Policemen often face a difficult decision every day on their beat: loyalty to their community versus loyalty to their fellow officers. Many departments have officers swear an oath to serve and protect without allowing "personal feelings, prejudices, animosities, or friendships" influence their actions. On the other hand, as policemen work alongside each other in the trenches, a "cop code" develops in which they often hide information and maintain a code of silence to protect fellow officers. These conflicting agendas have social consequences.
Police Code of Ethics
Generally, the law enforcement code of ethics is composed of three parts. The first part concerns equal protection. Police officers must enforce the law regardless of the race, sex, class, or identity of the offender. Secondly, police must follow the law themselves. Civil liberties cannot be violated. Thirdly, they are held to a moral standard above and beyond that of many members of the public. They are not allowed to use their power for personal gain or live immorally.
Instead of practicing a professional code of ethics, some cops develop a personal code of ethics in which loyalty to their fellow officers trumps serving and protecting the community. This tribal mentality can be attributed to three causes. First of all, police officers are an identifiable group with uniforms, badges and guns. Secondly, this group shares a common way of life. They share similar dangers, setbacks, and rewards that outsiders rarely see outside of the movies. Thirdly, these dangers foster an "us against them" mentality not just against criminals but politicians, bureaucrats and concerned citizens who are perceived as impediments to enforcing the law.
Code of Silence
A strong police subculture often might produce a "cop code" or "code of silence." When a policeman hides evidence, brutalizes a suspect, or breaks a law to enforce another, his fellow officers either ignore or assist transgressions of their professional code of ethics. One of the more famous incidents of law enforcement run amok involved the Rampart scandal in which dozens of Los Angeles Police Department officers engaged in unprovoked shootings, beatings, drug dealing and faking evidence.
The "Cop Code"
If a community senses that its officers do not play by the rules, it fosters a sense of distrust and disrespect of the police department. In minority neighborhoods, citizens often begin to regard the police as a front for racial discrimination. As a result, they become less cooperative with police in helping them solve crimes. In extreme cases, such as the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, civil unrest might also occur.
Measures to Foster Ethical Policing
A strong internal affairs division at a police department as well as community organizations such as the ACLU and other watchdog groups often help law enforcement keep itself free of corruption and misconduct. Moreover, many departments have also begun to do more intensive background and psychological screenings of potential policemen to weed out individuals with anti-social personalities.
Noel Lawrence has written on cultural affairs and cinema for Release Print and OtherZine since 2000. He holds a graduate degree in Russian literature from Stanford University and currently lives in Los Angeles.