Ethics Training for Law Enforcement

Dr. Frank Kardasz
Revised February 13, 2011


This article reviews some of the philosophical foundations of policing in the United States. Machiavelli, William
James and others are discussed in relation to the ways in which their ideas can be used to undermine ethical
conduct. Modern criminal justice administrators should be wary of the influence of Machiavelli and James on
policing practices. Their philosophies concerning deception and the manipulation of public perception pose
threats to equity, justice and fairness.

The Right to Control Others

The following sections describe some of the factors that led to the development of law enforcement authority in
the United States. The social contract theory is presented here because the theory provided the foundational
justification for the creation of laws. Law enforcement authority in the U.S. developed as the product of various
philosophical beliefs and historical events. These events led to the Declaration of Independence, the U.S.
Constitution, statutes, case laws and other political and socio-economic effects. This section also describes two
notable philosophical and political influencers; Machiavelli and James. Their ideas are accompanied by notes of
caution to contemporary law enforcement administrators.

Social Contract Theory

One of the philosophical foundations of law enforcement authority is the social contract theory, also called
contractarianism. The theory states that authority is derived from the consent of the governed (Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy, April 4, 2007).

In the United States, the contractual statement of authority is the Constitution. The preamble states:

    We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure
    domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the
    blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United
    States of America.

According to the social contract theory, each citizen tacitly agrees to obey the established laws. In theory, if an
individual does not agree with the laws, the individual can leave the country. Everyone has the free will to either
obey or not obey the laws.

In the interest of human and civil rights, some people have chosen purposefully to disobey laws that they
considered unjust. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells
him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the
community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”

Penalties for disobedience to laws are codified and enforcement authority is granted to the executive branch of
government and to law enforcement. The social contract theory helps to form the basis of police authority in the
United States.

Machiavellian Politics – Authorizing Deception

Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian political philosopher who lived from 1469-1527. His political theories are
sometimes criticized by contemporary philosophers but they are noteworthy because some of his techniques are
still in use today. Machiavelli’s philosophies were written for the purpose of providing kings, princes and the
aristocracy with ideas about how to control people within a kingdom.

Machiavelli justified the use of deception noting that people are simple by nature and easily persuaded. He said
(The Prince, 1515, p. 85):

    But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this (integrity) characteristic, and to be a great pretender
    and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to
    deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.

To maintain order, Machiavelli advocated the use of fear to control the populace. He said, (p. 81):

    Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred;
    because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he
    abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women.

Today, Machiavelli might be labeled as a “spin-doctor,” advocating manipulation through dishonesty.
Contemporary leaders who use deception and manipulation while violating rules of ethics and equity are
sometimes said to be acting in the Machiavellian tradition. A modern Machiavellian police officer might rationalize
an unethical decision to commit perjury as part of the righteous cause of protecting the community from a

Supporters of Machiavellian philosophy argue that control by the judicious application of power is sometimes
needed to maintain order. Critics deride Machiavellian theory as deceptive, unfair and unethical. Law
enforcement officers who must sometimes use power to control others must do so lawfully and in a way that
avoids unethical practices.

The Influence of William James’ Pragmatism on Modern Policing

Pragmatism is a philosophy that influences some law enforcement activities and is described here for the
purpose of informing administrators of its implications for modern policing. Pragmatism is based on the belief
that the meaning and truth of an idea is a function of its practical outcome (American Pragmatism – 1, n.d.).
Beginning in the United States in the late 1800's, pragmatism attempted to apply scientific and social
developments of the era to prior metaphysical beliefs.

Pragmatists are anti-absolutists, believing that principles are working hypotheses rather than binding self-
evident truths. Pragmatism assumes that the universe is ever-changing and that the individual must interact with
the environment to solve problems (Reinertsen & Hedges, 1988, p. 129). In the dynamic ever-changing world of
law enforcement, where interactions must take place to solve problems, this aspect of pragmatism seems to
have relevance for policing.

