A New Poll Reveals Challenges to Moral Character in Present-Day Policing in the UK

As part of the ongoing research project, Virtues in Policing, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues commissioned a poll of 406 police officers, conducted by Portland Communications in January 2021. The poll reflects current demographics of UK police officers reasonably well, although it is slightly skewed towards female, ethnically diverse, London-based and junior officers. Over 50% identified as Christian and over 30% as non-religious. The aim of the poll was to offer a snapshot of the moral challenges that police officers in the UK face and how well equipped they consider themselves to be in facing those challenges. The results of the poll project a somewhat disharmonious picture of police officers’ moral self-concept, perhaps reflecting the ambivalent and dilemmatic nature of contemporary policing itself. On the one hand, the officers generally consider themselves to possess the character strengths that they value most in an ideal officer, namely honesty and bravery. They rely considerably on their own moral compass in dealing with problematic situations, and they consider their education to have prepared them reasonably well for the cut and thrust of police life. On the other hand, they acknowledge the increasing challenges and stressors of present-day policing and the prevalence of situations where they have to act against their own moral judgement, to the extent that the majority of respondents have considered quitting their job in the last year.

It must be borne in mind that the poll was conducted during unusual circumstances in the UK, which are perhaps reflected in its findings, in particular:

  • The requirement of police forces to shift resources towards enforcing COVID-19 guidelines as part of the lockdown.
  • The economic, social and personal shocks caused by COVID-19 and the third national stay-at-home lockdown.

Some Major Themes From the Results

  • Theme 1: Personal versus idealised character strengths

The participants valued bravery and honesty most in an ideal police officer and they considered those same strengths (in reverse order) as their own greatest strengths. This is the first time bravery makes the top spot in our research into UK professionals. Interestingly, it was not mentioned as one of the top five character strengths among UK Army Officers. Despite this concordance between characterological self-concept and priorities regarding the top two strengths, some discordance was revealed regarding other strengths listed. Officers were, for example, 1.7x more likely to say that ‘judgement’ is important to an ideal officer but is not one of their top character strengths. They were 1.2x more likely to say that ‘self-regulation’ is important to an ideal officer but is not one of their top character strengths. This was also true for leadership, prudence, perspective and social intelligence. On the other hands, officers rated themselves as personally higher across a range of character strengths than required in an ideal officer, mainly: love, love of learning, humour, kindness and gratitude.

  • Theme 2: The (increasing) challenges of police work

A majority of officers reported facing ethical dilemmas at work either ‘very often’ (18%) or ‘often’ (33%). Only 9% reported never facing ethical dilemmas and 16% reported facing them ‘very occasionally’. The respondents overwhelmingly reported that in the face of COVID-19, the pressures, complexities and challenges they face are increasing; this suggests that many of the ethical challenges noted will be exacerbated. More specifically, 76% of respondents believed that police work is getting more complicated and challenging compared with only 5% who disagreed.

  • Theme 3: Their own moral compass and ethical training

76% of the police officers surveyed said that they often have to rely on personal ethical judgement as part of their work. Only 8% disagreed while 16% neither agreed nor disagreed. Despite the challenges noted under Theme 2, respondents were very likely to agree (78%) that they are adequately equipped to confidently make decisions in response to moral dilemmas, and that the cultivation of character and virtues is already a central part of police training (79% agree). In spite of the reported importance (in how often moral dilemmas emerge), and the extent of training (being adequate, successfully equipping and central), the survey showed a broad and fragmented range of ethical approaches taken by police officers in approaching ethical dilemmas. When unpacking their ‘personal ethical judgement’, almost one-third explained it in consequentialist terms (promoting best consequences), 20% referred to a deontological foundation (duty) and 10% to ‘the most virtuous thing to do’. However, to complicate matters, the largest group of respondents said they relied on thinking about ‘the fairest thing to do’. If one combines that number with the 10% who referred explicitly to ‘the most virtuous thing’, police officers seem to be skewed towards virtue ethics. However, it should be borne in mind that ‘fairness’ in ordinary language does not always refer to the discrete virtue of justice or fairness but rather to that which promotes the overall good. Hence, in default of further research, it is difficult to categorise this answer as either purely consequentialist (utilitarian) or purely virtue ethical.

  • Theme 4: Consequences of dilemmas and stressors

Given the fairly confident responses given under Theme 3 about the preparedness to deal with moral dilemmas and challenges to character, responses to discrete questions about psychological feelings and reactions to current stressors revealed a significantly bleaker picture. A majority – 54% – of respondents said that they had considered quitting their job in the last year. Over 50% ‘always’ or ‘mostly’ feel stress at work, and over 60% reported that their work involves tasks that go against their personal values. Over 60% also complained about a lack of time in executing tasks in line with their preferred standards. Judging from the apparent discrepancy between the fairly upbeat responses reported upon under Theme 3, and the more downbeat answers to the questions about specific stressors and reactions to challenges, police officers seem to harbour conflicting attitudes and emotions with respect to the realities of their work.

The results of the poll will be subjected to further analysis, awaiting the first report on the Virtues in Policing project, due in the summer of 2021, where those will be juxtaposed with the results from an ongoing survey and a series of interviews that delve deeper into some of the issues elicited by the poll.

Professor Kristján Kristjánsson, Deputy Director of The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues

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