Ethics. When most officers hear that word, the hair on the back of their neck goes up and suddenly visions of Internal Affairs, departmental sanctions, and lengthy lawsuits start racing through their heads.
Ethical behavior, however, is the foundation of any professional organization and as such, should be a recurring theme in every departmental training program. While the content of many courses addressing ethics may be quite good, there is one fundamental flaw that is continually present — the lack of the instructor’s knowledge regarding the ethical ideologies of the officers he or she is teaching. Adding to the trainer’s challenge is the possibility that various divisions within a department may require different ethical frameworks from which the officers/units must operate (for example, patrol versus school resources officers, or SWAT versus traffic).
In either case, the standard “one stop shop” for ethics training may not be the most practical or efficient way to give your officers the necessary tools to handle the ethical challenges they are sure to face in today’s ever changing world. With that in mind, the intent of this article is to introduce four primary ethical orientations, explain why discovering these philosophies is important, and review how you, as an instructor or department, can identify these orientations among your officers.
In general, there are two dominant ethical frameworks from which the four ideologies derive. The first of these is the concept of idealism. Those who hold an idealistic point of view believe that a desirable outcome can always be obtained by using the “right” or “correct” action. The challenge, of course, for this point of view is always finding the “right” or “correct” action for a given situation. On the other hand, the school of relativism acknowledges that while desirable outcomes are always preferable, everything is relative to a given circumstance and because of that, undesirable outcomes will also be a fact of life — regardless of what action is taken. According to Forsyth (1980), it is from these two ethical frameworks that four different approaches to making ethical decisions can be found. These approaches or ethical ideologies are:
1. Situationists — individuals who are closely aligned to this orientation believe that everything is relative and tend to reject any type of universal moral rule or code. Actions are often based upon an individual assessment of the situation.
2. Subjectivist — as with the situationists, the subjectivist supports the relative nature of events and as such, also rejects the concept of universal moral rules or codes. Unlike the situationist, however, subjectivists subject each event to a personal assessment that is based solely upon his or her own moral principles.
3. Absolutists — a strong supporter of idealism, the absolutist is grounded in the belief that the best possible outcome to any situation can be obtained by following absolute universal moral principles.
4. Exceptionists — like the absolutist, the exceptionist is also grounded in the belief that the best possible outcome to a situation can be obtained by following absolute universal moral principles. The distinction, however, is that the exceptionist also acknowledges that certain situations may require a deviation or exception to those ideals.
For some of you, all of this might sound like a bunch of academic mumbo jumbo. As a former Correctional Officer and Deputy Juvenile Probation Officer, I can certainly appreciate this point of view but there are very practical and applied aspects to understanding these belief systems. According to Pollock’s (2007) ethical pyramid (see the image to the right), an individual’s or organization’s ethical system is the foundation for moral rules and behavior.
While most departments have in place a Code of Ethics or Code of Conduct, the question must be asked, upon which ethical system or ideology is the code based? In addition, does this code uniformly apply to all divisions/units within the department? Without a firm understanding of this basic concept, the moral rules and judgments of your officers may be compromised because they are out of synch with your general ethical philosophy and as such, ethical dilemmas and conflict can easily occur. To assist in aligning or re-aligning the ethical system, moral rules, and moral judgments of your department and officers, ask yourself these fundamental questions:
1. What is the primary ethical ideology of our department/division/unit?
2. What is the primary ethical ideology of our officers?
3. Is the ethical system or ideology of our command staff consistent with that of our field officers?
4. Is the ethical system or ideology of our department consistent with the legal expectations of our position?
5. Is the ethical system or ideology of our department consistent with the cultural values of those we serve?
As you can see, each of these questions carries with it a unique set of challenges and potential pitfalls that will be discussed and addressed in future articles. As an instructor or department, however, a lack of understanding regarding the ethical orientations of those within your organization can have a direct effect on how and why they use one of the primary enforcement tools within the criminal justice system — discretion. As a society, everyone wants a department that follows a “spirit of the law” philosophy (versus the “letter of the law”) and in doing so, encourages its officers to use discretion.
The Achilles Heel of this position, however, is that discretion by its very nature is not applied uniformly and as such, its use exposes officers to myriad ethical dilemmas. But what happens when your command staff is guided by one ethical orientation and your field officers are operating from another? For example, if you, as an instructor or department, are teaching the use of discretion from an absolutist’s framework (one that believes the best possible outcome to any situation can be obtained by following absolute universal moral principles) and the officers within your class or department are more closely aligned to the subjectivist belief (one who rejects the concept of universal moral rules or codes and subjects each event to a personal assessment that is based solely upon his or her own moral principles), how effective will your training and officers be?
To assist instructors and departments in assessing the ethical orientations of their officers and to help guide you in answering the previous questions mentioned above, a simple five minute online survey has been developed. Questions in the survey are designed to identify which of the four ethical ideologies discussed in this article your students, unit, or department are most closely aligned with. It’s important to note, however, results of this questionnaire DO NOT determine whether the respondents act in an ethical or unethical manner. To date, this confidential survey is currently being used to assess the ethical orientations of academy cadets (and how their academy training does or does not affect their belief systems), correctional special operations groups, and criminal justice students.
All results are presented in aggregate form (group, not individual data) and the survey and corresponding analyses are free of charge to any federal, state, or local law enforcement agency. Should you require additional information or prefer individual analyses (such as that of your command staff), the questionnaire can be fine-tuned to meet your specific needs. Lastly, if you would like suggestions on how to improve your ethics training based upon the results of your analysis, such recommendations can accompany the results.
Dr. Bruce Bayley is a former Correctional Officer and Deputy Juvenile Probation Officer. After retiring from duty related injuries sustained in corrections, Dr. Bayley currently works as an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Weber State University and adjunct instructor at the Weber State Police Academy. Along with research in ethics and correctional special operations teams, Dr. Bayley currently teaches courses in Ethics, Theories of Crime and Delinquency, Corrections, and Criminal Justice. For more information on the abovementioned survey, ethics training, or how to acquire the survey’s access code for your class or department, contact the author, Dr. Bruce Bayley, at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 801-626-8134.