A Hippocratic Oath for policing

Sgt. Jeremiah P. Johnson
Darien (CT) Police Department

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.

Police are society’s physicians, the kind that still make house calls.

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.

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. In order 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.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of 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 which 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: evidence-based policing, crime prevention, the sanctity of life and professional identity.

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.  

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.  

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.  

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 once 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 that 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.

 

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.

14 Comments to "A Hippocratic Oath for policing"

  1. Reply Jeff Walters April 15, 2020 at 5:17 am

    That’s where the United States should be, yet dare I say we’re a half-century away from the one percent we have deescalating today. It’s like, see a crime, arrest, catch someone speeding, write a ticket. I get it, most of it is young guys just following orders. And the only way to get these young guys to fully commit to the badge is to give them the power of the badge and let them feel it. Just need to make sure they’re mature enough to handle what comes.

    • Reply Basil May 29, 2020 at 8:04 pm

      This type of oath is needed more now than ever.

      With an addition(s):

      “according equal respect to all people,”

      “I do not belong to, and will not while I remain a member form, belong to or subscribe to, any political party or secret society whatsoever.”

  2. Reply L. Marston May 28, 2020 at 7:21 am

    Yes, a Hippocratic Oath for Policing must be adopted now. I am a sociologist too, and want to do something real to stop police from murdering and brutalizing black citizens. I am white, and appreciate that folks now can capture this everyday abuse of power on video, for everyone to see. Next, we must ensure that police who forget their mission “To Protect and Serve” are held accountable, including being charged and sentenced to murder when they become murderers.
    A new Oath is a good beginning, but then ongoing training will be needed for them to ‘keep the faith,’ and white citizens need to intervene somehow, beyond
    just posting videos. Police could train everyone from kids to college students and adults how to safely remind police of their Oath when individual officers, or groups of officers, act against it. Police Chiefs need to enforce and reward a new respectful approach.

  3. Reply Anonymous May 29, 2020 at 3:16 pm

    No mention of the Constitution of the United States? How convienent.

  4. Reply Heather Katsoulis May 30, 2020 at 9:10 am

    Thank you for your conscientious service in policing and education, Sargent. I’ve shared this in hopes to hear more officers supporting service that includes a commitment to evidence-based policing, crime prevention, the sanctity of life and professional identity.

  5. Reply Lance Dyas June 4, 2020 at 9:55 pm

    A simple thank you is what I have. I have been looking for various police oaths and codes of conduct and finding things paraphrased like “do not make your team look bad” and I feel that a ground up adjustment is indeed needed.

  6. Reply Sal Lombardi June 5, 2020 at 5:47 pm

    I would like to see one other element in this code. It is the Honor Code of West Point, : “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” Police have to “Police” themselves. To often police turn a blind eye to other police who are doing something wrong I believe the majority of the men and women police are earnest, honest, and good people. It is that minority of men and women who corrupt the work of police.

  7. Reply Jesse June 7, 2020 at 1:49 am

    I think this is a good start along with other major changes to the institution. I would suggest additional emphasis on service to the public, to promote the concept of the police as a profession, and to highlight that the Constitution serves the broader function of also protecting life and liberty of people.

    “My primary and core duty is to serve the public. I understand that public service requires me, in all actions I do, in public or in private, to engender and increase the trust in, and integrity of, my profession among the public and solemnly swear to do so. I will faithfully preserve and uphold the constitution of the United States, in particular those seeking to establish the life and liberty of the people.

    I will faithfully preserve and uphold the constitution of the United States, in particular those seeking to establish the life and liberty of the people.

    As a public servant I vow, on a daily basis, to challenge complacency and desensitisation to the use of force that I will encounter or may perpetrate… [add in the principles re. use of force / healing etc.] “

  8. Reply Anonymous June 14, 2020 at 6:48 pm

    Well, at LEAST there is an actual call to reform. To have mentioned and/or referenced anything pertaining to the Constitution of the United States, would subject it to reform as well. Which then, would require MORE thorough analysis, of ANY bias implications, amendments , meetings, assessments, decisions, etcetra– the energy and time spent on THAT process alone, would leave the current efforts towards justice ALREADY proposed, and proof read in the dust to fade away again…

    Relatively, the Constitution was ALSO written by mere men, and none of us have talked to them to make sure whatever was written on THOSE manuscripts is the historical truth, but it’s somehow more protected and defended, and upheld in higher regard than the Bible, which is protested against and considered unreliable by critics, for being “written by men.”

