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Ethical dilemmas in delivering front line services

"A local woman is diagnosed with a severe personality disorder that is exacerbated by attention to her actions. NHS practitioners tell the police that when she calls, they should not respond. But she calls 999 and local police officers believe she could be in danger…"

This example was given as the sort of dilemma that can be faced by front line – often junior – police officers during a recent presentation to the Committee by the Police Ethics Network (PEN), a collaboration between Bath Spa University, Imperial College NHS Trust and a number of police forces and other public sector organisations. Inspired and motivated by the medical profession’s long-standing ethics committees, the original aim was to develop a hub for information, support and advice on ethics and conduct for law enforcement bodies.

The Committee first came across the early work of what was then known as ‘The Avon and Somerset Ethics Committee’ when it was collecting evidence and good practice for CSPL’s 2015 review of leadership, ethics and accountability in policing. The CSPL report highlighted this work but stressed that Ethics Committees can only be an adjunct to, not the answer to, embedding a standards culture and that Police and Crime Commissioners should explicitly hold Chief constables to account for promoting ethical behaviour and embedding the College of Policing’s code of Ethics.

At our November meeting, Professor Allyson Macvean and Professor Vassilios Papalois updated the Committee on the growth and progress of the Police Ethics Network. 24 organisations from law enforcement agencies to a range of other public service organisations including military, higher education, NHS and the London Mayor’s office - are now actively and enthusiastically engaging with the Ethics Network. And although PEN does not seek to proscribe or suggest outcomes, we heard that it offers a unique forum in which ethical dilemmas can be explored, debated and shared without fear of repercussion.

For me, having previously been Chair of the College of Policing which was responsible for developing the Policing Code of Ethics, it was deeply pleasing to hear how the Network is encouraging and normalising debate and discussion about ethical standards as well as sharing learning and tools across forces to support high standards. There is a very real challenge in delivering a code of ethics in a consistent manner across 43 different Forces, and networks such as this are an important part of delivering that consistency. By sharing its work the PEN is helping to both raise the profile and awareness of ethical standards and enable cross-cutting ethical concerns to be considered with partners and other organisations involved in complex service delivery.

Building the right ethical culture within an organisation requires active - and persistent - attention. It is, as our new Chair, Lord Evans, recently described, ‘a hearts and minds issue’. High ethical standards start with leadership; the tone of any organisation always comes from the top but grassroot initiatives like PEN which help give public servants in complex roles the appropriate space and time to think through knotty ethical dilemmas are a welcome tool in the standards box.


The Committee is interested to hear examples and first-hand experience of how public sector organisations or those delivering public services are setting and embedding a high standards culture. What works in practice? What makes a difference?

You can contact us by email on or follow our work on Twitter @PublicStandards.

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