Generally speaking, and without much in the way of concern for specific roles, those in leadership positions within the criminal justice system are expected by society to adhere to standards usually more stringent than those of other arenas. Simply put, and no matter the level of responsibility or jurisdiction, society demands leadership that is firmly based on the ethics built into the foundations of the government, and as expressed in the United States Constitution.
This is an extraordinary and complex responsibility. For one thing, there is an enormous variety of leadership roles within the system, ranging from the police chief to the highest levels of the government’s authority. Moreover, criminal justice leadership is by no means restricted to the judicial branch of that government; decisions made within the executive and legislative departments typically have vastly influential consequences on how criminal justice is administered. Then, leadership is, in a sense, a component of criminal justice occupations not always identified as such. The system is so expansive that its tiers are innumerable, and an assistant district attorney usually has a team he or she must lead. Similarly, the police officer on the street, enabled to render autonomous decisions, is exercising a very real form of “leadership” merely by virtue of his or her interaction with the public: “Officers’ arrest discretion, especially – but not solely – in situations excluding domestic abuse, is not often subject to any official guidance” (Fyfe, et al., 1995, p. 95). That the “leadership” exists solely within the officer in no way lessens its authority, or responsibility.
The weight of this responsibility, then, whether on the Supreme Court justice or street officer, would seem to be further hampered by the societal insistence on accepted, observed ethics. Leadership in business, while essentially also driven by ethical considerations, is not so burdened; commerce allows for some “flexibility” in ethics. The criminal justice system, however, actually exists to promote and ensure ethical behavior, and its leaders at every level must evince a commitment to it. By examining the police scenario, however, it can be seen that maintaining ethics may ease, rather than add to, the burden. An ethical core in leadership actually simplifies circumstances because it serves as a compass of sorts. For example, the Department of Justice maintains a rigid concept regarding the police, and particularly recent trends in community policing: “A culture of police integrity is essential in building respect and trust and, in turn, mutual respect and trust between police and citizens is essential to effective crime fighting” (USDOJ, 2011). The officer as “leader”, determined to reflect integrity, generates greater support from the community consequently trusting in that integrity, which will likely make more of an effort to comply.
Interestingly, ethical issues are by no means reserved for those battling out proposed constitutional amendments. At the police level again, the leader as police chief must make decisions which address differing ethical concerns, and these must as well often be subject to practical, non-ethical considerations. A police chief is typically under multiple, and frequently shifting, constraints; an unstable political environment may limit his or her ability to lead as much as budget cuts reduce the potentials of what the force may do (Stojkovic, Kalinich, Klofas, 2007, p. 188). That he or she operate from a code of ethics firmly in place is as essential here as at the highest levels of government.
No matter the leadership position, however, one element within criminal justice is irrefutable: the individual so entrusted must adhere in his or her personal life to the ethics the profession demands. Criminal justice may not be a “calling” in the sense that medicine or teaching is, but neither does the field allow for weakness of character. Ethics are never commodities that can be left at the door when the work day is done, in any occupation. Those serving as leaders in criminal justice must be templates of that precept, as the field itself should – ideally – attract those whose ethical concerns guide them to it in the first place. These components of belief and conviction are not merely the framework for the criminal justice system, but must also be ingrained traits within anyone serving it, and especially in a leadership capacity.