police car at stoplight

Promoting the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics Through Leadership

To maintain their reputations as trustworthy and ethical institutions, law enforcement organizations must employ a strict code of ethics. This code is generally expressed as a recorded statement of expectations for employee conduct and an overarching commitment made by the organization to maintain a specific set of ethical standards. The public administrators who lead law enforcement organizations (sheriffs, police chiefs and commissioners) must enforce this code, as doing so may prevent employees from partaking in unethical behavior and ultimately, minimize the risk of legal or social disputes that could harm the organization. By honing their ability to lead and coordinate public organizations, public administrators can ensure law enforcement personnel follow local and national codes of ethics, thereby cultivating potential future administrators who will uphold ethical standards and practices in law enforcement.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police Set the Standard for Law Enforcement Codes of Ethics

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) is a professional organization that provides law enforcement officers and public administrators access to educational resources and support. While all public law enforcement agencies and departments have distinct codes of ethics, the IACP developed its own Law Enforcement Code of Ethics in 1957; this code serves as a global baseline for law enforcement codes. The IACP calls its code “a preface to the mission and commitment law enforcement agencies make to the public they serve.” It outlines basic principles of law enforcement, such as serving and protecting the community; keeping one’s private life beyond reproach; and upholding the public trust. The IACP’s code of ethics represents a definitive example of the expectations that public administrators must set when drafting a code of ethics for new organizations, or amending an existing code being used by a law enforcement entity.

A Broad Range of Conduct That Can Be Enforced Using a Code of Ethics

Law enforcement organizations utilize a code of ethics to protect their integrity while prioritizing the public interest; in the event that internal review or public complaints expose an officer or group of officers as noncompliant with ethical standards, law enforcement administrators have the power to impose significant consequences. In this regard, law enforcement organizations have uniquely broad control over officers’ conduct, irrespective of whether an officer is on or off duty.

The extent of a public administrator’s ability to regulate the behavior of law enforcement officers has been solidified in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In the case of Kelley vs. Suffolk County Police Department (1975), the plaintiff sought to avoid uniform regulations that required him to cut his hair, citing the “right to free speech” granted by the 1st Amendment and the “right to due process” as granted by the 14th Amendment as his defense. In the end, The Supreme Court determined that the police department had the right to limit the length of an officer’s hair on the grounds that doing so supports the overall need for discipline, esprit de corps, and uniformity within the department. This legal precedent gave public administrators greater oversight in implementing rules, regulations, and a code of ethics within law enforcement organizations, as the court acknowledged that while some rules may encroach upon freedom of choice in personal matters, they are legally enforceable so long as they reasonably advance the organization’s overall mission and do not encourage participation in illicit behavior. Administrative oversight over officer conduct has continued to expand, with administrators now able to cite their department’s code of ethics when penalizing law enforcement employees for acts that would indirectly impact private citizens—for instance, granting an administrator the right to terminate an employee whose personal social media conduct violates ethical standards.

Leadership Programs Help Administrators Promote Ethical Standards

The IACP offers two programs that highlight opportunities for officers to pursue public administration roles within law enforcement leadership—the Leadership in Police Organization program and the Women’s Leadership Institute. The Leadership in Police Organization (LPO) program is the IACP’s flagship leadership development and training program, which is derived from a leadership course previously offered by the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School at West Point, but altered to meet the unique educational needs of law enforcement organizations. This three-week interactive course teaches behavioral science principles and leadership practices that can enhance an officer’s ability to successfully build effective teams by providing them with the cognitive tools necessary to train all officers, regardless of rank, to be confident leaders. Students of the LPO program are given an in-depth understanding of the concept of dispersed leadership, which suggests that leadership is not the exclusive domain of senior ranks. By applying dispersed leadership to their own administrative strategy, law enforcement administrators can ensure that officers under their purview will be compelled to value the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics and conduct all activities in a consistent and ethical manner.