William James: Creating Fact from Belief

William James’ ideas about pragmatism are worth examining in a law enforcement context because of the
apparent application of some of his ideas to modern policing. James developed pragmatism as a theory of truth.
True ideas, according to James, develop from experience in ways that provide consistency, orderliness, and
predictability. James described pragmatism with the statement (The Meaning of Truth, 1909, preface); "True
ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot."
For law enforcement, the concept that information should be validated, corroborated and verified is appropriate.
The philosophy that encourages the investigation and corroboration of truth is compatible with proper law
enforcement values.

Some of James’ other ideas are questionable in the context of applied policing. According to James (The
Meaning of Truth. 1909, preface):

    Grant an idea or belief is true, what concrete difference will it's being true make in anyone's actual life?
    How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the
    belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value in experiential terms?

In an applied law enforcement context, James’ requirement for introspective interpretation of truth in an
individualized manner is problematic. Analysis of the “truth” by an irrational thinker can lead to subjective
decision-making. For law enforcement officers, the truth should not be decided partly by the question, “What’s in
it for me?” Equitable and fair law enforcement officers should reject this part of James’ philosophy of pragmatism.

James also theorized that beliefs help create reality. He said, "These, then, are my last words to you: Be not
afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create that fact." The apparent self-hypnosis
that James describes may be useful as a psychological technique for someone who is counseling a depressed
person toward developing a positive outlook on life, but manufacturing fact from metaphysical belief is not a
useful process in law enforcement.

The troublesome aspect of James’ version of pragmatism for law enforcement administrators is the concept that
mere beliefs become reality. In other words, an idea, whether true or false according to James, becomes
actuality for the holder of the idea. Consequently, using James’ philosophy, an unethical pragmatist can
manipulate facts and circumstances to cause himself or others to believe that lies are true. The unethical
pragmatist becomes a “spin-doctor” purposefully twisting fiction into fact. Unfortunately, in contemporary
business and politics, such unethical behavior occurs with alarming frequency.

The Problem of Perception

Perception can be a subjective and illusory measuring tool.  According to Crane (2011), “The structure of the
problem is simple: perception seems intuitively to be openness to the world, but this fact of openness is
threatened by reflection on illusions and hallucinations. Therefore perception, as we ordinarily understand it,
seems to be impossible.”  Because perception is often in danger of falling victim to deception and delusion it
cannot always be relied upon to provide truth.

The 1837 children’s story, The Emperor’s New Suit, by Hans Christian Anderson provides an example of James’
version of pragmatism run amuck in hallucination. The subject of the story is a vain fictitious emperor, deceived
by villains to believe that he is clothed in invisible gold thread when he is instead naked. For the misguided
emperor, the deception, similar to James version of Pragmatism, became his reality: fact created from a belief.
Although the intimidated citizenry in the fictitious empire is quietly aware that the emperor is naked, they are
ordered to believe in the emperors reality; the false belief that he is clothed. The Emperor parades naked down
the street, believing he is clothed when he is in fact naked. A small child is the only one brave enough to mention
that the emperor has no clothes.

The curious lessons of pragmatism are evident in contemporary society where slick salesmanship is
sometimes used for fraudulent purposes. Although few public officials would openly embrace the seemingly
hypnotic beliefs of James’ version of pragmatism, all are keenly aware of the ability to promote an idea in the
minds of the public through carefully spun publicity and misinformation.


Propaganda can be defined as information deliberately spread to help or harm a person, group, movement,
institution, nation, etc. The diary of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels (Doob, p. 439) cites some principles of
propaganda that were used to influence 20th century German citizens. Goebbels’ principles include the following:

  • Propaganda must diminish anxiety...which is too high and which cannot be reduced by people
  • Propaganda to the home front must diminish the impact of frustration.

