"Any compromise between good and evil only hurts the good and helps the evil" (Ann Rand)

    The vast majority of police officers are honest and ethical, at least in their personal, or ordinary, morality (which may be different from their "role morality" or police ethics), but all of them pay the price for decreased public confidence and trust when there is little respect for police ethics.  In this lecture, we examine two possible causes of public mistrust for police ethics: (1) the perception that a police subculture exists that either turns good officers bad or tolerates evil in the midst of policing; and (2) the perception that most of policing is just a front for racial discrimination.  These perceptions affect all of policing, go to the heart of police role in society, and involve ethical issues which we will explore in depth.  Trust is the main ethical issue in this approach to police ethics, and in learning about trust, we also learn about other irrational forces in society, like fear.  This kind of focus on police ethics is also a focus on societal ethics.  Facts make little difference here, as it doesn't matter whether we can trace the roots of public mistrust to any specific event; what matters is perception, and how those perceptions influence the morality of a nation as a whole.

    It may be helpful to begin with a few terminological definitions.  The concept of slippery slope, for example, permeates all of police work, and involves the built-in potential for gradual deterioration of socio-moral inhibitions and a perceived sense of permissibility for deviant conduct.  The concept known as the Dirty Harry scenario involves approval for the police to make false promises to (or worse still, torture) hostage takers and kidnappers.  The concept of noble cause corruption refers to certain acts with the mantle of respectability, like making white lies, or more generally, a commitment to "doing something about bad people," which is an "ends-based" police ethic that can be corrupted when officers violate the law on behalf of personally held moral values.  There are a number of other terms which we shall now define:

    Of the above, misconduct is the type of behavior that is most easily studied, and it's the stuff that investigatory, Blue Ribbon commissions usually look at.  Misconduct in policing is impropriety of office, not misuse of office.  It's the appearance of greater wrongdoing that makes misconduct intriguing to most people.  Everyone knows what clear-cut misuse of power looks like, but the appearance of impropriety is a bit more subtle.  It leaves the public free to speculate and draw sweeping generalizations about the profession as a whole.  The different types of misconduct are often classified as follows:


    Legitimacy and trust are complex issues in policing.  Legitimacy refers to how fair or just the outcomes of policing are, and trust refers to a faith in the procedural justice of policing.  In practice, most researchers (e.g. Stoutland 2001) combine the two into one big concept called TRUST and use the following indicators:

    The indicators of shared priorities and respect are specific indicators of trust and the indicators of competency and dependability are specific indicators of legitimacy.  The police need the public to have positive perceptions on all these indicators, which are usually seen as the "four dimensions of trust" in police studies.  Researchers (Hawdon et. al. 2003) have found that about the only thing which is correlated with these indicators is police visibility (the number of patrols in a neighborhood).  Whether or not police officers stop to informally talk with anybody doesn't matter, and neither does any attempt by police to engage in community policing.  All that matters is that police are seen out-and-about, presumably doing their job.

    Image is everything, and a police officer who just needs to be seen, can be seen doing anything, as long as it's not ridiculous.  From the point of view that visibility is the only thing that matters, being seen sleeping in a car would be a worse offense than being callous toward citizens.  Americans don't seem to want human beings as police officers, just machine-like robots who fill up a uniform and stand visibly by for action and/or service.


    It's been called the "impossible mandate" (Manning & Van Maanen 1978), the "ambivalent force" (Blumberg & Niederhoffer 1985), and the "unprofessional profession" (Delattre 1996), among other terms, but the key idea is that a serious ROLE CONFLICT exists in policing -- a conflict between the role of action-oriented crime fighter and the role of service-oriented public servant.  This conflict between being a crime fighter versus being a public servant is what causes a police subculture to exist.  There is a certain group think phenomenon that takes place in police cultures, which result in everyone with the group thinking and acting the same.  Loyalty to coworkers is essential, and whistleblowing is extremely discouraged.  Loyalty has a dark side, and corruption and immorality can easily hide behind it.    Packer (1968) has defined the underlying conflict as one between the ideals of crime control versus the ideals of due process, as follows:

(assembly-line justice)
(obstacle-course justice):
Efficiency (of operation) Error (possibility of mistake)
Magnitude (speed and finality) Quality control (no emphasis on finality)
Expertness (few restrictions on fact finding) Skepticism (moral, utilitarian restrictions)
Factual guilt (we know you did it) Legal guilt (prove it in a court of law)
Presumption of guilt (a mood of confidence) Presumption of innocence (a mood of doubt)

