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What is Ethics and How Does it Affect Officers?
By Greg Osterstuck
Published: 06/04/2012

Ethics a A dictionary definition of ethics is: “A set of principles of right conduct, a theory or a system of moral values, the rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or members of a profession.” ¹

As a correction officer or police officer you are held to a higher standard than the public is. You take an oath to protect and serve. Part of your duties as an officer is to be “above reproach” both on and off duty. Almost every facility (county, state, federal) has SOPs which regulate what you can and cannot do as an officer. These regulations in essence protect the department, not the officer. Your responsibilities to the department include being aware of ethical behavior which means to the general public moral values and conducting yourself properly as an officer.

An officer that is off duty goes into a bar and drinks quite heavily. As the night progresses he or she leaves the bar and drives home but is stopped by police and given a field sobriety test. The officer pulls out their badge and says they are in law enforcement and “just had a few drinks.” Unfortunately the officer is over the limit on the breathalyzer and is arrested for DWI. Now they are embarrassed taken to the police agency, booked for DWI and perhaps other V&T offenses. Then the officer is taken to court and arraigned. At this point hopefully he or she is not committed to jail, especially their OWN jail. Now for those of you reading this article thinking that a DWI won’t be reported to your supervisor or superintendent, you are in for a surprise, quite often the next day at work. Generally speaking, most agencies will suspend any officer who is arrested for DWI and if that officer is part time they will probably lose their job. Officers that are permanent civil service are subject to a civil service hearing which in all likelihood will result in demotion, loss of pay or dismissal.

There are other examples of being unethical as a correction officer. You might think that only police officers are susceptible to being offered a bribe but inmates are quite adept at trying to get officers to introduce contraband into a facility for a promise of money or other compensation. Other ways of getting into trouble with ethics is accepting something for free because you are an officer. Many officers who go to work or home stop at a gas station for coffee or a cold drink. Have you been given a free cup of coffee or drink at that store? Should you assume that because you are a public servant that a free cup of coffee is an entitlement? The answer is no. To accept just a free cup of coffee might seem trivial to you but in actuality you are being unethical as an officer. To get around this free service simply give the clerk the money to pay for your coffee or drink and thank them for the offer.

Another ethical problem exists when correction officers wear their uniforms to and from work. There is nothing wrong with wearing uniforms in this way and doubtful that any facility would prevent you from doing so. The choice of course is up to you as to wearing the uniform or changing into civilian clothes at the facility. Where correction officers get into trouble is when they are in the public in uniform and inadvertently say or do something that is unethical. For example, if you are in a grocery store do your really think it’s ethical to buy beer or liquor while you are in uniform? What happens when the clerk who thinks you are under 30 years of age asks for proof and you say, “I am a correction officer, see my badge.” It’s a slippery slope to be in uniform purchasing items that if you were in civilian clothes would be perfectly fine. While on this discussion please remember that you as a correction officer to the public may appear to be a police officer or Deputy Sheriff and they will look to you for help or ask questions that a police officer should answer. If that happens politely explain that you are off duty and they should contact the police or Sheriff for assistance.

Ethics really covers many areas that correction officers encounter both on the job and off shift. One of the best things you can do is to re-read your SOPs to see what your facility policies are regarding ethical behaviors and having read those regulations be careful not to get yourself in trouble by purposely violating them.

¹ The American Heritage College Dictionary, Fourth Ed, Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, pp. 480.

Corrections.com author, Greg Osterstuck, retired after 22 years of corrections at the Chautauqua County Jail. As a correction officer he volunteered for tasks such as DNA collection officer, notary public and instituted the current Sheriff's law library system where he researched both NY state and Federal law for inmates. He also serves as a substitute teacher at Erie-2 BOCES for Criminal Justice and several other CTE courses with junior and senior high school students. Greg is also a certified American Heart Association CPR and first aid instructor.

Other articles by Osterstuck


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