Trending Topics

Situational ethics and the moral chaos of modern policing

Moral ambiguity can prove to be the first stop on the path to a pattern of unethical and illegal behavior by otherwise well-meaning officers

Of all the areas in which officers can find themselves in trouble, ethical allegations are probably the most virulent. Virtually everything an officer does has an ethical component, including interviewing suspects and witnesses, making a probable cause arrest, writing reports and warrants, testifying in court, and deciding to use force if necessary. Few things can harm an individual officer’s or agency’s reputation more than publicized unethical behavior, many incidents of which seem to be dissected in the press or caught on camera and posted on YouTube.

Training police officers in ethics has grown into a cottage industry. However, it’s unlikely that an increase in ethics training alone will lead to more ethical policing. You can’t train ethics in the same way as other skills. It’s not a definable ability but is instead the result of education comprised of peer discussions, formal and informal training, and thoughtful reflection.

All law enforcement officers work on the slippery slope of situational ethics. The basis of situational ethics, a Christian doctrine developed in the 1960s, is that there are no absolutes and there are times when it’s appropriate to bend or even ignore certain moral principles if doing so serves a greater good. For law enforcement officers, the greater good is often viewed in the context of public safety and sometimes in the larger arena of community justice. Officers exercise this daily with the use of discretion, where individual judgment can trump formal rules and policies. But this begs the question of whether the exercise of an individual officer’s discretion results in ethical behavior in a particular set of circumstances, and what can be done to ensure greater uniformity of responses in a world of “moral chaos.”

The Slippery Slope

For both the theologian and law enforcement professional, the risks appear similar. Concerned more with ends than means, a dependence on subjective judgment can create what one theologian has characterized as “moral chaos.” In other words, the practice of “situational ethics” can lead to a world where you don’t have to obey the rules if you can convince yourself and articulate to your supervisors (in a law enforcement context) that your action is justifiable given the “totality of the circumstances.” This natural moral ambiguity can lead to wildly varied responses to a given set of circumstances and opens the door to law enforcement pundits who can readily find justification for their criticisms of police ethics. It may also prove to be the first stop on the path to a pattern of unethical and illegal behavior by otherwise well-meaning officers.

In an attempt to quiet the critics, police ethics and the development of ethical officer behavior have become an integral part of modern police training. Despite all the talk, however, law enforcement ethics training comes in fits and starts. For most officers, much of the formal training ends at the academy exit door. More often than not, most officers receive the bulk of their practical and less formal ethical lessons on the job, from their leaders and peers at the agency for which they work.

Striking a Balance

In a related good-faith effort to restrict the more common and disquieting abuses of unethical conduct, agencies have developed policies that address expected ethical behavior. Many of these policies give a negative spin on ethics by prohibiting specified conduct or censoring errant officers. When these policies describe the exemplary moral character expected of a police officer, they do so in mostly ambiguous terms that can be largely meaningless in the murky world of daily policing, where today’s victim is tomorrow’s witness and next week’s suspect.

But the threat of punishment inhibits open and honest discussions about such a delicate and controversial topic. No officer wants to admit (to peers or, worse yet, supervisors) that they may have taken a short-cut or done something that’s so questionable or seemingly unethical that the officer will be shunned by their peers or receive other sanctions that could cost the officer more than just a verbal admonishment or written reprimand. A “zero tolerance” approach may only make matters worse, motivating officers to cover up wrongdoing instead of admitting error, taking appropriate corrective action, and learning from their mistakes.

If all these Herculean efforts were effective, one would expect a more unified response, not only among officers but agencies as well, to officer wrongdoing. Unfortunately, police scandals still occur at an alarming rate. A minority of officers, from patrol to senior leaders, still fall victim to their own hubris and misuse of authority, position, and power.

The real issue is how best to recruit, educate, and retain ethical officers and make ethics less of a training endeavor and more of an inherent part of an officer’s educational process.

Ensuring Open Dialog

At recruitment, boards must ensure that candidates embrace what Professor David K. Hart, a one-time Alumni Professor at the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University, has argued is the “moral worth of the mission.” Hiring panels should frame questions so that candidates can explain their responses with reference to the larger moral context in which policing occurs.

Agencies must also ensure that officers can freely discuss ethical concerns and conflicts (whether experienced or witnessed) without penalty. Often, the best lessons occur informally during patrol room discussions. Candid, confidential discussions of such matters are essential to well-functioning organizations that value ethical behavior. Such discussions should be non-punitive to foster a candid dialogue.

Finally, department leaders must create the positive, reinforcing culture necessary to inculcate ethical behavior. One way is to establish a professional reading list that includes our rich heritage of police procedural literature. These accounts allow officers to assess and respond to the stark moral challenges the characters face – they can think about how they would have responded to those challenges without risking any real-world consequences. The world of literature also provides a simulated experience for reflection. A critical element of this approach is to follow up the readings with discussions led by seasoned officers, who can facilitate discussions on the moral and ethical dilemmas of policing without using examples from work, which some officers could see as attacks on their character. Joseph Wambaugh’s superb books about life in the LAPD and Ed McBain’s police procedurals would be a good place to start.

It is important for agencies to recognize that creating an ethical officer only begins with training. Although textbooks and specialized courses may develop important baseline knowledge, ethics is not a traditional “skill” but rather the furthering of an individual’s knowledge and the development of judgment and character. As Robert H. Essenhigh, an Engineering Professor at Ohio State University wrote in 2000, training is to “know how,” while education is to “know why.” We train officers so we have safer communities. We educate officers so they can become exemplary citizens.

Read next: Why it is time for a Hippocratic Oath for policing

Retiring after nearly 22 years of active duty in the Army, Lance Eldridge worked as the director of a law enforcement training academy and served as a rural patrol deputy and patrol officer in Colorado. While in the military, he held leadership positions in a variety of organizations and has written extensively about US military strategy, operations, and history. He is a graduate of the US Army’s Command and General Staff College and the Norwegian Staff College. He holds a Masters Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Strategic Intelligence. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in national security strategy, European regional security, US history, and terrorism. He now works in northern Virginia.

Contact Lance Eldridge.