Modern police administrators must guard again propagandizing for the purpose of deception. Reporting must be
fair and balanced. The philosophy of pragmatism is as evident in modern culture as it was when it was first
theorized in the 1800’s. James’ version of deceptive pragmatism may have embedded itself into modern police
practice, as the following sections demonstrate

Foot Patrol, Community Policing and Manipulating Public Perception

This section reviews the 1979 New Jersey Foot Patrol Experiment that led to the broken windows theory of social
disorder. Community Based Policing is also discussed along with the views of author Edwin J. Delattre who
cautions law enforcement administrators to guard against valuing perception above reality.

The Famous Newark, New Jersey Foot Patrol Experiment = No effect on crime rates

In 1979, a famous police foot patrol experiment was conducted in Newark, New Jersey (Police Foundation, Foot
Patrol Experiment). The experiment attempted to determine whether foot patrol made citizens feel safer and
reduced crime. Police officers who previously patrolled only in vehicles instead walked the beat and mingled with
citizens on a more personal basis. The results of the foot patrol experiment are summarized as follows:

    Residents in areas where foot patrol was introduced clearly changed their attitudes about crime and how
    they felt about the safety and livability of their neighborhoods. They also were more satisfied with police

    The study goes on to state:

    While foot patrol had no effect on recorded crime rates, it should be remembered that citizens feel
    threatened by non-criminal (disorderly) behavior as well, and that this threat of victimization may
    dramatically alter their lives. In response to a perceived threat, they may, for instance, nail their windows
    shut, carry lethal weapons, or avoid walking in their own neighborhood. Thus, fear can undermine the
    viability of major cities and erode the quality of urban dwellers.  The experiment’s summary ends with the
    following statement of vague optimism: Close contact between police and the citizenry helps the former
    develop first hand information about crime and possible criminal behavior. Such information systems are
    likely to have a positive long-term impact (Police Foundation, 1979).

The Newark experiment reflected a movement toward what was subsequently labeled as humanism in policing.
According to Leonard (1980) humanism in the context of policing emphasizes officers acting not only as agents
of the law but also as change agents for improving human development, human understanding and the human
condition of those being served.

The Newark foot patrol experiment marked a turning point in American policing. As a result, one new measure of
police effectiveness was not the measurable absence of crime but the mere perception of an absence of crime.
In the William James Pragmatist tradition, quantifiable crime reduction measures could be substituted with
qualitative opinion surveys asking citizens about their perceptions of safety. Notwithstanding quantitative
measurable crime numbers, if citizens could be convinced to feel safe policing could be considered successful.
Quantifiable data indicating fewer crimes could be substituted by qualitative stories from citizens who simply felt
safer, perhaps because they are unaware of surrounding crimes.

Offering uncertain and indefinite “long-term” rewards instead of quantifiable results, foot patrol became a way for
administrators to respond to rising crime rates by obfuscating the meanings of actual crime data. According to
the results of the experiment, despite measured crime rate increases, those citizens who saw the nearby police
officer walking the beat might be convinced that they were safe no matter what the local crime statistics asserted.

The false perception of safety created by the fallacy of foot patrol was analogous to the deception in the story of
The Emperors New Suit. In the words of E.H. Gombrich, “Anyone who can handle a needle convincingly can
make us see a thread which is not there.” The famous New Jersey foot patrol experiment helped convince police
administrators to devote more resources to community relations to pacify the citizenry.

Fixing Broken Windows to Manipulate Opinions about Safety

The “broken windows” theory of social disorder was developed and described by Wilson and Kelling in a 1982
article in the Atlantic. The article was based partly on the 1979 Newark foot patrol experiment. The broken
windows theory states that a community can deteriorate into major disorder and crime if no one attends to
maintenance of “quality of life” annoyances such as broken windows, graffiti, and minor incidents of public
nuisance. Wilson and Kelling state:

    Above all, we must return to our long-abandoned view that the police ought to protect communities as well
    as individuals. Our crime statistics and victimization surveys measure individual losses, but they do not
    measure communal losses. Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather
    than simply treating illness, so the police--and the rest of us--ought to recognize the importance of
    maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows.

