Intertwining Ethics and Confidence to Regain and Sustain Trust
By Paul Pastor, Ph.D., David S. Corderman, Ph.D., and John Jarvis, Ph.D.
Law enforcement has become increasingly complex, and, in some cases, controversial practices have attracted scrutiny. Social media, coupled with a mood of distrust in public institutions, has contributed to today’s challenging environment. These issues, along with a difficult political climate and an increasingly polarizing press, have, unfortunately, led to considerable separation between agencies and civilians.
While the police hold some responsibility for this discontent, so does the public. Developing and sustaining a relationship of trust is a principal component of community safety and public order, but so is upholding a partnership of coresponsibility between agencies and the communities they serve. Law enforcement leadership plays a crucial role in establishing and enhancing that trust and shared responsibility.
This article explores how police agencies can take a leading role using ethical, principle-led policing to engender and sustain trust and confidence in the services they deliver.1
How can trust and confidence in police services be attained? A crucial start is to reemphasize that public safety is not just law enforcement’s responsibility. Effective public safety services are a shared obligation requiring considerable effort by both police and the community.
Unfortunately, amid controversial events and general mistrust, the concept of coresponsibility too often gives way to distancing and blame accompanied by resentment and further unwillingness to engage with the police. Sometimes, the dynamics of this are clear. Law enforcement views community members who raise issues or voice objections as simply anti-police. In stark contrast, civilians see officers who object to overgeneralized criticism as unwilling or unable to acknowledge their flaws or move beyond the status quo.
Scrutiny and criticism following some law enforcement actions should be expected as the public has a right and, indeed, a responsibility to question police practices. While this does not make agencies’ work easier, it is a fundamental aspect of life in a free society and needs to be recognized as such, not simply resented.
Police officers operating within democracies have powers and responsibilities that differ from those of ordinary citizens. This requires periodic examination and challenge to assure that boundaries are strictly adhered to, especially when they necessarily change over time with evolving political, social, economic, and ethical concerns. Additionally, this dynamic demands the police to take the lead in working with the community.
While misinterpretations of police actions and unfair accusations do occur, accepting significant levels of accountability and inquiry is a vital component of the job. Only by establishing strong, ethical foundations to direct the conduct of law enforcement agencies and their personnel can such outcomes be realized. And, only through regularly reconnecting and realigning with these ethical borders does a police agency’s long-term path become both correct and self-correcting.
Dr. Pastor, a retired sheriff from the Pierce County, Washington, Sheriff’s Department, is president of the board of directors for the FBI’s National Executive Institute Associates.
Dr. Corderman, a retired FBI supervisory special agent, is an internationally recognized leadership training and counterterrorism professional.
Dr. Jarvis is the academic dean for the FBI’s Training Division in Quantico, Virginia.
What is the common denominator in facilitating each of these actions? The agency’s culture.
Agency culture is important to ethical leadership because it is often one of the surest guides or predictors of behavior in organizations. It is said that “culture overwhelms strategy.”2 While culture can stifle adherence to the law or derail plans, directives, and efforts to reform an agency, it can also help organizations prevent personnel from choosing the easy, unethical path over the more challenging, principled way forward.
This holds especially true in times of organizational uncertainty, which many police departments currently experience.3 Accompanying such uncertainty are calls for a “customer-centered” approach to policing while rapid economic, technological, social, and cultural changes occur both domestically and abroad.4
As a result, law enforcement’s mission has become increasingly complex and, sometimes, less clear. Contributing to organizational uncertainty are recent increases in violent crime, including a resurgence of gang violence, and rises in both property and other minor offenses, fueling even more debate about crime-fighting strategies. Additionally, some policy makers urge greater leniency and tolerance toward violators and question whether certain offenses should be handled as criminal violations at all. Combine these developments with an increase in public incivility and controversy about the role, quality, and general cost of government services, and the clarity of policing’s purpose often suffers.5
At both the executive and line levels, a particular concern in many law enforcement agencies is the community’s questioning of not just officers’ actions but also their perceived intentions. As alluded to earlier, mistrust of the police should be and is of particular concern. Recent Gallup polls, as well as other public opinion studies, reflect this anxiety.
The cause of deterioration in the traditionally elevated levels of trust in police can be debated. Some point to scrutiny and criticism associated with recent use-of-force incidents in numerous communities, particularly those that resulted in the death of minority citizens. These include, for instance, the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014; Freddy Gray case in Baltimore in 2015; Breonna Taylor case in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2020; and George Floyd case in Minneapolis, later in 2020.
