Why it is time for a Hippocratic Oath for policing
Our current Code of Ethics has served our profession well, yet just as policing has evolved, so must our Code
By Sgt. Jeremiah P. Johnson
The recent spotlight on deadly use-of-force encounters has led John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor David Kennedy to ruminate whether the field of policing should have its own Hippocratic Oath.
The Hippocratic Oath is commonly encapsulated as “do no harm.” Medicine’s Hippocratic Oath has changed form since the days of ancient Greece, but its spirit lives on among physicians.
It is the physician’s job to examine the patient, diagnose the underlying condition and prescribe an effective course of treatment. A doctor that only attends to visible symptoms, provides ineffective medicine, or treats in a manner that is ultimately harmful has failed the patient.
Police are society’s physicians, the kind that still makes house calls. Policing is indeed strong medicine and can produce miraculous cures. However, we in law enforcement are all too ready to focus singularly on the visible symptoms of crime, overprescribe our favorite medications without due regard for their deleterious side effects, or rely on untested remedies that have been handed down through tradition instead of science.
These paths of “treatment” can ultimately harm individuals and communities. To be true to their Hippocratic Oath, physicians must be precise in their surgery and conscientious in their calculus of risk vs. reward. Police must do the same.
Policing recently experienced a schism between prominent professional groups over use-of-force issues. Competing policy documents were promulgated on both sides, important contributions to the field in their own right. This divide and the broader crisis surrounding it presents an overdue opportunity for some soul searching, a time to consider our values and what we stand for professionally.
It is time to revisit the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics that was adopted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 1957. The Code of Ethics is a rich document that many police organizations have incorporated into their policy manuals and oath of office ceremonies. It has served our profession well, yet it is not a timeless document. Just as policing has evolved, so must our code.
What might a police code of ethics designed around the Hippocratic Oath look like? David Kennedy’s thought experiment has prompted me to pen a tentative answer. It is by no means complete and is intended as a catalyst to foment a deeper conversation among practitioners.
I see a need to incorporate four key themes noticeably absent from the Code of Ethics:
1. Evidence-based policing
In the years since the Code of Ethics’ inception, a vast body of scientific evidence has emerged regarding what works in policing and, perhaps more important, what does not. This is not an abstract intellectual issue as our effectiveness has direct implications on the very lives of those we serve.
Ignoring this evidence base in favor of tradition or personal opinion is more than irresponsible; unscientific policing is unethical policing.
2. Crime prevention
Second, the Code of Ethics is a product of the crime-control era and is singularly focused on enforcement (e.g. the “relentless prosecution of criminals”). The desire to apprehend is dominant in American policing’s DNA, yet this orientation must give way to crime prevention. It is the absence of crime and disorder that policing should seek to achieve.
3. Sanctity of life
Third, the Code of Ethics rightfully speaks to protecting the weak and innocent while opposing unnecessary force and violence. However, our code should fundamentally acknowledge the sanctity of life and the duty to protect all lives, even those who have placed themselves and others in jeopardy.
4. Professional identity
Finally, our Code of Ethics must establish that police are first and foremost members of the community, not some separate caste standing in the gap between good and evil.
Below is what a law enforcement code of conduct modeled after medicine’s modern Hippocratic Oath might look like. Hippocrates wrote, “Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity.” May the same also be said of our noble profession.
I solemnly swear that I will fulfill my duty according to the tenets of this oath:
I will honor the tradition and sacrifice of those officers who have preceded me, and will seek to pass on my knowledge and experience to those who follow my path.
I will faithfully serve and protect my community while recognizing that policing is strong medicine and must be delivered at the right dosage. I will apply my craft accordingly, avoiding the dual temptation to over-police or de-police neighborhoods and communities that need my help the most.
I will remember that policing is both an art and a science. I will seek to carry out my craft skillfully, judiciously and with empathy. I will embrace what is known about policing and seek to advance the evidence base to answer that which is unknown.
I will remember that policing, especially its coercive elements, is not a panacea for social ills. I will not be ashamed to de-escalate, wait for backup, or request the assistance of professionals outside of my field who are better equipped to address the root of the problem.
I will respect the humanity of those whom I encounter, both victim and suspect alike. I will treat life as sacrosanct and will only use deadly physical force as a last resort. If I must employ deadly force, I will strive to preserve life once it has been applied.
I will remember that I do not police an act or behavior, but a flawed human being, whose conduct may jeopardize their own future and that of their family.
I will prevent crime whenever I can, for the absence of crime and disorder is preferable to the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.
I will remember that my calling as a police officer is an honorable one, but should never set me apart from society or the community I serve. I have been granted authority and am enjoined by duty, yet I am a member of the public and share the same obligation to comply with the laws I am sworn to uphold.
If I do not violate this oath, I will one day retire from public service having earned the enduring respect of my colleagues and my community.
About the author
Sgt. Jeremiah P. Johnson, a 15-year veteran of the Darien Police Department, is a U.S. Army Reserve veteran. He received a bachelor of arts in sociology from Geneva College; a master of science in justice administration from Western Connecticut State College; a master of arts in criminal justice from John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and a Ph.D. in criminal justice from the City University of New York Graduate Center.