Ethics - You Have Them or You Don’t?

March 19, 2012
By the time we’re adults, we know right from wrong. So what’s the need for ethics training? Maybe policing is more complicated than what Mom and Dad taught us.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?*
  5. What if you accidentally damaged merchandise in a store worth $25?  Would you buy it? Tell someone? Not tell anyone?
  6. What if the item was worth $50? $500?  $5?
  7. What if the store was one in a huge, national chain?
  8. 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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. Is there any ethical difference in this and question 1? If so, what?
  4. 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? 
  5. 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?
  6. Would you have another officer pose as the eye witness, videotape the ID and show it to the suspect?
  7. Is there any ethical difference in these questions and question 3? If so, what?

Not all officers who consider themselves ethical answer these questions the same either. That’s understandable. While courts have authorized police to use deception to detect, investigate and apprehend criminals, lying is a bit of an ethical dilemma.

Plus, courts disagree on what deception is permissible. [See web links below to Training Cops to Lie and If Courts Clash on Police Deception.] If cops and the courts don’t agree, training in this ethical minefield with its serious potential consequences for officers, cases and communities is imperative.

There are two other reasons law enforcement ethics training is necessary.

Police work is high-risk.

Because of the physical dangers of police work, scenario-based training is critical to keeping officers safe. The same is true of the moral dangers specific to policing. They include:

  • High stakes -- life, death, liberty, home invasions, deprivation of property, constitutional rights and justice.
  • Tremendous power -- police are given badges, weapons and license to do things that would be illegal for anyone else to do. 
  • Enormous discretion -- police have broad discretion in stop, arrest and use of force decisions; in tactics of investigations and interrogations.
  • Little direct supervision -- very few departments can afford two officers to every patrol car.
  • Decisions must often be made under stress and time pressures. There is often little time for reflection.

High stakes + tremendous power + enormous discretion + little supervision + stress + little time to think = great temptation and potential for confusion and mistakes.

These factors can be present for tactical and investigative decisions many of which have a significant ethical component. As scenario-based training understands, practicing such decisions ahead of time under simulated conditions can be of significant benefit.

Police are held to a higher standard.

Unlike what the first commenter above suggested, what Mom or Dad taught might not be enough. As the last comment noted, [w]hile 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.

The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics recognizes this. But recruits need to be taught and officers sometimes need to be reminded of requirements like:

“I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all, maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn or ridicule; develop self-restraint, and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others.”

Policing is a choice to live by an exacting standard 24/7 -- on the job, which is uniquely morally dangerous, and off. Not many jobs are so demanding.

Moreover, police are head to higher standard tactically. For example, use of force decisions involve an ethical component. But the self-restraint officers are expected to develop is very different than that expected of private citizens not specially trained.

If I present a threat to you such that you decide you need to respond by firing your weapon, you have likely been trained to:

  • Fire two shots to the center of mass and one to the head.
  • Then stop and assess the threat.
  • If the threat has been stopped and you can do so safely, try to keep me alive until an ambulance arrives.

I’ve received no such training. If I decide to use my personal protection against a threat, I’m emptying the magazine into that threat. In my adrenalized state, I may speed strip and load two more magazines and empty them. Assuming I’m justified in using deadly force, am I unethical?

The difference between us is two-fold. One, I’ll only be using force to protect myself or a loved one. I haven’t signed up to protect strangers while respecting the constitutional rights of all – even those who would do me harm.

Two, law enforcement needs to be, and is, trained in the ethical and tactical components required of a noble, specialized, demanding profession. Mom and Dad likely didn’t cover all that.

About The Author:

Described by Calibre Press as "the indisputable master of enter-train-ment," Val Van Brocklin is an internationally sought speaker, trainer and noted author. She combines a dynamic presentation style with over 10 years experience as a prosecutor where her trial work received national media attention on ABC's Primetime Live, the Discovery Channel's Justice Files, in USA Today, The National Enquirer and REDBOOK. In addition to her personal appearances, she appears on television, radio, and webcasts, in newspapers, journal articles and books. Visit her website:

Sponsored Recommendations

Build Your Real-Time Crime Center

March 19, 2024
A checklist for success

Whitepaper: A New Paradigm in Digital Investigations

July 28, 2023
Modernize your agency’s approach to get ahead of the digital evidence challenge

A New Paradigm in Digital Investigations

June 6, 2023
Modernize your agency’s approach to get ahead of the digital evidence challenge.

Listen to Real-Time Emergency 911 Calls in the Field

Feb. 8, 2023
Discover advanced technology that allows officers in the field to listen to emergency calls from their vehicles in real time and immediately identify the precise location of the...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Officer, create an account today!