Posted: May 25th, 2022

Private conduct of professional police officers


Police Ethics Codes and the Problem of “Professional Courtesy”

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In contemporary American policing, every duly authorized federal, state, or local municipal police agency maintains an official code of professional conduct or “code of ethics” (Peak, 2002; Schmalleger, 2008). Generally, police codes of ethics outline the professional responsibility of professional police officers to adhere to high standards of personal and professional conduct in the performance of their official duties. Additionally, many police codes of ethics also apply to the private conduct of professional police officers in their private lives as well (Peak, 2002; Schmalleger, 2008).

Within contemporary American policing, there is a fundamental problem in connection with the existence of unofficial and unauthorized “codes” of “professional courtesy” among police officers (Peak, 2002). Specifically, many police officers are extremely reluctant to take enforcement action, even in circumstances where official codes of ethics, statutory law, and official department policies and procedures expressly require strict enforcement. The issue generally arises most frequently in conjunction with motor vehicle code infraction precipitating traffic stops of off-duty police officers but it can also arise in other circumstances such as where off-duty officers are involved in domestic disturbance that result in police calls for service to their residence (Conlon, 2002; Peak, 2002).

In many instances, police officer maintain harsh unofficial policies used to discourage officers from taking enforcement action against other police officers, even across unconnected police agencies. The “professional courtesy” issue in modern American policing undermines the integrity of the entire profession.

Durham, New Hampshire Police Department Code of Ethics

The following Law Enforcement Code of Ethics is adopted as policy by the Durham Police Department. All Durham Police Personnel will conduct their assigned duties according to this Code:

Article 1. As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve mankind; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation, and the peaceful against violence and disorder; and to respect the Constitutional rights of all persons to liberty, equality, and justice.

Article 2. I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all; maintain courage in the face of danger, scorn, or ridicule; develop self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others. Honest in thought and deed in both my personal and official life, I will be exemplary in obeying the laws of the land and the regulations of my department. What I see or hear of a confidential nature, or that which is confided in me in my official capacity will be kept ever secret unless revelation is necessary in the performance of my duty.

Article 3. I will never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, animosities, or friendships to influence my decisions. With no compromise for criminals, and with relentless prosecution of criminals, I will enforce the law courageously and appropriately without fear or favor, malice or ill will, never employing unnecessary force or violence, and never accepting gratuities.

Article 4. I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of police service. I will constantly strive to achieve those objectives and ideals, dedicating myself to my chosen profession — law enforcement.

(DPD, 2008)

System of Inquiry for Implementation of DPD Code of Ethics Article 3

The issue of identifying ethically inappropriate conduct in connection with the response of on-duty officers to situations involving off-duty officers can be particularly complicated from an ethical compliance perspective. That is substantially because police officer are authorized considerable latitude with respect to the decision to take enforcement action under the concept of “officer discretion” (Conlon, 2004; Peak, 2002; Schmalleger, 2008). The following System of Inquiry (SOI) is designed to differentiate the appropriate and duly authorized use of officer discretion from the impermissible, unlawful practice of professional courtesy that violates Article 3 of the official DPD Code of Ethics. Additionally, the SOI will also address the issue of distinguishing nominal gratuities that do not compromise the ability of DPD officers to perform their duties faithfully from substantial gratuities that could compromise their objectivity and/or create an inference or expectation of quid pro quo with respect to policing duties.

In circumstances where an on-duty DPD officer has occasion to respond in his or her official police capacity and the situation involves an off-duty police officer from any recognized police agency, the following questions will be asked to distinguish the lawful and ethically appropriate application of officer discretion from the unlawful and ethically inappropriate failure to take enforcement action as a function of so-called “professional courtesy”:

1. Is the violation of law a violation whose enforcement is required by statutory law or a violation that is appropriately subject to officer discretion?

2. If the violation of law is appropriately subject to officer discretion, is it a type of violation to which the on-duty officer typically applies discretion when that

violation is committed by a civilian or the type of violation to which the on-

duty officer typically does not apply discretion when the violation is committed by a civilian?

3. If the violation of law is appropriately subject to officer discretion, and if it is a type of violation to which the on-duty officer typically applies discretion when that violation is committed by a civilian, is the particular type of enforcement or non-enforcement the same whether the offender is a civilian or a fellow police officer?

