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“Policing as a Moral Enterprise: A case for ethics in Policing”

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

A brief outline of my address (14th May) to Indian Police Service (IPS) probationers of 72RR at National Police Academy, Hyderabad

Conceptual outline: Moral awareness & sensitivity, Ethical approaches, Ethical dilemmas, Discretion dilemmas, Stages of moral decline

Every occupation has a fundamental objective, and the goal always inevitably is to serve humans; for instance, doctors’ goal is to contribute to health while judges are there to ensure justice. Similarly, Police professionals are vital to the maintenance of peace, a necessary component of a safe and ordered society. 


Contrary to a narrow perception of policing as ‘only’ law enforcement activity, I would like to present that policing as a service has a more extensive and broader role in society and has moral ends as a service objective. The ethical purposes of policing service are very evident in the value-oriented mottos of State Police bodies, for instance, Delhi police focus on the value goals of Seva, Shanti, Nyay while Telegana police stress on honour and compassion. With such clear value goals serving as a guidepost, it is expected of every police professional to be morally aware and sensitive.

Moral Sensitivity

Speaking of sensitivity, Honourable PM in his Guwahati address of 2014 introduced the concept of SMART policing. The term SMART stood for an acronym, where ‘S’ stood for strict and sensitive. The term ‘sensitive’ is generally interpreted as being emotionally sensitive and being empathetic, thereby completely missing out on the moral dimension of the word. As an essential service provider, police authorities are often approached by citizens with complaints and the latter even show up in police stations in very unpleasant and less than a happy situation.  And every representation, “call-out” represents an appeal to police officials sense of fairness, and it is more of moral demand for justice. It is in these interactive situations the police officer’s moral sensitivity is put to the test, and it is in such circumstances that ethical training and understanding the values of profession comes handy. Further, every appeal dealt fairly using justifiable means not only leads to resolution of the issues; it also leads to the building of trust between the police authorities and the stakeholders. In other words, the purpose of policing is to serve by responding to the moral demands made by citizens with a sense of compassion, fairness and justice. 

Everyday ethical dilemmas

The ethical behaviour of police officials in any democracy is critical to police work because of the nature of policing. A distinguishing feature of police work is the authority to use force/coercion to prevent crime and to ensure the safety of citizens. This inherently coercive nature of police work poses moral challenges and at times, leads to ethical dilemmas that can be vexing.

Every day policing can be “morally taxing” as temptations abound, situations of moral hazards come up at the workplace, and importantly dilemmas show up from unexpected sources. Pollock & Becker identified dilemmas as situations where the police official:

  1. does not know the “right” course of action

  2. is having difficulty in doing what he/she considers is right

  3. finds the wrong option tempting

Most ethical dilemmas police officials face are either from powers of discretion, or are duty/role conflicts. And at times there can be loyalty dilemmas and integrity issues as well. Among the ethical challenges, the trickiest of them emanate from the powers of discretion. Police personnel have immense discretionary powers throughout every rank, and they possess considerable freedom when it comes to operational decisions in the field. They are legally empowered to use force, including lethal force, upon individuals they encounter during their day-to-day duties, and they must determine when to do so. When officers make these decisions, they have the power to deprive people of their fundamental freedoms; therefore, the need for ethical intelligence and astute moral sense. Similarly, other dilemmas (Duty, Loyalty, Integrity) also pose questions that do not lend itself to easy answers.

Policing as a profession is not only physically and emotionally demanding but also is a moral minefield to navigate. With the presence of diverse ethical challenges, it is all the more imperative that police professionals have an understanding of ethics and ethical approaches (Consequentialism, Formalism, Virtue, Social Contract, Justice, Care). Such an understanding can play a valuable role in guiding individuals in making the right decisions and in doing the right things – things that are morally correct.

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