Some cop comments to an online article recently gave me pause. The article was Ethical dilemmas cops face daily by Sgt. Steve Papenfuhs. The comments broke into two camps. The first camp was represented by the following comments.
- Ethics – You were raised to have them or not. It’s as simple as that. No amount of “Ethics Training” for a grown person can teach what that persons Mom/Dad. Guardian failed to do.
- Exactly. I didn’t even finish the article. Ethics training is only a liability provision for the department, so they can say, we trained them. You have it or you don’t.
The other camp was expressed thusly:
Ethics is the practical and professional application of morals. It is conceivable that while someone has a good moral background, he may not have a firm grasp on the ethics of his profession, particularly if he’s new to the field. There are benefits to ethics training. Even someone without a good moral background can learn the ethics expected of him and apply them for his own self-preservation.
As someone who trains on police ethics, I’m in the latter camp. But I often encounter the first camp’s thinking when I raise this issue with officers at the beginning of my training. So, let’s look at why and how ethics training might be more than just a department’s CYA.
If you’re ethical or not – all ethical people should agree.
First, consider the following general questions, which don’t have the unique factors I will discuss that make policing so ethically dangerous. I got these from The Book of Questions and The Book of Questions: Business, Politics and Ethics – both by Gregory Stock.
- Do you tell your best friend about a 1-night stand you know his fiancée had? The fiancée is also a good friend. She begs you not to say anything. She says it was a stupid mistake, a spur of the moment weakness; she loves her husband-to-be and wants to marry him.
- You are leading 100 people whose lives are in danger and you must choose between two courses of action. One would save 90 people; the other would have a 50% chance of saving everyone but if it failed everyone would die. Which would you choose? What if you got to pick the 10 who would die?
- If you could get away with it, would you help your spouse apply for health insurance without revealing a pre-existing fatal illness such as cancer? What about a disability like a bad back?
- When you are shopping and drop a piece of fruit on the floor, do you put it back and take a new one or take the one you damaged?*
- What if you accidentally damaged merchandise in a store worth $25? Would you buy it? Tell someone? Not tell anyone?
- What if the item was worth $50? $500? $5?
- What if the store was one in a huge, national chain?
- What if the store was a local operation and you knew the owners?
If you either have ethics or you don’t, those who do would all agree on the answers to these questions. In my training I find disagreement amongst officers who consider themselves ethical. Then there are ethical decisions unique to policing.
If what is ethical is clear, cops and courts should all agree.
Consider the following questions.
- You are given the power to place evidence – without which the guilty defendant will be acquitted -- at the scene linking the defendant to the crime simply by thinking of it silently to yourself. No one would be the wiser. Would you ever use this power? Under what circumstances?
- Would you ever lie to a suspect and tell him that DNA evidence linked him to the scene of the crime when you knew it didn’t?
- Is there any ethical difference in this and question 1? If so, what?
- You are given the power to enable a witness to give a credible, positive ID of a guilty defendant simply by thinking of the defendant and saying silently to yourself “That’s the one.” The witness would provide the ID and no one would suspect you. Would you use this power? When?
- Would you ever lie to a suspect and tell her that an eye witness had provided a credible, positive ID when you knew that wasn’t true?
- Would you have another officer pose as the eye witness, videotape the ID and show it to the suspect?
- Is there any ethical difference in these questions and question 3? If so, what?