5 Modern Ethical Issues in Law Enforcement

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Staff Writers
Updated December 18, 2020

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Law Enforcement Ethical Issues

  • Off-Duty Life
  • Upholding the Law and your Rights
  • Necessary Force
  • Acting Impartially
  • Profiling

Police officers are expected and required to follow law enforcement ethics as defined by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. This code of ethics, which was written in 1957, often creates ethical issues or dilemmas for those serving to uphold the law. Five modern ethical issues in law enforcement involve the officer's off-duty life, upholding the law and your rights, using necessary force, acting impartially and profiling.

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Off-Duty Life

Police officers are held to an extremely high standard that requires their personal lives to reflect the integrity of their position. They must maintain a professional image at all times because they are under constant public scrutiny and rely on the public's trust to maintain their power position. While most jobs end when the individual clocks out, policeman are faced with the ethical issues of maintaining their level of social respect and adherence to the law every moment. This often puts them in direct conflict with society, especially those that have little respect for the law or the badge.

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Upholding the Law and your Rights

Each officer swears an oath to uphold the law and to defend an individual's constitutional rights. One of the ethical issues that an officer faces daily is the ability to uphold these oaths when they are seemingly contradictory. One of the biggest contradictions can be found in the nation's drug laws and subsequent drug wars, which force police officers to act in the best interest of the state rather than the individual. When someone is caught with a few illegal marijuana seeds, they could face imprisonment, fines, job loss, loss of social reputation and lose custody of their children. A cop, however, cannot consider these right to life and liberty issues because they themselves would be violating the law if they do not arrest and charge the individual.

Necessary Force

The modern-day Black Lives Matter movement highlights the public's concern over the use of unnecessary force by police officers. The movement is an attempt to hold the police force accountable for any and all cases of unnecessary force. All police officers have the authority to use necessary force to uphold the law, but in some cases their use of force is unjustified. This ethical issue cops face each day can, and does, put their lives in danger when dealing with those individuals that are non-compliant. In the majority of cases, an officer must make a split-second decision on what level of force is necessary and a misjudgment could result in injury or death for the officer. Stanley Milgram's research about obedience to authority proved that a person's perception of losing their freedoms will provoke them to react and officers can easily be coerced in high stress environments to use unnecessary force.

Acting Impartially

One of the ethical issues officers are faced with is the requirement to act impartially. This idealistic type of oath causes a host of problems in real-world situations. It's not always possible to act impartially, especially for local and small-town officers that handle the same crowds of people throughout their career. A real-world example of this would be an officer that knows where the local drug houses are, but has no court-acceptable evidence to pursue the case. The officer is expected to follow law enforcement ethics, but he is also limited in his authority to uphold the law by following certain procedures.


Profiling has been a major component of policing since early days. It is critical for officers to use their discretion and judgement in determine the best course of action on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, modern-day society is rife with incorrect assumptions and stereotypes that result in unfair racial or ethical profiling cases every day. In the line of duty, a cop has seconds to asses a situation and does not have time to internally break down society's imposed belief systems that direct his conscious behavior.

Policeman are constantly faced with ethical issues involving their off-duty behaviors, upholding the law and your rights, using necessary force, acting impartially and profiling. Law enforcement ethics push officers to hold their lives to a higher standard than most, and it's important for citizens to understand the ethical issues that police officers face in modern times to push forward for a better future.

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