Policing: the only way is ethics

Officers' personal standards are key to public confidence in the police service, says Sam Chapman

I don't want to offend the moral standing of professional assassins. They are, after all, probably the worst group to fall out with.

But I suspect that most of the public do not expect someone who kills for a living to be overly concerned about the feelings of the parents of the dead child whose identity they may steal in the course of their business.

So we pass over such an issue in the “Day of the Jackal”, perhaps marvelling at the author's ingenuity, or wondering whether it could still be done today and maybe not spending too much time on the morality of it.

However, we feel differently about the police doing it.


Where are the stories of the officers who said: 'I'm not doing that because I think it is wrong?'

Allegations that have surfaced today, that past operations by the Metropolitan police have involved officers assuming the identities of deceased children in an attempt to lend credibility to their undercover legends, make us think of the disrespect to real children and real parents.

They make us worry about the risks attached to a false identity used in a world of crime or protest groups crossing over into the lives of the real people already victimised by the untimely death of a child.

The allegations will further fuel concern around cases where officers have spent years on the public payroll pretending to be members of protest groups, and on-going legal action by women complaining of being deceived into sexual relationships with police officers who were pretending to be someone else.

We expect our police officers to be different from criminals or protestors on the political fringes, but then we find that for some operations to be successful the police have to persuade such people that they are the same as them.

This involves fine and difficult decisions, and questions as to who decides what rules should be followed, and what we are happy with the police to do or say on our behalf.

Did some police manager decide that officers could use stolen identities or that undercover officers could pursue relationships under the covers? Were practices tolerated without anyone bearing the risk of decision?

The police service is currently in the throes of reforms that have a bearing on these issues.

Do you have confidence in the police?

208 responses

  1. Yes

  2. No


The government's current proposals to scrap the tradition of all officers starting as police constables and introducing direct entry as superintendents for exceptional individuals, could shortly create senior police managers who have had little opportunity to be moulded into accepted practices.

It may encourage officers who challenge the system and its ethics.

Police forces are now governed by elected police and crime commissioners. They can't get involved in individual operations, but may be able to provide the voice of the people to the framework that governs decisions that the police are reluctant to discuss more openly.

And this could prevent important matters from being dominated by the “professionals” and divorced from societal norms.

The justification for much reform is an attempt to turn policing from an alleged blue-collar job into a white-collar profession.

Will such a gentrification of the police be possible without substantially raising the profile of professional ethics in policing?

As the new college of policing gets under way, with a mission of strengthening professionalism, police managers may need to get used to individual officers who refuse to take a particular course of action because in their professional view it is unethical.

In the recent past, police forces have sometimes been criticised for a perceived disproportionate focus on equality and diversity issues.

But how do they deal with the real diversity that matters, diversity of opinion?

Where are the stories of the officers who said: “I'm not doing that because I think it is wrong?”

Perhaps in the past this would not have been an approach likely to ensure success in a career in a hierarchical uniformed service.

But police officers with the ability to resist the common wisdom and assert their conscience on ethical issues may be the type of officers the public expect and that the service needs the most.