4 tests to help officers survive ethical dilemmas

It only takes one ethically flawed decision to devastate your personal life and police career

My entire adult life has been either engaged on the street in my full-time career ensuring my partners and I survive every call, or engaged in my part-time career teaching officers the skills to physically, legally and emotionally survive their careers.

It is common for officers to direct most of their survival efforts toward physical survival. However, if you do not survive your career legally and emotionally, you can also endanger your physical well-being. It only takes one ethically flawed decision to devastate your personal life and police career.

The ethical decisions I am referring to are not the split-second actions officers have to make when faced with a threat. I am referring to the decisions made by officers when facing ethical dilemmas such as:

When making an ethically challenging decision, ask yourself if it would pass the camera test.
When making an ethically challenging decision, ask yourself if it would pass the camera test. (Photo/Dan Marcou)
  • I just worked three hours overtime, finishing an extra-duty assignment early. My fellow officer assigned to the detail says, “I am putting in for six hours. We got it coming.” By contract three hours is all we have coming, but no one else is watching. What do I do?
  • A fellow officer shows me an affidavit for a search warrant that contains false information and asks me, “Back me up on this.” What should I do?
  • An impaired driver offers me sex if I don’t arrest him/her. What should I do?
  • I spot an unidentified male who instantly ditches a backpack and runs. I lose him but recover the backpack, which contains a large amount of cash. There is no one around. What should I do?
  • A handcuffed and restrained suspect spit on me after I fastened his seat belt. What should I do?
  • A handcuffed and restrained suspect spit on my partner. He loses it and begins pounding the suspect in the face causing severe injuries. I pull him off to stop the beating. It is now time to write the report. What should I do?

I am not here to tell you what the right thing to do is in any given situation. Instead, I would like to share a way to determine what is the best option for your career and life when the wrong thing may seem to be the easiest or even the most desirable, thing to do.

It serves a purpose to when-then think difficult decisions like these through in advance. When thinking through scenarios, visualize all options and possibilities, both positive and negative. This will help prepare you to shape a defensible response when faced with such decisions on the street.

When you have the time to form your decision on how to respond to a difficult situation, assess each of your options using these four tests:

1. The camera/mic test

When you have pictured both positive and negative options, imagine your chief or sheriff stepping up to a mic at a press conference and showing a video recording of you acting out each option you are considering. Which option is not only effective and defensible but also ensures your career will not be in jeopardy?

2. The bench test

The bench test refers to a court of law. Imagine each option being described in testimony at a later date. Everything you do as a servant of the law should be something you can fearlessly testify to in a court of law. If your career can’t survive the testimony about your decision, is not a defensible option of choice.  

3. The Table Test

For some, the table test may be the most important when making ethical decisions. Making a bad choice can forever change the most important relationships in your life. In considering your options, picture yourself sitting down at your kitchen table and explaining what you did and why you did it to the people you love the most. You would best be served to choose an option that will make the most important people in your life proud.

4. The gate test (optional)

This one is optional because everyone worships in their own way or doesn’t worship.

It is my belief that for everyone there will be a time when you will face a performance evaluation at the proverbial Pearly Gates. All lives end eventually. If you believe in life after death, which I do, consider the line from the movie “Gladiator.” It goes something like this: “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” When you meet St. Peter, will your life’s echo inspire congratulations or condemnation? Choose the option that will inspire congratulations.


A career affords a police officer many opportunities to do the right thing; however, there will be those times when the “wrong” thing might seem easier. In the classroom, it is easy to determine the “right and wrong” options for ethical dilemmas, but on the street, black and white fade to gray when shaded by the corrupting influences of anger, lust, greed and peer pressure.

The four tests described above will help make difficult ethical decisions easier for you as they make it clear that doing the right thing is your only viable survival option.

NEXT: Shot at and missed, spit at and hit

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