Chapter V: Honesty & Loyalty

by Adam J. McKee

Few virtues are more closely associated with honor than honesty.  Here I mean honesty in a much broader sense than merely not telling lies.  I mean the entire spectrum of dishonest conduct—lying, cheating, stealing, and so forth.  Perhaps a better word for these circumstances would be sincerity.  Sincerity is the quality of being without duplicity; it is the quality of being genuine.  It includes all acts and omissions that are intended to mislead.  This includes half-truths, out-of-context statements, and even silence.  It is unethical to remain silent if doing so affirms an incorrect belief in another person’s mind.

The common denominator in all human relationships is trust.  Before we can be close to someone, we need to feel that the person is worthy of our trust.  We need to feel that the person cares enough about us that they will consider our feelings as important as his or her own.  This need for trust in human relationships is a necessary requirement for strength and durability.  Without trust, interpersonal relationships are impossible in both our private and public lives.

Honesty is so closely tied to honor because honest persons are universally held in high esteem.  The honest person can be trusted, and can freely be given more freedom and autonomy.  This freedom and autonomy is critical to the success of policing.

Honesty in Words

The virtue of honesty requires that we be truthful in our dealings with others.  This means simply presenting facts as we know them.

Nitobe considers the veracity of a samurai’s word this way:

Lying or equivocation were deemed…cowardly.  The bushi held that his high social position demanded a loftier standard of veracity than that of the tradesman and peasant.  Bushi no ichi-gon—the word of a samurai…was sufficient guaranty for the truthfulness of an assertion.  His word carried such weight with it that promises were generally made and fulfilled without a written pledge, which would have been deemed quite beneath his dignity.  Many thrilling anecdotes were told of those who atoned by death for ni-gon, a double tongue.

The regard for veracity was so high that, unlike the generality of Christians who persistently violate the plain commands of the Teacher not to swear, the best of samurai looked upon an oath as derogatory to their honour.

Aside from the costs to personal honor that lying brings, it can also lead to termination of employment.  For example, a Key West officer was fired for telling people he was an undercover federal agent investigating corruption in the Police Department, among other things (Teal, 2008).  Both the officer’s agency and the FBI found that the evidence against the officer did not rise to the level of criminal.  Still, he was fired because the conduct was unbecoming an officer, even if it was not illegal.

Candor: Honesty as Cruelty

It is often said that the truth can hurt.  It usually does so by causing shame.  It is beneath the dignity of a true Guardian to offend others needlessly by causing unnecessary shame.  Often, when a painful truth is stated, it is done unnecessarily.  Carelessly and needlessly causing someone pain for no other reason than “just being honest” is morally reprehensible.

There are, however, situations where duty demands that painfully honest statements be made.  Just as the surgeon must sometimes cause pain to heal, so too must the Guardian sometimes cause pain to end some greater evil.  For example, it would ultimately be unethical not to confront a fellow officer about his excessive drinking just to avoid causing offense.

Knowing When Not to Speak

Tsunetomo Yamamoto said:

A man of a little learning tends to criticize the present times.  It is the beginning of his misfortune.  Those who hold their tongues are favored in good times and remain unpunished in bad times (Stone, 2001, p. 45).

Gossiping, backbiting, and whining are all beneath the dignity of the Guardian.  Taira Shigesuke admonished, “…it is essential to always be careful not to gossip, even if you see or hear bad things about your colleagues.…  Regardless of what the matter is, this is not the sort of talk that should come from the mouth of one who is supposed to be a warrior” (Cleary, 1999, p. 57).

Honesty in Deeds

The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics requires “never accepting gratuities.”

It is beneath the dignity of the Guardian to steal, cheat, engage in fraud, subterfuge, and trickery.  There are examples, however, where to do so would be ethical.

