If you are thinking of becoming a police officer, there are key values and qualities that you will need to embrace and uphold, both in your professional role and as a member of your community. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) follows what is referred to as the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, originally adopted at the 64th Annual IACP Conference and Exposition in October 1957. The Code of Ethics informs the fundamental values embraced by police forces around the world and stands as a preface to the mission and commitment that law enforcement agencies make to the public they serve.
What does the law enforcement code of ethics say?
The code of ethics identifies the fundamental duty of a police officer as a commitment:
“to serve the community; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality, and justice.”
The IACP Oath of Honor further reiterates what is expected of police officials, stating:
“On my honor, I will never betray my integrity, my character, or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions. I will always maintain the highest ethical standards and uphold the values of my community and the agency I serve.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the code also refers to officers’ private lives and the importance of being an example to others at all times and behaving with honesty, integrity, and self-restraint in both official and private capacities. The emphasis is on serving the public and also on having a strong and exemplary character, both when on duty and off. Therefore, it is important to consider the commitment to join any law enforcement agency as something that impacts both your private and professional lives.
Policing in North America
In the US, the motto of the police is widely accepted as being “To Protect and to Serve” which, in fact, started out as the official motto of the LAPD Police Academy. Traditionally, it was kept constantly before the officers in training and held up as the aim and purpose of their profession. With the passing of time, the motto received wider exposure and acceptance throughout the department and is now often seen as the core value of police officers throughout the USA.
In addition, the United States Department of Justice sets out some of the core values that should guide the actions of those working in law enforcement. These include honesty and integrity, the pursuit of excellence, cooperation and partnership, and accountability to the taxpayer.
While the basis of policing in the US and Canada is similar, there are also differences. As a Commonwealth country, Canada tends to follow a community-based policing strategy that has far more in common with policing tactics in the UK and other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia, than those seen in the US.
It is perhaps telling that while those in the US refer to a ‘police force’, in Canada, the terminology is officially a ‘police service’. While this may not seem that significant, it is an indication of how the philosophy and values behind policing are very different in the two countries.
The way that the law is enforced is another big difference. Canadian police enact the single Canadian federal criminal code, which is the same throughout all provinces and territories, whereas, in the US, each state has its own criminal code, which may or may not be different from the American federal criminal code. This means that police training, police practices, and investigative policies are standardized across Canada, which is not the case in the US.
There is also a structural difference due to the number of law enforcement agencies. In Canada, there are fewer than 235 police services, whereas the US has 18,000 separate policing organizations in total. In the US, policing is still a growth career, with the need to recruit many more officers in the coming years. In Canada, where there is always ongoing recruitment to replace leaving and retiring officers, things are more stable.
There is also a difference when it comes to state (or provincial) versus federal power and responsibility in policing. Canada, of course, has the RCMP, which is a national police force, whose role is often not well understood outside of Canada. The RCMP enforces federal law but also has legal authority in all provinces and territories, so in practice, it provides policing services to provinces, municipalities, local communities, and other specific locations such as international airports.
In the US, there is no direct equivalent to Canada’s RMCP. As each state has its own criminal code, there is less standardization across the country, with police forces within each state tasked with upholding and enforcing the law as it applies in that state. This does not mean that there are no federal law enforcement agencies within the US. There are, in fact, several, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Department of Homeland Security, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the US Secret Service, and the US Marshall Service.
What key values do law enforcement officials need?
The core values set out by the US Department of Justice are:
- Equal Justice Under the Law – including enforcing laws fairly and uniformly to ensure that all Americans receive equal protection and justice under the law.
- Access to Justice – which involves ensuring that the Federal justice system is accessible and fair to all and that court proceedings take place free of intimidation or fear of violence.
- Honesty and Integrity – adhering to the highest standards of ethical behavior.
- Pursuit of Excellence – with a commitment to the highest possible levels of achievement and service.
- Accountability to the Taxpayer – which includes the measurement and reporting of progress toward achieving goals.
- Cooperation and Partnership – while respecting the independence of the judiciary and the interdependence of all other components of the justice system.
- Importance of the Individual – with a commitment to the personal well-being and professional development of all employees.
- Openness in Government – including communication with the public in an open and candid way, along with actively seeking outside views and responsiveness to requests for information.
- Public Safety – in partnership with local law enforcement and other community agencies and businesses to help make communities safer places to live.
What qualities do law enforcement officials need?
