Ethics Made Simple

Recently, I was a guest lecturer for a junior-senior level college criminal justice course. The students in the class posed the usual questions of me, none too shocking. However, these aspiring CJ majors still did not seem to "get it" when it came to the ethical decision questions. One student started to ask a series of questions regarding police ethics. This series of questions was a mix of convoluted rhetoric of politics of the day. Finally, I had enough of his window shopping of opinions. I told the lad that it matters not what author he reads, what book, or what law citation that is handed down. If you want a realistic view on how to apply ethics, grab your pen; I will tell you a foolproof way to remember it.

The Trinity of Ethics

When an ethical decision has to be made, keep it simple. You need only to ask yourself three basic questions. If you get a negative response or ill feeling from any of the three--then don't do whatever it is you were about to do. Simple!

Number One: Is it Legal or Illegal?

Is this action or inaction you are proposing illegal? I am speaking of federally, your state, local laws? If this is a "yes"--stop now! In this context, "legal" will also include your agency's rules and regulations, standard operational procedures, or whatever they call them, and ignorance is not bliss here, either. I had a crusty old curmudgeon of a sergeant of 30+ years experience; who used to tell his recruits to take the SOP manual to the bathroom and leave it there. I nearly fainted, but his rationale was that each SOP was about two to three pages, and in a month the new recruit would have the manual completed if they were "regular." Strange advice, but his precinct knew "the book." I dare say they were regular as well. Knowing "the book" is important; ignorance is not bliss in ethics or life.

Number Two: Is it Balanced?

Is this decision you are making balanced to all concerned? Is it fair? Does it follow "The Golden Rule," and is not too heavy handed? Is there a retribution factor? No one should be treated outside of the normal procedures, and everything should be within all the protocols. This is not an "APE" (Acute Political Situation). Don't allow an influential person to convince you they should be treated differently because of their station in life.

Number Three: Can You Live With Your Decision?

I was once told by a trainer that one should prepare their own press statement. Can you live with the media scrutiny and have their face in the paper or on the six o'clock news? To make this more livable, this is my version: I tell my students that everybody has someone in life that they do not want to face with a catastrophic life failure. This could be your child, significant other, parents, or other family member--I don't know who that might be for you. However, in my case I do not want to explain to my sainted Irish mother that I am going to prison--that is not going to happen!

On the way to my office after the lecture, I pondered if we as leaders and trainers do not make the ethical decision process too complex as well. A proper ethical decision should be sound and fast. However, we give officers voluminous materials to consider in making their decisions--and a short cut could lead to personal or professional disaster.

I am not one to make jest of the vast works of others on ethics research, far from that. However, the trainer deep inside me knows that a three prong test will validate a question that may save a career someday. That is all I am to hope here today; in your career counselings, lectures, and just career chats with your staff--the "ethical coaching" we do today is the investment in the future of our staff and our profession.

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