  9. Reply Mike June 16, 2020 at 5:46 pm

    If the goal is to actually save lives, then forcing the Hippocratic Oath upon the policing profession is a terrible idea. A Johns Hopkins study showed that more than 250,000 people in the U.S. die every year from medical errors (which is exponentially higher than police-related deaths; justified or unjustified) revealing that medical errors are the third-leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer. Truth be told, the policing profession should avoid whatever the medical profession is doing – including the oath they take. Too many people die at the hands of the Hippocratic Oath. Believe data, not feelings.

  10. Reply Robert Richards July 9, 2020 at 3:55 pm

    Proposal to address violence by police in a routine arrest and detainment.

    Short Term, Immediate;

    1.) The Knee-on-the-Neck ends now.
    The Chokehold ends now.

    Attacking the neck is prohibited in all major combat sports and cannot be justified in any manner as a restraint or a hold. The Knee-on-the-Neck is an assault and not a punch in the nose. The Knee-on-the-Neck is an assault with a high probability of maiming or killing.

    Administratively outlaw the Knee-on-the-Neck or any other assault or proposed attack on or restraint by the neck.
    Touch a Knee-to-the-Neck Of a fellow human being and you are fired. Zero tolerance.

    Longer term;

    2.) candidates for police officer must have on their resume a minimum one year employment as a mental health attendant at an inpatient acute care facility with references from that employer.

    3.) all death in police custody cases automatically and mandatorily are sent to the grand jury for advisement.

    4.) A police officer will be under oath to the courts any time he is on duty. If it is a crime for a citizen to lie to an officer or to submit a false report to the police or the courts, then the police officer who makes his reports to the same authorities with be under penalty of perjury for submitting a false report to his superiors or to the courts.
    So much weight necessarily must be given to an officer’s word in the courtroom that he, the officer, must be held to a higher standard than the citizenry in this regard.

  11. Reply Richard Mooney August 29, 2020 at 3:22 am

    Unfortunately SCOTUS ( Supreme Court of the US) had declared that it is not the job of Police officers to protect and yet most crusiers have a placard that states Protect and Serve, so if your an officer that goes by SCOTUS rilling you need to remove that placard

  12. Reply Anonymous September 29, 2020 at 6:39 pm

    I absolutely agree, except one thing. The punishment for an officer should be more severe when they break the law as opposed to a civilian. As the officer took a sworn oath and position of power over others.

  13. Reply Ann October 1, 2020 at 10:40 am

    As a citizen – which we all are, regardless of being police or not – many points of this disturbed me. It shows how far even the better intending officers have come from understanding the society they serve, and how much police thinking alters theirs. I have to remind that round the world, the public view is not of police being ‘a noble profession’, especially not the US. It is synonymous with bullying and corruption. This year’s events have caused ever more of us to examine what the police are, what they do, what their history and legal basis is. We’re aware that the forces were created to stop oppressed citizens speaking out and to protect private property. It is about control, not right action. This is as true today as their inception 200 years ago.

    We’re especially feeling that right now, and questioning your ever widening remit, of mental and now physical health, whilst police behaviour so often jeopardizes both.

    I am also alarmed that – especially with recent US news – that you would ever endorse lethal force. Police should not be shooting or otherwise using moves and weapons that cause harm and endanger people, and if they do, they should be punished as civilians would be – perhaps more harshly.

    I cannot agree that police are doctors of society. It is alarming that you think so. I don’t wish to be rude, but policing isn’t considered one of the ‘professions – not that which is, is necessarily more noble. There are questions about law, education, medicine, politics and religion. The whole top down don’t question mentality is eroding. The way we do doctoring is being highly scrutinised, and the diagnosis and surgery as well as germ model is being broken down. This is a highly paternalistic, avuncular view of policing that assumes that officers know best. Although I can see you’ve had university education, many police are not particularly educated or free thinking: they don’t expect it in the people either. It’s about following orders, for police and the people.

    So although this is clearly written by someone who takes their job seriously and wants improvements – and that is honourable – we need to go further and ask about the veracity of your ‘miracle cures’, and especially the statement that you “do not police an act or behavior, but a flawed human being, whose conduct may jeopardize their own future and that of their family.” It is a huge and erroneous assumption, and one which assumes powers and duties that you do not have.

    I see that as a symptom of a flawed system and thinking, which needs to urgently be revised, because it is society that is beign jeopardized by such attitudes, as well as individual’s wellbeing. We need to ask if this kind of policing is appropriate to our world.

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