In their book, Fixing broken windows: Restoring order and reducing crime in our communities (1996. p. 18)
Kelling and Cole reflect on the earlier Newark foot patrol experiment. They state:

    …police officials were unimpressed with foot patrol, however citizen responses were uniformly positive…
    Overwhelmingly, fear declined and citizen appreciation for police soared. Although foot patrol did not
    reduce the incidence of serious crime, residents of foot-patrolled neighborhoods felt more secure than
    did those in other areas, believed crime to have been reduced, and appeared to take fewer measures to
    protect themselves from crime (such as staying home and locking doors).

The Newark foot patrol experiment and the article by Wilson and Kelling contributed to the popularization of foot
patrol and community programs as an alleged long-term way to reduce crime and improve public relations.
Politicians began demanding and promising police foot patrol as part of their political crime-fighting platforms.
Foot patrol, bicycle patrols and later community based policing programs then became susceptible to pressures
from special interest groups and political leaders (Trojanowicz & Harden, 1985, n.p.).

Police Community Relations and Community Based Policing

The phrase “police community relations” was first popularized in 1955 (Taylor, 1984, p. 146). Police community
relations developed through the combined disciplines of sociology, psychology, education, law and political
science. It advocated improving the image of police through such tactics as public speaking engagements, open
houses and police athletic programs (Taylor, 1984, p. 156).

The 1970s and 1980s saw a shift toward what is now known as community based policing. Community based
policing promoted cooperation and teamwork between law enforcement, other government services and the
public. Citizens were encouraged to assist the police in non-enforcement tasks intended to improve the
community and the collective sense of public safety (COPS, 2003).

Historically and also through statutory authority, the police were tasked with making arrests and keeping the
peace. The absence of crime was a traditional measure of the success of law enforcement. Community policing
programs changed the goals of law enforcement and in many places eliminated the goal of crime reduction as
measure of success (Trojanowicz, Colgan, & Harden, Community Policing Programs: A twenty-year view, 1986).
Focusing on police-community cooperation and participation, community based policing advocated shared
responsibility for law enforcement with less emphasis on quantitative crime statistics as indicators of success.

Increased cooperation between law enforcement and the public also led to increased access to the police by the
media. In the 1980s and 1990s, law enforcement agencies began to provide more information to the media
through public information offices staffed by articulate spokespersons trained to provide the truth while
simultaneously presenting the police in a positive light.

Popular culture, the media and the entertainment industry continued to feature the intricacies and drama of law
enforcement work. Action-adventure films, television shows and documentaries portray policing in exhaustive
and sometimes-inaccurate detail. Investigative reporters, sometimes motivated by producers seeking improved
ratings and additional viewers, work diligently to expose every sensationalized aspect of police work in ways that
will draw viewers and sell advertising. Public perception is likely influenced by such exposure.

Today, police administrators are tasked with shaping public perception as an important job duty. Improving
public opinion of the police is an important goal for contemporary leaders. Despite any righteous goals related to
enforcing laws and apprehending criminals, a basic fact of police agency life is that they are dependent on their
community for financial resources and support (Taylor, 1984, p. 157).

Molding the often fickle and sometimes misled public consciousness became so important that in some
agencies it was a top goal of police administrators. For example, in one major American city, a goal of the
Organized Crime Bureau (OCB) commander was listed as follows: Make the city the safest major city in America
by raising the public perception of safety.  In other words, influence how people think without necessarily
confusing them with facts and statistics. Disbanding the Organized Crime Bureau and re-deploying its personnel
as smiling public relations specialists may be the best way to fulfill the police goal of raising the public
perception of safety.

For police administrators and advocates of traditional policing a dilemma exists. To what extent should ethics
and equity training recognize that police officers are to remain honest and truthful while simultaneously
manipulating public perception to convince citizens that they are safe?  How does one adhere to the rule of law
and report the crime-ridden truth while simultaneously raising the perception of safety?