These sources of disapproval of law enforcement practices and anger toward the police appear to drive the decline in public trust — reported to be just 45% among the American population.6 However, this differs among some racial and ethnic groups. Trust levels have been reported to be as low as 20% or less among African Americans in similar polls. Recently, there have been slight improvements, but trust remains low compared to past ratings.7
While polling data shows decreasing levels of trust in almost every American institution over the last few years, dismissing this issue as “the new normal for everyone” should be of little solace to law enforcement agencies. They depend heavily on mutual trust and cooperation from the public to accomplish their mission and serve their community, just as the public depends on the integrity of its police to enforce the law fairly.
However, that trust is very fragile, and its dissolution can be exacerbated in many ways, including uncertainty by the public because of crime increases as policy makers try poorly considered approaches to police reform. These may include a lack of criminal prosecutions or unwarranted police behavior, such as inaction — also known as “de-policing.”
Attitudes of intentional disengagement, similar to de-policing, may also occur among officers in these circumstances as a result of confusion, lack of training and preparation, or simply resentment. This derives from official management directives, legislation, or court rulings that set new or revised guidelines for police practices or establish law enforcement policies that vary from former common practices.
Both problems may be found in many jurisdictions around the nation. De-policing as a result of inaction or intentional disengagement contributes to increased crime rates.8
“Effective public safety services are a shared obligation requiring considerable effort by both police and the community.”
Policing is by no means unique as it struggles to accommodate environmental and organizational change. In business, industry, or other organizations, police agencies notwithstanding, existing cultures tend to maintain long-standing practices and preferences. This is true even despite changes in official policies and practices and in de facto deviations in the organization’s social environment. In these terms, agency culture is regarded as regressive, but that need not be the case.
A strong, ethically based agency culture can also serve to resist pressure toward unethical or illegal conduct by segments of a department or local government officials. The key aspect that merits underscoring is that agency culture tends to be an informal and abiding factor in the common practices of police departments. The more ethical these practices become, the more likely a virtuous agency culture can be realized, which, in turn, leads to more credibility and trust — the necessary path forward for law enforcement.
Approaches to Reform
Guiding culture and attitudes; developing positive, ethical norms; and seeing that they become customary, accepted practices allows for the delivery of credible, effective services. This garners community respect, ownership, engagement, and trust.
How does one start this process? Reconfiguring internal agency cultures through police executives who recognize the need and the means to do so is essential.
In recent years, there have been numerous calls to reform police methods. Many times, upgrading police practices has, legally and ethically, been seen as the right thing to do. However, among some agencies and communities, such efforts have had unintended consequences that have been met with public anger and frustration and sparked intense debates. In these cases, reform efforts have created a “fault line” between anti-police and pro-public safety sentiments. Such debates have resulted in more anger and recrimination without providing viable solutions.
This does not suggest that police reform is never needed. Nonetheless, recent approaches to reforming law enforcement agencies are limited as most efforts are an outgrowth of piecemeal responses to the latest headlines or rising political issues. Acting in haste to “do something,” decision makers have too frequently settled for rapid action, rather than a well-considered, more comprehensive change that maximizes effectiveness.
Police reform should combine knowledge of the organizational terrain with ways to build on honorable aspects of existing positive cultural norms within the profession. Reaffirming the core ethical baselines of police conduct will yield dividends of mutual trust and more effective services.
Agency executives must stop passively reacting to police reform ideas from outside of law enforcement and start approaching issues from a more active, proactive, internally directed perspective. Macro approaches to overall analysis of community police services, rather than ad hoc and anecdotal responses to police reform, will more likely produce results.
A case in point can be found in the United Kingdom. Police Scotland recognized these limitations as early as 2013 and transformed its services in recent years to be responsive to community needs via a data-driven and citizen-centric approach.9
“Agency culture is important to ethical leadership because it is often one of the surest guides or predictors of behavior in organizations.”
However, to produce the promise of ethical organizational cultures as agents of change, agencies face three obstacles to real transformation.
- The power of existing agency cultures to resist change
- The apparent current atmospheric context of public skepticism and distrust
- The emergence of piecemeal reactive approaches to reform that can cause unwanted second-level effects
These obstacles can frustrate the goals of change — effectiveness, accountability, and fairness.
Effective police reform must result in greater fairness in decision-making as well as clearer means by which communities can help create conditions where this occurs. The process can best be started, and these outcomes best assured, by law enforcement leaders who examine agency culture and seek ways to alter cultural assumptions and practices and their rationale where necessary. This should be combined with consideration of what should be expected from the community to complement internal agency efforts.
The difficulty of political methods to address police reform is that they seek change through compliance to regulations and oversight outside the culture and norms of policing rather than fully examining opportunities for law enforcement to police itself. This oversight approach is condescending to police professionals and ignores the promise that self-initiated change can have for sustaining desired behaviors as normative practices.
Any approach to improving public safety also requires changes in what community members should expect from themselves. The public has responsibilities to fund and facilitate legitimate police and criminal justice goals. For example, community outreach and accountability can be found in the threads of most calls for police reform, but policing is not possible without citizen involvement in daily law enforcement efforts.
