Situational ethics and the moral chaos of modern policing
Moral ambiguity can prove to be the first stop on the path to a pattern of unethical and illegal behavior by otherwise well-meaning officers
Of all the areas in which officers can find themselves in trouble, ethical allegations are probably the most virulent. Virtually everything an officer does has an ethical component, including interviewing suspects and witnesses, making a probable cause arrest, writing reports and warrants, testifying in court, and deciding to use force if necessary. Few things can harm an individual officer’s or agency’s reputation more than publicized unethical behavior, many incidents of which seem to be dissected in the press or caught on camera and posted on YouTube.
The Slippery Slope
But the threat of punishment inhibits open and honest discussions about such a delicate and controversial topic. No officer wants to admit (to peers or, worse yet, supervisors) that he or she may have taken a short-cut or done something that’s so questionable or seemingly unethical that the officer will be shunned by his or her peers or receive other sanctions that could cost the officer more than just a verbal admonishment or written reprimand. A “zero tolerance” approach may only make matters worse, motivating officers to cover up wrongdoing instead of admitting error, taking appropriate corrective action, and learning from their mistakes.
If all these Herculean efforts were effective, one would expect a more unified response, not only among officers but agencies as well, to officer wrongdoing. Unfortunately, police scandals still occur at an alarming rate. A minority of officers, from patrol to senior leaders, still fall victim to their own hubris and misuse of authority, position, and power.
Ensuring Open Dialog
Agencies must also ensure that officers can freely discuss ethical concerns and conflicts (whether experienced or witnessed) without penalty. Often, the best lessons occur informally during patrol room discussions. Candid, confidential discussions of such matters are essential to well-functioning organizations that value ethical behavior. Such discussions should be non-punitive to foster a candid dialogue.
Finally, department leaders must create the positive, reinforcing culture necessary to inculcate ethical behavior. One way is to establish a professional reading list that includes our rich heritage of police procedural literature. These accounts allow officers to assess and respond to the stark moral challenges the characters face – they can think about how they would have responded to those challenges without risking any real-world consequences. The world of literature also provides a simulated experience for reflection. A critical element of this approach is to follow up the readings with discussions led by seasoned officers, who can facilitate discussions on the moral and ethical dilemmas of policing without using examples from work, which some officers could see as attacks on their character. Joseph Wambaugh’s superb books about life in the LAPD and Ed McBain’s police procedurals would be a good place to start.
It is important for agencies to recognize that creating an ethical officer only begins with training. Although textbooks and specialized courses may develop important baseline knowledge, ethics is not a traditional “skill” but rather the furthering of an individual’s knowledge and the development of judgment and character. As Robert H. Essenhigh, an Engineering Professor at Ohio State University wrote in 2000, training is to “know how,” while education is to “know why.” We train officers so we have safer communities. We educate officers so they can become exemplary citizens.
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