given police associations (now unions) the right to organize to support and protect peace officers from harsh and punitive administrative and judicial judgement.  There are instances today in which the balance has swung too far. Unions now contribute money to political campaigns. I understand the historical reasons for union protectionism, but the arguments can be intensely one-sided regarding the subject officer(s) even when the facts dispute the claims. This is disturbing to the American people.  Common sense dictates that ethical and long- standing principles do not support having politicized police forces. Not to mention, that many African American victims of police excessive force and excessive intimidation are taxpayers.

The California POST Commission, the Josephson Institute of Ethics, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and all law enforcement leaders and training organizations around the country, must establish uniform nationwide standards for instituting certified in-service EPO training to be taught at regular intervals to police administrators and peace officers, and not just during the basic academy. Our leaders must adapt and demonstrate the ethical values of community policing. We know that leaders at all levels of government and chiefs of police, must be establish and maintain a renewed commitment and sense of direction, alongside the dedication and unshakable allegiance of peace officers and organizations to their communities in the name of peace, protection and our time worn principles. Leaders must be fluent and emphatic supporters of law enforcement values and principles. This is the highest ethical value of the community and the public safety profession. It is a monumental task to realign American public safety and ensure this alignment is the true mission of policing. This represents a kind of ‘back to the future’ process where exemplary policing, based on the principle of prevention, is established effectively and permanently. Many police agencies around the nation genuinely practice community policing and work hard, if not uniquely, to follow the founding principles of law enforcement. These principles must be revered, practiced, and adopted by all of law enforcement. This profession is about much more than providing for one’s family.

American historian and policy analyst Michael Auslin writes:  “…an American public ignorant of public policy and how government works, instead of following merely the most artfully packaged disinformation from leaders of both parties & a partisan press while more interested in sports and entertainment, is complicit in the attenuation of its freedom.” 

Here’s to a more safe, just and equitable society.

Submitted by:

Calvin Handy

Chief of Police, Emeritus

University of California Davis

University of California, Berkeley


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