    When police try to accomplish both roles, the result is an institutionalized tolerance of deviance at the extreme ends of both poles.  Therefore, underenforcement (leniency in the name of due process) is as much a problem as overenforcement (zero tolerance in the name of crime control).  The reason why it's hard to find the middle ground in such a role conflict situation can be discussed as the problem of utilitarian limits.  With the ideal of due process, the means to an end must always be justified, hence limiting the "any means necessary" mode of thought with the ideal of crime control.  It's also possible to talk about this role conflict as a "love/hate" relationship between the public and the police.  Citizens love the police when they see them fighting an enemy (not us, or at least not good people), and citizens are willing to defer to the expert power of police as experts in knowing the enemy.  Citizens hate the police, ironically enough, when police engage in service activity, attempting to serve all people (no enemy, or the enemy is us), and the aid police render either accidentally violates the rights of the "good" guys or is seen as an insincere attempt to escape the taint of being an historical tool of oppression for the powerful.  Police are literally in a "damned if I do/damned if I don't" situation most of the time, and this erodes any sense of objectivity needed for a balanced sense of ethics.  It's understandable why a police subculture would develop for self-preservation reasons, but there are additional reasons.


    Codes are like firearms; they have their value and they have their dangers.  One of the more interesting questions to ask is why police created a code of ethics in the first place.  It may be that codes contain historically important clues to the contextual mandates for policing, but more often than not, they represent aspirations toward the future without any clear directions for how to get from one place (the past) to another (the future).   The police code (illustrated below) is designed to be like an oath of office, and the effectiveness of making someone say "I will..." over and over again is debatable.  The Canon of Police Ethics is more interesting, but again, consists mostly of value statements that an officer is supposed to subscribe to.  Goals and attitudes are nice, but something a little "deeper" might be called for.

The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics

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 or disorder; and to respect the Constitutional rights of all men to liberty, equality, and justice.

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

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

     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 these objectives and ideals, dedicating myself before God to my chosen profession -- law enforcement.


    While the bottom line for a private sector employee is economics, the bottom line for a public service employee is ethics.  Public service ethics is sometimes known as a public service ETHOS because it's much broader than a professional ethics, and doesn't just involve integrity on the job, but the "calling" that comes before taking the job, the challenges on and off the job, and the principles one maintains after the job (never an "ex" employee, but a former employee).  The notion of serving the "public good" is what differentiates public from private service, and once having shouldered some responsibility for the public good, one becomes committed to a lifelong interest in it, if only to think about crafting solutions for the vital interests of society.  Ethos is the added value one brings to public service, and ethos is important to be cultivated or else we lose what it means to be a "public servant."

    A public servant does more than deliver services to customers and clients.  They do more than consult with stakeholders. They do more than seek efficiencies in the interests of taxpayers. Rather, a public servant delivers services to the public, a civic entity traditionally embraced by the concept of "citizenry" which is a concept that transcends the individuals and interest groups which represent its constituent parts. Within a civic society the delivery of programs to the public involves responsibilities which derive from serving in the public interest. Within a democratic society the delivery of those services represents the transmission of the public will.  A public servant delivers a public good that expresses a public intent, and a public servant also has access to the coercive powers of government in seeing a public policy thru to implemention.

    Because public servants have access to the coercive powers of government, watchdog groups and the media expect public servants to be subject to a higher level of scrutiny than shareholders expect of a company's general managers. The reason is that public servants must be held accountable "to the people."  This accountability is often at the level of policy determination, but does not preclude some accountability at the implementation level.  It is imperative that the policy decisions of government are subject to scrutiny and public discussion, but it is dangerous if every act of policy implementation is blocked.  The public servant must be allowed to do their job, but they should do more with the public interest in mind than blindly follow orders or see the job as nothing more than crime fighting.


    Duty consists of the responsibilities attached to a role; discretion is the ability to choose between two or more courses of action; and discrimination occurs when a group or individual is treated differently for no justifiable reason (Pollock 2004).  These three terms are discussed together because they shed light on the problem of what is the right thing to do when it is so often the case in policing that there is no perfectly "right" thing to do.  Take the duty to protect citizens, for instance.  A police officer's time is valuable, and short, little, by-the-book encounters probably don't fully do justice to police duty in this respect.  Because of either culture or policy, police cannot usually promise to become personally involved or commit the resources of the department beyond what the short encounter calls for.  This can have negative consequences of unfufilled duty when in comes to domestic violence victims, for example.  Any officer who takes seriously their duty to protect would likely be overinvolved (in their department's eyes), and be acting upon their personal ethics rather than police ethics, and then the problem becomes what kind of personal ethics would help such an officer survive the emotional turmoil that an attitude other than callousness provides.

