Police Professionalism in the Age of YouTube

Imaage of thin blue line over the YouTube logo. Caption reads, The Thin Blue Line has been ill-prepared for the Age of YouTube. Aside from the legality of recording police on the job, this practice places additional pressure on law enforcement to maintain professionalism.

Police professionalism in the Age of YouTube can be difficult. Anyone trying to do a job while someone is figuratively hovering over their shoulder will feel increased pressure. This often results in mistakes. When police make mistakes, the outcome can be embarrassing in the least, tragic at worst. Consistently, the courts have held that video recording law enforcement officers in public is protected under the First Amendment. Hence, police must learn to deal with this added pressure.

By C. J. Oakes

Police officers have been always held to higher standards than the public they serve. 

This is largely the result of the sensitive nature of their position. Police officers are daily presented with situations that require quick thinking and judgment. Yet, the ready access to video recording by the public is causing difficulties for many in law enforcement. With the ability to instantly stream events via YouTube and Facebook, pressure will only increase on law enforcement to be professional. How can police officers be more professional in the age of YouTube?

Police officers  are privy to the darkest sides of the public, called upon to serve despite their personal beliefs, and often placed in personal danger.  Through it all, police officers are expected to remain calm, act wisely, and maintain control over any situation (University of Minnesota, 2013). This is called professionalism.

Police Officers serve meals during a fundraisi...
Police Officers serve meals during a fundraising event. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet it must be noted that police officers have the most difficult job in the criminal justice system.  The men and women of law enforcement are at the forefront of the system and placed in the spotlight for the world to judge. Today, many are literally thrust into the spotlight via smart phones.

Today, websites such as YouTube are full of examples of how not to behave. Although those on display comprise a minority in law enforcement, these bad examples are magnified through multiple viewings by the public. Now, amateur videographers have the ability to live-stream using Facebook.

Hence, the professional police officer must be ever more aware of the need to keep his or her conduct in line with the highest standards of professionalism possible. 

Ethics and Professionalism in Policing

When Sir Robert Peel established the London Metropolitan Police in 1829, he did so in regard for the public distaste of the use of the military in law enforcement and peace keeping.  In fact, so distasteful was this practice by England that the American Declaration of Independence specifically named this practice as a grievance.  So Peel was keenly aware that for this new agency to be effective, it needed the support of the public. To gain and maintain this support, he established a guiding set of principles that to a large extent, continue to guild police activities today. Understanding the need for police to be examples of right conduct, a key principle involved the retention of public respect (Lee, 1901; Villiers, 2006).

English: Metropolitan Police Officers in Soho,...
English: Metropolitan Police Officers in Soho, London, 2007 Deutsch: Metropolitan Police Beamte in Soho, London, 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Respect is a concept vital to any consideration of ethics and professionalism. The Merriam-Webster dictionary (2013) describes respect as involving high regard or esteem.  This is the core of professionalism for professionals are regarded as of higher station or more deserving of respect than the general population.  The study of ethical behavior traces to Socrates, who taught that people should strive for excellence and should be honorable (Lander, 2013).  Professionalism is therefore intertwined with ethical, honorable, or respectable behavior.

Today, many police agencies have established codes of conduct for their agencies that reflect these principles (University of Minnesota, 2013; Christian Police Association, 2013).  The goal is the same today as it was for Socrates and Sir Robert Peel: Police officers should conduct themselves in such a way as to gain the respect of the public.

Critical Thinking in Police Ethics and Professionalism

Police officers are human. Thus, police officers are just as prone to mistakes as the rest of society, yet because of the power and position police officers hold, these must, and are kept to higher standards.  Thus, to maintain the position of respect and trust given law enforcement agents by means of their position, critical thinking is required.

Demonstrating both the need for critical thinking as well as the concepts involved when applying critical thought to actions by police officials, The Andy Griffith Show can be considered.  This program, which aired on television between 1960 and 1968 was beloved by many and depicted the law enforcement efforts of an honorable sheriff named Andy Taylor and his well-intentioned, though often misguided deputy, Barney Fife.

Key to this discussion is what made Taylor and Fife so popular.  Fife tended to apply the letter of the law and in so doing often caused more problems than he solved; Taylor would enter the situation, apply the spirit of the law, and restore peace and order to the small town of Mayberry. Barney Fife often failed to apply critical thinking to situations but rather simply to enforce the law as it was written. This made for good laughs, but also illustrates how such a lack of discretion can cause, rather than solve problems (Oakes, 2011).

This example highlights a key element in police professionalism and ethical behavior.  Laws are written for a purpose and one key goal of law enforcement is to maintain peace in society. To be effective, a law enforcement officer must at times use his or her own judgment to determine whether a law has been broken in the sense of the spirit of the law or if the person in question was simply acting in good faith, with no ill intentions.

This is reflected in the concepts of mens rea, or mental state/motive. Police may determine that although a crime was by definition (the letter of the law) committed, if the crime is minor, the police officer may use official discretion to restore peace without adding further to the burdens of the courts.

Given the increase in examples of unethical behavior by law enforcement agents on websites, such as YouTube and the need for police officers to be sterling examples in society, seminars are often held in agencies for the purpose of highlighting ethical conduct.  Some of these seminars could be as follows.

