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Brian Willis is a retired officer, trainer and author who now serves as deputy executive director for the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA).

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Doug Wyllie

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William Harvey

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Teaching the Police Ethos

Present ethics in a positive, non-accusatory way and the topic won't tick off officers.

October 30, 2012  |  by John A. Bertetto

CC_Flickr: Brett Jordan
CC_Flickr: Brett Jordan

If you were to ask, you'd likely find that nine out of 10 police officers took the job for altruistic reasons: service, duty, integrity, and honor. These principles are hallmarks of the job and prerequisites for a successful, professional law enforcement career. If you were to ask about ethics or ethics training, however, you'd be just as likely to find nine out of 10 officers who are immediately turned off.

Mention an ethics training discussion or video and you'll get everything from the rolling of eyes or a long exhalation all the way to outright vocal disdain. It should be curious to law enforcement managers why such a sharp disparity between two wholly similar topics exists. How can our officers, who took the job for its inherent principles, be so opposed to discussing or being trained about those principles? The problem is not with the officers' mindset, but with the training itself.

Bad Training Methods

Ethics training as it currently exists in most forms is fundamentally flawed and will never be as successful as we'd like it to be. This is for two primary reasons. First, the most common way we teach ethics is by listing a series of prohibited acts of conduct and advising officers to abstain from them. Even in scenario-based ethics training, the end lesson is typically stated in an "Officers will not…" format. If the end result is to bring about a positive change in officer conduct or organizational culture, why do we teach through the use of negatives?

You cannot create a positive outcome by stressing a negative. You may get compliance, but compliance is a surface-level adaptation. To achieve deeper resonance and to truly affect what an individual believes, you must make deeper contact within the individual.

Second, listing a series of prohibited conducts creates a subtle insinuation that, without having been specifically admonished not to do these things, officers may have done them. When speaking to a group it's imperative that you know your audience. If your audience is police officers, who have voluntarily taken a job that is fundamentally based on ethical conduct, to insinuate that their conduct may be anything but ethical is offensive. Your officers may not consciously be aware of this insinuation, but they certainly can sense it, and this is why they so often treat ethical training sessions with skepticism or resentment.

Good Training Methods

How, then, is the law enforcement manager to teach ethics? The answer is two-fold. First, ethics training should be viewed as reinforcement of existing personal conduct and organizational culture. Ethics training is never something that is done to "create change" or "improve morale." Rather, it is something that details tradition. Ethics training, coupled with agency history, reinforces the fact that the job has always been about service, duty, integrity, and honor. Each officer's career is one more link in that traditional chain.

Ethics must also be taught as a series of affirmative personal traits rather than prohibited acts of personal conduct. The emphasis is not on what an officer should not do, nor is emphasis on what acts officers should do. Ethical training should focus on what an individual officer is.

Ethics, as a word, has developed a negative connotation for most officers; mention the word and it triggers a mentally negative response. Because of this, the word itself should be dismissed from our training lexicon. Fortunately, there is another word that not only can fill the void, but is as a definition exactly what is needed: ethos.

The Warrior Ethos

An ethos is the character or set of values unique to a specific person, people, culture, or movement. Law enforcement is undoubtedly a culture, and as a professional culture we already identify and accept the values of loyalty, duty, respect, service, honor, integrity, and courage. As a culture, however, what we have not done is successfully codify these values into a universally accepted and trainable doctrine. This is where the development of a defined Police Ethos is needed.

By translating our cultural value set into a short series of affirmative statements that describe who we are, we reinforce those values in each officer at a personal level. Officers can read or hear these statements, stand straight, square their jaws, and say, "This is who I am."

A codified ethos is not a unique concept. The United States Army has had an explicit Warrior Ethos for decades. The question has been asked, however, if such a defined ethos is needed in a modern age. Do advancing technologies, new policing strategies based on social sciences, or changes in societal values relegate a defined ethos to history?

In 1999 Major David Buckingham asked that very question. In his study "The Warrior Ethos," Buckingham studied the Army to determine if any specific traits existed that were unique to the military and separated their culture from the remaining civilian population. His research identified five specific traits that he called "warrior distinctives":

Discipline: the controlled behavior resulting from training and a state of order based on submission to rules and authority.

