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Defining Police Ethics

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 3594 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Defining ethics within the law enforcement system of today can be difficult.  Early on, when law enforcement agencies were developed, they were viewed to the public as “military like” meaning a group of individuals put in place to make sure that the public obeyed and followed the established laws, just as the military protected our laws against other countries.  Today, however, perceptions about the role of the police officer have greatly changed.  Not only are they expected to protect and serve our neighborhoods against crime and danger, they are expected to do so in the most ethical way possible.  The public wants them to provide their services within what they believe to be morally or righteous parameters.  They are supposed to make any decisions based on what is deemed morally right.  They are required to dismiss any unethical thoughts or biased type thinking during any situation.  Although this thinking seems to be fairly understandable, sometimes a person, because of their background or the way they may have been raised, may have biased thoughts or opinions and not even recognize them.  Because of this, training on ethics and ethical behaviors is more important than ever in today’s society.

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Merriam-Webster Online defines ethics as the discipline used in dealing with what is good and bad, and with moral responsibility and obligation. (Merriam-Webster Online) So, in today’s society where many professionals deal with doubt and distrust by those that they serve, law enforcement agents are no exception.  (Hooke, 2009)   Since law enforcement officers are expected to always do the right thing in any situation, ethics, and the concept behind them play a huge role in policing.  Over the last few decades and with societies use of social media outlets, the public has been made aware of several law enforcement cases where the questions of corruption, biased decision making, and the use of excessive force or police brutality have come into question.  These cases have caused much mistrust in police officers by the public.  This is especially true in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods where these types of crimes are more prevalent.  However, many believe that law enforcement officers are an exception and not like an ordinary professional trying to please their clients or customers.  Police officers put their lives on the line every day for the communities that they serve, should they be so concerned about ethics and always doing things the right way?  In their role, they must confront and use their physical power against criminals. (Hooke, 2009)

However, police are alike many standard professionals in that many of the values or beliefs that they represent through separate and organizational action related but not exactly matching regular human values.  In distorting the differences by popular and respected commentaries, the public is misinformed about the police as a profession.  This can have two different effects.  It can give the public unreliable or improbable expectations of our law officers ability to handle crime and to only use a fair amount of force. It also gives recruits expectations and ideas about their future relations with the public setting them up for disappointment and causing resentment or alienation from the community.  (Hooke, 2009)

To help understand the problems regarding ethics and using ethical behavior in policing, it’s helpful to take a look at a few of the criminal cases that have shed a large light on this subject. 

During the evening of February 26, 2012, a seventeen-year-old African American student named Trayvon Martin, was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in his community, George Zimmerman.  Mr. Zimmerman was 28 years old.  Mr. Zimmerman claimed that he shot the young man in self-defense after following him through the neighborhood where he was staying and a confrontation occurred.  The police initially let Zimmerman go with no charge.  However, following a lot of media reports and outrage in the community regarding race and racism during the summer of 2013, Zimmerman was brought up on charges for the death of Trayvon Martin but was later acquitted of the murder.  (Hodges, 2015)

Another related incident that sparked outrage and called in to question once again “Ethics” in policing, took place on August 9, 2014.  In Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, an 18-year-old African American, Michael Brown Jr., was gravely shot by a 28-year-old Caucasian Ferguson police officer named Darren Wilson.  Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson was with him at the time.  Officer Wilson stated that an altercation occurred when Brown attacked him through the window in his vehicle to gain control of his gun, until it went off.  Johnson recalls that Wilson initiated the confrontation by grabbing Brown by his neck through the window, threatening him, and firing at him. Wilson and Johnson agree that at this point both Brown and Johnson fled the scene and Wilson began to pursue Brown. Wilson says that after only a short pursuit, Brown stopped and charged at him.  Johnson challenged this statement, saying that Brown turned around, hands raised up after Wilson fired at his back.  Johnson’s recollection was that Wilson then shot Brown multiple times until Brown hit the ground.  During the entire altercation, Wilson fired da total of twelve bullets, which included the two fired when they were struggling in the police car.  It’s assumed that the final shot was the fatal shot. (Dept. of Justice, 2015)

