How about a Hippocratic Oath in the police code of ethics? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 09, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:17 AM, July 09, 2020

How about a Hippocratic Oath in the police code of ethics?

Any idea of incorporating a Hippocratic Oath in the police code of ethics might sound utopian or unusual at the least. However, recent developments in the sphere of criminal law enforcement around the world compel us to revisit the ethical dimension of policing. In Bangladesh, where at least 44 policemen have died from coronavirus infection while trying to provide essential services, it is also an opportune moment to dwell upon the salutary preventive role of a conventionally coercive organisation like the police. Since human liberty is inextricably linked with policing, the police officials—quite like the physicians—need to develop a sensitivity to respect the sanctity of human life and proactively help keep people out of harm's way.

Considering the recent incidents of police misconduct in the USA and elsewhere and the renewed push for police reforms, it is imperative that police departments anywhere in the world "learn a new language" and evaluate the purpose and priorities of their job. The profession of policing needs to evolve with the needs and demands of the 21st century.

The unconscionable tragedy of George Floyd's death in the USA, in May, laid bare the deficiencies of American policing, a reality which resonated with cities and communities across many countries. The sad fact is, the protests that have sprung up against racism and police brutality ever since have done little to bring about the desired reforms.

There is no denying that those involved with policing need to do some soul-searching and reconsider what they stand for professionally. Rewriting the police code of ethics would be a desirable starting point.

Those who have knowledge of the work culture of criminal law enforcement know that many aspects of the current law enforcement code of ethics date back to the mid-20th century. Changing the code of ethics, therefore, would be unprecedented and profoundly impactful.

In drafting a new code of ethics worthy of a democratic society, policing should turn to Hippocrates. It is well known that the Hippocratic Oath for physicians is commonly summarised as "Do no harm". We also know that a physician's job is to examine the patient, diagnose the medical condition underlying present symptoms, and prescribe an effective course of treatment. A doctor who only attends to the visible symptoms, provides ineffective medicine, or treats in a manner that is ultimately harmful has failed the patient. Going by the above standards, policing in many countries including the USA may be guilty of malpractice.

Experts believe that a police code of ethics designed around the Hippocratic Oath should incorporate four key themes that are not highlighted in the present policies and practices. The themes are: evidence-based policing, emphasis on crime prevention, professional identity, and sanctity of human life.

Over the last few decades, a vast body of scientific evidence has emerged regarding what works in policing and, perhaps more importantly, what does not. Policing is not an abstract intellectual issue. We know how police interventions directly impact the lives of community members. So ignoring the evidence in favour of so-called tradition or age-old practices or a personal opinion will be an irresponsible thing to do. Unscientific policing is unethical policing.

The present code is largely focused on enforcement and the desire to apprehend is entrenched in the policing system. This orientation needs to give way to heightened crime prevention. It is the gradual decrease of crime and disorder that policing should seek to achieve.

The police code of ethics must be able to clearly establish that police are, first and foremost, members of the community—not some higher caste standing between good and evil. It should advocate the protection of the weak and innocent while opposing unnecessary use of force and violence.

Policing must fundamentally acknowledge the sanctity of human life and duty to protect every person, even individuals who have placed themselves or others in jeopardy. The police have an ethical duty to render aid to prevent loss of life.

One may recall that Hippocrates viewed the art of medicine as something fundamentally connected with the love of humanity. The very fabric of policing, therefore, needs to go through a transformation until the same can be said about law enforcement. It is time for a new code.

It may well be that the traditional discipline code is now less useful to a modern police service than a properly introduced code of ethics and sound training in its principles. The change in policing ethos brings with it a new image of the police officers—officers who are required to be culturally sensitive, who are agents of assistance rather than control, accountable not just for what they do but how they do it, and are no longer the unthinking, unquestioning functionaries responsible only to their seniors. The move toward this new code of ethics and replacing older styles of discipline is a significant one. Societies are changing, as are people's expectations from the police—the police should respond appropriately.


Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP.

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