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Ethical dilemmas cops face daily

The impact of human factors upon individual performance must coincide with timely and fair discipline — both in a positive and a negative sense

In February 2011, the commander of a drug task force and a private investigator were arrested by federal agents on allegations that they conspired to sell drugs (Solanga & Fraley, 2011). An officer in the Seattle Police Department resigned after learning that his department intended to terminate his employment after a controversial police shooting that was partially captured on the officer’s dash-cam (McNerthney & Pulkkinen, 2011). A Dallas police officer was fired after a video surfaced that showed him kicking a handcuffed prisoner in the face (Mitchell, 2011). In Baltimore, 10 officers were arrested on corruption charges when they were found to have taken kickbacks for steering motorists to a tow yard that was not licensed to do business with the city (Fenten & Calvert, 2011). In Quebec, Canada two patrol officers were caught sleeping on the job by a citizen armed with a cell phone camera (Arsenault, 2011).

The investigations of these events are ongoing and the outcomes yet unknown, however these controversial incidents are highly publicized and can lead to the public’s distrust of public safety professionals.

Law enforcement professionals are not immune from feelings of mistrust. Often these fact-based emotions are directed towards their very own employers. When promotional exams are based upon race rather than upon merit — as the United States Supreme Court determined in the case of the New Haven, Connecticut Fire Department’s 2003 promotional exam (Liptak, 2009) — public safety is compromised both by the presence of less-than-competent personnel in positions of authority, and because of a decrease in the morale of the line-staff. Safety-critical professions demand that their personnel function continuously at a high level of performance, and with a high degree of interpersonal trust among cohorts.

In public service, those cohorts include the members of the public at large.

All of the situations mentioned above produce an ethical dilemma across all ranks of the respective departments. An ethical dilemma is:

1.) a situation in which the officer did not know what the right course of action was, or
2.) a situation in which the course of action the officer considered right was difficult to do, or
3.) a situation in which the wrong course of action was very tempting (Braswell, McCarthy B.R., and McCarthy, B.J. 2002).

Strategies to Mitigate the Ethical Breaches
Once one understands how ethical dilemmas are framed in this context, it then becomes possible to formulate strategies to eradicate or at least mitigate the ethical breaches of behavior performed by those within the public safety sectors.

Remedies to lapses of ethical behavior on the part of police officers begin first with the selection and hiring of qualified individuals. Department heads should no longer actively find “work-arounds” of minimum hiring standards in order to recruit a member of a special interest group- no matter what Attorney General Eric Holder recently indicated with regard to Dayton, Ohio Police Department. No agency should ever again be found in the position that the Los Angeles Police Department found itself when they had recruits working the streets and their background checks had yet to be completed.

The Next Step is Ethics Training
Leadership, professionalism, and ethics is considered so critical to the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) that it is the very first learning domain presented to new recruits in police academies. But learning is not a one-time event. Rather it is a continuous process of review and reinforcement. Therefore, ethics training should continue throughout an officer’s career. This training should be both formal and presented in a structured format, as well as informally presented in settings such as briefings and team meetings. In addition to participating in the ethics training received by those at the officer rank, first line supervisors and middle management should also receive training in the investigation of ethical breaches.

But no amount of training is sufficient if department leadership fails to set an “ethical-leadership” example. Upper management needs to understand the influences they have on those in their command through the decisions they make. Decisions such as policy development, discipline, and promotions must inculcate a “just-culture” within the organization.

Make Ethics Training Real
Ethical training must be feature-intensive (Sharps, 2010) and must address rather than ignore the human emotions involved. For instance, in the case of the Dallas officer who kicked the prone and handcuffed suspect, it is reasonable to understand that the officer was emotionally charged. Human beings do not have an emotional “on-off” switch. The “chemical cocktails” that are delivered into the system during a fight or flight response do not suddenly and magically disappear once a physical altercation is over.

Rather than simply telling an officer that he needs to control his use of force, feature-intensive training would include explaining to an officer that, “You are going to be adrenalized, you are going to feel the physical effects of that adrenaline, you may very well feel a need to continue to strike the suspect, that need may even persist after the suspect is handcuffed. It is completely normal and acceptable to feel that way, but when the time comes, you must recognize the feelings for what they are — physical and emotional responses to the chemicals in your system — and you need to breathe and re-engage you higher thinking brain and process the situation.”

By presenting this information at this level of comprehension, you are educating and preparing the officer for the inevitable and predictable realities he or she will face one day during his or her career. Additionally, from an ethical standpoint the leaders of the agency are recognizing the human factors involved rather than succumbing to the belief that an officer is an automaton; and subsequently failing to provide the necessary preparation in order for their personnel to perform at their best. With an understanding of these human dimensions, agency managers are in a better position to identify and explain their officer’s performance to a citizenry uneducated in the realities of force encounters between law enforcement officers and criminal subjects.

Once a programmed model of ethics training has been instituted, a process of discipline can be established. While many consider “discipline” to have a completely negative connotation, discipline can in fact have positive attributes. Correct behavior should be reinforced, while negative behavior should be promptly yet fairly rebuked. For instance, using the Dallas officer’s alleged excessive force as an example, the officer’s on-scene partners first attempted to intervene in his inappropriate behavior. After being restrained and pushed away from the handcuffed suspect by his partners, the officer returned to the suspect, sprayed him with OC spray, and kicked him in the head. The partner officers then reported what they believed to be excessive force to their superiors. While the known outcome of this event was the firing of the subject officer, one would hope that the reporting officers were commended by the executive staff of the agency as an example of the high ethical standards expected of all personnel. By doing so, the management reinforces the ethical culture of the agency.