At the same time, the IACP also recognizes that women in law enforcement face unique challenges as they ascend the chain of command. As such, the IACP created the Women’s Leadership Institute (WLI), a program designed to teach the same ethical leadership principles as the LPO offering, while also providing specialized knowledge for female law enforcement officers and administrators. The three-day WLI course is available to women and men, and can be attended by sworn and non-sworn law enforcement personnel. The IACP has created such programs to encourage law enforcement administrators to breed a departmental culture that favors the ethical and behavioral traits outlined in IACP’s Law Enforcement Code of Ethics.

Essential Leadership Skills for Enforcing the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics

Before amending their codes of ethics, law enforcement administrators need to identify what specific ethical standards may improve their organization; this entails making administrative decisions that account for any overarching laws or regulations, as well as the needs of law enforcement employees and impacted communities. This process requires administrators to develop certain leadership skills, each of which has been proven critically important to the process of engaging with law enforcement organizations.

Selflessness: By placing the interests of others above their own wants or needs, public administrators can display themselves as selfless leaders who are more capable of earning trust and gratitude from their team members. Developing a sense of selflessness can be beneficial to the process of promoting the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics because individuals are more likely to sacrifice their individual beliefs to comply with ethical standards that are being enforced by an administrator who is willing to sacrifice to an extent equal to or greater than their subordinates.

Integrity: Without displaying a combination of honesty and strong moral principles, public administrators would not be able to build a positive reputation in the community or law enforcement agency. If officers are unable to recognize their administrators as honest or morally righteous, the overall quality of their organization’s code of ethics may be compromised.

Perception: The opinions of each stakeholder in a law enforcement organization are important, regardless of their position or rank. Thus, actively listening to the considerations of all stakeholders allows public administrators access to valuable opinions that can be used to restructure policies. By developing a keen attention to detail, administrators may be able to recognize when ethical standards have been breached, allowing them to quickly remedy such situations before any damage is incurred.

Enthusiasm: A positive attitude can go a long way in helping administrators uphold the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. For example, leaders who frame the code of ethics as guidelines that improve the overall quality of law enforcement efforts—rather than punitive rules that must be obeyed—may be more likely to get their subordinates to comply with the code.

Mentoring: Passing the torch to the next generation of professionals is a primary component of leadership, regardless of the industry or field. By using the concept of dispersed leadership to propagate their organization’s code of ethics, law enforcement administrators can keep ethical behaviors at the forefront of training protocols, establishing a persistent culture that steadily promotes ethical conduct in future generations.

In order to properly and ethically serve their respective communities, law enforcement organizations must operate under the guidance of educated and experienced public administrators. A public administrator with the traits outlined above may be capable of instilling in officers the ethical standards and professional skills that are crucial to maximizing their competency in law enforcement practices and ensuring their compliance with the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. By pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree, practicing law enforcement professionals can gain valuable hands-on experience with concepts related to the decision-making process and resource management, improving their viability as advanced candidates for roles focused on leadership and administrative responsibilities.

Learn More

As the nation’s oldest private military college, Norwich University has been a leader in innovative education since 1819. Through its online programs, Norwich delivers relevant and applicable curricula that allow its students to make a positive impact on their places of work and their communities.

Norwich University’s online Master of Public Administration program is a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary program that helps produce graduates with the skills needed to effectively manage a demanding and evolving industry. Our rigorous curriculum helps provide you with an all-inclusive study of organizational management concepts, decision-making processes, strategic planning, and fiscal management.

Recommended Readings
An Overview of the Importance of Public Administration


Kelly v. Johnson, (1976), FindLaw
Police Liability and Litigation, PoliceOne
10 Essential Attributes of Effective Leaders, International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)
Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)
Women’s Leadership Institute (WLI), International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)
Leadership in Police Organizations (LPO), International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)

Learn More Today

Complete the form on the next page to request more information about our online programs.

Request Info