Novak, Police & Society 8e Student Resources

Accountability and Ethics

The police are the most visible representatives of the criminal justice system. They are feared and respected at the same time. However, the police are also human. Who has the responsibility of controlling police behavior?

The control of police behavior may occur in two fundamentally different ways. One way is through mechanisms of oversight. There are mechanisms that are internal to the police organization. These mechanisms include standard managerial processes, internal complaint reviews, body-worn cameras, and early warning systems.

Standard managerial processes would include written directives. Departmental policies, goals, objectives, procedures, and regulations should be a part of the written directives for a department. The directives provide guidance for the officers, outline expected standards of behavior, and give direction for training.

However, there are limitations of written directives. Much of police work is discretionary. The directives certainly could not cover every situation that the officer may encounter. The officer may be left to make a split-second decision without having directives for support.

Another mechanism is the internal investigation. It is the responsibility of internal affairs to respond to citizen complaints against police officers. Internal affairs would conduct investigations against the officer in much the same way as any other investigation conducted by a police agency. The investigation may reveal that the complaint was justified. This is a sustained complaint. An unsubstantiated complaint is one in which there is no supporting evidence. Unfounded complaints are those that did not occur as alleged by the complainant. If the officer’s behavior was justified and legal, then the officer will be exonerated.

If disciplinary action is taken against the officer, it may range from termination of employment to demotion, to probation, or reprimand.

There are several issues concerning internal investigations. Location and personnel, orientation of internal affairs units and sustained complaints may influence citizens and the filing of complaints. If an officer is disciplined, the officer has the right to appeal the action. This may take the form of grievance arbitration. One study found that grievance arbitration usually reduces the amount of discipline by 50 percent.

The third internal mechanism is early-warning or early-identification systems. Under this system, the officer’s behavior is monitored and management is notified when the behavior crosses the line.

Another set of oversight mechanisms are ones that are outside the police department. One such mechanism is the civilian review board. The history of civil review may be traced through three different eras. The first era (1960s) was at a time that reformers wanted politics removed from the police. The second era (1970s) saw increases in public concern about the criminal justice system and increases in public support for civil review. The third era (1980s) saw the establishment of civil review boards at a time that the police were no longer so suspicious of their presence.

Another external mechanism is the police auditor system. This mechanism focuses on the police department and the policies and procedures of the department. It does not focus on the individual citizen complaints.

A third external mechanism is legal control. This obviously would involve the use of the law, criminal, civil, and administrative, in the control of police behavior.

Other efforts to control police behavior may involve professional standards and ethical standards. The policing occupation has been moving toward professionalization. In order to be considered a profession, certain criteria must be met. Autonomy, a unique body of knowledge, education and training, certification, and a commitment to service are the criteria used to judge whether an occupation is a true profession.

Ethical standards are a very effective way of controlling behavior. The police have a code of ethics as something to be strived for. Given the unique nature of policing, one may look at the different ethical perspectives and how they may apply to police behavior. Ethical formalism places a moral worth on doing one’s duty. Ethical utilitarianism determines what is morally good or bad by the results of one’s actions. The ends are more important than the means. Ethical relativism approaches good and bad from the perspective that what is considered good varies with the particular values of the individual or group.

The professional and ethical standards may be limited when trying to control police behavior. First, the standards may be a good model but fail to have an impact on the day-to-day police behavior. The unique nature of policing may limit the effectiveness of the controls. The fact that policing is unpredictable limits that effectiveness. Third, justification for behavior may be applied to any of the ethical perspectives in such a way that the police will always be right. Lastly, there exists an informal code of ethics among police. This informal code may be used more in the day-to-day activities of the police.