Ethics in Law Enforcement Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Ethics in Law Enforcement

Ethics are what almost anyone would define as a person's determination between what is good or bad, or more accurately what is right or wrong. Although many of these attitudes can be a product of parenting or other factors in one's maturing environment, ethical decisions could also be a product of environmental factors that are outside of the control of individuals. It is difficult to determine where a person's ethical code, but some professions demand an ethic that is not needed elsewhere.

One such profession is law enforcement. Officers of the law are called upon to "stand in "harm's way" not so much against enemies with bullets, but against enemies skilled in every form of trickery, deceit, feigned ignorance, and deception" (Stevens, 2005). Because of the environment that they must exist in, police officers are constantly deciding whether to make the right decision or take the wrong course. The officer can rely on the ethics that the police department has taught them, but that may not be enough.

A correct view of policing ethics can be understood through many different ethical theories, but, for this essay, a discussion of how two particular theories relate to law enforcement is required. The theories, determinism and indeterminism, will be defined, discussed, and then applied to the specific ethical issues which affect law enforcement.

Defining Key Concepts


The two concepts, determinism and indeterminism, are not the polar opposites that they would seem (Sandford, 2010). Of course, they do not have parallel definitions either. The best way to examine the definition of a word is to look at its root. The root for both of these words is determine (although determined might be a better English root). When scientists and philosophers talk about determinism, they mean a view of ethics or scientific matter which is already pre-determined. Another idea that determinism contains is that there is a definite chain of cause and effect (Russell, 1910). Indeterminism comes from the same root, but with the prefix in- it flips the meaning. However, as can be shown the meaning of indeterminism is not necessarily a complete contrast to determinism (Sandford, 2010).

The idea of determinism is most often used in scientific circles in which every action is the reason for some other action. A chain of events causes something to happen, and without that chain of events that event would not occur (Russell, 1910). When thinking of the term in reference to ethics, it usually means that when an ethical dilemma presents itself, the person making a decision can only use that which they have understood before. This also means that a few caveats exist within the framework of determinism.

A person has experiences that they draw upon to make moral decisions. If a person has not had the occasion to witness or in some way understand a certain idea that could be connected with a moral decision, then they cannot use it. This means that in the eyes of someone else a person may do something wrong, but in their own eyes what they did was perfectly right because of the information they had with which to make the decision (Russell, 1910). It can also be said that because every action is predetermined by what has come before, that any action taken is right and moral. Determinism can be used to forgive monstrosity because the person was only making the decision that was going to be made anyway.

Indeterminism argues with this stance, and does not give people the complete free pass that they can have through determinism. A simple explanation could be that indeterminism is the opposite foil of determinism, but that is too easy. An illustration is the simplest demonstration of the concept. A person is walking home and they have three choices of streets they could take that would eventually get them home. Forget about the fact that they could choose one based on mood, expediency or some other reason that would have to include some form of determinism. The person is just whistling along and finds themselves on a path and they then determine to continue on that path toward home (Sandford, 2010). The proponents of indeterminism say that there are definitely deterministic methods to most people's madness, but there are small points of indeterminism which belie a complete reliance on the deterministic philosophy. These small points can be called spontaneous happenings, but whatever they are, strict determinists do not agree that they exist.

The key to both of these philosophies is how do they apply to ethic in law enforcement. That will be discussed later.

Ethics related to Criminals

Criminal behavior has consequences. Societies determine what the laws of their group should be, then they employ people in the enforcement of those laws, and the punishment phase is the last link in the criminal justice chain. Ethics applies to each of three.

Criminals are those who act outside of the law. They see a possibility in front of them, they way the decision as to whether they should abide by a set law or take advantage of the opportunity to commit a crime, and then they act. This small series of events is predetermined by the environment in which they matured. This person is not a criminal from birth, although genetics does determine some behavior. However, through the experiences they have had, they come to a point during which they can make the right decision or wrong one. The right is determined by the society in which they live. Some people commit what other societies would consider murder. Thus, criminal activity is not determined by some arbitrary set of principles, but by a causal flow. A person who commits a crime may even believe in the deterministic principle which says that there is no actual right or wrong action. The action committed, whether society considers it right or wrong, was the one that had to be done because of the chain of causation that preceded it.

Indeterminism would look at the act itself. Anyone can spontaneously commit an act. Road rage is often a flash reaction to another person's actions. This can explain the fact that people with completely clean criminal records, do something heinous. The indeterminist would say that the person acted of their free will not because they were somehow locked into a chain of events that had to end in this manner.

Law Enforcement Ethics

It is difficult to think about law enforcement officers without some amount of both admiration and fear. Officers have the authority to take away a person's freedom if they are witness to, or can prove that, something against the law has happened. Even citizens of a state who have always abided by the laws of that community may, at times, find themselves wary when a police cruiser is behind them on the road ways. It is a natural reaction to authority, but most of the time people believe that law enforcement is there to protect them from harm rather than cause it. This belief in officers of the law is solidified when contact is made with officers who are helpful and ethical.

This ideal of ethical policing comes from Stevens (2005).

"The ethically ideal police system would be one with integrity and nothing puzzling about it (i.e., there would be no corruption nor misconduct). There would be no us-against-them and no disrespect for the limits of the law or how it's enforced. Everything done in private would be just as if it was done in public. Mistakes would be treated as learning opportunities, but there would be less of them because of widespread adherence to the values of probity, propriety, restraint, reasonableness, and caution. Recruitment, selection, and training mechanisms would be flawless, with promotion on the basis of merit, no one being without ample supervision, and the organization giving its personnel whatever resources they need to perform their work better. There would be "open door" policies to the public, academics, and the media. Nothing the police do or how they do it would come as a surprise to anyone. They would conduct themselves, as August Vollmer once said, in ways that make it impossible for anyone to make a joke about them."

Ethical policing of this sort may be much more fantasy than reality because it would be difficult for any organization to live up to that standard, but most people want their police departments to have some high degree of this ethical standard.

But, as said in the introductory paragraphs, law enforcement lends itself to ethical dilemmas. With the element that is constantly contacted, it would be hard not to have some of the ethical standards that criminals share become deterministic elements of a personal ethic. People gain their ethical understanding from the environment in which they have lived, so it seems apparent that the people in law enforcement would be affected by all people with whom they are most associated. Unfortunately for them, that is an…

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