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Where Do We Go From Here? Considering Proactive Policing Through the Lens of Ethics & Policy

March 7, 2017 | National News

By Donald R. Weaver, Lexipol

The last few years have been a trying time for law enforcement. What some thought were isolated incidents of protests, ridicule and scorn now feels like the new normal across the country.

It is understandable that many in law enforcement are feeling discouraged by the onslaught of critical news headlines and what can feel like a growing anti-police sentiment. Physical threats have increased, including violent ambush attacks on law enforcement officers. This has caused some individual officers and administrators to reconsider their approach to proactive policing. A recent Pew Research Center report noted that 72% of officers have become less willing to stop and question people who seem suspicious.

Although it may seem that we are taking fire from all sides (literally and figuratively), there are many who do support us and, regardless, our communities count on law enforcement officers to continue their mission. While departments, shifts, squads and even individual officers may have different approaches and philosophies, any discussion surrounding the appropriate role of proactive policing should include a discussion about ethics and policy.

We could simply perform reactive tasks, such as responding to calls and performing specific assignments. We could avoid taking enforcement action based on observed suspicious or criminal behavior. De-policing is one term that has been used to describe this approach. Others have offered opinions about the so-called “Ferguson effect” and whether increased scrutiny has changed how we in law enforcement carry out our duties.

Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, also suggested that increased scrutiny from the courts would encourage officers to disengage:

“Delivering vague proclamations about do’s and don’ts runs the risk of incentivizing officers to take no action, and in doing so to leave individuals and their prospective victims to their unhappy fates. Law enforcement will learn soon enough that sins of omission are generally not actionable … And in the face of nebulae from the courts, the natural human reaction will be to desist. Perhaps this is what we mean to achieve, but over-deterrence carries its own risks, namely that those who badly need help will receive no help, and we shall be the poorer for it.” (Armstrong v. Pinehurst, 2016 WL 105386 (4th Cir. 2016), opinion of Circuit Judge Wilkinson, concurring in part)

Regardless of whether some people think that disengaging or ceasing proactive policing efforts is an acceptable (or even an inevitable) response, we are reminded by the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics that, “I know that I alone am responsible for my own standard of professional performance.” In other words, as professionals we are responsible and accountable for our own decisions and actions and should not give ourselves a pass just because others might think disengaging is OK.

We should apply the ethics of our profession as we consider the appropriate role that proactive policing should play in our overall law enforcement strategy. We may not be able to fully honor those ethical cannons with reactive policing efforts alone. Consider how the following excerpts from the Code of Ethics might apply to this discussion:

“As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is … to safeguard lives and property.”
Not taking proper enforcement action when observing suspicious or illegal activity diminishes our ability to safeguard lives and property. Discouraging those around us from taking proper enforcement action likewise diminishes our ability to safeguard lives and property. If we simply respond to take crime reports after the fact, we are not safeguarding lives and property as effectively as we could. We would be missing opportunities to identify criminals, uncover criminal activity and even prevent some crimes.

“I will maintain courageous calm in the face of … scorn or ridicule.”
While we should take every opportunity to examine and continuously improve how we carry out our mission, refusing to act because we are concerned that someone might scrutinize our decisions or actions does not seem like the “courageous calm” we have pledged to maintain.

“I will never … permit personal feelings … to influence my decisions.”
Regardless of how valid and justified we think our position is, allowing personal feelings to influence our decision about whether to take proactive police action does not align with our ethics.

“With no compromise for crime and with relentless prosecution of criminals, I will enforce the law without fear.”
Turning a blind eye to facts that would support a lawful stop, search or arrest sounds a lot like compromise and does not sound like the fearless law enforcement and the “relentless prosecution of criminals” we embrace.

We should also look beyond the Code of Ethics to our department’s broader policies as we consider the appropriate role that proactive policing should play in our overall strategies. According to Lexipol’s Patrol Function Policy, the functions of patrol include:

  • Respond to calls for assistance and reports of criminal activity
  • Act as a deterrent to crime
  • Enforce state and local laws
  • Identify community needs
  • Provide support and assistance to the community
  • Respond to emergencies

One of the ways we carry out these functions is to lawfully detect criminal activity, detain those who we reasonably suspect are engaged in criminal activity and arrest those who we have probable cause to believe have violated the law. If we “sit back and wait for the calls to come in” as some suggest, we will not be fulfilling all these listed functions of patrol. We would likely be less effective in acting as a deterrent to crime and at enforcing the law.

Despite politics and public opinion, our fundamental duty as captured in the Code of Ethics remains: “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.” We can’t help to create a safe, healthy, community by being reactive only. The Code of Ethics and our policies require that we engage in safe, lawful, ethical, effective proactive policing efforts.

DONALD R. WEAVER is the Training Director for Lexipol and an attorney who specializes in law enforcement matters, including officer representation, police training and risk management. He spent 13 years as a police officer in Missouri and California and has worked various assignments including patrol, SWAT, overt and covert drug investigations, street crimes, forensic evidence and policy coordinator.