Cheat Sheet for Ethical Dilemmas Law Enforcement

A “Cheat-Sheet” for Ethical Dilemmas Faced by Law Enforcement Professionals

From 2012 to 2016, a rash of alleged (still pending criminal convictions) and confirmed police brutality towards African-Americans resulted in unrest, riots, violent reprisals, and a chronic distrust of the American criminal justice system. The shooting of Trayvon Martin, a teenager born in Miami, is widely considered to have been the catalyst of this ugly period in the history of the United States; even though Martin’s terrible death was perpetrated by a Neighborhood Watch member and not a law enforcement agent, the killer adhered to a racial profiling practice that many American police departments have been accused of practicing.

By 2019, the specter of the Ferguson unrest and the Baltimore riots, which escalated as far as placing the National Guard on standby, still hangs heavily over American society. In Miami, Dyma Loving is planning to file a civil lawsuit against the Miami-Police Department after she was subject to excessive violence by officers who arrested her after investigating a dispute between neighbors. A couple of counties north of Miami, a St. Lucie Sheriff’s deputy brutally slammed an 11-year-old student because he was running around in a disorderly fashion while on school grounds. Every time one of these incidents makes news headlines, members of American communities ask: what are police departments doing to ensure officers carry out their jobs ethically?

Law enforcement agencies across the U.S. must recognize, address, and resolve the aforementioned ethical crisis before it erupts into a full-blown social pandemic. This, however, will require a massive overhaul of current hiring, training, and rationalization-of-misconduct practices within the criminal justice system. Until these goals are accomplished, police officers must understand how to resolve ethical dilemmas that will arise during the course of their careers. Their solutions must be founded on solid ethical principles that will prevail over any suspicions or attacks of racism or bias.

At Florida National University, students who pursue the Associate of Arts and Bachelor of Science degree programs in Criminal Justice will have to complete coursework in law enforcement psychology, criminology, and ethics. These programs can give applicants to law enforcement academies an edge in terms of education, and they can be completed online. Learn more about these programs and financial aid opportunities by contacting an admissions counselor today. FNU is a private college fully accredited to grant degrees by the Southern Association of Colleges.

The “following cheat-sheet” will provide a quick reference guide for officers who must render a split-second solution to an ethical dilemma.

Based on Justice, Crime and Ethics, Braswell states in the simplest of terms, police officers will likely encounter a situation that places them in one of three ethically-compromising scenarios[3]:

  • A situation in which the officer did not know what the right course of action was.
  • A situation in which the course of action the officer considered right was difficult to do.
  • A situation in which the wrong course of action was very tempting.

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s focus solely on the first scenario: situations where a police officer simply does not know “how” to resolve things in a manner that is “correct”. When facing this specific type of situation, officers should consider the following two steps and their analysis before making a decision (i.e. before acting):

Analyze the Consequences (i.e. where will my actions leave us?)

  1. Who will be helped by what I do? Consider the intentions behind the decision you are making. Is your decision based on selfish, self-serving interests, or is it for a greater good? A decision that is rationalized on helping others is more likely to withstand external criticisms or social dismay.
  2. Who will be hurt by what I do? While self-preservation and public safety are pivotal to all decisions made, consider who will be hurt by the actions you choose to take. Decisions minimizing the harm caused to suspects will be widely accepted versus those that result in excessive bodily harm.
  3. How does all of this look in the long-run as well as the short-run? Thinking of long-term consequences in the face of an immediate crisis is difficult, if not impossible, undertaking that officers face repeatedly and on an ongoing basis. Nevertheless, this must be done expeditiously and efficaciously.
  4. More often than not, decisions that yield immediate positive results will likely produce more negative consequences in the long-term. For example, the swift and immediate arrest of a serial rapist will put a community at ease (i.e. short-term), but failing to follow proper rules of procedure may result in a dismissal (i.e. long-term). Therefore, taking actions that result in the least harm (i.e. consequences) should always be the “fallback” solution to any crisis requiring a split-second solution.

Analyze the Actions

  1. How will your actions measure up against your moral compass (i.e. honesty, fairness, equality, respecting others, recognizing vulnerabilities in others, etc.)?
  2. Will the actions you take to cross the line between “right” and “wrong”?
  3. How will your actions measure up to what society expects from you in this specific situation you find yourself in?
  4. What actions will not only “be” fair but also “appear” to be fair in the wake of public critique?

The goal here is to choose a course of action that will yield the least harm to all parties involved in a manner that does not contradict or put into question your moral compass; you also do not want to defy current social standards of morality (i.e. what would this community think of the action I’m going to take?).

While these questions may appear easy to answer in a safe and controlled environment, the reality is that they are extremely challenging and must be accomplished in a split second. Failing to act quickly and diligently can place you or civilians in harm’s way. It may also escalate whatever situation is at hand.

Law enforcement personnel must remain sharply attuned with their critical-thinking skills. Role-playing with colleagues and envisioning likely scenarios that may transpire should be done on a regular basis. It may be impossible to prepare for every situation that will occur; what is possible, however, is the fine-tuning of critical thinking skills. Training yourself to think quickly and resolutely, with actions that produce outcomes you and the community you serve can live with, has to always be the ultimate goal. Acting without consideration of consequences will inevitably lead to regret, shame, and the further distrust and animosity towards law enforcement as a whole.

Ethical challenges exist in all professional fields, but those faced by law enforcement officers tend to be more complex; these topics are covered within the Criminal Justice programs offered by FNU. Keep in mind that these degrees can open more opportunities beyond admission to police academies. Learn more about how FNU degrees can guide you towards a rewarding career in law enforcement and its various professional segments; get in touch with our admissions counselors to discuss your options.

“Alleged”, pending criminal convictions.

Brian D. Fitch, “Understanding the Psychology of Police Misconduct,” The Police Chief 78 (January 2011): 24 27, Retrieved on: March 3, 2016.

Brian D. Fitch, “Understanding the Psychology of Police Misconduct,” The Police Chief 78 (January 2011): 24–27, Retrieved on: March 3, 2016.

Brian D. Fitch, “Understanding the Psychology of Police Misconduct,” The Police Chief 78 (January 2011): 24–27, Retrieved on: March 3, 2016.

Braswell, M., McCarhthy, B.R., McCarthy, B.J. (2002). Justice, Crime and Ethics. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing Co.

White, Thomas, I, Ph.D., “Resolving an Ethical Dilemma”, Retrieved on: March 4, 2016.