Ends Justify Means Every Time

A basic tenet of police ethics is that the ends do not justify the means . But police deception is premised on a deal struck by our courts that some lying (bad means) is justified by the good ends of catching criminals.


  1. How sure are you that the target is guilty?
  2. Are there any other means other than deception to achieve the goal?
  3. Is the matter serious enough to warrant such action?

Sissela Bok (citation below) recommends that before we lie we ask

Would truthfulness cause, or fail to avert, a greater harm than the deception.

We've discussed the possible consequences of police deception. Each of these and their likelihood should be elements of the police deception decision tree.

Bok also suggests a public justification test - which lies, if any, would reasonable persons consider justified. Law enforcement could pose such questions to Citizen Police Academy participants.

For crisis, life or death situations, Bok contends the following questions would meet the public justification test:

  1. Is the time for reflection and decision making limited thus reducing the opportunity to work out alternatives?
  2. Are the stakes high and is potential damage, if a lie is not told, likely irreversible?
  3. Will an innocent life be saved? In most minds this will offset the negative value ordinarily placed on lies.
  4. Is the lie intended to protect a murderer's victim? If yes, such cases are rare and not likely to encourage others to lie, or to make it more likely the officer will lie in dissimilar situations.
  5. If not a potential homicide, is the situation otherwise so extraordinary that it would not likely generalize the need for lying, thereby spreading deceptive practices?

While lying in crisis-hostage situations may seem a no-brainer, many respected negotiators strongly resist it - unless it becomes absolutely necessary. They have experienced first-hand how it can erode the trust necessary for future negotiations. Law enforcement then must ask whether it should be more or less restrained in using deception when the circumstances are not life or death. See, Lying during crisis negotiations: a costly means to expedient resolution, web link below.

Bok poses 3 questions for other than life-threatening situations:

  1. Are there truthful alternatives?
  2. What moral arguments can be made for and against the lie?
  3. What is the danger of expanding deceptive practices?

There is also philosophical support for asking whether the suspect has forfeited her right to the truth? As a former state and federal prosecutor, I would submit that not all crimes are egregious enough to support such forfeiture.

Next on www.officer.com

Next month we'll finally examine what police leaders and trainers and prosecutors should be doing (and aren't) to prepare officers for this critical minefield. If society has struck a deal that expects the police to include trickery, deceit and artifice in their fight against crime, we must prepare them to do it right. At stake if we fail are officers' careers, their departments' reputation, their communities' trust, and justice.



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