This idea is a key component of Sir Robert Peel’s “Principles of Policing,” the foundational document of the London Metropolitan Police. Peel’s principles assert that “the police are the public and that the public are the police.”10 The importance of law enforcement extending dignity and respect to the public is clear. However, scant attention is typically given to citizens’ responsibilities in this symbiotic relationship.
In 21st century America, Peel’s nine principles might constructively be extended to include some public obligations of responsibility to support the quality and effectiveness of policing as well as the safety and dignity of those involved in delivering police services. Of course, civilians should expect an elevated level of dignity and respect from police. But, there should be a reciprocal expectation of the public. Basic principles of civility should be expected of citizens even as stronger standards of civility must be expected of officers. If the social expectations and obligations of the public are simply ignored, a key component of police-citizen encounters is neglected. Mutual civility is a basic element of coresponsibility.
Values, Ethics, and Police Practice
Law enforcement is organized in America — and many places around the world — as the most decentralized, community-linked government institution. In many ways, it serves as the public’s most easily accessed, frequently encountered government agency, always open and available. Police are expected to respond to myriad calls for service, issues, concerns, and incidents in their jurisdictions.
“Police reform should combine knowledge of the organizational terrain with ways to build on honorable aspects of existing positive cultural norms within the profession.”
Assessing and reinvigorating agency culture to respond to these issues is challenging, but many law enforcement executives already have the needed materials and tools. While no perfect organization or workforce exists, police departments attract people with a commitment to public service. Further, nearly all agencies have statements of vision, mission, and guiding principles meant to provide direction and standards for personnel to follow.
Agencies can follow three steps to upgrade their culture and enable the best qualities of law enforcement personnel.
First, executives should consider the degree to which the content and outcome of police actions square with the agency’s vision, mission, and guiding principles. No department can or will register perfect conformity. While all will fall short of the ideal, a clear-eyed assessment of what an agency stands for and how it delivers its services is both necessary and revealing.
The process will pose questions like “Are we, in our attitudes and conduct, who we claim to be?” This will identify areas in need of attention and change. It will also likely reveal instances of personnel honoring department goals and commitments and “getting things right.” From here, the agency can provide an assessment of what needs to be changed or built upon and reinforced and consider how both might be accomplished.
Second, top leaders should work with staff to acknowledge noted shortcomings as well as strengths and successes. For most agencies, strengths and weaknesses do not exist in a random vacuum. Almost all organizational cultures have existing ethical anchors. The effort of realigning and upgrading can be built beside and around existing strengths.
Beyond these anchors, the work of upgrading and strengthening might involve changes to vision and mission statements. Defining and elaborating on key words may be necessary. Providing examples and actual events in which personnel did the right thing under trying circumstances or made the wrong choices can be useful, providing the latter does not result in gratuitous shaming. This will shine light on the idea that the agency not only has rules, procedures, and policies to guide conduct but also needs to have ongoing commitment from each member to uphold high ethical standards in challenging and risky situations.
The third step involves considering how the mission, vision, and guiding principles will be absorbed into the organization, its social and emotional identity, and its respiration and metabolism. This will require attention and follow-up over the long term. It will also need reinforcement and repetition. The ethical standards need to be adopted, absorbed, and applied in all aspects of the agency’s operations; administration; and interactions with the governing jurisdiction, community members, and external partners.
The proposition offered here is that a clear, straightforward, and simple set of expectations can serve as a behavioral guideline, which blends with the organization’s image.
Building a consensus, elevating the importance of ethical conduct, and then establishing clear expectations for infractions is not complicated. But, it requires strenuous reminders and reinforcement. Fortunately, when it becomes part of the culture, it becomes a strong, self-perpetuating behavioral boundary.
“While no perfect organization or workforce exists, police departments attract people with a commitment to public service.”
Leaders’ responsibilities include preparing the organization for the future — building and developing leaders at all levels and guiding the best personnel into leadership positions. The understanding and commitment of the next generation of leaders is essential to upgrading and maintaining the momentum of an ethically focused culture. This creates the ability to anticipate the need for course corrections in the agency. It establishes a means by which future efforts at law enforcement reform can more frequently emerge from within the profession.
Undergoing a challenging course and doubling down on focus and effort will be necessary to lift the profession; enhance public trust; attract more and better recruits; gain stronger support from elected officials for changes in law, policy, and funding; and pursue the overall mission of policing more effectively.
Building and upgrading an ethical law enforcement agency derives from an idea that is at once profoundly simple as a concept but tremendously complex to realize in practice. The idea is to bring police conduct and culture in line with expressed beliefs and ethical principles.