There are various qualities that law enforcement officials throughout the world should ideally possess. Law enforcement officials at all levels need to demonstrate the following qualities:
- Excellent interpersonal skills and the ability to deal with a wide range of different types of people. Much modern-day policing is community-based and can involve diffusing tensions, minimizing conflict, addressing questions and concerns from members of the community, acknowledging differing points of view, and facilitating compromise. In addition, police officers often have to work with other members of the police service, including other police officers, civilian employees, and auxiliary officers, to address issues and find solutions
- An understanding of diversity. Police officers often work in diverse communities. Law enforcement officials need to be sensitive to the needs of those communities and the individuals within them, providing appropriate and equitable services to all involved, and sometimes finding creative resolutions to complex problems involving diverse members of the public.
- Communication skills are also vital, including both verbal and written skills. Reporting procedures in police services are vital, and meticulous care and attention to detail are required. Officers are expected to have the skills needed to ensure that internal and external communications are clearly understood by all involved.
- Strong organizational skills, including the ability to assess situations, identify priorities, deal efficiently with a variety of competing tasks, allocate resources efficiently and effectively, and attend to detail in addressing a wide range of issues.
- Problem-solving, often under pressure. Officers need the ability to quickly assess current circumstances, which may sometimes be dangerous, potentially dangerous, or liable to escalate rapidly into potentially dangerous situations. Sound judgment, decision-making, and the ability to quickly identify possible solutions or mitigating actions, are vital. Officers must learn to make decisions under pressure based on all known facts about the situation.
- Flexibility and the ability to adapt quickly to evolving situations. Police officers must have the ability to be flexible, while also making firm decisions on the next action step as a situation evolves, showing decisive leadership every step of the way and adjusting the approach as required, especially in fast-developing, ever-changing scenarios.
- A conscientious attitude and a commitment to serving the community with honesty and integrity. Those serving as law enforcement officers need to be fully accountable for their decisions and responsible for their actions. They must maintain the highest ethical standards and act in a way that never breaches the trust others in the agency, and the wider community have in them. Self-discipline, a sense of duty, and a strong moral compass are vital in the role of a police officer.
- Initiative is also required at every level of the job. While many members of the public may associate being a police officer with following orders from superiors, all officers must also demonstrate the ability to respond to situations and take appropriate action based on their own judgment.
- Determination and decisiveness, often in very challenging circumstances. Police officers must be able to make firm decisions while staying flexible in changing circumstances and commit to a course of action, staying on task to completion, often in the face of new, developing challenges, unforeseen obstacles, or other trying and unpredictable circumstances.
- Recall and attention to detail are understandably vital to the role. It is part of the job to be able to observe, remember and recall a range of important information about an event, including people, vehicles, and environmental details. Observation of developing situations, crime scenes, and other scenarios within the community is also an essential skill
- The ability to effectively manage stress, control emotions, and think clearly. First-rate officers have the ability and dedication needed to work well under pressure, maintaining clarity of thought and self-control while dealing with a combination of stressors, such as risk to self, the need to protect the public, uncertainty, ambiguity, and fatigue.
Can these qualities be developed?
While police agencies will be aiming to recruit those who have already demonstrated these qualities to some extent, there is no doubt that the education and training involved in becoming a police officer will be aimed at further developing the key values and important qualities needed for the role.
If you are interested in becoming a police officer, there are routes into the career direct from high school, or from other work backgrounds, as well as education programs you may be interested in. There are also continuing education and professional development opportunities aimed at those already working within the police service.
Both aspiring and serving police officers who are already working in policing and other relevant fields can, in fact, study law in Canada via the BA in Policing available from Wilfrid Laurier University, with an emphasis on working specifically within law enforcement. Officers can choose to complete this program, rather than a traditional law degree, and it will assist them in acquiring or further developing all the key values, competencies, and qualities needed to be successful in a law enforcement role.
In short, the values and competencies needed to take on a role in a law enforcement agency are many and varied. While recruitment processes will certainly focus on finding individuals with the right key values and qualities, the development of these is built into the training that new recruits must undergo, as well as the education programs that serve those who are aiming to work in law enforcement.
Those hoping for a career in the sector can certainly benefit from taking some time to reflect and self-assess, considering if they hold and embrace these key values important to a career in law enforcement. Many would agree that a commitment to such values is essential to serving well and one of many things that recruitment officers will be looking for in potential candidates.