Many years ago, I was asked to write a book on business ethics. I sent them an outline and they sent back a small advance check for the book and a due date, which I promptly missed. They gave me a new due date and I missed that one, too. I simply could not write the book. It was not because I had the dreaded Writer’s Block. Instead, I couldn’t define the subject accurately enough.
In hindsight, I was also too young to fully understand how ethics is really a set of guidelines that should be more concrete and less abstract. Most everybody—even psychopaths—know the difference between right and wrong. I needed more life experience to know the subtle differences in interpreting right from wrong. That is an important distinction.
The problem with interpreting ethics, especially if we are going to use ethical violations as the basis for humane, legal, and fair discipline, starts with the language we use. Consider the International Chiefs of Police Code of Ethics, written in 1957, revised in 1989, and adopted in 1991: “On my honor, I will never betray my badge, 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 uphold the Constitution, the community, and the agency I serve.”
On the website, this Oath of Honor even comes with definitions of the key words: honor, betray, badge, integrity, character, public trust, courage, accountability, and community. Like the words “patriotism” and “liberty,” this collection is easy to say and hard to define perfectly. We may know how to describe or define these words when we see them, but transferring them from the abstract to the concrete, to make them actionable, takes more effort.
To “betray” something means to “do something morally wrong, or to not help someone who trusts you.” Betraying your badge means a lot of bad things must have happened, including assaults without legal reasons, false arrests, lying, stealing, corruption, or covering up or participating in crimes.
Having “no integrity with the public trust” means we can’t trust an officer to work alone with a gun, handcuffs, a patrol car, and anything they comes across in the field that needs to be collected, seized, or impounded, like money, property, or drugs.
Having “no courage” means an officer intentionally decides to drive in the wrong direction, away from danger, and not support his/her brothers and sisters in peril. That’s heavy stuff, especially when we call it what it really is: cowardice.
Showing “accountability to the community” means keeping our promises, and doing our jobs even when fear, bad weather, or the protests of the loud and the few would stop everyone else not sworn to do what they promised to do way back in the Academy.
For discipline to work on both sides—the giver and the receiver—we need to use language that is concrete, clear, and action-based instead of abstract, ambiguous, and label-based. “You need to write better reports” needs to become “You need to write police reports that don’t have grammar or spelling mistakes, and that use our templates, formats, and address the elements of the crime, accident, or incident, or the probable cause for your arrest.”
Let’s take a lesson from our leaders at the IACP. Don’t just use human resources jargon and Personnel Department words that sound like they came from the Great Discipline Manual in the Sky. Make those words come alive, so your people know what to follow, what is always expected from them, and what they need to do to comply.
Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years. His six police books include Contact & Cover; Streetwork; Surviving Street Patrol; and Tactical Perfection for Street Cops. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.