Gratuity Acceptance System of Inquiry

Virtually all modern American police agencies maintain strict policies prohibiting the acceptance of gratuities (Peak, 2002; Schmalleger, 2008). However, in many cases, strictly nominal gratuities (such as a cup of coffee) are excepted from the definition of “gratuity” in recognition of the unlikelihood of their interfering with the ability or inclination of the police officer to perform his official duties with respect to the individual proffering such nominal gratuities. However, in addition to the actual value of the gratuity and the ability of police officer to maintain professional objectivity, there are other important issues, such as the perceptions and expectations of the individual proffering the nominal gratuity and the possible creation of the appearance or inference of a preferential relationship in the minds of others privy to the exchange.

In circumstances where a DPD officer has occasion to respond to a proffered gratuity, the following questions will be asked to distinguish the lawful and ethically appropriate acceptance of that gratuity from the unlawful, ethically inappropriate, or potentially damaging acceptance of the gratuity based on the totality of the circumstances involved:

1. Is a proffered gratuity valuable enough to compromise the ability of the police officer to fulfill his or her professional responsibilities objectively?

2. If the proffered gratuity is not valuable enough to compromise the ability of the police officer to fulfill his or her professional responsibilities objectively, is the acceptance of the proffered gratuity capable of creating an expectation of preferential treatment on the part of the individual offering it?

3. If the proffered gratuity is not valuable enough to compromise the ability of the police officer to fulfill his or her professional responsibilities objectively, and if the acceptance of the proffered gratuity is not capable of creating an expectation of preferential treatment on the part of the individual offering it, is it capable of creating the appearance of improper solicitation from the totality of the circumstances from the perspective of any person aware of it?

Professional Courtesy System of Inquiry Rationale

Differential enforcement of certain violations is within the appropriate exercise of police officer discretion; others expressly require enforcement. Police officers may appropriately apply the same type of discretion to situations involving fellow off-duty police officers as they typically apply in general. They may not misuse the concept of officer discretion to apply a different enforcement standard based on the knowledge that the offender is a police officer.

When police officers exercise officer discretion in connection with deciding the specific type of enforcement action to take, they may issue verbal warnings or “reprimands,” written warnings, or they may apply a lesser penalty, such as by issuing a summons for a lower speed than that which actually precipitated the initial police-citizen contact. Police officers may not ethically apply different standards of reduced enforcement based on the identity of the offender.

Gratuity Acceptance System of Inquiry Rationale

Gratuities include those of substantial monetary (or other) value capable of compromising a police officer’s professional objectivity (such as cash or other valuable consideration) as well as those that are strictly nominal in value and merely meant to express appropriate gratitude for the policing profession (such a free cup of coffee). Police ethics prohibit the acceptance of the former but should not require officers to decline nominal gestures of respect that have inconsequential value.

In addition to the issue of whether or not a gratuity is valuable or otherwise substantial enough to compromise the professional objectivity of police officers, there is the separate issue of the subjective perception and expectation of preferential treatment potentially created in the minds of individuals proffering gratuities that are not inappropriate strictly as a function of their value. To the extent the totality of circumstances suggest that possibility, even acceptance of the most nominal gratuities (i.e. A cup of coffee) is ethically inappropriate.

Similarly, even where the gratuity involved is of nominal value and there is no potential misunderstanding on the part of the individual proffering an otherwise appropriate gratuity, there is the issue of creating the appearance or inference of an improper relationship from the perspective of others observing the exchange. For example, while the proffer and acceptance of a single cup of coffee is excusable within the framework of ordinary positive community relations, the conspicuous regular transfer of even nominal gratuities in the presence of third parties can create an apparent inference of inappropriate influence regardless of whether or not that inference is necessarily accurate.


The SOI is intended to ensure that police officers do not misuse their duly authorized latitude to take different degrees of enforcement action (or non-enforcement) in circumstances where strict enforcement is not mandated by law, public policy, or department policies and regulation. More specifically, the SOI provides a framework for distinguishing the appropriate use of officer discretion from inappropriate preferential treatment in connection with police-citizen contacts involving off-duty police officers.

The SOI is also intended to ensure that police officers do not inadvertently accept gratuities of nominal value under circumstances where there exists any potential for misunderstanding. Such misunderstandings include subjective perceptions potentially created in the minds of the individual proffering an otherwise appropriate gratuity or courtesy as well as perceptions potentially created in the minds of any third parties that could undermine confidence in impartiality of police officers or respect for the police department of the policing profession.


Conlon E. (2004). Blue Blood. Riverhead, NY: Bantam.

Peak K. (2002). Policing America: Methods, Issues, Challenges. New Jersey: Prentice


Schmalleger F. (2008). Criminal Justice Today: An Introductory Text for the 21st

Century. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Town of Durham, New Hampshire Police Department Code of Ethics. (2008). Retrieved

February 21, 2010 from the DPD public website, at:

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