Cheat Sheet for Ethical Dilemmas Law Enforcement

A “cheat-sheet” for Ethical Dilemmas Law Enforcement

Elizabeth C. Barcena, JD, LLM in Criminal Law

The recent surge in cases of alleged[1] and confirmed police brutality towards African-Americans has resulted in the chronic distrust of the American criminal justice system. Law enforcement agencies across the U.S. must recognize, address, and resolve this 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[2] 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. The following cheat-sheet will provide a quick reference guide for officers who must render a split-second solution to an ethical dilemma.

In simplest 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 purposes of this discussion, let’s focus solely on the first scenario: situations where a police officer simply does not know “how” to resolve it in a manner that is “correct”. When facing that specific type of situation, officers should consider these two steps and their analysis before making a decision (i.e. before acting): [4]

  • 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 a difficult, if not impossible, undertaking that officers face repeatedly and on an ongoing basis. Never-the-less, this must be done expeditiously and efficaciously. 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 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 “appear” to be so in the wake of public critique?
    5. 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 or 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.

Therefore, law enforcement personnel must remain sharply in tune 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, yet resolutely, with actions that produce outcomes you and the community you serve can live with, has to be the ultimate goal. Acting without consideration of consequences you inevitably lead to regret, shame, and the further distrust and animosity towards law enforcement as a whole.

[1] “Alleged”, pending criminal convictions.

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

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

[4] White, Thomas, I, PhD, “Resolving an Ethical Dilemma”, Retrieved on: March 4, 2016.

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