9 steps to keeping your cop ethics in check

If complacency can kill us physically, what role does ethical complacency play in ending a police officer’s career?


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By Kevin Earl, P1 Contributor

We often read about police officers who destroy their careers through ethical lapses that make us ask, “What the hell were they thinking?” The answer is they were not thinking with an ethical survival mindset. Going home safely to our families and loved ones is the priority for all law enforcement personnel, and the need for officer survival training is clear. However, are we preparing ourselves on a daily basis for ethical survival? If complacency can kill us physically, what role does ethical complacency play in ending careers? These are the questions that only you – the officer – can answer.

What is ethical survival?

Developing an ethical survival mindset has the potential to save your reputation, your career and your life. (Photo/Pixabay)
Developing an ethical survival mindset has the potential to save your reputation, your career and your life. (Photo/Pixabay)

Survival is defined as continuing to live or exist, typically in spite of an accident, ordeal or difficult circumstance. An officer survival mindset focuses on a cop’s physical and mental safety and survival. This mindset is built through training, field experience and personal practice.

Ethical survival takes a different approach from officer survival, as it is aimed at saving an officer’s career. Ethical survival focuses on personal accountability, a conscious recognition of potential ethical challenges, and the development of personal ethical strengths required to overcome the adverse and unusual ethical dilemmas police officers encounter. This definition is predicated on an acceptance that officers are fallible and, over time, can become complacent in their ethical preparation.

The numbers don’t lie

The need for an ethical survival mindset is clear when you compare the number of officers killed annually to the number of officers entered into the National Decertification Index.

In 2011, 71 law enforcement officers nationwide were killed feloniously. In the same year, over 1,350 officers were entered into the National Decertification Index.

We need to look at ethical survival in the same way we address line-of-duty deaths: What can we learn from these incidents and how do we prevent ourselves from making the same mistakes?

How to improve ethics in policing

Developing an ethical survival mindset is critical for career survival, as being complacent about ethics could end your police career. Here are 9 easy steps to follow taken from suggestions made by police officers during ethics training courses.

1. Engage in ethical pre-planning

We play the “when/then” game when training for officer survival. We can apply this same process to ethics, preparing ourselves ahead of time for potential ethical challenges. It is impossible to plan for every possible scenario, but ethical preparation improves our chances of ethical survival.

2. Avoid ethical complacency

The Below 100 training program stresses that cops should not be complacent about officer safety; we need the same focus to prevent ethical complacency, which can kill your career the same as a bullet.

3. Consider the consequences

Clearly understand and fear the consequences of police misconduct. The internet is full of websites that provide information on how police officers get in trouble and the consequences they face (loss of career, jail and prison, and embarrassment for themselves and their families). Examine these stories and consider how you would act under the same set of circumstances. Keep in mind that cops do not fare well in prison.

4. Put up ethics reminders

Placing ethics reminders where you will see them keeps ethical conduct in the forefront of your mind. The Law Enforcement Oath of Honor, Code of Ethics and other short ethical reminders are ideal. Small cards with values such as integrity, legacy and accountability are easy to create.

5. Remember your meaning and purpose

Ask yourself: What was my ethical purpose in entering law enforcement, and am I living that meaning and purpose today? This question gets you thinking about your current ethical state of mind and areas of improvement.

6. Think, and then act

Many acts of misconduct occur when an officer is confronted by an unexpected ethical challenge. Unlike an immediate officer safety decision, you can usually slow down to make an ethical decision. When you are not certain what to do, stop to consider your options. Think it through. Phone a friend. Get help in making the decision. Remember you are not alone in this profession and a moment of consultation with a supervisor or trusted peer may prevent you from making an ethical mistake with far-reaching consequences.

7. Set high ethical standards

This is a personal focus on your own ethical standards. We need to develop our own personal integrity (also called “moral fortitude”). This includes staying focused on ethical best thinking, not compromising our ethics and refusing to act unethically. Set high ethical standards for yourself and never lower them.

8. Be a role model

New officers watch senior officers and FTOs to see how they handle situations and decisions that pose ethical dilemmas. Positive ethical role models can shape younger officers, who are the future of our profession. Be that role model.

9. Make the decision to act ethically

You need to make a conscious decision to act ethically regardless of the circumstances. Refuse to act unethically, and support this with your behavior and actions.

Ethics is an intensely personal and, in many ways, sensitive topic for police officers. Developing an ethical survival mindset has the potential to save your reputation, your career and your life. Leave a legacy of professionalism and ethics to pass on to those you influence. Protecting our communities as a police officer is a calling, a privilege and an honor. Remember all who have come before you, and uphold the high standards they have set.


About the author
Officer Kevin Earl has served for the past 20 years with the Washoe County School District Police Department in Reno, Nevada. He is certified as a master instructor through the California POST Instructor Development Institute, and has completed the Ethics Instructor Certification Course through the National Institute for Ethics. Kevin is currently completing his PhD in Public Service Leadership through Capella University. His dissertation topic focuses on the effects of peer officer relational and ethical leadership on the ethical climate within law enforcement organizations. 

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