Ethics Seminar for Police in the Age of YouTube

Because police are more in the public view than at any other time in history, the need to be professional and ethical is vital to the successful completion of their mission. The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics presented by the University of Minnesota provides several areas whereby police officers should give attention, but five are key to their success in maintaining the respect, and therefore the support, of the public they serve.

  1. Impartiality: Police officers are human and have the same biases as anyone, but to maintain the peace and be effective in their mission, they must learn to set aside these personal inclinations when dealing with the public. Failure to do so can cause them to be labeled racist or worse and will result in the public viewing them with suspicion rather than respect (University of Minnesota, 2013).
  2. Peace: Police officers need to keep alert that they are first peace-keepers. As such, they need to be vigilant so that their actions do not cause the public to see them as enemies. Police officers are not soldiers sent to conquer, but rather peace-keepers sent to restore order (Johnson & Cox, 2004).
  3. Confidentiality: Police officers see and hear things that should be held in the strictest confidence.  Failure to adhere to this aspect of the code of conduct could result in a public that distrusts them and will avoid cooperating with investigations.  To solve crimes so as to further enhance public safety, police need the cooperation of the public. If the public does not trust the police, the job of the police will be more difficult (Lee, 1901).
  4. Integrity: Tied to confidentiality is integrity.  If police are involved in accepting bribes or other forms of corruption, the public will be aware of this long before agency superiors.  This will undermine public trust and cooperation (Heffernan, 1982).
  5. Discretion: Police must learn to use discretion in their duties.  This includes understanding the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, knowing when to reveal sensitive information during an investigation, and recognizing when either a show of force or the use of force is necessary.  This is perhaps the most difficult principle of ethical and professional behavior to master for this encompasses virtually every aspect of the job (University of Minnesota, 2013).

Benefits of the YouTube Police Ethics Seminar

With the difficult mission of maintaining order in society only made more difficult by the constant pressure that the public may be filming, police need to be trained continually in these principles.  The seminar would use both real-world examples and interactive training to examine and reinforce these principles.  The goal would be to provide officers with both the understanding and appreciation of their actions in the community as well as reinforce these concepts (Stout, 2011).

The public generally supports police forces for it recognizes the need for such agencies.  However, as more videos depicting bad policing enter the public eye through YouTube and similar websites, there needs to be more good examples to counter the strong negative influence of the few. In the age of YouTube, police officers cannot afford to be lax in their attention to ethical and professional behavior.  To be lax places the public at risk, fellow officers at risk, and social order at risk (Johnson & Cox, 2004). 


Sir Robert Peel recognized the need for police to practice the principles he espoused and police agencies today generally continue the tradition.  It is the responsibility of individual officers to adhere to the codes of professional conduct expected and resist any inclination to do otherwise.

A senior police officer of the Hamburg police ...
A senior police officer of the Hamburg police on assignment at Hamburg city hall, Germany. Français : Capitaine de la police de Hambourg en faction devant l’hôtel de ville de Hambourg, en Allemagne. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Police are held to a higher standard than the public and cannot afford to be lax in their conduct.

When virtually every action by police is recorded today and instantly uploaded to the Internet for all to see, police must be vigilant in adhering to ethical standards.  Failure by just a few will make the job of all far more difficult. Failure by a few to remain professional will result in more crime, which certainly includes more property losses and loss of life.  In some cases, the loss of life will be fellow officers.

Thus, if any officer finds that he or she is simply not able to adhere to these standards, it may be better to seek another career.  Only those with the ability to rise above the masses and conduct themselves ethically and professionally are fit for this esteemed position of service, especially in the age of YouTube.


You May Also Like Reading

How Sir Robert Peel Influences Modern Policing

How to Prepare for a Career as a Police Officer

Complete List of Police Agencies in the United States

Orderly Conduct: The Roles of Various Police Organizations


  • Christian Police Association. (2013). Canons of Police Ethics. Retrieved from: http://cpa-usa.org/law-officers/canons-of-police-ethics/
  • Grant, H., & Terry, K. (2008). Law Enforcement in the 21st Century. : Pearson Education.
  • Heffernan, W.C. (May1982). Two Approaches to Police Ethics. Criminal Justice Review. 7(1) 28-35
  • Johnson, T.A., Cox, R.W.III. (Jan2004). Police Ethics: Organizational Implications. Public Integrity. 7(1) 67-79
  • Lee, W. (1901). A History of Police in England. : .
  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2013). Respect. Retrieved from: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/respect
  • Lander.edu (2013). Philosophy: Ethics: Socrates. Retrieved from: http://philosophy.lander.edu/ethics/socrates.html
  • Oakes, C. J. (2011). Andy Taylor versus Barney Fife. Criminal Justice Law. Retrieved from: http://criminaljusticelaw.us/enforcement/andy-taylor-versus-barney-fife-policing-in-america/
  • Stout, B. (Dec2011). Professional Ethics and Academic Integrity in Police Education. Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice. 5(4) 300-309
  • University of Minnesota. (2013). Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. Retrieved from: www.mincava.umn.edu/documents/nativeamerican/naethics.doc
  • Villiers, P. (2006). World Encyclopedia of Police Forces and Correctional Systems (2nd ed.). Detroit, MI: Gale.

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