These are only two examples of many cases, that over the last decade that have led to public disbelief and mistrust in our police forces.  In both the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases, their communities, among many more, were livid as they believed that both of these offers acted inappropriately, criminally, viciously, and over-all unethically in taking the lives of these young men.  Social media spread like wild fire with videos of both of these tragedies.  The amount of distrust these types of situations cause with the police in these neighborhoods is tremendous and extremely hard to ever get back.  It is noted that in both of these cases, police leadership did act quickly in investigating the evidence and crime scenes.  Both the security guard and the officer in the Ferguson shooting were thoroughly scrutinized to determine if they did anything wrong and if they should be charged with any crime.  In the end, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin and the grand jury did not find any reason for Officer Wilson to be charged with any crime in the Michael Brown shooting.  These cases are huge controversies and provoke heated arguments still today.  Did this officer and neighborhood watchman behave “Ethically” in the shooting of these young men?  Obviously, law enforcement officials and a jury believe that they did.  It’s a hard question but it does spark conversations that are necessary to help to bring about change in our society.

In discussing ethics within the police environment, we need to have a better understanding of the different ethic ideologies.  Utilitarianism ideology holds the belief that the morally right action is the one that produces the most good.  Meaning that the good of a community takes precedence over an individual.  There are two eighteenth century philosophers, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham who are accredited for the ethics theory of Utilitarianism.  Another ethics theory is Deontological.  Deontological moral systems exhibit an emphasis on obeying moral rules or obligations.  Normally in a deontological system, our duties, rules, and responsibilities are determined by God.  So that would mean that being moral is following God’s rules.  (ThoughtCo., 2018) One of the problems noted with utilitarianism, is that, it may rationalize something as a morally suitable thing something that is obviously immoral. For example, utilitarianism may be used to validate punishing a blameless man or holding captive a small group of people if that act produces a maximization of consequences.  However, these acts are obviously immoral irrespective of how productive they might be for the greatest. (Moreland, n.d.)

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Regardless of the type of ethics involved, unethical police misconduct still occurs.  There are many who have developed theories on this matter but the general theory used today to focus on police misconduct is Gottfedson and Hirschi’s 1990 theory. (Emeraldinsight.com, 2018) Many articles note when researching police misconduct, the control theory perspective is one of the best tested and debated theoretical proposals in criminology.  Hirschi’s (1969) social control concept hypothesizes that individuals adapt to pro-social behaviors due to the strength of informal social controls, like parents, siblings, leaders, and teachers. (Donnor and Jenkins, 2014) Ethics plays an enormous role in policing and that of most other professions as well. I believe it is of most importance in law enforcement.  If a police officer has poor ethics, he or she may not be able to make the right decisions when a situation occurs.  They may be unable to recognize that they have some innate bias against someone of a certain race or sexual orientation and in turn make mistakes during an arrest or other confrontation.  So proper ethical training is very important.  Police leaders have to set the example for their subordinates in regards to teaching organizational ethics. They are so important that most, if not all, police agencies incorporate some type of ethics training into their academies and regular training sessions of their officers.  One type of training that is being done is with using experimental case studies.  Using these studies help student take a look at and apply hypothetical concepts in different practical situations.  This teaching model for police ethics was designed using two sets of police officers.  The results maintained using this type of experimental method for teaching police ethics.  The officers in these studies found that they could better distinguish between what is ethical or unethical behavior within both idealistic and realistic way.  (Miller & Braswell, 1985)

When law enforcement officers are put in the position of defending their action, or non-actions, it is normally in terms of ethics.  Learning what is right or wrong in police work is normally learned during officers during their length of employment. (Barker, 1977) This learning can be administered by social influences, political influences, or by other police officers. (Miller & Braswell, 1983; Barker, 1978).  However, what is deemed to be right in police work may not necessarily be considered ethical.  In one example given, allowing another police officer to get away with speeding may be considered to be OK in practice but it may not be considered ethical.  New or Rookie, as they are often referred to, cops usually find that they have to learn how to conform to local police customs or practices or may find themselves reprimanded by their fellow officers.  Because of this, ethical conduct is commonly defined and learned by police officers based on their experiences while on the job and learning as they go. (Goldstein, 1977) Having to ways in this manner can distort what a true definition of police ethics are and some officers could mistake what is satisfactory ethical conduct and what is not. (Miller & Braswell, 1985) Although it seems like most police officers are ethical individuals, it does seem that they may sometimes do their jobs in some accepted ways that are not ethical.  Some may be mindful of the idealistic aspects of ethical conduct but may act in more of a realistic way in order to protect their status as what someone may call a “fellow police officer.” (Miller & Braswell, 1985) The main notion presented here advises that police officers learn what is acceptable behavior from their job experiences.  Applying an experiential method in teaching police ethics could help to increase police officers’ awareness of ethical perceptions in police work.  This type of instruction could give police officers help in appropriately determining ethical behavior and the difference between what is ideal versus what is real in many ethical situations.  (Miller & Braswell, 1985) As officers are more able to define what is acceptable conduct as either ethical or unethical, they can be in a situation to better question ethical practices.  The experimental instructional method looks to be a good method for police officers to learn these concepts. (Miller & Braswell, 1985)

