by Adam J. McKee

Many commentators have complained that law enforcement officers do not spend enough time on ethics training.  This is probably true to some degree.  We all agree that ethics is important, but the little time that we can devote to training always seems to be taken up with some sort of mandatory material that is not ethics.  Simply put, line officers do not have the time to spend the 40 or so hours corresponding to a university course on ethics training.  For training to be practical for law enforcement, it must be compact and full of meaning.  There is no time for wasted words.  These same requirements can also be applied to a text on ethics for law enforcement.

A survey of the ethics texts on my bookshelf reveals that the average ethics text is somewhere between 300 and 400 pages in length.  This is much more material than working cops can digest at one time.  In addition, larger texts mean more costs.  It seems to me that a practical ethics text for law enforcement would be short, sweet, and to the point.  It should be attached to some sort of organizational framework to make things easy to remember.  It should not be bogged down in technical details better suited to the discourse of philosophers and theologians.  This text, for example, will use the terms ethical and moral interchangeably.

The idea of treating law enforcement officers as modern warriors was inspired by the work of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.  In the introduction to his excellent book On Combat, he draws an analogy between the modern police officer and the noble paladin of Western history and myth.  He points out that the contemporary police “shield” is a “direct, intentional, overt reference to the knights of old.”  These brave men “woke up every day and donned armor.  They hung a weapon on their hip and a shield on their left side.  And they went forth and did good deeds and administered justice in the land” (Grossman, 2004, p. xxii).  It must be understood that Lt. Col. Grossman is not talking about a warrior in the sense of one who is merely proficient with deadly weapons.  The true warrior—the paladin of the West and the Samurai of the East—was a master of military arts.  However, the violence these men were capable of was circumscribed by a code of conduct that allowed only for righteous violence.

Most ethical systems would consider the phrase “righteous violence” to be oxymoronic; they would argue that violence could never be right.  This pacifistic view, while noble, does not fit the harsh reality of police work.  The truth is that we live in a violent world, and we are terrified at the prospect of interpersonal aggression.  Any system of virtue ethics that can encompass the ethical dilemmas faced by law enforcement must include a component that regulates the use of force.  Bushido, being first a warrior code of ethics, performs this function admirably.

This is not to say that I advocate unnecessary or unrestrained violence.  As the remainder of this book will reveal, violence should be considered a last resort.  As the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once put it in one of his stories, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”  That is, as peace officers, we are peacemakers.

If violence becomes necessary, we have demonstrated incompetence.  I agree with the philosophy of verbal judo master Dr. George Thompson’s assessment of how police officers ought to think: “People are safer because of our presence.  A peace officer must ‘walk the walk and talk the talk’ of peace, not conflict.  Put another way, each officer must exude, by their presence and delivery: There will be no violence where I walk.”

Style and Content

An effort has been made to ensure the content of this book would be beneficial to law enforcement officers.  Most ethics training in law enforcement mentions the Law enforcement Code of Ethics and the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor.  I have attempted to make sure that the material in this text deals with the fundamental ethical principles set forth in those documents.  I hope that trainers wishing to frame their course around these documents will find this inclusiveness useful.  I have also limited this text to individual ethics and only touched on the topics of institutional ethics and ethics training.

Traditional professional writing dictates that the author stand aside in a neutral detached way and allow his or her ideas to stand alone.  This text deviates from this convention in that I regularly use the first person personal pronoun “I,” as well as the inclusive pronoun “we.”  This is not without purpose.  (Therefore, I hope my fellow academics will forgive my indulgences).  Many comments contain my personal thoughts on Bushido, especially those passages that attempt to bring ancient ideas into a modern perspective.  The use of the personal pronoun stamps these ideas as my own and alerts the reader that they should not be considered part of the canon of Bushido (if such a thing can be said to exist).

The use of the inclusive pronoun “we” also serves a purpose.  The intent is to point out that Guardians are a fellowship and that we should have mutual respect and caring among us.  It also points out that I am not a Sensei in the true sense of the word—I lay no claim to the moral high ground.  I am merely a fellow novice searching for the True Way.

A Note on Police Semantics

This book has been many years in the writing.  As I begin to bring it to the point that I think it is fit to publish, police departments around the country are contemplating the broader meaning and impact of the tragic events that unfolded in Jefferson, Missouri late in the summer 2014.  Colleagues (academic types) that I hold much respect for have taken to using the word militarization in an almost talismanic way to describe a perceived problem with American police forces today.

The dictionary definition of militarization, when applied to something that is not a nation preparing for war, is simply to give a military character to something.  The term, then, is a verb.  It is an ongoing process.  This suggests that those using the term have not considered it much and are using it inappropriately.  The fact is that Sir Robert Peel gave the police a military character in his establishment of the London Metropolitan Police prior to having modern police forces in America.  He felt that the rank structure and uniforms used by the military would help maintain a well-disciplined force with a high degree of accountability.  It is foolish to talk of the militarization of the police when they have always been militarized.

What, then, is the meaning of this?  Perhaps it is the use of “military-style” weapons, body armor, and vehicles.  These are merely tools.  They are appropriate when they are needed.  Very few citizens would criticize the carpenter for using too large a hammer if the work called for it.  All deadly force used by law enforcement must be calibrated to overcome the deadly force offered by an assailant.

More force than this is unethical, and less is foolishness.  Weapons and armor have nothing to do with behaviors.  If members of the public have confused a wide array of weapons for an automatic unethical use of them, then the law enforcement community must shoulder at least some of the blame.  Part of the law enforcement mandate, as public servants, is to educate the public about the law enforcement mission.

When those outside of the world of law enforcement use the word militarization, it is used often incorrectly as a synonym of the phrase police state.  This phrase accurately connotes the true fear:  repressive government control at the cost of freedom and liberty.  Officers who take part in such activities are not warriors in the true sense of the word but merely fighters in the service of tyranny.

It took me a while, but I realized that a book on “warrior ethics” amid this flurry of attacks on militarization would have been offensive to some.  The true warriors would have understood, but to use the term would have done more harm than good.  Because most people do not understand what it means to be a warrior truly, perhaps it is best if we put the term aside and adopt the term preferred by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing:  Guardian.  The term reminds me of the Irish Police force, An Garda Síochána, which translates to “guardians of the peace.”

It is with that in mind that I adopt the word guardian in place of the term warrior.  Many peace officers are accomplished martial artists, and they have been steeped in the lore of the ancient warrior cultures of the East.  I do not mean the change of name as an affront to this proud tradition; my purpose, instead, is to preserve it.


At the end of the day, ethics is a subjective matter, and everyone will have a slightly different opinion.  I fully acknowledge that this little book is far from perfect.  I welcome your comments, criticisms, and suggestions for future editions.  You can reach me via email at

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