Printer Friendly

Ethics training using officers' dilemmas.

In recent years, ethics training has become a prominent component of police academy and in-service instruction curricula. Yet, despite the heightened interest in such training, ethics remains a difficult subject to teach.

By its nature, the practice of ethical behavior defies universally accepted standards. Aside from exposing officers to the different philosophical frameworks - including, among others, religious ethics, natural law, ethical formalism, utilitarianism, and the ethics of care - instructors generally focus on practical exercises to reinforce desired behavior.

Usually, the content of such courses consists of adopting one philosophical framework and discussing hypothetical or researched ethical dilemmas within that framework.(1) To be sure, examples of ethical dilemmas for criminal justice students and practitioners can be gathered from newspapers, books in the field, and journal articles. These sources identify such irksome issues as gratuities, corruption, bribery, whistle-blowing and loyalty, undercover tactics, use of deception, discretion, sex on duty and other misconduct, deadly force, and brutality.

However, it would be fundamentally wrong to assume that this list necessarily represents the most problematic ethical issues facing law enforcement officers. Officers themselves may not necessarily perceive these as the most troublesome. Also, although many ethical issues involve officer deviance, other issues do not involve misconduct. That is, in some situations, no decision that the officer could make would be clearly wrong.

Despite the growing rhetoric concerning police ethics, few attempts have been made to determine what ethical concerns the officers themselves identify. This article focuses on a training method that uses officers' dilemmas as a teaching tool.(2) Each of the authors has used this method to teach ethics to law enforcement officers from all types of agencies - from large, urban police departments to small, rural agencies. Regardless of class composition, the teaching method serves as an effective way to integrate realistic problems that officers encounter into a formal discussion of ethical behavior.


The instructors employ ethical dilemmas submitted by class participants as the basis for 50 percent of the course content. The other 50 percent of the course involves discussing the dilemmas within specific ethical frameworks.

To begin, the instructors define the term "ethical dilemma" as a situation in which individuals:

* Do not know the right course of action

* Have difficulty doing what they consider to be right

* Find the wrong choice very tempting.

Then, after delivering several hours of introductory material on ethics, ethical codes, morals, and value systems but before presenting any issue-based material, the instructors ask the officers to write down an ethical dilemma that they have faced. This structure ensures that the class discussion centers around the officers' actual experiences, not on any general dilemma, such as brutality or accepting gratuities.

Asking officers to give examples of ethical dilemmas is not the same as asking them what they believe is the most difficult ethical issue in policing. However, over the course of many class sessions, a clear pattern of responses reveals issues that officers consistently identify as problematic ethical situations.

Next, the instructors ask each officer to draft a one-sentence code of ethics. In essence, the students write down what they consider to be the central elements to being a good police officer. After collecting and reading these one-sentence codes to the class, the instructors lead a discussion to analyze the values expressed and identify those values cited most frequently.

Invariably, the officers identify five common elements: legality (enforcing and upholding the law), service (protecting and serving the public), honesty/integrity, loyalty, and some version of the Golden Rule or respect for other persons. Officers mention these elements in every class, although the relative rank or emphasis given to each varies somewhat. It also is not surprising that the elements officers view as important to a code of ethics relate closely to the dilemmas they identify in class.


For purposes of the class exercises, the instructors group the dilemmas presented by officers into four general categories: discretion (legality), duty (service), honesty, and loyalty. Of these, officers most frequently cite discretion and loyalty. A fifth category, gratuities, is a perennial concern among administrators, and in recent years, has become a particularly fractious issue between citizens and law enforcement. The instructor then leads the class in discussing the ethical dimensions of each category and analyzing the officers' dilemmas.


Discretion can be defined as the power to make a choice. Obviously, all ethical dilemmas involve making choices - for example, whether to take a bribe. However, the situations categorized in this discussion of discretion involve decisions in which either of the two possible actions may be defined as right.

The specific purview of what is known as police discretion - whether to arrest, whether to ticket, what to do when faced with an altercation - generally is not identified in ethical terms. In some of these discretionary situations, however, officers reveal in class that they either have felt uncomfortable about what the law or departmental regulations required them to do or report that they were sincerely confused as to the appropriate course of action they should take. The question does not involve doing something wrong, but rather finding the best solution to a difficult problem.

Discussions based on dilemmas concerning the use of discretion can examine which criteria may be considered ethical and which have less ethical support. Because full enforcement is not an option, police always will have to use discretion in enforcing the laws. Therefore, officers must at least recognize the ethical issues involved in employing that discretion.

The following examples submitted by officers involve discretion. These examples represent the real-world dilemmas they have faced.

