Why are policemen generally required to first attest to being and remaining uncommonly virtuous, (even when off-duty), as a primary duty, rather than being mainly valued for their relative skills in the tasks of policing? Policemag.com's William Harvey writes:

As you apply to become a police officer or deputy, you must meet state and agency eligibility requirements. You'll also need to pass a thorough background investigation.

The background check ensures applicants with criminal pasts or current involvements are filtered out. So if you have a tawdry background, you need not apply.

It seems like making personal virtue primary might tend to maximize hypocrisy and corruptibility, as it will select for liars, (who claim to be virtuous), and the naive and oblivious.

What's the evidence that background checks and oaths are useful in this field? As opposed to letting anybody join up, and regularly winnowing out those who do a bad job...


The premise here is that good policing begins with one police officer who does a good job, and builds from there. That is, an officer who ably selects what to enforce sensibly, isn't paranoid, enforces laws impartially, doesn't slack off, avoids corruption and on-the-job deviancy, is not a reckless driver, and where violence is needed quietly shuns personal inefficiency and theatrics.

Often the main thing with selecting a job candidate is that the job be done well, and the main and practical distinction between the quality of separate workers is how well they do a job. Not who they are, where they're from, not their credentials, not their prior history, etc.

For example, given a choice between hiring two builders: an adulterous boozing reprobate who builds excellent houses, and a churchgoing paragon of virtue who builds houses that shake in the wind; many people would rationally prefer the reprobate.

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    Comments deleted. Please remember the purpose of comments on questions. They should suggest how the question could be improved. They are neither for discussing the subject matter of the question nor for answering the question. – Philipp Jul 26 '18 at 11:34

Policemen are equipped with the power of the state; in many countries, they have a monopoly on violence, which means that the state legitimizes their use of physical force.

Because of this, ordinary citizens are defenseless against violence by police; if they resist, they will be charged with resisting arrest and other crimes.

And because of this, it is imperative that policemen are virtuous and do not mis- or abuse their power.

  • Please try to include some evidence that such idealistic imperatives of virtue do more good than harm. – agc Jul 25 '18 at 18:51
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    @agc I actually disagree with the premise. I don't think that these imperatives work or that police officers are more virtuous, but that the job instead attracts people who tend towards authoritarian personalities and sadism. But your question wasn't really "does it work?" but "what's the idea behind this?" If you want to know if it does "more good", that might make for a good separate question (though you really need to define "good" here; eg a cop who arrests people at random will naturally arrest some criminals as well, possibly more than his more diligent colleges; but is that "good"?) – tim Jul 25 '18 at 19:06
  • In my mind the idea behind the Q. starts with the example of the builders, which implies some sort of theoretical working model, i.e. how it should work, along with data its advocates consider as evidence the virtue model is better than nothing. "Good" = how much better off the community is than with no police, verses how much better off they'd be with less virtue-centric police. – agc Jul 25 '18 at 19:44
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    @agc Being better off is also very subjective. Theoretically, we could imagine a police force which disproportionally targets a minority of the population. This doesn't necessarily result in objectively more criminals being apprehended, a safer community, or overall reduced crime, but the majority of the population might still subjectively feel better off (eg because they feel like something positive is being done while simultaneously not being subjected to the police as much). – tim Jul 25 '18 at 19:55
  • @agc I don't think that there is any hard data behind the original reasoning (but who knows, maybe someone else finds something and posts an answer). – tim Jul 25 '18 at 19:55

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