    How officers use their discretion (to file a report or not, to answer a call or not, to stop and investigate or not) is likewise a matter involving personal ethics.  Police discretion has been studied at length as a matter of style (legalistic, watchman, or service) or personality type (idealist, optimist, enforcer, realist), but the fact is that full enforcement of the law is impossible.  Somebody must be let go some of the time, so what criteria determine who and when?  There is probably no fair or just way to establish such criteria, and most observers simply describe two broad categories of criteria, sometimes called "legal" and "extralegal" factors, as with the following examples for traffic enforcement:

Ethical criteria Unethical criteria
How many miles over the speed limit
Dangerousness of place (school zone, work zone)
The excuse given (late for work, etc.)
Sexual attraction to motorist (or not)
Identity of the motorist
Race of the motorist

    The issue of fair criteria is more complex than these simple demarcations indicate.  The police culture again reinforces a consideration of the subject's demeanor -- the citizen's attitude and respect for the uniform.  Some citizens fail to pass the attitude test, and others are so downright happy to see the officer that they seem like police wannabes.  Of course, the wannabes are going to be let go, but does that mean every citizen has to love and respect the police.  No, it simply means that we often have a basic norm of reciprocity, or etiquette, taking place.  What's needed is a police ethics that coincides with a societal ethics based on principles of reciprocity, like "I will do something for you that you would do for me." 

    Discrimination often occurs in situations where there's no good solution, and no form of ethics would be much help, whether it's societal ethics, role ethics, cultural ethics, or personal ethics.  Police often confront "shocking" situations that break new ground in their novelty and outrageousness.  It's part of the thrill of being a police officer, seeing what new, weird thing is going to happen next.  Such situations often occur with sexual or racial overtones, and there's something about these novel, spontaneous situations that seems to produce a kind of "police humor" (e.g., racist or sexist remarks) that attempts to address the mala nova (evil because it's new) of the situation.  Study and after study (Fredrickson & Siljander 2002; Heumann & Cassak 2003; MacDonald 2003) has shown that police don't systematically try to discriminate or engage in racial profiling.  It's usually done on spur-of-the-moment.  Yet, there is a pervasive belief among the public that police regularly engage in racial profiling.  Such perceptions have resulted in laws being passed and data collection systems being put in place.


    Racial profiling can be defined as a discriminatory practice by police in treating skin color as an indication of possible criminality (Fredrickson & Siljander 2002), and can be distinguished from "just plain profiling" (Heumann & Cassak 2003) which is crime detection where police are perceptive to various indicators suggesting that someone might be engaged in criminal activity.  The phrase Driving While Black or brown (DWB), is often used in reference to racial profiling, as is yet another acronym, Flying While Arab (FWA).  Racial profiling is illegal while just plain profiling is not only legal but a necessary part of law enforcement.  Legality aside, morality is even more complex on this issue.  Levy (2001) says that three criteria must be met for ethnic profiling to be justified: (1) the addition of an ethnic factor must significantly improve the effectiveness of the profile in ferreting out the guilty; (2) there must be reasonable suspicion to believe that a meaningful portion of the profiled ethnic class is guilty; and (3) the benefit of including ethnicity must exceed its cost.  It may be that Arabs are 10 times as likely to be terrorists as non-Arabs, but if only one tenth of one percent of hazardous materials truck drivers of Arabic descent are terrorists, the addition of ethnicity to the profile cannot be justified without violating the rights of 999 out of every 1,000 persons.
    Let's examine a few lists of "indicators" that go into various criminal profiles.