Dilemma: Dire Circumstances

A gas station attendant calls the police because of a disturbance at a gas station. A neighborhood youth has been begging patrons for money and washing their windows without being asked. The youth lives with his grandmother, and they barely make ends meet. The attendant wants the child arrested because he says the youth harasses the customers.

In such situations, the offender often is driven by dire circumstances; in this case, the youth's grandmother is extremely poor, and he gives the money he earns to her. This puts the officer in a struggle between reacting with compassion and enforcing the law.

Dilemma: Strict Legality

An officer stops a woman with numerous outstanding traffic warrants. The woman has her infant child with her. Should the officer take the baby to juvenile and the woman to jail, make arrangements for someone else to care for the baby, or just let the offender go and tell her to take care of the warrants on her own? She has no money and gives the officer no trouble.

This situation does not involve a demanding complainant; yet, the officer believes that strict legality might not serve the ends of justice, or at least, feels tom about enforcing the law. Many such dilemmas involve women and/or families with children. Some officers are very clear about the criteria they use to guide their discretion; others are less sure about the ethical role of the police.

Dilemma: No Clear Course

An officer responds to a home and is asked to find some type of housing for an elderly parent because the family can no longer provide care. The officer knows that the family uses the parent's resources as their financial mainstay.

In this dilemma, no law or policy may be involved, but the officer is perplexed as to how to resolve the situation. These scenarios almost always involve family disputes in which a real problem exists, but officers have trouble deciding on the appropriate or ethical course of action.

Here, the officer's dilemma arises from a sincere desire to do the right thing, while being unsure exactly what that course of action should be. These types of dilemmas may be exacerbated by the fact that community referral sources are often unavailable or overtaxed.

Dilemma: Officer Wrongdoing

Working a side job at a local nightclub, an officer observes a disturbance on the far side of the bar. Responding to the problem, the officer discovers that the instigator is an extremely intoxicated off-duty officer who refuses to follow instructions. The other party involved claims that the officer assaulted him. The complainant does not know his assailant is a police officer.

Some discretionary dilemmas arise because of a personal or professional relationship between the officer and the subject. Typically, these types of dilemmas involve stopping a speeding car and finding that the driver is a fellow officer or responding to an altercation involving another officer or family member who is probably at fault.


Duty involves two main types of dilemma. The first raises questions about a police officer's obligation in a certain situation. For example, with a domestic disturbance call, when police officers determine that no crime has been committed, what is their duty? Is there an obligation to try to resolve a volatile situation before it erupts into a crime?

Likewise, some police officers believe they have a responsibility to help poor and homeless people find shelter; others do not feel bound by such an obligation. This type of discussion inevitably brings out differences of opinion fundamental to how officers see their role in the community. It is also an ethical issue.

The other type of duty-related dilemma is much more straightforward. The officer knows that the job requires a certain action but considers the action either inconvenient or a waste of time, which makes the officer reluctant to perform it.

Dilemma: Copping Out

It is 10:30 p.m., and an officer returning to the station after working the late shift notices a traffic jam. Nearing the bottleneck, the officer observes an accident scene involving two cars and a fixed object. Does the officer stop and provide assistance or take the back way to the station?

Participants in discussions about duty issues quickly learn that not all police officers view duty in the same way. To move beyond a simple exchange of opinion, the instructor must apply an ethical framework. Such an analysis helps the officers to see that although some stands may be justifiable and legal, they may have less ethical support than other definitions of duty.


Under the general heading of honesty, officers submit dilemmas involving self-enrichment, personal misdeeds, and various issues relating to arrest situations. Bribery, a form of dishonesty, also can be discussed under this category of dilemma.

During the training sessions, officers submitted very few dilemmas dealing with bribery. This may be because they do not view the temptation to accept bribery as a dilemma because they seldom confront such opportunities. Or, perhaps the occupational subculture in police departments is such that officers clearly see taking a bribe as a serious violation; therefore, there is no question about the proper response when faced with the opportunity.

Dilemma: Self-enrichment

Two officers respond to the scene of a homicide involving a suspected drug dealer who is lying dead on the floor. No one else is present. During a search, the officers find $20,000 cash in the suspect's pockets. One officer insists they are entitled to keep the money, which should be split between them.

One useful teaching device to begin a discussion on self-enrichment is to use a dilemma involving $20 and to ask what the proper procedure is. The instructor then continues to increase the amount of money involved.

Many students believe keeping the $20 constitutes only a minor breach (if any at all), but at some point, the amount of money kept by the individual comes to be perceived as unethical. The issue then becomes whether the amount in question or the action itself should determine the ethical nature of the response.

