Vagueness of Law Enforcement Ethics Code Essay

Law Enforcement Code of Ethics” is deliberately written to be vague. The reason for this is obvious. There are plenty of practices employed by law enforcement on a daily basis that are widespread and are not actually illegal, but that would not be considered ethical even under the most sloppily-enunciated and lax ethical code. Everyone in law enforcement knows this fact, as does every defense attorney; pretty much everyone in prison knows it too. If such practices, however, could be shown to violate the actual code of ethics that law enforcement is expected to abide by, however, then it would be demonstrable that law enforcement officers know they are behaving unethically and seemingly do not suffer the slightest qualm about doing so. Instead, when the code of ethics is kept vague, law enforcement officers will merely do their best to abide by the law, or avoid getting caught when they do not. And the legal code is not a code of ethics. Plenty of destructive sociopaths operate well within the bounds of legality. However a vague code of ethics manages to provide a convenient figleaf for the most dubious activities of law enforcement — after all, vagueness permits a broad latitude of behavior while at the same time discouraging any actual enforcement, when even the most clear-cut ethical violations can be subjected to debate merely by parsing the windy and indistinct rhetoric of the ethical code.

This may sound like a harsh assessment, but let us take an example that is not even particularly vague. Law enforcement is meant to be “honest in thought and deed in both … personal and … professional life.” But when we consider the way that law enforcement operates on a daily basis, perhaps the most saliently strange phrase in the “Law Enforcement Code of Ethics” comes in the outline of an officer’s “fundamental duty” in the opening paragraph, where part of that duty is defined as “protect the innocent against deception.” Any law enforcement officer who is trying to get a confession from a suspect routinely and unhesitatingly employs deception as a tactic. Officers separate two suspects from each other, and lyingly tell each one that the other is in the next room confessing, pinning the whole crime on his buddy. This is not illegal. But it is also not “honest in thought and deed”: it is, by definition, lying. It is also the reason why such an astounding number of false confessions are routinely elicited by law enforcement every year, and why so many innocent people are convicted of crimes based on confessions that have been elicited in this way. The justification offered is generally something like “we knew he did it” but in practice what is happening is that officers are framing the guilty, and all too often the only thing that prevents them from framing the innocent likewise is a “hunch” about who is guilty and who is innocent. More often than not, such a “hunch” is nothing more than racial…

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