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Ethics in leadership: Applying Aristotle in police work

We in law enforcement are community leaders — every day — and we are conspicuous men and women of civic virtue

In today’s sociopolitical climate, the law enforcement profession is under a great deal of scrutiny and criticism from the public sector. Given the breadth of social media — and the current contentious perspective of law enforcement — we need to make sure officers have the skills necessary to make the best decisions in any situation they may face.

Officers are as human as the next citizen, and emotions sometimes give way to poor decisions in the line of duty. This is not to imply a correlation between media depictions of officers using force and the excessive use of that force. However, there have been painfully clear portrayals of officers exercising poor judgment in dealing with the public in recent times.

That leaves us wondering how police leaders combat the glitch of human behavior that leaves us vulnerable to the pitfalls of our own emotions when faced with confrontation. It is a fallacy of societal perception that officers are not subject to the same emotional trials and tribulations as anyone else. However, we voluntarily chose to don the badge. We opted to become mentors and leaders for all others to emulate. On and off duty, we conduct ourselves in a manner that reflects the pro-social standards that all members of a community should exhibit. We in law enforcement are community leaders — all day every day — and we are conspicuous men and women of civic virtue.

Applying Aristotle in Police Work
Leadership requires that all six pillars of character are firmly in place:

  1. Trustworthiness
  2. Respect
  3. Responsibility
  4. Justice and fairness
  5. Caring
  6. Civic virtue (citizenship)

These are all components of a well-rounded and effective police officer. Even good officers sometimes fall behind the critical thinking curve, ultimately formulating, and eventually executing, bad decisions. We have to be able to consistently identify ethical dilemmas and how to navigate through them to a successful end result. This ability requires what I refer to as ethics in leadership. An officer has to be able to identify when he or she is in an ethical dilemma and arrive at a decision that focuses on both short- and long-term consequences (as well as the capacity to survive the spotlight of publicity).

How does Aristotle’s “A great man with a flaw” concept apply to law enforcement? Let’s say an officer has resentment towards anyone who runs a red light at an intersection.

He tells you, “I hate people who have no regard for such a traffic control device and for the safety of others.” He may ask offenders in a caustic tone, “Why are you violating the law in my town?” or, “Have you no regard for anyone’s safety?” He writes everyone a ticket that violates this law.

Does this situation qualify as an ethical dilemma? Sure, especially since the officer hates this type of offense. It invokes emotions that, if not carefully managed, can easily cloud any decision he or she makes. The officer recognizes that this offense can jeopardize the safety of other motorists, and probably has a genuine interest in public safety — this is, as Aristotle put it, the “great man.” The tone of his voice and the structuring of his questions, however, signify he might not be in control of his emotions — this is the flaw!

Aristotle’s “Fatal Flaw”
According to Aristotle, these are the elements of tragedy. We must manage our emotions and not let them creep into our decision-making process. The one element that gives us an advantage in dealing with any situation is that we are objectively reasonable men and women. We are guided by the principles of ethical policing which, in general, revolve around transparency and fairness of action.

It’s not easy setting aside our sentiments toward actions or behaviors we personally dislike (such as insolent or contemptuous reactions from the public in the course of our duties), but we take nothing personally and maintain our objective perspective.

Under Aristotle’s tragic terms, the “flaw” is fatal. I recently attended a convention where the topic was domestic violence. The speaker, at the time a district attorney, recalled a case where she prosecuted an individual for severely beating his wife. She spoke of the incident and emotional experience fervently. She recalled, given the brutality of the incident, how she hated him for it, for the nature of assault and injuries he inflicted on the victim. It was evident that she did not just despise his actions, but that she felt hate in the core of her being.

We have all observed the evil that persists in the world and witnessed the aftermath. Hate and anger are two emotions that — having spent any length of time in this career — can easily find their way into our daily lives. But we have to be careful of how we express these emotions, verbally or otherwise, as they can consume us and instill prejudice in our decisions.

This is the good person with a fatal flaw concept. We all want to serve society in a productive manner: righting wrong and waylaying injustice wherever we can. If we allow our emotions guide us then we lose objectivity and make fatal errors in the decision-making process which can land us in the news.

As ethical leaders, we must understand when we are in an ethical dilemma and begin formulating our decisions objectively. We must weigh all possible decisions and project both the short and long-term consequences of those decisions. They must stand up against the spotlight of publicity. We must be willing and able to stand by them and articulate the basis for our actions.

We can bridge the gaps between the communities and the police by employing ethical decision making in our professional and personal lives. We can still be proactive, but be as proactive in meeting and greeting the community in our daily patrols as we are at attempting to identify criminal conduct. And remember: The actions of a single officer are a reflection of us all in this increasingly difficult profession.

Jon Gaskins has been a law enforcement officer for over fifteen years both at the local and federal levels. He has received numerous instructor certifications, including Firearms, Law Enforcement Driving, Active Shooter and Ethics. Jon has previously been a full-time law enforcement instructor for the federal government and currently instructs on a volunteer basis for the Adams County Sheriff’s Academy in Colorado and works for the Georgetown Police Department. He holds a Master of Science in Management Degree in Information Systems Security as well as a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice. You can interact with Jon on LinkedIn.