"Drug Courier" Profile

"Gang Member" Profile

  • Rear end of vehicle dragging low

  • Spare tire in back seat to make room in trunk

  • Tinted windows or other modifications to vehicle

  • Very little luggage in out-of-state vehicle

  • Good-guy decals such as pro-police stickers

  • Decals of rock bands or drug-related decals

  • Multiple deodorants to mask odors

  • Dirty vehicle with clean plates or vice-versa

  • Ususual driving, weaving, or perfect driving

  • Usually male

  • Admits to having had school problems

  • Has inadequate family affiliation or family history

  • Comes from lower socioeconomic background

  • Has negative role models; uses gang signs

  • Is very street smart, aggressive and antisocial

  • Has no father figure or dysfunctional one

  • Likely suffers from learning disability

  • Wears certain symbols, insignia or tattoos

"Child Molester/Pedophile" Profile

"Snapping in Workplace" Profile

  • Extroverted with image of being overadequate

  • High self-esteem, insightful, articulate

  • Projects image of stable home and family life

  • Marriage is a sham and everyone knows it

  • Uses spouse as personal manservant

  • Open in talking about sexual history

  • Lies about things like having college education

  • Able to cover up drug or alcohol problem

  • Denies responsiblity for basic facts about conflict

  • Seeks opportunities to be around children

  • Likes making children feel like adults

  • Collector of sex toys or pornography

  • Has no conception of normal childhood

  • History of violence

  • Psychosis and/or projection

  • Romantic obsession with co-worker

  • Chemical dependence

  • Depression

  • Pathological blaming

  • Impaired neurological functioning

  • Elevated frustration level

  • Interest in weapons

  • Evidence of personality disorder

  • Vocalization of violent intentions

  • Evidence of strange or bizarre behavior

  • Recent or upcoming disciplinary hearing

    One could add "Plane Hijackers" to the above, but most of these "indicators" are simple extensions of the "reasonable suspicion" standard or "probable cause" standard.  None of these indicators are illegal, but when race enters into the picture in any way, you have the illegal practice known as racial profiling.  Certain indicators are borderline, however.  Factors like age, sex, gang signs, clothing, decals, time of day, place, and destination can all be associated with race.  In other words, race can be "added" to an indicator by association (and also by common sense if statistics on minority involvement in crime are analyzed), but race alone as an indicator is very wrong.  Granted, some so-called "pretext" stops in order to "fish" around for evidence by a search might have been racially motivated, but stops and subsequent arrests appear to not be racially motivated but guided by legitimate indicators. 

    Nationwide and on average, people of color make up about 40% of persons pulled over for traffic stops (the actual range is 20% to 75% depending upon jurisdiction); however, some 77% of these people of color (according to Gallup Poll data) think they were pulled over precisely because of their race (U.S. Dept. of Justice 2000).  Thus, what exists is most likely a misperception problem or lack of trust in the police.  The perceived existence of racial profiling is enough to undermine the legitimacy of the entire criminal justice system.  In the end, it may be that perception is all that matters, since the profiling (and rounding up) of Arab-Americans in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks never really aroused much public sympathy.


    Corruption is a subtype of immorality, and all corrupt actions are a subtype of immoral action. However, not all immorality is corruption, and not all immoral acts are corrupt acts.  For example, minor lawbreaking by a police officer might count as immoral without being an act of corruption.  Also, negligent acts are sometimes immoral, but not necessarily corrupt.  Corrupt acts have a number of properties that other immoral actions do not possess, such as (1) corruption involves manifestation of a regular disposition or habit on the part of the officer; (2) corruption exists when the law is seen as hopelessly inadequate and irredeemable, such as when guilty offenders go unpunished; and (3) corruption is driven by narrow, personal or collective self-interest, such as the financial gain of a group of employees or the career advancement of employee(s).

    Just defining corruption can be problematic.  Three examples should suffice.  Goldstein (1977), for example, defines corruption as "misuse of authority for personal gain."  Both elements must be present for this definition to apply.  In other words, there must be some misuse of authority (malfeasance) AND some personal gain.  Alternatively, McMullan (1961) defines corruption as "accepting money or money's worth for doing something under a duty not to do or to do anyway."  This definition seems to get at misfeasance and nonfeasance, and is generally regarded as relating to police "productivity" problems, or what is also called the "selective nonenforcement" issue.  A third definition comes from Lundman (1980) where corruption is defined as "violations of conduct norms that are rarely enforced."  This definition seems ideal for analyzing situations where a police subculture is a culture within a culture, and probably fits most any kind of malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance.  It has the advantage of focusing on "conduct" or actual behavior.

   Much has been written on theories of corruption and how it can be prevented, and yet even more writing has examined the debate between whether a strong Internal Affairs Unit or a strong Civilian Review Board works best.  Certain causes of corruption not mentioned in those places include the belief that society is to blame, since there are some laws (usually vice laws) that nobody seems to want enforced.  Unenforceable laws usually lead to corruption.  Another cause is lax management.  Corruption seems to breed when there is bad management.  Also, mass hiring, a phenomenon which occurs when departments are extremely short-handed, sometimes leads to corruption.

    Pay raises and meaningful career paths would go a long way at preventing corruption.  So would civilianization and the upgrading of educational qualifications.  Job rotation is also a technique managers might want to consider, as it moves employees around so that they don't spend time in any one place.

A Resource Guide on Racial Profiling Data Collection Systems
ACLU Report on Racial Profiling and Police Discrimination
Ethics-Based Policing
John Jay College Links for Police Ethics
Law Enforcement Ethics: A Continuum of Compromise
Links for Blue Ribbon Police Commission Reports (Christopher; Mollen)
Noble Cause Corruption and Immorality
Noble Cause Corruption Revisited (pdf)
Northeastern Univ. Racial Profiling Data Collection Center
Police Corruption: Toward a Working Definition
Racial Profiling Links on the Internet
Review of Street Cops and Public Perceptions (pdf)

The Myth of Driving While Black
Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work

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Last updated: Oct. 21, 2011
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O'Connor, T.  (2011). "Police Ethics," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from accessed on Oct. 21, 2011.