Law enforcement component of the criminal justice system regarding ethics

There is hardly any society which is crime free. Incidences of rape, robbery with violence, murder, fraud, piracy, drug trafficking, human trafficking, terrorism, enslavement, carjacking, abduction, and mugging among other crimes are commonplace in all societies whether developed or developing. While the outcomes of criminal activities are indisputably regrettable and undesirable, crime is a reflection of the imperfect human nature and the shortcomings of the human-made socio-economic and political systems.

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Levels of crime in a given society indicate areas of the society where there is need for new legislation, amendment of existing criminal laws, or provision of extra punitive measures to curb and minimize crime. Since crime is inevitable, the government has a continuous constitutional responsibility of ensuring that levels of crime reduce to ensure development, and protection of citizens’ life, human rights and property. This responsibility is carried out via law enforcement agencies that charge suspected criminals through the criminal justice system. As such, law enforcement officers possess massive authority in the criminal justice system because have a role in determining who will enter the system and why. For this reason, the ethical challenges and dilemmas are countless. This is the subject of this essay.

Police Officer as Crime Fighter or Public Servant

The responsibility of the police in the American society has evolved tremendously. During this evolution, one of the most important concerns for the American society has been whether the police officers are crime fighters or public servants. When most Americans are asked what is the roles of the police in the society, most of them say it is to catch criminals or fight crime (Pollock, 2011). To most Americans, police officers are crime fighters because they see them largely as law enforcement officers or government officials charged with responsibility of preventing crime and enforcing criminal laws. According to Pollock (2011), Americans view of the police as fundamentally crime fighters is based on a number of presumptions. First, most Americans see criminals as the enemy of the society and as such, they are basically different from the good members of the society.  Second, most Americans see the police officers as the ‘soldiers’ whose role is to fight the enemy using any available and required means to control, apprehend, and punish them (Pollock, 2011).  Finally, Americans recognize and comprehend that the police are in a continuous fight. For this reason, police must have autonomy to make decisions, since it is them-not the American public-who are professionals and who know the enemy.

The designation of the police as crime fighters traces its roots to the initial professionalization efforts taken by pioneers such as August Vollmer during early twentieth century (Pollock, 2011). August is credited for initiating police reforms while he was the Marshal of Berkley. The reforms that he initiated gradually spread across the nation and ultimately led to police departments being regarded as expert crime fighters rather than political guns for hire (Pollock, 2011). By 1960s, police officers were largely seen as expert crime fighters.

Pollock observes that, even though the early twentieth century professionalization of police departments led to police officers being considered as expert crime fighters, professionalization also made them appear more like soldiers rather than public servants. This was because there were various factors that acted to tremendously alter their relationship with the community (Pollock, 2011). For instance, during the initial stages of police professionalization, police officers drove around in patrol vehicles rather than meeting and intermingling with ordinary citizens. In addition, police departments had extremely rigid stratums of bureaucracy that undermined their discretion when dealing with community problems. This was partly because professionalization of police led to the focus of police as crime fighters at the expense of maintaining order.

After the late 1960s civil protests that challenged police officers’ ability to maintain order, the evolution of police role started moving from a reactive profession towards public service (Pollock, 2011). In other words, the transformation of police departments moved toward a problem-oriented profession or community-based policing (CBP) (Perrot & Taylor, 1995). This turn of events eschewed the role of crime fighter to that of a public service provider (Cole & Smith, 2007). For example, today, police officers provide a wide range of services to the community particularly low-income earners such as first aid, rescuing animals, assisting the disoriented among others.   Crime prevention is also a major unit of police services to the society.   After 1960s’ civil protests, professionalization re-emphasized objectivity, specialized training, and professional expertise (Pollock, 2011). Such line of evolution of the role of police has led to movement toward public service ethics since the basis for public service is ethics. Hence, like other public servants, police are currently expected to deliver their services in a way that expresses good intent. However, unlike other public servants they are faced by far more ethical dilemmas.

