Ethics & Policing: Two sides of the same coin

ethics3 web garda review

What is and should be expected of police forces such as An Garda Síochána when it comes to behaving ethically? Robert Block investigates.

Robert blockBecause of the public nature of the role of the gardaí and the fact that there is, rightfully, a high expectation that members of the Force will act in a manner befitting that role, the question arises as to whether the professional ethos of the Force needs to be examined; particularly whether the Force is fulfilling its ethical responsibilities to the community and to itself. The recent controversy surrounding the quashing of penalty points highlights this matter with remarkable clarity. It raises the not unreasonable question of whether the actions of the gardaí are to be considered practical and common sense solutions to a particular problem or are they both a breach of the ethical code of the Force and the high standards of excellence that the public expects.

In a broad sense everyone will recognise ethical behaviour when they see it; such as the expectation that members of the gardaí would treat the public with respect; the need to be fair in the process of investigation; the exercise of discretion and confidentiality when dealing with the affairs of members of the public. But when applied to specific and individual situations both the requirements and limits of ethical behaviour can become indistinct. Would the actions of a member of the gardaí be considered unethical in circumstances where they overlook a small infraction in some circumstances but not in others? And what are the motivating factors behind such ethical breaches? There are so many different factors in this equation that there needs to be clear guidance of what is expected of members of the Force.

The Declaration of Professional Values & Ethical Standards provides one source of guidance when it comes to questions of ethics. Another form of guidance can be found in examples of where ethical standards were breached and the consequences of those actions.

“While the struggle with issues of ethics is part of everyday life, for members of the gardaí there is the added pressure to uphold the already high levels of public expectation in how the Force delivers its services to the community…”

The Declaration of Professional Values & Ethical Standards sets out the expected benchmarks of behaviour and service that the Force and the public at large expect from members of the gardaí. Its fifteen articles provide a set of guiding principles by which the process of policing is to be applied within the state. These include the need to preserve the human dignity of every person (article 1), being open and accountable in the discharge of garda duties (article 5), maintaining confidentiality (article 7) and challenging, opposing and exposing illegal, unprofessional and unethical behaviour within the gardaí (article 10).

ethics5 webWhilst the Declaration would seem to be covering all the core areas of ethical and professional behaviour within a modern police force, there remains the question of how to apply these principles to each individual situation that arises. There are the obvious cases where a failure to uphold these principles would be clear; where a member of the public is abused by a member of the Force for their race, religion, gender, etc – this could be seen by all right thinking people as a failure to uphold ethical standards. But what about a scenario where a member of the Force uses his or her official ID to gain free entry into a nightclub, or where they let someone off a speeding ticket because they know a friend of the driver? (To be very clear – these are hypothetical examples). Examining examples of past failures in ethical behaviour can help to identify potential future breaches and can act as guidance to those who find themselves in difficulty when it comes to identifying what the right thing to do is.

A quite interesting approach to the dilemma of dealing with ethics can be found in the Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure, published by the US Department of Defence. Freely available on the internet, this document (which is produced by the Standards of Conduct Office of the Department of Defence General Counsel’s Office) is intended to act as a guide to employees of the DoD by providing examples of “Federal employees who have intentionally or unwittingly violated the standards of conduct” and asks its readers to take particular note of the sanctions that were handed out to the individuals involved. All the cases listed in the document are real and are intended to provide guidance to members of the forces where they are confronted with issues of an ethical nature.

“Members of the gardaí must remain vigilant to whether their actions would be considered ethical or proper and should regularly ask those questions of themselves whenever any doubt might arise…”

Examples of such ethical failures include:

A senior healthcare professional working for the navy pressuring subordinates to provide him with loans. When this was reported the individual in question was ordered to repay the loan and received an official reprimand for his unethical and unprofessional conduct.

A Treasury Agent who was travelling in a non-official capacity as a passenger in a car that had been stopped by police presented her official ID to the officer even though she was not requested to do so. The report of the incident in the EEF stated that:

“…law enforcement officials may be tempted to treat other law enforcement officials more favourably, the Department determined the employee presented her government credentials to the police officer in hopes of receiving more favourable treatment. The federal employee did not explicitly ask the police officer for any favours, but the circumstances led her agency to the conclusion that she had attempted to use her official position for personal gain, which is prohibited by federal ethics rules”

This led to the agent being considered untrustworthy and she was subsequently demoted from her supervisory position.

ethics2 webA civilian employee was reprimanded as she had been using her official phone line to make a large volume of personal calls. Despite being warned on previous occasions about this activity she persisted to make the calls to friends and members of her family. Her official reprimand noted that in the previous five months she had spent twenty one hours of duty time on personal calls.

Perhaps the most scandalous of all the examples provided in the EEF is that of an agent of the Drug Enforcement Agency who was removed from his position due to extreme impropriety. He had embarked on a physical relationship with a confidential informant who also happened to be the wife of a convicted drug trafficker. Not only did he receive various (and unspecified) “gifts” from the informant, he also used his official vehicle to ferry his paramour around Miami. Such trips were described as being social in nature and not work related. He also provided her with ammunition for her own gun – ammunition that had been given to him by his agency, thus being federal property.

As can be seen from the examples provided above, there are numerous occasions where rational and well meaning people can get caught up in situations where their moral and ethical compass can be led astray. While the struggle with issues of ethics is part of everyday life, for members of the gardaí there is the added pressure to uphold the already high levels of public expectation in how the Force delivers its services to the community. Most situations which involve an ethical choice will usually be obvious and straightforward in their resolution. There will always, however, be those situations where recognising what is the right thing to do may not be so simple or clear-cut. Members of the gardaí must remain vigilant to whether their actions would be considered ethical or proper and should regularly ask those questions of themselves whenever any doubt might arise. It is only by holding the Force to the highest of ethical, professional and moral standards that it can retain the already high level of public confidence and satisfaction that the gardaí currently enjoy.

Robert Block is a practising barrister


For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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