This method provides agencies with a stronger role in improving the profession and authoring reforms as well as building stronger relationships with the communities served. It gives law enforcement a voice in achieving real police reform. Further, the approach affords a means to reduce the gap between what law enforcement agencies say they stand for and where they stand. In many ways, it is the essence of integrity in policing.
Most important endeavors are difficult. Former President John F. Kennedy, in an address at Rice University on September 12, 1962, spoke to this as he described the emerging American space program. He said, “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard. ...”11 President Kennedy also insisted that the United States was at a critical crossroads in the space program and that the country’s future depended on whether it took action before the close of the 1960s. Perhaps it is not too melodramatic to suggest that the country is once again at a crossroads relative to the future of policing.
Police executives and their staffs choose to lead America’s law enforcement agencies in a time of incivility, mistrust, deep controversy, and increasing violence. They do so not because it is easy or hard but because strong, ethical law enforcement is necessary to the functioning of the United States and the safety of Americans, now and in the future.
“Building and upgrading an ethical law enforcement agency derives from an idea that is at once profoundly simple as a concept but tremendously complex to realize in practice.”
Any errors or omissions are incidental to the drafting of this document, and apologies are offered in advance should any be determined to exist. Additionally, websites or internet resources are not endorsed by the authors or any of the institutions they represent. Further, specific agencies, companies, products, or services are for illustration only and should not be considered an endorsement by the authors, the FBI, or the U.S. Department of Justice.
Dr. Pastor can be reached at email@example.com, Dr. Corderman at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Dr. Jarvis at email@example.com.
1 This article is a derivative of a more in-depth treatment of the ideas and expressions as contained herein that were discussed at a recent leadership summit held by the FBI National Executive Institute Associates in Charleston, South Carolina, on August 22, 2022.
2 Popularly attributed to Peter Drucker from his many writings on management and effective executive functioning, but a specific sourcing citation to Drucker was not located. References can be found as early as the mid-1980s, such as in Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985), 33-34.
3 Scott E. Wolfe et al., “Why Does Organizational Justice Matter? Uncertainty Management Among Law Enforcement Officers,” Journal of Criminal Justice 54 (January-February 2018): 20-29, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2017.11.003.
4 David Grimes, “Political, Economic, Technological and Cultural Influences that Will Shape Service Delivery in the Next Decade,” World Meteorological Organization Bulletin 57, no. 4 (2008), https://public.wmo.int/en/bulletin/political-economic-technological-and-cultural-influences-will-shape-service-delivery-next. See also Clement A. Tisdell, “Economic, Social and Political Issues Raised by the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Economic Analysis and Policy 68 (December 2020): 17-28, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eap.2020.08.002.
5 Many national polls show such trends. For especially relevant discussion of the effects of incivility and government trust erosion, see Ine Goovaerts, “Highlighting Incivility: How the News Media’s Focus on Political Incivility Affects Political Trust and News Credibility,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly (March 31, 2022), https://doi.org/10.1177/10776990221084608.
6 “Confidence in Institutions,” Gallup, accessed January 18, 2023, https://news.gallup.com/poll/1597/Confidence-Institutions.aspx.
7 Jeffrey M. Jones, “In U.S., Black Confidence in Police Recovers From 2020 Low,” Social and Policy Issues, Gallup, July 14, 2021, https://news.gallup.com/poll/352304/black-confidence-police-recovers-2020-low.aspx%20on%207/7/2022.
8 George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” Atlantic, March 1982, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1982/03/broken-windows/304465/. See also multiple works by Richard Rosenfeld: for example, Richard Rosenfeld, “Is De-Policing the Cause of the Spike in Urban Violence? Comment on Cassell,” Federal Sentencing Reporter 33, no. 1-2 (October/December 2020): 142-143, https://doi.org/10.1525/fsr.2020.33.1-2.142; and Richard Rosenfeld and Joel Wallman, “Did De-Policing Cause the Increase in Homicide Rates?,” Criminology and Public Policy 18, no. 1 (March 2019): 51-75, https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-9133.12414.
9 Rob Moss, “UK Forces Can Learn from Police Scotland’s Reforms,” Personnel Today, March 21, 2022, https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/uk-forces-can-learn-from-police-scotlands-reforms/. See also Nicholas R. Fyfe, “The Challenges of Change: Exploring the Dynamics of Police Reform in Scotland,” International Journal of Police Science and Management 21, no. 4 (2019): 196-205, https://doi.org/10.1177/1461355719889463.
10 “Sir Robert Peel’s Policing Principles,” Law Enforcement Action Partnership, accessed January 18, 2023, https://lawenforcementactionpartnership.org/peel-policing-principles/.
11 This speech is known as the “We choose to go to the Moon” address but is officially titled the “Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort.” It was delivered on September 12, 1962, by then President John F. Kennedy and was largely authored by Ted Sorensen, presidential advisor and speechwriter.