Guest Post: Toward a Police Ethos: Defining Our Values as a Call to Action by John Bertetto | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

Policing and the Community in the 21st Century

The last two decades have seen the rise in numerous, so-called “alternate” policing strategies (Kelling & Coles, 1997). Developed primarily in the classroom, these strategies include titles such as “Community Policing,” “Broken Windows Policing,” “Third Party Policing,” and “Pulling Levers Policing,” among others (Weisburd &Braga, 2006). At their core, these strategies share two primary purposes. First, they aim at the reduction of crime and disorder through a concerted reconnection and partnership with various civic organizations. Second, they are a subtle backlash at the dominant Professional Policing Model espoused and followed by most police departments in the preceding decades (Kelling & Coles, 1997).

Despite the shortcomings of each of these strategies, the aforementioned two purposes are valid points. History shows that the un-policed model of Professional Policing inevitably ends in failure (Blue Ribbon Rampart Review Panel, 2006; Weisburd & Braga, 2006). The shockwaves from these failures are damaging to both the organization and the community and can take decades to dissipate.

The fact that these strategies have come from academia, however, has created another criticism—this one coming from within police departments. The belief is that it takes an officer’s understanding of the street and the police culture to formulate policing strategies that are both safe and effective. Consequently, these new strategies find as their harshest critics the officers who are expected to execute them. This is a lose-lose-lose scenario. Academics and policy strategists lose out on an honest evaluation of alternative policing strategies; police lose out on the opportunity to find new solutions to existing problems; and the community loses the chance to see real and effective improvements in crime and safety.

As policing continues into the 21st century, the police officer must change as well. Technological advances require officers to be both intelligent and adaptive to change. The previously mentioned policing strategies require officers to expand upon their traditional role as law enforcement agents and include the roles of social worker and problem solver. These expanded duties increase the knowledge requirements for police officers. As new technology and new policing strategies evolve into the future, this requirement can only be expected to grow as well.

It is here, then, that a new need arises. Crime continues to grow and invade the safety of the community. As we develop officers’ capacity for social awareness, community relationship building, and problem solving, we must also continue to prepare and develop their capacity to face the rigorous challenges and dangers of law enforcement. We must create a true ethos.

Ethos Defined

Ethos is defined as “the character or values peculiar to a specific person, people, culture, or movement” (Buckingham, 1999, p. 4). A culture is derived from the ethos a person or group develops over time. What this definition is lacking, however, is a clear description of what those character traits or values are. It is incumbent on us, then, to clearly define our values as police. In doing so, we not only better understand who we are, but who we want to be. Most importantly, we can use this understanding to create a clear Police Ethos. The Police Ethos not only becomes a clear description of who we are, but it provides a clear set of values we can pass on to the next generation of officers. Though strategies may change, and administrations may come and go, our Police Ethos will never change. It has the ability to weather change and is rock solid, becoming the Gibraltar of what it means to be a police officer.

Change and the Police Ethos

As changes are made to the strategies that police officers’ use, and as technological changes and shifts in social thinking occur, it may be asked whether a Police Ethos is needed. Is the notion of a Police Ethos archaic and negated by these changes? The answer is clearly “No.”

Changing strategies in no way affect the police officers’ fundamental role of law enforcement. As long as crime is committed, officers will still need to patrol the streets, respond to calls for service, and apprehend offenders. Additional roles may be added to the duties of the officer, but the requirement to locate and apprehend offenders will remain.

Second, advances in technology neither demand nor warrant the absence of a defined Police Ethos. Technology plays no role in the value set of police culture. Furthermore, though technology may assist the police officer in the performance of the officer’s duties, it cannot make the critical and ethical decisions that officers must make during the performance of their duties. Though technology may help identify and record criminal activity, apprehension must still be performed by officers placing offenders into custody.

Finally, sociological and psychological examination of the factors which may influence or cause criminal activity in no way affects officers engaged in the performance of their law enforcement duties. Police officers are not responsible, ultimately, for the alleviation of social ills. Officers most often deal with the terminal results of these ills. As debate continues regarding the social causes of crime, crime itself still exists. Officers will still be required to be on the street confronting and securing offenders. Changes in social theory do not affect this, and, thus, do not alleviate the need for a defined Police Ethos.

Distinctive Traits

In his study entitled The Warrior Ethos, Major David W. Buckingham (1999) endeavored to identify and isolate what he termed “warrior distinctives” (p. 20). Buckingham defined these “distinctives” as a facet of character or a value that research repeatedly demonstrates as necessary for combat effectiveness but that is distinctive from civilian society. He identified five traits:

  1. Discipline
  2. Cohesion
  3. Sacrifice
  4. Strength
  5. Authority

Though the purpose of Major Buckingham’s research was to identify traits distinctive to the military and it’s Warrior Ethos, the traits he describes are not unique to military application. Rather, these traits are equally valuable for policing and should be given further consideration.