Deception in the Line of Duty

In many cases, the law supports deception by police officers in the line of duty.  There certainly is no legal imperative that officers be transparent with suspects.  The law often, but not always, supports police deception.  The law permits the detective to pose as a consumer or purveyor of vice, such as with narcotics buys and prostitution stings.  There are, however, limits.  For example, an officer is not allowed to employ certain ruses to gain entry without a search warrant or to obtain a search warrant with a false affidavit (which is usually a criminal offense).  Officers know that a “substantial bit of trickery” is legally permissible.  The question becomes, is it ethical?


It is critical to meet your obligations.  The Guardian will seek to avoid unwise commitments and the subsequent need for bad-faith excuses.  Many times, the warrior will have too many things going at once and will simply forget about an obligation.  It is no weakness to write things down so you can remember your future obligations when the time comes.  Yamamoto suggests, “On the previous night, make your plans for the next day and write them down.  This is the method of disposing of affairs in advance of others” (Stone, 2001, p. 17).

The Public Trust

As we have seen, the virtue of honesty has many facets.  All of them are critical for officer credibility and, by extension, departmental credibility.  As the Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2015, p. 1) noted, “Trust between law enforcement agencies and the people they protect and serve is essential in a democracy. It is key to the stability of our communities, the integrity of our criminal justice system, and the safe and effective delivery of policing services.”


Some relationships create an expectation of allegiance and devotion.  It was the high standards of the samurai that set everyone’s standards.  Their ideas, their manners, their morals, and the codes that embodied them were the model for everyone.

Limitations of Loyalty

It has been said, “When an organization wants you to do right, it asks for your integrity; when it wants you to do wrong, it demands your loyalty.”  A key to maintaining loyalty as a virtue is to realize that it is a virtue only when it is contained within its proper limits.

When Loyalties Collide

An officer in public service has many claims to loyalty from both groups and individuals.  Because of this, many times, loyalties will come into conflict.  This conflict necessitates that we must rank our loyalty debts.  The code of bushido dictates filial piety.  (In fact, this idea is so important that many adherents to the Bushido idea would be outraged at my not making it a major virtue, deserving its own chapter).

The idea that ethical problems arise when there is a conflict of loyalties is illustrated by the story of the Forty-seven Ronin.  In 1703, a group of forty-seven samurai had been left masterless (ronin) due to the shogun’s forcing the suicide of their lord.  The question was whether the ronin were acting according to gi in taking revenge upon the man who had, in the first place, prompted their deceased lord to commit the offense that led to his being condemned to self-destruction.  Clearly, the issue was not the legal one of whether the ronin obeyed or disobeyed the law or violated some policy, but instead the ethical one of whether they acted because of a sense of rightness and justice.  The correctness of the action of the Forty-Seven was hotly debated in Japan at the time and never fails to stir the emotions of the careful, thoughtful reader today.

Conflicts of Interest

The modern Guardian owes allegiance first to the public.

Obligation to Heaven

About 80% of Americans say they practice some type of religion, with the remaining 20% (mostly younger Americans) saying that they do not.  Today, most psychologists regard spirituality as an important component of the mental health of all people.  According to eminent psychologist Kenneth Pargament (2013), “Empirical studies of many groups dealing with major life stressors such as natural disaster, illness, loss of loved ones, divorce and serious mental illness show that religion and spirituality are generally helpful to people in coping, especially people with the fewest resources facing the most uncontrollable of problems.”  With all of the stressors in a police officer’s life, coping without a spiritual dimension is nearly impossible.

Obligation to Country

In America, saying that you are loyal to your country amounts to saying that you are loyal to the American people.  This is true of the nation as a whole but is especially true for those who live in the community where you serve as a law enforcement officer.  It is to these people that the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics applies on a daily basis:

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 and intimidation, and the peaceful against violence or disorder…

According to the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, the law enforcement officer’s badge is a “symbol of public faith.”  The Code requires that the badge be accepted as “a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of the police service.”

