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Ethical policing is bigger than the code says former head of PSD

Thames Valley Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Paine spoke to Police Oracle about supporting officers to make ethical decisions in situations that are not clear-cut.

The Code of Ethics was first published in 2014 and is currently under review by the College of Policing.

It has been designed as an “everyday decision-making framework” that reinforces values and standards as well as supporting officers to make the right decisions.

Thames Valley DCS Colin Paine, who previously had been the Head of the Professional Standards Department, but is now an operational officer, has called for more discussions around ethics as a way of equipping officers with the thinking they need when faced with some of the more nuanced decisions.

“The code of ethics and the national decision model are both excellent. They've been in existence for some time and are well understood across the service - and they are both really good at what they're intended to do,” he explained.

“The NDM, for example, is a really good model for helping with running firearms jobs or public order jobs. But what it doesn't do is help you work out the nuances of what the right course of action is to take, or the most ethical course of action, in circumstances where you're not just trying to mitigate risk.

“For example, what's more important in some circumstances -  the wishes of the victim, or the need to show that we've acted with integrity and carried out an investigation regardless of what the victim wants?”

Meanwhile, he added that the code of ethics is good at laying down principles around policing but it can’t show exactly which principle should be prioritised in individual circumstances.

“If you've got offenders who are using mopeds to commit crime on the road, such as robbery, and they drive off at speed without helmet. The code of ethics is helpful in saying you need to act selflessly. But that doesn't help you identify what's more important – do we use police vehicles to make tactical contact, effectively knock the rider off and bring that offence to an end? Or is it more important to prioritise the rights and well-being of a suspect whose life might be endangered by us doing so?”

DCS Paine said the level of expectation on officers to make challenging decisions at speed is often underestimated by the public, and not portrayed effectively in TV dramas.

He also called for Professional Standards Departments and the IOPC to “put themselves in the shoes” of an officer when making decisions around their actions, adding that the IOPC is already working with forces to familiarise themselves with the pressures and realities of police work.

He continued: “The other thing that is often overlooked is that officers are human beings, and we are subject to all of the normal difficulties with decision making that any human being is - be that the pressures of the situation, time pressures, fatigue, lack of sleep, sometimes anxiety about the outcome […] All of these things reduce the amount of cognitive space officers have available to be able to apply themselves fully to the ethical problem in front of them.”

To better equip officers with the tools they need to make fast but ethical decisions, TVP has a number of ongoing programmes.  

The force has employed Dr Hannah Maslen from the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. Dr Maslen works for the force for one day a week and has produced a range of academic articles and other products which help with thinking in this area. She has also helped to influence force policies.

TVP additionally has a professional and ethics standards panel involving members of the public who help provide scrutiny to policy changes, ethical dilemmas and professional standards issues.

Meanwhile, regular “ethics in action” forums are held as a way of considering certain issues in depth. Although it’s often not possible to provide definitive answers, these can lead to clearer guidance for officers, or at the very least close off decisions which are clearly wrong. 

One such forum TVP recently held looked at if and when it would be appropriate to allow an officer to engage in a protest – a balance between the officer’s democratic rights and the need for policing to remain apart from political activity.

The forum involved university experts, lawyers, frontline officers and members of TVP’s professional and ethical standard’s panel.

Subsequent advice was drafted for officers explaining that the attendance at a peaceful protest while off duty is not prohibited by regulations – but that those attending must consider not only their intent but how it is perceived by others. Officers should not be seen to endorse or criticise a particular political party, for example.  

The College is currently reviewing the Code of Ethics and DCS Paine said he would like also to see a commitment to a programme of work around practical ethics in policing. Ultimately, he said, he would like to see a National Centre for Policing Practical Ethics – with police practitioners and academics working together.

He added that too often ethics in policing is reduced to “naughtiness or bad behaviour”.

“Ethical behaviour is about pursuit of a good course of action, when very often no “good” course of action exists. In many policing situations, no matter what decision is chosen – it will produce bad consequences.

“Practical police ethics is about doing the thinking around what makes a decision a good one – and then taking those decisions out of the realm of misconduct into the realm of ethical thinking.”

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