Perception of Safety versus Actual Safety

Edwin J. Delattre, author of Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing (1996, preface) further describes the alarming
trend towards appealing to public opinion at the expense of law enforcement ethics. He states:

    I have been shocked and alarmed by a tendency I have witnessed in educational programs on ethics for
    police and police executives. I have repeatedly heard academics lawyers, reporters, and other outside
    “authorities” tell police that “appearances” and “public perceptions” matter more than anything else in
    policing, law enforcement, and other forms of public service.

    I do not know any competent philosopher or student of ethics who would make such an indefensible
    claim, especially in a setting where so much is at stake. After all, if you perceive me as your true and loyal
    friend, when in reality I am a cheat and a liar who will take advantage of you when the time is right, which
    matters more to you: what you perceive me to be, or what I truly am? Which is of greater importance to
    your well being, your perception or the truth?

    As these simple questions show, the idea that perceptions are more important than everything else is
    false. Police should reject this dangerous idea. First, public perceptions of police (and everything else)
    are always varied. Some public perceptions are rational and fair-minded; others are unfounded and
    prejudiced. Second, public perceptions are notoriously fickle, changing as rapidly as television sound
    bites. A police department or law enforcement agency that is driven by adoration of appearances, by
    preoccupation with public perceptions, can have no real focus, mission or standards to which it is durably

Delattre’s observations have important implications for law enforcement administrators. Ethics is often
associated with obtaining the truth. What style of ethics training will be developed by police administrators who
must also shape public opinion and who profess that appearances matter more than anything else?

Delattre comments further:

    A police department or law enforcement agency should be determined to deserve the confidence and
    trust of the public, not merely to appear to be worthy. If its members care most of all about public
    perceptions, they will be tempted to deceive the public by covering up wrongdoing and mistakes rather
    than improving themselves, their policies, their practices, their trustworthiness. Reality matters. But no
    element of responsible policing and law enforcement is compatible with the indefensible claim that
    perceptions or appearances are themselves the most important reality.

Delattre’s comments are important for law enforcement administrators and for developers of police ethics
training. The famous philosopher Socrates said, “The shortest and surest way to live with honor in the world, is to
be in reality what we would appear to be; and if we observe, we shall find, that all human virtues increase and
strengthen themselves by the practice of them.” Ethics training must be applied in ways that guard against their
use as weapons of manipulation.

In a contemporary culture that sometimes values style over substance and outward appearance over internal
virtues, contemporary law enforcement must guard against straying too far from the basic law enforcement
mandates of making arrests and keeping the peace. Followers of Machiavellian principles and James’
pragmatism who try to apply those theories to policing can create a subterfuge of obfuscated ethics.

The Political and Socio-economic Realities of Law Enforcement

In the United States, law enforcement authority is provided from the will of the people through legislation that
gives officers their authority. All-important budgets and funding for law enforcement are often controlled by
elected officials. Politicians are often influenced by those citizens who contribute to political campaigns or who
can successfully lobby their elected representatives. Law enforcement administrators must also win favor with
politicians and powerful citizens to achieve funding for the police operations that must also compete for funding
with other governmental operations.

To mollify affluent citizens, law enforcement administrators must devote significant resources to protecting
property. Property owners include prosperous individuals whose judgments can effect police department
budgets and whose opinions can influence the selection of law enforcement leadership. The political reality of
law enforcement is that policing an impure system that must sometimes inequitably respond to the demands of
the politically and financially powerful.

The Unprotected and the Marginalized

Although the police are expected to provide equivalent justice to all, some community members are not equally
protected. Children, the homeless, elderly and the disadvantaged are among those who do not control wealth or
political power and who sometimes do not receive an equitable share of services. The investigations of Internet
crimes against children are one example of a growing service need that does not have the widespread financial
support of mainstream law enforcement administrators. Because the disadvantaged do not have a voice in
politics the system can marginalize them.


This page reviewed some of the foundations of law enforcement authority in the United States and included a
review of the philosophies of Machiavelli and William James. Their ideas influenced modern police practices.
The two philosophers are important because their beliefs, if applied inappropriately, pose threats to ethics,
justice and fairness.


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