As Tsunetomo Yamamoto admonished the young warriors of his clan, “you must devote yourself toward the studies of your own country” (Stone, 2001, p. 5).  It is important for local officers to extend this obligation to the local community that they serve.  This may seem obvious, but we see constant reminders across the nation that this is not the case.  As the Civil Rights Division found in the Baltimore Report:

…where law enforcement officers confront a long history of social and economic challenges that impact much of the City, including the perception that there are “two Baltimores:” one wealthy and largely white, the second impoverished and predominantly black. Community members living in the City’s wealthier and largely white neighborhoods told us that officers tend to be respectful and responsive to their needs, while many individuals living in the City’s largely African-American communities informed us that officers tend to be disrespectful and do not respond promptly to their calls for service. Members of these largely African-American communities often felt they were subjected to unjustified stops, searches, and arrests, as well as excessive force….

The Report concludes that “These challenges amplify the importance of using policing methods that build community partnerships and ensure fair and effective enforcement without regard for affluence or race through robust training, close supervision, data collection and analysis, and accountability for misconduct.”   I would add that officer selection is an important yet often overlooked key to ethical oversight.  People of poor character often fail to develop a sense of ethics at an early age, and a thorough background investigation would reveal past unethical conduct.  Federal agencies tend to conduct such background investigations, but local agencies, especially small ones, tend to neglect the important task.

Obligation to Self

As the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics dictates, “I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all.”  It is critical to understand that when you take on the duties of a police officer, you have not accepted a nine-to-five job.  You have accepted a sacred trust that will influence every aspect of your life.

Another important obligation to self is keeping healthy and whole.  This means taking care of your physical and mental health.  When your sense of duty keeps you constantly working and never resting, you do a disservice to everyone, especially yourself.  Tsunetomo Yamamoto wrote, “At all events, samurais are not good when they are worn and dispirited.  Samurais are useless unless they have the sprit to rise above the sea (of troubles and difficulties).  This spirit can encourage other samurais” (Stone, 2001, p. 25).

Obligation to Family

Honor is closely bound up with a strong consciousness of family.  It is from the family that we learn to form attachments to other persons and entities, ones for whose honor a man may feel bound to fight: brothers and sisters in the Faith, fellow citizens, a military unit, or brothers and sisters in blue.

Many “family values” advocates lament the fact that the rate of divorce in America is around fifty percent.  Among law enforcement officers, that rate is nearly seventy-five percent.  The sad fact is that officers often lose their families because they were doing the wrong things for the right reasons.  The very nature of police work makes family life chaotic and stressful.  If you do not take positive steps to prevent it, your family will disintegrate.

Perhaps the most dynamic speaker and writer in this area of policing was the late Dr. Bobby Smith.  Dr. Smith (2007) admonishes officers to take off their guns and badges before entering the home.  He does not mean literally—almost everybody does that!  What he means is that your role must shift from that of a cop to that of a parent and spouse.  This transition from a high-stress, adrenaline-driven, command presence must give way to calmness and caring.  Of course, this is much easier said than done.  Take strength from the fact that it can be done and realize that it must be done.  If your job becomes and remains your top priority, you will eventually find that it is all you have.

Obligation to Agency

If we think of our agency as having the same place the clan did for the ancient Samurai, we can consider the advice of Tsunetomo Yamamoto to the young samurai of his clan:  “the duty of each member who serves this house is none other than that he should carry out his respective, official responsibility.”  He notes that many samurai wrongly “find pleasure in other topics and dislike their own office.  Consequently, they put the cart before the horse and blunder grossly” (Stone, 2001, p. 7).

A part of the obligation to your agency is maintaining a professional appearance.  If your own pride does not accomplish this, then consider that you reflect badly on your peers if you look and behave unprofessionally.  In the Code of the Samurai, this was regarded as one of the two principles of knighthood:

The principles of knighthood include washing your hands and feet and bathing morning and night, keeping your body clean, shaving and dressing your hair every morning, and dressing formally according to season and circumstances….when dealing with guests, you treat them courteously according to their status and avoid useless talk.  Even when you partake of a bowl of rice or a cup of tea, you are always careful not to be slovenly (Cleary, 1999, p. 10).

