An understanding of community is fundamental to building relationships between criminal justice professionals and the people they serve. The duties of law enforcement involve monitoring and stopping various aspects of human behavior, and as such, police officers are intrinsically effected by the ethics of the communities within which they operate. Communities are primarily people living in a shared locale, such as a neighborhood, political district, or prison, and therefore having common interests based on geographical identity; however, a community may also be a group of people having cultural, religious, or ethnic characteristics in common. Communities in this sense may not have a geographical center and be widely dispersed, or subgroups of a larger community may reside within neighborhoods where shared cultural characteristics provide social continuity and solidarity. Interactions between criminal justice professionals and the public can take place within spheres of community that are defined by profession, geography, culture, and class. The criminal justice system is itself a professional community.
A constantly changing social structure creates new ethical standards and dilemmas within communities over time. Criminal justice professionals often see their professional ethics clash with the ethics of the community with which they are working. Ethics are defined as governing principles or values belonging to a particular culture. Criminal justice personnel have their own communities and ethics, while they serve people from entirely different communities, each with its own set of ethics.
The formal process of community development consists of training, mentorship, education, and access to information. Over time this has occurred in criminal justice organizations by natural growth. Police, corrections, and judicial components of the criminal justice system all have their own communities and the professional ethics that go with them. This is a very limited view as police in the United States are represented in over 10,000 different law enforcement agencies, each with it own unique sense of community and ethics. A small rural police department may have three officers and a chief and a workplace community and ethics that are completely different than, for example, the U.S. Secret Service. In corrections, a juvenile case worker unit has a very different workplace community and set of ethics than a correctional officer working in a state prison, or one working in a jail, or a federal supermax prison. Federal judges and court workers form a much different judicial workplace community than municipal night court judges and their staffs. In understanding community ethics in criminal justice it is critical to understand this backdrop of numerous communities within criminal justice, as each is unique, and universal facts are limited by the very nature of the organizations themselves.
As varied as they are, criminal justice workplace communities and ethics are monolithic when compared with communities within the general population of the United States. Rural and urban, suburban and inner-city, professional class and working class, communities are defined by region, educational level, income, ethnicity, occupation, or any shared characteristics significant enough to form a group identity. These are then cross-matched and mixed in most cases. For example, a young couple lives in a retirement community in Florida, where they are employed, with their two small children; they are Jewish, the retirement community is Roman Catholic, and most of the other workers are recent immigrants from Haiti. They all live in the same geographic community, they work in the same community, but in other aspects they are in completely different communities with different ethics and values. The patrolman who works this area is from a small Florida town, which is a completely different community with its own ethical code. Operating in this environment presents a challenge to the patrolman tasked with enforcing rules of conduct among the various members of this community.
The study of normative ethics is simply the study of right and wrong. Defining and agreeing on universal right and wrong is problematic as each community has its own concepts of acceptable behavior, or ethical and unethical conduct. Criminal justice employees enforce legal right and wrong, which can clash with a community’s view of what is right. This is a key factor in the criminal justice system’s ability to maintin good relationships with the communities it serves.
In the United States a few key behaviors that are deemed unethical by almost all communities and the criminal justice system have emerged. These vary slightly within agencies and communities but are generally found in some form in all of them. One way of working through differences in community ethics is the development of a very legalistic criminal justice system in which there is no discretion and every person and community is treated exactly the same by all those working within the criminal justice system. Over time it became clear that no manual or guidelines could cover every aspect of professional behavior within numerous community settings and situations. In short, legalistic work codes simply cannot dictate behavior in every case.
In terms of community and the workers of the criminal justice system no aspect is of greater concern in determining how well the community believes the system is working ethically than that of fairness. No action can enrage a community more than causing one community to believe that it is being treated unfairly or differently from other communities served by the same agency. Further, if sub communities within an agency treat different communities with greater severity or with deference based on perceived biases, it can be viewed as an intolerable breach of ethics.
It is critical in the understanding of this process that treating everyone the same is not the same as treating everyone fairly. A young mother who is drunk may have to be arrested to protect the child she has with her, while another young mother who is also drunk may have her sober husband with her and be allowed to go home with him and the child. The perception of fairness within a community and of being treated ethically is one that develops over time.
Years of good work in this area can be lost in one instance as work in criminal justice is often judged by the worst case a community experiences, not the 10 years of good service rendered. In police work, in the courts, and in corrections, community members that feel they are being treated unfairly will view the criminal justice system as biased and unethical. In cases where the community perceives the agents of the system treating all members of all communities fairly, the system is then viewed as ethical. This is critical in terms of law enforcement as police seek to implement community policing strategies across a wide range of communities with different ethical frames of reference.
Respect is relative to an individual community and its relationship with the criminal justice system. Respect is critical to law enforcement’s ability to operate effectively in a community, and police have historically demanded a high level of respect for their authority, not always through ethical means. Strong-arm tactics, beatings, and arbitrary arrests are not conducive to building respect for law enforcement; however, police discretion does allow officers to enforce their authority by, for example, selectively arresting a single offender out of a group of equally culpable offenders when the arrestee was alone in openly disregarding police authority. Actions that are perceived by all as respectful are considered to be ethical and acceptable. Disrespect by any of the community members involved is considered unethical and leads to problems in future community interactions. Respect on the part of all communities leads to higher ethical functioning in reality and perceptions within the communities involved. Achieving this allows the criminal justice system to work with communities and ensure public safety and a better quality of life for all members of the community.
Fairness and respect are derived to a large degree from the third universal factor in ethics and community interaction within the field of criminal justice. This final and key component is professionalism. Respect of law enforcement by community members is earned by entering into an understanding of the cultural ethics of a community. For example, displaying sensitivity toward religious or cultural practices and prohibitions that may interfere with standard law enforcement procedures and developing cooperative solutions with the community is viewed as fair and reasonable. Professionalism on the part of criminal justice professionals establishes a working partnership in which fairness is foundational and earns the respect that encourages ethical behavior on the part of community members.
- Braswell, Michael, et al. Justice Crime and Ethics. Burlington, MA: Anderson Publishing, 2013.
- Fuller, R. John. Criminal Justice/A Peacemaking Perspective. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1997.
- Pollock, Joycelyn M. Ethics in Crime and Justice. 4th Boston: Wadsworth Publishing, 2003.
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