Studying the ethics of criminal justice students

Research can help inform how to better prepare students to make ethical decisions in the field

By Dr. Charles M. Russo, faculty member, Intelligence Studies at American Military University

Law enforcement officers are expected to maintain a higher ethical and moral standard than the general population as they have the authority and duty of enforcing the law. However, officers face many difficult decisions, and sometimes these decisions require them to balance conflicting values and interests: to present an individual with a ticket of infraction or not; to arrest or not; to use deadly force or not. Such uncertainty is compounded by the fact that officers are regularly faced with incomplete and inaccurate information, emotionally charged situations (such as in domestic disturbance cases), and the immense pressure of upkeeping officer safety and services to public safety. As a result, policing is a career riddled with many ethical and moral complexities.

To better serve communities, future police officers must receive extensive education on ethics and ethical decision-making. Criminal justice students represent the future of law enforcement and educators must design curriculums to increase students’ ethical decision-making skills. But before better training programs can be created, there must be better understanding about what factors and characteristics contribute to the ethical decisions officers make.  

In preparation for upholding their duties in the field, students must learn the importance of acting within ethical standards.
In preparation for upholding their duties in the field, students must learn the importance of acting within ethical standards. (Photo/PixaBay)

What Type of People Become Officers?

The policing profession attracts a variety of people, but individuals drawn to criminal justice typically have a desire to serve, uphold laws, and live in a rules-based society. Officers should exhibit attributes such as being authoritative and responsible and have leadership qualities including a sense of duty to act on behalf of others.

While we know the general characteristics expected of those who work in law enforcement, they do not necessarily hold true for students majoring in criminal justice, who are not yet practitioners. Students have not yet been faced with the life-altering dilemmas experienced by veteran officers.

In preparation for upholding their duties in the field, students must learn the importance of acting within ethical standards and must understand the weight of their moral obligations and duties. Officers are in a position to exercise both power and authority over others and, in certain situations, to use force and coercion—future criminal justice practitioners must learn how to do these things fairly and correctly.

Studying ethics increases sensitivity to issues of right and wrong, contributes to how one conducts themselves, and aids in identifying acts that have a moral content. If an individual can learn about ethics before becoming a law enforcement officer, then the individual may start to examine their personal biases and work toward becoming a more ethical person, which would positively impact their careers and the community they serve.

Conducting Research on Student Ethics

Because criminal justice students represent future police officers, investigators, correctional officers, forensic examiners, crime analysts, and practitioners, it is important to examine their ethical decision-making processes more closely and the influence of personal characteristics specific to this population.

As such, I spent the last five years conducting a research study focused on identifying the individual and socio-cultural characteristics that influence ethical decision-making among college students pursuing an undergraduate degree in criminal justice.

The research literature on ethical decision-making indicates that decisions are impacted by both environmental and personal characteristics such as age, gender, attitude, personality traits, and socio-cultural exposures. The goal of this research was to examine which of these characteristics most strongly correlated with the decision-making processes used by students. Having a better understanding of this correlation can help determine how future officers can be educated so they have stronger knowledge and awareness about ethics.

Highlights from the Study

The focus of this study was to understand the influences of individual characteristics on ethical decision-making among college students seeking a degree in criminal justice. The individual characteristics included were major, age, gender, religious affinity, political alignment, traditional on-campus program, education, military and law enforcement experiences, and socio-economic status.

Participants were asked to complete a demographic questionnaire in addition to then reading and answering a series of 10 questions pertaining to moral dilemmas. Each of the dilemmas depicted the participant as an actor who then makes a choice of “whether to perform a harmful action to achieve a particular outcome,” meaning to choose between what was an acceptable or unacceptable harm in a series of scenarios. The questionnaire was completed by 138 participants, which was administered through an online survey program.

Results indicated that:

  • Gender was the significant predictor of ethical decision-making. Women had higher levels of deontology (duty and obligation) than men.
  • Age was significant, but not as a predictor of ethical decision-making. Meaning that the results found age played a part, but did not account for the determining factor towards ethical decision-making or overall judgement.
  • Education was significant, but not enough to be determined a predictor of ethical decision-making. The study found that criminal justice majors have a higher selection of deontology than individuals majoring in other fields.
  • Those with higher levels of religious attendance and those without military experience had higher levels of deontology, but these were not significant predictors of ethical decision-making.
  • As individuals increased their socio-economic status, there was a decrease in deontological inclinations.

These findings are evidence that individual and socio-cultural characteristics influence deontological and utilitarian inclinations and help resolve some of the theoretical ambiguities in prior research literature. Deontology is categorized as a normative theory and regards those moral choices (right and wrong) which are required (always do the right thing), forbidden (if you are ordered not to do something, you can’t), or permitted (what we “ought to do” regardless of consideration of consequences).

Utilitarian is a theory that holds that moral permissibility of actions, even bad actions, are judged on the consequences of the act. It identifies actions as ethical by those which maximize happiness (for the better good) and minimize pain.

This research can help inform academic institutions and criminal justice organizations about how to best present ethics-based information to better prepare students to make ethical decisions in the field.

More Time Must be Spent Teaching Ethics

Training on ethical decision-making and moral reasoning represents, on average, 10 percent of the academy training time and is mostly done during on-the-job training. This is simply not enough.

According to Fortenbery (2015), ethics training in the police academy is often limited, with the emphasis being primarily on firearms and use-of-force training. Academies need to dedicate more time discussing and applying ethics within their educational programs.

Similarly, universities and colleges with criminal justice programs need to be dedicated to interweaving ethics within all their courses. Criminal justice students represent a significant population of future police officers and law enforcement professionals, so these academic settings should include ethics in their curriculum. A recommendation for future research is to find how universities can properly gauge the integration of additional ethics courses in their programs.

Academic institutions and organizations that expose students to correct ethical behaviors could instill higher levels of integrity. Having a foundational understanding of ethical frameworks and the ability for an individual to identify their own personal biases, as well as recognize ethical dilemmas when they experience them, will likely result in a more unbiased officer who can use better judgment when assessing situations.

More research in this area needs to be done, so that colleges and police academies can improve how they deliver ethical training in their curriculums to ensure future officers have a strong ethical foundation.


Fortenbery J. Developing Ethical Law Enforcement Leaders: A Plan of Action

Russo CM. Influence of Individual and Socio-Cultural Characteristics on Ethical Decision-Making Among College Students. Capella University, MN, 2018.

About the Author 

Charles M. Russo is an instructor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He possesses a PhD in Public Safety Leadership from Capella University and a Master’s Degree in Intelligence Studies from American Military University. Charles served in the U.S. Navy for 17 years as an Intelligence Specialist and has taught Criminal Justice, Homeland Security and Intelligence at American Military University, Colorado Technical University and several other state universities. He is a retired U.S. Intelligence Community Intelligence Analyst after serving over 26 years, which included the U.S. Navy (Active and Reserve), US Air Force (contractor), Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He is also a consultant supporting intelligence, law enforcement and emergency response training and education efforts across state and local government. He currently lives and works in Carson City, Nevada. To reach him, email For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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