Seeing the Big Picture
In order to maintain a just culture with fairness, respect, and integrity, agency heads must understand the impact of their every decision. Shift-work is a reality in police work. While many officers by necessity work while most of society sleeps, those same officers are often required to attend to business related activities during normal waking hours. Some of those activities include: court attendance, training, and attendance at mandatory meetings. This invasive adjustment of sleep hours can lead to excessive fatigue; and in the public safety world, fatigue can kill. According to the Force Science Research Center (FSRC), Dr. Bryn Vila believes that with appropriate shift scheduling, shift lengths, and controlled napping, high-liability events such as traffic accidents can be reduced (Vila, 2011). Therefore, rather than default to a position that any officer who falls asleep on duty is shirking his duties and should be reprimanded, the progressive executive officer can proactively plan sleep deprivation countermeasures and should support his personnel by enlightening the community about the preemptive measures he has taken to best ensure public safety.

Chief executives should honestly plan for the future of the department. This means scrupulously abiding by merit-based promotions rather than advancing the careers of individuals that will favor special interest groups, thus advancing the career of the chief himself. Other than covering up for the criminal activity of another, there is no greater breach of ethics on the part of executive staff than the promotion of the less capable employee for purely selfish reasons. Promoting less-than competent personnel in order to fulfill some stated or imaginary “quota” is an ethical violation that will one day lead to disastrous consequences — in fact, many will say it has already. A supervisor or middle-manager who has been appointed to a position of leadership based upon political concerns or because of a close relationship with executive staff rather than upon competence places the lives of officers and civilians in jeopardy. In fact, a common axiom among senior sergeants and officers is, “Let’s get this call handled before the lieutenant arrives and screws this whole thing up.”

It would be humorous if there was not more than a little truth to this adage.

Beyond the catastrophic concerns — such as the potential loss of life — are the more mundane personnel issues that these very same less-than competent managers are often unable to resolve. Maintaining high ethical standards within the workplace and between employees is an administrative function with which management is charged. Failure to address petty squabbles, animosities, and vindictive employees is a failure of leadership. If a leader does not have the courage to address these trivial issues, how then can he or she be counted on to make critical decisions in life-or-death situations?

In order to eradicate many of the ethical dilemmas faced by public safety professionals, leadership must be service-centered. The impact of human factors upon individual performance must coincide with timely and fair discipline — both in a positive and a negative sense. Chief Officers must reach out to all members of the community and, while keeping in mind that there will always be a political component to operating a police department, the leadership must make it clear that they also serve another constituency- that is, the sworn officers themselves. Finally, those that are promoted within a police department must be promoted based upon merit and must have demonstrated the requisite courage to make the tough decisions in both critical and mundane situations.

Arsenault, J. (2011, February 27). Cops under investigation in Quebec for snoozing in vehicle; video posted online. Winnipeg Free Press. Retrieved February 27th, 2011 from:
Braswell, M., McCarhthy, B.R., McCarthy, B.J. (2002). Justice, Crime and Ethics. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing Co.
Fenten, J., Calvert, C. (2011, February 24). Arrest of officers causes reshuffling, concern. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved February 26th, 2011 from:
McNerthney, C., Pulkkinen, L. (2011, February 16). No charges in woodcarver shooting by Seattle police officer. The Seattle PI. Retrieved February 26th, 2011 from:
Mitchell, M. (2011, February 23). Dallas officer fired, arrested after run-in with suspect. Star-Telegram. Retrieved February 26th, 2011 from:
Liptak, A. (2009, June 29). Supreme Court finds bias against white firefighters. The New York Times. Retrieved February 26th, 2011 from:
Salonga, R., Fraley, M. (2011, February 17). Contra Costa drug force commander arrested in Benicia. Times-Herald. Retrieved February 26th, 2011 from:
Sharps, M. (2010). Processing Under Pressure- Stress Memory, and Decision-Making in Law Enforcement. Flushing, NY: Looseleaf Law Publications.
Vila, B. (2011, February 25). Anti-fatigue measures could cut cop deaths 15%, researcher claims. Force Science News (172). Retrieved February 27th, 2011 from:

Steve “Pappy” Papenfuhs is the CEO of Battalion Defense which distributes premier armor, armor carriers, ballistic helmets and shields, and other tactical kit. Pappy retired as a sergeant after serving 29 years with the San Jose, California Police Department. During his career he worked Patrol, Field Training (FTO), Street Crimes, SWAT, Auto Theft, Sexual Assaults, Narcotics, Family Violence, and supervised the department’s in-service Training Division. He holds a Force Analysis certification from the Force Science Research Center, and is a certified instructor with the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) in several disciplines including: Firearms, Defensive Tactics, Baton, Force Options, and Emergency Vehicle Operations (EVOC). In addition to running Battalion Defense and teaching both academy recruits and in-service officers, Pappy provides expert witness consultation in police practices, use of force, and training issues.

Contact Steve Papenfuhs.