Cohesion: the process of two or more elements cohering and the end result of two or more elements that are held together.

Sacrifice: The willingness to give up a part or all of one's self to others or to a cause.

Strength: The ability to resist stress or strain.

Authority: The right or power to give commands, enforce obedience, or to take action. Authority may be legal or moral.

It takes little effort or imagination to see how each of these "distinctives" applies to law enforcement culture. Taken individually, these traits exist to varying degrees in many cultures, but taken as a whole they separate our profession — and our officers — from the larger civilian population. Based upon this, it is clear that a dedicated and defined ethos remains both valid and necessary for defining and training an ethical law enforcement organizational culture.

Sharing identical distinctives, we need not search long or hard to find an ethos. Adapting the Army's Warrior Ethos is an easy way to take what has been proven historically successful and formatting it to meet our own cultural needs. The Police Ethos consists of five statements:

I Will Always Place the Needs of the Community Before My Own

I Will Always Preserve the Honor and Integrity of the Police Officer

I Will Never Accept Defeat

I Will Never Quit

I Will Never Fail My Fellow Officer

I Will Always Place the Needs of the Community Before My Own

Our primary mission is to ensure the safety and security of the communities we serve. The community is not the obstacle to our mission, they are our mission. Before we see to our own needs, we must first attend to theirs.

Though our mission is to ensure the safety of the community before our own, this does not mean that we are reckless. As has been often said, though, we run to the sound of gunfire while others run away. It is this spirit that this ethos statement claims.

I Will Always Preserve the Honor and Integrity of the Police Officer

The decision to become an officer is an honorable one, and is indicative of the honor inherent in every law enforcement officer. A key to this statement is to remember this selfless decision, even as the years go by.

Our actions are always honorable, and we perform our duties with the highest degree of integrity. As officers, our actions are unbiased, and we enforce the laws fairly and impartially. We will never take any action that may reflect negatively upon our own honor and integrity or the honor and integrity of our profession.

I Will Never Accept Defeat; I Will Never Quit

At first glance these two statements appear redundant, but they mean two different things. In order to be defeated, an event must have come to some conclusion. An officer does not accept defeat, but will continue to seek new avenues for success, new investigative angles to pursue, or new corners to search.

If an action has been quit, it was done so during an event. Officers will never quit, but will pursue an offender tirelessly, be that pursuit a paper investigation or a foot chase.

The most critical aspect of these two ethos statements, however, is the one thing they share. Both represent decisions. You must decide to be defeated and you must decide to quit. These two statements accomplish two things. They remove these options from the officer's decision-making process. Also, these two decisions are recognized so that supervisors and commanders may design officer training in a manner that removes these options as part of the decision-making process.

I Will Never Fail My Fellow Officer

At first glance this statement is obvious: We rely on each other. We back each other up on the street and come to each other's aid in times of personal need.

There is another, deeper meaning in this statement, and it is listed last on purpose. Failure to live up to the preceding ethos statements is a failure to your fellow officers. If an officer puts personal benefit before the community, if an officer lacks integrity, if an officer accepts defeat or quits, the officer has failed his or her fellow officers. All officers must live the Police Ethos, or they have failed their fellow officers. This statement makes it clear: Failure in any form is not an option.

Law enforcement is an inherently noble profession, making those who pursue it persons of integrity. Rather than conducting "ethics training" that implies a potential individual predisposition to unethical conduct, training should focus on reaffirming officer character. Tying character to agency tradition creates a powerful, personal message that will affect organizational culture and personal conduct in a way that prohibitive lists of conduct never will. The Police Ethos provides a valuable tool for training that is personal enough to affect officers individually while simultaneously affirming an ethical organizational culture.

John A. Bertetto is a sworn member of the Chicago Police Department. He is the co-author of "Toward a Police Ethos: Defining Our Values as a Call to Action" and "Designing Law Enforcement: Adaptive Strategies for the Complex Environment." Officer Bertetto holds a Master of Science degree from Western Illinois University and a Master of Business Administration from St. Xavier University.

Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

Ajs @ 10/30/2012 5:54 PM


Bob @ VA @ 10/31/2012 6:24 AM

Excellent approach! The Air Force breaks it down to three elements: 1) Integrity first; 2) Service before self; and 3) Excellence in all we do.

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