The ethical decisions confronting policing within a democracy are extraordinary. No other occupation holds its members to such high standards of professional and personal conduct. Because police work is almost entirely a service to others and deals primarily with human behavior, the success or failure of a police organization depends heavily on the actions of its individual members.
Translating the ideals of police ethics into everyday police behavior is the task of every person who wears a badge. And police officers appointed or promoted to investigative positions in a police department have even greater responsibility to model positive behavior than others in the organization. Why? Because detectives work on high-profile cases, are more prone to work in the dark world of vice and narcotics, often have limited direct supervision and are looked upon by members of the department and the public as the cream of the crop.
Recently, there have been several front page stories in the newspaper about a supervisor and a detective in the narcotics division of a large city in in Connecticut, who were allegedly stealing money while serving search warrants. In another city, several officers were fired amid allegations of using the services of prostitutes while on the job.
Although this type of police behavior does happen from time to time across the fruited plain, it's relatively rare. Unfortunately, the public tends to use a broad brush when it come to police misconduct, and there's little doubt this type of behavior fuels a negative perception of our profession.
What Is Ethics?
In the academic world, ethics is often defined as a set of moral principles or values, or the study of human conduct according to standards of good and evil discoverable by reason. The study of ethics provides a way to make choices when we're not certain what the right thing to do is.
Ethics begins when we ask ourselves, "How should I live my life?" Rather than restricting people to specific moral options and binding obligations, ethics serves as a lens with which to view choices about the course of your life. Knowledge of ethics allows
a process in which a rational human being can strive toward goodness by focusing on developing character.
The broad area of police discretion makes the individual ethics of police officers key. It's only through individual ethics let's define it as "the realization that the moral rightness of an action is determined by one's conscience" that officers can make decisions, taking into account what's practical, possible and ethical.
Why Is It Hard?
Deciding what's right or wrong is a large part of what police officers do, and state statute books are full of laws, so why is it tough to figure out the right thing? It's because our society entrusts the police to decide under what circumstances to enforce the law. Simply because an officer has the legal power to do something doesn't make it the right thing to do.
Knowing what's the right thing to do is complicated further by the environment in which the police work. We live at the time of the claw and the fang. The care-giving aspects of policing are practiced in an environment of hopelessness, despair and corruption. Officers are continuously exposed to overwhelming traumatic experiences akin to military combat: drive-by shootings, murders, the effects of drugs, suicide, widespread homeless, AIDS, domestic violence, poverty, child abuse, etc. It's little wonder many of our police officers have become disillusioned and burned out, and engage in a variety of self-destructive behaviors.
In addition, the police are primarily a male-dominated, closed and isolated semi-military society with rites of passage not often found in other vocations. They work in a world in which people prey on one another, and contacts between officers and citizens are often adversarial, full of tension and hostility. However well police officers do their jobs, they're criticized by the people they serve and those they take action against. These and other factors often cause the police to see themselves as members of a group aligned against common enemies.
Finally, to regulate police conduct and behavior, limit the discretionary powers of police officers and provide for efficient and effective delivery of police services, police departments create policies and procedures and specific rules and regulations for its members to abide by. However, no law, rule or regulation can be written with such specificity as to cover every type of situation individual officers encounter, and the ambiguity and police policy and procedure allows officers to exercise broad discretionary judgment in the decision-making process.
The discretionary nature of police decision making and the disparity between official policy and the reality of the street result in rationalizing improper conduct. When I hear police officers say things like, "If it's legal, it's ethical," it's obvious to me they're rationalizing their behavior. Rationalization is a self-alibi that's used to avoid a loss of self-esteem and prevent guilt.
"If it's legal, it's ethical" is the same rationale used by the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials to defend their actions in concentration camps during World War II. From that short phrase, it's only a small step to thinking the ends justify the means. In policing, catching the bad guy is used as a justification for illegal wiretaps, planting evidence, swearing to false information in affidavits supporting arrest and search warrants, using verbal and physical abuse and other misuses of police authority.
The scriptural admonition to not do evil so that good may result from it (Rom. 3:8) is appropriate here.
Regardless of the motive or intent, there's never a justification for police officers to break the law or use unethical methods to enforce it.
Right vs. Right Decisions
The real difficulty for the police officer comes in making choices between two or more alternative courses of action, each of which may appear to be the right thing to do. Consider the following examples:
This is not to imply that right vs. wrong choices do not involve ethical decisions, but only that they are easier to resolve and don't require deeply searching one's basic values in the way right vs. right dilemmas do. To make this clear, some examples of right vs. wrong decisions follow.
Right-vs.-wrong choices are easily identified, and there's universal agreement that crimes committed by police officers are wrong. Everyone agrees police corruption is unethical. Bribery and extortion, appropriating items at a crime scene and blaming the theft on criminals, or taking items from a store whose door was left open are all criminal acts.
Let's say an officer on foot patrol surprises three youths sharing a marijuana cigarette in a secluded area of a city park. All three begin running when they spot the officer, but one boy is so overweight, he moves only a few yards before giving up. The other two get away.
In speaking with the youth, the officer observes the boy is so scared he's urinated in his pants. The officer learns the young man's name is Benjamin Saunders and that he has asthma. The officer finds an asthma inhaler in the boy's jacket pocket. Saunders turned 16 yesterday, which means he's no longer a juvenile in his state and can be arrested, handcuffed and booked in the adult system.
The officer retrieves the partially smoked marijuana cigarette, and Saunders begins to cry. He reveals that this is the first time he had been invited by his two friends, both of whom are 15, to go anywhere with them. Even though smoke of any kind makes Saunders sick, he agreed to come with the two boys to smoke the marijuana, fearing that if he didn't he would never be asked to go anywhere with them again. He reluctantly gives the officer the names of the other two, who, like Saunders, live a short distance from the park.
What's the right thing to do? Marijuana is illegal. Saunders and the other two youths have committed a crime. The officer is on patrol in the park specifically because people have complained about groups of youths using drugs there. Would the officer be right to place Saunders in handcuffs, take him to the police station, have him sign a statement admitting his guilt and incriminating the other two youths, and then book him? Would the officer be right to pick up the other two youths and refer them to the juvenile system?
That's the law. Isn't that the officer's job? What happens to Saunders and the other boys isn't the officer's problem; after all, they made the choice to break the law. Three arrests and the confiscation of even a partially smoked marijuana cigarette will please the officer's supervisors because they can point to the arrests as a proactive response to citizen complaints about drug use in the parks.
Would it also be right for the officer not to arrest anyone? Would it be right for the officer to take into consideration all of the information known about the case, take Saunders home and advise his parents what happened, tell the parents of the two other youths, turn the marijuana in to the police property room and submit a police report detailing those actions?
Would it be right after sizing up the situation for the officer to say to Saunders, "Here's what could happen: I could arrest you and put you in handcuffs. I could take you to the station and then go round up those two buddies of yours and arrest them."
My next article will look at ethics as a problem-solving tool.
Be safe out there.
Parts of this article were excerpted from Dr. Jetmore's book, The Path of the Warrior, available from Looseleaf Law Publications