Another aspect of agency loyalty is the duty to put aside personal problems with others and work well with them for the good of the agency and the community.  Out of loyalty to your agency and the importance of the police mission, you should put aside personal differences.  This is obvious in theory but is difficult to do in practice.

Obligation to Sensei

In Japanese, sensei is a title of respect for one who is a master of some skill (frequently martial arts) and is now a teacher or mentor.  In many cases, your mentors and teachers in law enforcement teach because of a love of the profession and a desire to pass on their hard-won knowledge.  They receive little extra compensation.  In essence, your teachers and trainers are putting forth a lot of time and effort on your behalf.  For this service, they are deserving of respect.  For this reason, you have an ethical obligation to pay close attention to their lessons and make a good-faith attempt to learn as much as you can.  There are also practical reasons to win the respect of your sensei.  Often, instructors are either above you in the chain of command or are peers of your command staff.  Either way, their appraisal of you can have a large impact on your ability to excel within your department.

Obligation to Fellow Guardians

The role of the true Guardian is to sacrifice self for others.  Such men and women are to be commended.  Sadly, they are often not commended but feared and mistrusted.  Our society gives us the authority and power to fight evil, but they often fear the power they have given us.  They know nothing of the ways of war (either against foreign enemies or crime), but are quick to say that we have not fought it correctly.  Simply put, the Way of the Warrior is a lonely path.  This sad fact often means that if the Guardian cannot depend on other Guardians, then they can depend on no one.  Those new to policing can be inoculated against some of these feelings of loneliness by being mentally prepared for the fact.  As Tsunetomo Yamamoto said of walking somewhere in a rainstorm, “As long as you accept that you will get wet, you will won’t suffer from being wet” (Stone, 2001, p. 25).  Still, this may not always be enough.

We all understand that we may be asked to risk our lives to come to the aid of a fellow officer.  Most of us accept this as part of the job.  It is strange, then, that many of us are not willing to make lesser sacrifices.  A true Guardian will gladly work a few extra hours so another officer can go to his child’s baseball game.  A true Guardian will get out of bed to go help another officer serve a high-risk warrant.  If the law, departmental policy, or your own ethical standards (Bushido!) do not forbid it, you should always seek to aid a fellow officer in need.  Obviously, need cannot be interpreted to mean empowering the other officer to be lazy or negligent.  There should be a bona fide reason.

Of course, this benevolence toward fellow officers must have a limit.  You cannot sacrifice your other duties.  Some particular officers may always ask for aid and never reciprocate.  Your obligation becomes less and less as another Guardian strays farther and farther from the warrior path.  Once a fellow officer has renounced the Way of the Warrior (i.e., abandoned all ethical principles), you are absolved from all obligations.  Indeed, once it is determined that a fellow officer is not a Guardian but a criminal, then he must then be called enemy, not brother.  Betrayal of the fellowship of Guardians is a shame on us all and cannot be taken lightly.  To give another officer your sweat and your blood is an honorable performance of duty.  You must never, ever give your honor; this is a shame that destroys you both.

Safeguarding Confidential Information

The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics dictates, “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 duty.”  For the officer, two things must be considered.  First, we must consider what information is confidential and what is not.  Second, if the information is confidential, under what circumstances can it ethically be released?  Every confidential information disclosure that comes up is unique because confidential information does not occur in a vacuum.   It is surrounded by circumstances that must be evaluated to determine what can be said and to whom it can be said.  Obviously, confidential information must be shared when mandated by law, and it should be shared when such disclosure is pursuant to a bona fide criminal justice purpose and in accordance with policy.

Table of Contents

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.