In researching and questioning ethics in law enforcement if only seems that we must take into consideration the individual police officers that we are essentially talking about.  The men and women that we want on our police forces need to be of good character as those of good character are the ones most likely to make the best ethical decisions on the job.  The author G.K Ghesterton describes police work as an overall romance of man.  This will make the many people responsible for enforcing the law as naïve or incomplete.  He believes that police activity includes boredom, suffering, anxiety, danger, and its dissatisfaction as much as a romance that challenges satisfaction and success. (Delattre, 2011).  But despite much written material stating that police are cynical, unhappy, and unaffected, his experience with police is that most love their work and get a great deal of satisfaction with it.  They know that civilization doesn’t just come into existence simply by chance or coincidence, they believe it is their position to maintain it.  They trust that civilization hinges on individuals who make a commitment to civility and decency.  But not all people are.  There is a combination of motives that people have; some of them are high-minded, and then some are not.  Even the best people around us can have frailties.  Then there are ones that are simply dangerous to others and themselves. (Delattre, 2011) People cannot be defined as either angels or monsters because they are brought into this world with many different attitudes, beliefs, ambitions, etc.  But this can make civilization hard to make and maintain. And because of this same reason, it is necessary to have guards keeping watch on society.  In this way, civilization cannot protect itself.  It needs to have individuals stand up to protect it.  These people standing up on the front lines are our police force.  If Chesterton’s theory is to believed, then our police force is crucial for us to have civilized lives however there are limits to even what the police can do. (Delattre, 2011)

Defining ethics in policing is a necessary but sometimes very hard thing to do.  These days, where everyone carries a cellular phone with a camera, people appear to be on the look-out for any law enforcement agent who may not be doing what’s ethical in the situations they come upon while during their jobs.  Then with the increased use of social media sights, these homemade videos can be immediately be placed on the internet for basically anyone in the world to view.  Once out there, being able to contain any valuable information from the public is pointless.  This has made police administrators work very hard to make it a priority to recognize and get rid of anyone in their employ that behaves in any way unethically.  In order to combat police misconduct, they must make a very strong attempt to quickly and efficiently identify those officers who may tend to show indications of reoccurring unethical conduct and intervene as quickly as possible with counseling, retraining, or re-educating them in ethics.  (Worden, Harris, & Mclean, 2014) The main goal of early intervention is to eliminate or at the very least minimize the amount of misbehavior in our police agencies.  Some areas that they take a more in-depth look at are what hobbies or type of activities an individual is involved in, their age, their prior work environments, and even their economic status.   As with all types of training, nothing is flawless and early intervention systems are no exception and can cause additional needed research into the situation.  (Worden, Harris, & Mclean, 2014) One of the main defects is in officer identification.  There is no standard of conduct that states or explains officer qualifications for early intervention (EI).  Much of what we have come to know about evaluating and managing the risk of police misconduct causes fear in our current establishment and in the operation of our EI systems, eager for positive change.  Although this does not mean that social science is void of conclusions on the effectiveness of administrative interventions regarding risk related police behavior.  We recognize that managerial rule making can have a great effect on the use of lethal force.   On particular report shows that training can have a positive effect on the use of force.  (Fyfe, 1979, 1988a) It is probable, although not factual –that the cultures with police organizations can be managed to produce socially beneficial effects on police compliance with law and police.  (Worden and Catlin, 2002; Davis and Mateu-Gelabert, 1999) What we now know with the utmost confidence, that is built on research in corrections and not in policing, is that risk assessment and risk management is best accomplished according to some established principles, principles with which current EI systems are not in conformance.

Society sees police ethics are imperative because they show what we want as truthful and fair conduct.  However, people can have many variations to define what is truthful or what is fair.  There are also circumstances in which law officers cannot be honest or truthful, for example during a secret investigation.  Society in general controls our ethical values and moral principles by which we live and believe.  Morals can vary among individuals; it is what we deemed on our own to be right or wrong.  Employing men and women who have a strong moral compass and want to work in law enforcement because they feel they can do more for the greater good, is the first step in introducing ethical behaviors into our police environments.


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