Discipline is defined as “controlled behavior resulting from training” and “a state of order based on submission to rules and authority” (Buckingham, 1999, p. 21). Typically, a behavior is a learned response. In the case of both this definition and policing, this behavior is not only the result of training, but the individual retains full control of their behavior as a result of the training. The work of the police officer is governed by both law and by department regulations, and the officer utilizes the authority granted by these to maintain order of both the officer him- or herself and the community.

Discipline is both an individual as well as a group trait. The officer who maintains personal physical fitness and who visits the firing range using personal time displays the type of controlled behavior that defines individual discipline. The commander who ensures that officers are adequately trained and equipped, and who ensures that officers are performing their duties in accordance with established regulations, creates and maintains the type of controlled behavior that defines group discipline.

Discipline exists in other professions and activities, but the type of discipline required and exhibited by police officers is distinctive. Unlike other professions, police officers are never “off-duty.” The training requirements to become a police officer, and the resultant controlled behavior, are much more rigorous than almost any other civilian job. Officers are held to a higher standard for their conduct both on- and off-duty. It is the strict adherence to training that best protects the police officer from attack and injury. The discipline needed for the police officer at both the individual and team level is unique.


Cohesion has two meanings: it is both the process of two or more elements cohering, and it is the end result of two or more elements that are held together. For police officers, both of these meanings should be understood and their actualization strived for. What are the forces that create cohesion? In the end, it is the shared hardship that pulls police together—the shared hardship of training, the shared hardship of duty, and the shared hardship of service. It is the often unspoken shared familiarity of standing in the rain or snow, or running down a dark alley. Sometimes, it is the shared hardship of loss. While it may be reflexive to seek to alleviate hardship, it should be understood that it is the very thing that drives cohesion. Shared hardship forges bonds between individuals, the strength of which are determined by the degree of severity. While it is not the goal of leaders to create artificial hardships to attempt to create cohesion, a plan that ultimately does not work (Buchholz & Roth, 1987), the mutual trust between those who have shared hardships is not easily shaken.

As well as a process, cohesion is a state of being. Units that have cohesion actively strive to work together. They intuitively understand that their strength is in their combined efforts, and they give to one another selflessly. Their mutual trust guarantees that their efforts will not go unrewarded.

While it has been en vogue for some time in the civilian world to participate in “team building excursions” as an attempt to create cohesion, none of these efforts will match the cohesive possibilities of police officers. Police work is distinctive primarily because of the danger to life that the work entails. As the potential for injury or death grows, so grows the potential for cohesion. It is this reason why so many civilian attempts to create cohesion fail—there is no real danger to any of the participants.


For police officers, the job itself entails many sacrifices unknown in civilian vocations. The officer’s willingness to sacrifice their own personal desires for the sake of the community is a cornerstone of the Police Ethos. Police officers sacrifice time with their families, working around the clock as well as on holidays, as a result of their profession. Police officers also know that their service may require the ultimate sacrifice—their lives.

There is sacrifice within the organizational design of policing. By virtue of the rank structure inherent to police departments, officers sacrifice a degree of personal autonomy, willfully taking direction and orders from those of higher rank. Personal freedom is also sacrificed by the adherence to uniform guidelines. These sacrifices, taken in total, are distinctive to police officers.


Strength is the ability to resist stress or strain. Strength can take two primary forms for the police officer: (1) strength of character and (2) physical strength.

Police officers are beset from all angles by attempts on their strength of character. The job itself is mentally demanding, requiring the officer’s full focus and attention to detail. Miscalculations or inattentiveness can cost lives. Officers are most often witness to the most disparate moments in people’s lives. The repeated viewing of this cruelty can affect the strength of the officer’s character. Police officers must develop the strength to witness and process these events, moving forward and remaining focused on the organizational mission and the well-being of those whom they continue to serve.

Through their actions, criminals have proven a disregard for others and a singular focus upon themselves. They will often say or attempt anything to secure their own escape from justice. Criminals are not above attempting to make officers party to their own escape or to the continuation of their illegal activities—that is, to turning a “blind eye.” Police officers must have the moral strength to resist these temptations.

Officers must also possess the strength of character to persevere. However trying an incident may be, the police officer must never quit. The safety of the community demands it. The lives and safety of fellow officers demands it. Commitment to duty and honor demands it. The police officer must possess and maintain the physical strength required to perform the job. This includes the ability to run after offenders, scale fences and walls, and subdue resistant offenders, but it is certainly not limited to these activities.