Discretion and the Use of Force

The police officers are essentially force personified. They are a reflection of the executive’s arm of government monopoly to use coercion in public policy implementation. Theoretically, use of force refers to police officers’ permission to use reasonable coercion where necessary, to facilitate implementation of their mandate and execution of public policies by other agencies of the executive arm. In reality, police officers have not always or do not always use what can be regarded as reasonable force in the eyes of ordinary citizens. In 1960s, the police officers were seen on TV using dogs and high-pressure hot water on peaceful protesters.   During the race riots in the north, the police were seen as an embodiment of a white force for oppressing blacks. In fact, the present day antagonism between police departments and urban minorities trace its roots to this and earlier phases during the evolution of police departments (Pollock, 2011).

The police departments across the country wields substantial authority because of their discretion in determining who is brought into the criminal justice system and why (Pollock, 200). Discretion in law enforcement context refers to the ability to select between two or more lines of action regarding a given crime and case. Since, the jury relies considerably on evidence in establishing whether an accused in any criminal case is guilty or not, the police officers carries out the significant duty of preparing evidence for the prosecuting lawyers (Cole & Smith, 2007).

The strength of the evidence brought to the table of the prosecuting attorney by the police determines how well it can withstand rebuttals from the defense and thus the outcome of any given case. Police officers possess massive authority in the criminal justice system because they decide when to file a statement or not, to respond to a call or not, to end or investigate or not. Their use of this discretion is similar to matter constituting personal ethics. This is actually the genesis of all the ethical dilemmas and challenges the police officers collectively and as individual officers. Any deliberate decision to use their authority contrary to what is professionally permissible engenders corruption and deviance. According to Pollock (2011), the terms duty, discretion and discrimination in policing context go hand in hand.   Discrimination takes place when an individual or group is treated specially by the police deciding an appropriate line action to take without any justifiable reason Pollock (2011). These terms are used together in police studies because they make clear the issue of determining the right line of action to take when it is so frequent that in policing there is no precisely right thing to do.

Type of Corruption

Corruption is a thorny issue that has been associated with police departments since the initial stages of the evolution of the role of police in the society.   Corruption refers to the use of one’s position and power for material or nonmaterial gain at the expense of others especially less privileged. It is a subcategory of immorality and all forms of corruption are a subcategory of immorality (Pollock, 2011). However, it is important to note that, not all immorality is corruption and not all immoral deeds can be said to be corrupt acts. For example, a minor breach of law by a police officer might be regarded as immoral without being a corrupt act. Similarly, negligent acts may be immoral, without being corrupt acts.

To be precise, a peak of corruption in the policing profession was witnessed during early twentieth century, a period that is critical in the history of evolution of the role of police.   During the first half of twentieth century police training was insufficient and police officers were paid poorly (Pollock, 2011). Because of poor pay and appalling working conditions, corruption was rampant and has been prevalent until when police officers remuneration terms started improving. The police officers used their authority and position for graft. Common types of corruption in policing include bribery, and favoritism. As regards favoritism,   police officers have been seen serving faithfully only those in power. They have also been involved in selective application of law where parties involved are from the economically endowed stratum of the society, or friends (Pollock, 2011).

Explanations of Deviance

Deviance in policing context refers to behaviour that is not in harmony with police culture’s values and norms. The police department has evolved into an important organization with an organizational culture that comprises of a set of norms and values. The dos and don’ts of the police departments are critical to ensuring that policing is an ethical profession. The norms of police culture are significant to ensuring that policing is an ethical profession which delivers its services to the public in a way that expresses the public intent.   Observance of the values and norms of police culture by the officers enables the profession to portray itself as a public service provider and not exclusively as a crime fighting profession. In fact, deviance to the norms and values that constitutes police culture may be the basis of unethical conduct in the profession.



Cole, G. F. & Smith, C. E. (2007). Criminal Justice in America. New York, NY: Cengage Learning.

Perrott, S. B. &Taylor, D. M. (1995).Crime Fighting, Law enforcement and Service Provider Role Orientations in Community-Based Police Officers. American Journal of Police, 14(3), 173 – 195.

Pollock, J.M. (2011).Crime and Justice in America: An Introduction to Criminal Justice. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Pollock, J.M. (2011).Ethical Dilemmas and Decisions in Criminal Justice. New York, NY:
Cengage Learning.


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