The Business of Practice

Ethical Issues in Law Enforcement

Police ethics encompass moral values and professional standards in law enforcement. Ethical values in policing include allegiance, honesty, loyalty, and courage. The law enforcement ethics code was written in 1957 and requires adherence by those individuals upholding the law. However, this code can often create ethical issues or dilemmas for officers. 


Ethical Issues in Law Enforcement

When Do Issues Arise?

Issues may arise when:

  • An officer is unaware of the correct course of action
  • An officer is aware of the correct course of action, but it is difficult for them to engage in
  • The wrong course of action is tempting

While in a controlled environment, the answer to ethical dilemmas may appear simple, but the reality is that in a split second, police officers must make incredibly challenging decisions. Ethical challenges, of course, exist in all professional fields; however, those in law enforcement may face complex challenges that have the potential for harmful events.


Modern Day Ethical Issues in Law Enforcement

  • Off-Duty Life
  • Necessary Force
  • Acting Impartially
  • Profiling

Off-Duty Life:

Police officers are held to a high standard in their personal lives to reflect the integrity of their professional position. Law-enforcement personnel are under constant scrutiny, and their profession relies on the public's trust. Therefore, even when they are not working, they must maintain a high level of ethical and socially acceptable behavior. They must strictly abide by the law even after their workday ends. Officers must lead by example on and off duty. 

Necessary Force:

The Black Lives Matter movement highlights society's widespread concern over the use of excessive force by police officers. Failing to act quickly or acting too swiftly and escalating a situation at hand are real possibilities and can place the officer and civilian at risk of danger. Therefore, law enforcement must have sharp critical thinking skills. When questioning a police officer's ethics, we question their decision-making skills. When an officer's professional decision-making is challenged, the perception of diminished integrity and a lack of trust and respect for our police are at risk. For more information on the use of force, check out our training on Police Use of Force: What Psychologists Need to Know, presented by Mark Zelig, Ph.D., ABPP, in partnership with the American Board of Police and Public Safety Psychology (ABPPSP).

Acting Impartially: 

Officers may be limited in their ability to uphold the law by following specific procedures. For example, an officer is aware of domestic violence but has no court-acceptable evidence to pursue the case. In addition, officers who work and live in small towns and frequently deal with the same people make it a challenge to be impartial. Finally, an officer may struggle when they are forced to act in the best interest of the state rather than an individual and make an arrest for a minor act that could result in imprisonment, fines, job loss, and a damaged social reputation, or more. Research has found that perceptions of biased policing were consistently related to worsened legitimacy across adolescence and into young adulthood. 


Assumptions and stereotypes are ubiquitous in modern-day society. These assumptions cause unfair racial or ethical profiling in everyday life. Although profiling has been a significant facet of policing for a long time, officers use their discretion and judgment to decide the best and most appropriate course of action based on individual cases. Officers should not make decisions based on biases; however, decisions are made in split seconds, and at times, unconscious beliefs and widespread societal opinions may take over. 

Mental Health Care for Police Officers:

The pressure and stress of a law enforcement career can impact officers’ lives and health. Due to the shame and stigma surrounding getting mental health care, police officers are not eager clients. It takes a lot for them to seek help and very little to turn them off. Understanding police culture and how it can affect individuals, couples, or families is beneficial as a clinician working with law enforcement personnel. There are differences and similarities between first responders and mental health professionals, and effective clinicians know what it takes, personally and professionally, to create strong therapeutic alliances. For more information, check out our on-demand professional training program on Cultural Diversity and Cultural Competence in Police & Public Safety Psychology presented by Joel Fay, PsyD, ABPP & Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D., in partnership with The American Board of Police and Public Safety Psychology (ABPPSP).


Ethics in law enforcement are critical. Police officers must perform their jobs in a responsible, ethical, and efficient way to control crime and police communities. Due to public scrutiny, law enforcement officers must safeguard the public’s trust to perform their jobs effectively. Lastly, as law enforcement personnel are held to a higher standard than professionals in other vocations, police agencies must follow and uphold a strict code of ethics. 

Police officers must understand how to resolve the dilemmas during their careers. Solutions must be founded on social ethical principles to prevent:

  • Suspicion of behaviors indicating bias
  • Social group dominance/supremacy
  • Espousing intolerance of or hostile action against a person or group because of actual or perceived characteristics

The public holds police officers to a high standard. Therefore, police ethics are separate from police department policies and procedures, ensuring that officers make decisions that do not break public trust and diminish credibility. Nevertheless, ethical decision-making is necessary so that law enforcement personnel will select a course of action that will yield the least harm to all parties involved. 

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