Police officers must maintain a particular level of physical strength and fitness to maintain a command presence. Officers must convey by their physical presence that they have the ability to complete any task assigned to them. A police officer’s physical strength must tell the community not only that they care about them but that they care about themselves as well. The uniform is not just an identifier of the officer’s profession; it is also an obligation. It obliges the officer who wears it to have both the character strength and physical strength to honor the office which the uniform represents. Though other professions exist which require character and physical strength, these particular demands are distinctive to police officers.


Authority is the right or power to give commands, enforce obedience, or to take action. Officers have the legal authority to deprive individuals of their freedom of movement while conducting investigations and effecting arrests. Certainly these authorities are not granted, nor exercised, lightly. Due to the breadth of authority police officers are granted, it is a trait distinctive to its profession.

While it is the primary duty of police officers to execute their legal authority, it is their primary responsibility to execute their moral authority. With the wide powers granted by legal authority, it is incumbent upon officers to ensure that this authority is not used for personal benefit. The exercise of authority, both legal and moral, is the fundamental basis for action by police officers.

Not only must authority be exercised properly, but it must also be submitted to respectfully. With rank comes increased authority, including the authority over subordinate officers. For departmental supervisors and leaders, this acknowledgement of authority over officers must always be tempered with the knowledge that they are also responsible for the conduct and safety of their subordinates. While the departmental mission must come first, supervisors and leaders must recognize that they cannot put their people in the way of undue harm. With authority, there is responsibility—not just up the chain of command but down as well.

Similarly, those officers who are subordinate by rank must be willing to submit to authority. This does not mean that officers are subjected to the whims of their superiors, but it does mean adherence to proper procedures for the performance of duties. The respectful submission to authority by police officers is as critical to the overall success of the departmental mission as the exercise of authority is.

Warrior Ethos and Warrior Police

For some time, the military has had a clearly stated Warrior Ethos. Through this simple declaration, they make clear their core values. Police departments have often tried to do similar feats, creating mission statements or providing lists of values in the form of acronyms. Undoubtedly, these are beneficial practices. However, no formally labeled and committed Police Ethos has been presented. This most likely is due to confusion over what exactly is an “ethos” for police officers and its confusion with what some have often referred to as Warrior Police.

The police officer is pressured from many angles. Most notably, these pressures come from the criminal element itself. Though statistics show that violent crime and felonious assaults against police officers are slowly declining, criminals remain more violent and better armed than at any other time in American law enforcement. Respect for police is at a low due to societal changes and various police scandals. Too often, communities within large cities resemble war zones, with criminals forcing residents to hide within their homes. The police are vocally encouraged by both the community and from within to be proactive, creating innovative and often aggressive strategies for combating crime and violence. At some point, the statement is made that police need to be, like the military and their Warrior Ethos, warriors themselves. Without realizing it, however, this statement can set up departments for tremendous failure.

Our communities are not war zones. When the comparison between military “warriors” and police officers is made, it invariably leads to an ever-increasing level of tactical aggression by officers. Police officers may begin to see their role as subjugator and the entirety of a community as “the enemy.” This effect has been studied in Los Angeles after the scandal in the Rampart Division which occurred during the 1990s.

As part of Los Angeles Police Department’s Consent Decree, a panel was created to investigate the circumstances which led to the Rampart scandal with the goal to determine how obvious warning signs were missed. Among their findings they noted two primary drivers that led to the scandal: (1) the department’s encouragement of a “gunslinger” mindset and (2) the pressure to bring about dramatic reductions in violent crime that created a “no holds barred” strategy (Blue Ribbon Rampart Review Panel, 2006). In short, officers were encouraged to view themselves as “warriors,” and supervisors often turned a blind eye to excesses so that their officers could bring in arrests.

Police departments must, to a certain degree, encourage aggressive policing in their officers. As crime continues and, in some areas, worsens, officers must be mentally prepared to actively seek out and stop criminals. The mission must remain the primary focus. However, the streets of our communities are not battlefields. To encourage this mindset sets the stage for a lack of empathy that only deepens the gulf of the “us vs. them” mentality. As officers are encouraged to see themselves as besieged warriors fighting against an entrenched enemy, the potential for abuse can grow until actualized. This danger must be recognized. The understanding of what a Warrior Ethos is, and by extension creating a Police Ethos, becomes critical in this avoidance. A Police Ethos provides for a statement of values while calling for action.

The Police Ethos

As previously stated, the notion of a Police Ethos is values in action. The ethos must be statements of our core beliefs as law enforcement officers and, therefore, should be universally applicable for every agency. They must also be motivational; they must command our officers into action while reaffirming purpose and direction. They are statements of who we are:

I Will Always Place the Needs of the Community Before My Own.

I Will Always Preserve the Honor and Integrity of the Police Officer.

I Will Never Accept Defeat.

I Will Never Quit.

I Will Never Fail My Fellow Officer.

I Will Always Place the Needs of the Community Before My Own.

This ethos statement is a reminder that our primary mission is to ensure the safety and security of the communities we serve. It reminds us that we are employed by them. The community is not the obstacle to our mission, it is our mission. Before we see to our own needs, we must first attend to theirs.

Though our mission is to ensure the safety of the community before our own, this does not mean that we are reckless. As has often been said, though, we run to the sound of gunfire while others run away. It is this spirit that this ethos statement claims.

I Will Always Preserve the Honor and Integrity of the Police Officer.

Acceptance of the duties of an officer itself is a display of honor. As we are well aware, the job is a difficult one, set with danger and difficult working conditions. The personal decision to become an officer remains at its core an altruistic one and, therefore, indicates the type of honor inherent in every law enforcement officer. One key to successfully achieving the above ethos statement is to remember this selfless decision, even as the years go by.

As officers, we remain under the public’s watchful eye. The increased presence of security cameras, dashboard cameras, and cell-phone video recorders guarantee that our actions will always be available for review. This does not matter, though, because this ethos statement reminds us that our actions are always honorable and that we always act with the highest degree of integrity and personal ethics. As officers, our actions are unbiased, and we enforce the laws fairly and impartially. Officers will take no action that may reflect negatively upon not only their own honor and integrity, but upon the honor and integrity of their office or their profession.

I Will Never Accept Defeat; I Will Never Quit.

At first glance, these two statements appear redundant. They are not identical. In order to be defeated, an event must have come to some conclusion. For officers, this may mean an individual investigation, or it may mean a specific trial. It may refer to the pursuit of an offender who has, at present, eluded us. An officer does not accept defeat. An officer will continue to seek new avenues for success, new investigative angles to pursue, or new corners to search. If an action has been quit, it was done so during an event. This is the difference between defeat and quit. The former occurs after an event has concluded; the latter occurs during the course of the event. Officers will never quit. They will pursue an offender tirelessly, be that pursuit a paper investigation or a foot chase.

The most critical aspect of these two ethos statements, however, is not their definitions or their subtle differences. Rather, it is the one thing they share. Both represent conscious decisions. An individual must decide to be defeated and an individual must decide to quit. By making these two ethos statements, we do two things. First, we remove the decision from the officer. Secondly, we shine a light upon these two decisions so that supervisors and commanders may recognize them. Part of continued officer training can be the reinforcement of these two ethos statements, conditioning officers to never have as part of their decision-making processes the notion of defeat or quitting.

I Will Never Fail My Fellow Officer.

Officers must rely on each other. We back each other up on the street and come to each other’s aid in times of personal need. Despite any personal differences officers may have toward one another, these are forgotten when help is needed.

This statement is the last, however, for a purpose. Failure to live up to the preceding ethos statements is a failure to your fellow officers. If an officer puts themselves and their benefit before the community, if an officer lacks integrity, if an officer accepts defeat or quits, then the officer has failed their fellow officers. Every officer must live the Police Ethos or they have failed their fellow officers. This statement makes it clear: failure in any form is not an option.


An ethos is a statement of core values by which a culture is defined. We have seen how the traits distinctive to law enforcement provide support for the notion of a dedicated Police Ethos. The confusion of a Warrior Ethos and the notion of a Warrior Police can create a cycle of increasing separation of police from the communities they serve. It is this confusion that can encourage the type of “gunslinger” attitude that leads to disastrous incidents like the one Los Angeles suffered. The creation of a formal Police Ethos can eliminate this confusion. By confirming the core values of the police officer in a true Police Ethos, the essence of the warrior spirit can be captured while simultaneously affirming the honor and integrity inherent in our chosen profession.


Blue Ribbon Rampart Review Panel. (2006). Rampart reconsidered: The search for real reform seven years later. Los Angeles: Rice.

Buchholz, S., & Roth, T. (1987). Creating the high performance team. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Buckingham, D. W. (1999). The warrior ethos. Newport, RI: Naval War College.

Kelling, G., & Coles, C. (1997). Fixing broken windows. New York: Simon &Schuster.

Weisburd, D., & Braga, A. A. (Eds.). (2006). Police innovation: Contrasting perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press.

John A. Bertetto is a sworn member of the Chicago Police Department. He is the author of “Counter-Gang Strategy: Adapted COIN in Policing Criminal Street Gangs,” “Coun­tering Criminal Street Gangs: Lessons from the Counterinsurgent Battlespace,” and “Designing Law Enforcement: Adap­tive Strategies for the Complex Envi­ronment.” Officer Bertetto holds a Master of Science degree from Western Illinois University and a Master of Business Administration from St. Xavier University.

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