Dilemma: Personal Misdeeds

While driving a police vehicle, an officer strikes a fixed object. With no witnesses present and wishing to avoid disciplinary action, the officer considers claiming that another car collided with the police cruiser and then fled the scene.

In this dilemma, officers try to cover up their own wrongdoings by lying or not coming forward when they commit minor misdeeds. It appears from the number of dilemmas voiced by officers concerning fender benders involving police cars that the police parking lot is an insurer's nightmare.


In situations involving loyalty, officers must decide what to do when faced with wrongdoings by other officers. Officers' dilemmas in this area range from witnessing relatively minor wrongdoings, e.g., misuses of overtime, to very serious breaches of public trust, e.g., physical abuse of a suspect or the commission of a crime.

What should officers do when they witness their partners use excessive force to subdue a suspect? Even though they may not condone the action, do they remain loyal to their partners or do they blow the whistle on them?

Another set of loyalty issues involves observing, or suspecting, that another officer has committed a crime.

Dilemma: Cover Me

An officer responds as a backup unit to an alarm at a jewelry store. The first officer on the scene insists on writing the report that lists the items taken. Several days later, the backup officer sees the first responding officer wearing items from the store that had been burglarized. The officer claims to have "gotten the items on a good deal." Should the officer expose the other's misdeed?

Because covering up for another officer has become more risky with the possibility of individual civil liability, fewer officers may be willing to do so. This justification, however, differs from an ethical argument to come forward in the name of integrity. In addition, a clear distinction exists between reporting fellow officers out of an ethical responsibility and coming forward in an official investigation in order to avoid being disciplined.


It is hard to ignore the subject of gratuities in any class on police ethics. Many articles appearing in law enforcement publications and academic journals discuss the topic, and civilians often identify it as an enduring problem among police. Still, many officers believe there is nothing wrong with accepting gratuities.

One distinction that can be made in these dilemmas is between true gratuities, something given to any officer as a matter of policy, and gifts, something given to an individual in return for a specific action. However, both gratuities and gifts can become problematic issues for officers and agencies.

Dilemma: Declining a Gratuity You are new to your beat.

To avoid any suggestion of impropriety, you prefer to pay for drinks and meals at area establishments. You have learned from experience that people always expect something in return. On this new beat, you stop by a convenience store for a soda. The clerk refuses to accept payment. You explain that you would prefer to pay. The clerk, now upset, accuses you of trying to be better than the other officers. He threatens to tell your supervisor, who also stops by occasionally. What do you do?

Dilemma: Being Offered a Gift

While on duty, you observe a vehicle broken down on the freeway. You take the driver home because he only lives a short distance away. It is early in the morning, and the man is very appreciative. He wants to buy you breakfast to show his appreciation so he offers you $5. Do you accept the money?

Discussions of the ethical questions surrounding gratuities can be hampered by staunch defensiveness on the part of officers. It is helpful to clearly discuss definitions - for example, the difference between gratuities and gifts - and the reason why both can be problematic issues for law enforcement.

Discussing gratuities in the same fashion used to discuss honesty may be illustrative, beginning with a cup of coffee provided gratuitously and gradually increasing the value and size of the gratuity until the offer in question becomes perceived as unethical. The discussion can be enhanced by polling the class periodically as the size and value of the gratuity increase. The ambiguity involved in determining an acceptable maximum level may explain why not accepting gratuities at all reduces the likelihood of ethical compromise.


The dilemmas submitted by the officers indicate that they view many relatively mundane issues as problematic. Clearly, decisions regarding whether to enforce a warrant or ticket, what to do in a domestic disturbance, or whether to leave an assignment early are not on the same level as police brutality or use of deception. Yet, if an ethics course for officers is to be relevant, it must cover these common issues, as well as the more weighty but less frequent ones. Of course, the individual instructor should determine the approach taken to analyze the dilemmas.

Grouping Similar Dilemmas

After the officers submit their dilemmas, the instructor groups the dilemmas so that similar ones are discussed together. One immediate benefit of this grouping exercise is that officers realize a common ground in their ethical concerns. Also, the anonymity of the method ensures that some of the more vocal participants cannot dismiss a particular issue as not being a problem if at least one officer feels strongly enough about the issue to offer this dilemma for the class to discuss.

Analyzing Ethical Issues

To lead the class in analyzing the dilemmas, the instructor must first determine the level of disagreement among the students. The instructor might ask, "What does the law require?" "What does departmental policy require?" " What do personal ethics require?"

Classes often have heated discussions about legal definitions and policy mandates. As a result, during this phase of the discussion, some ethics classes come to resemble legal training courses.

Class members may agree on the existence of an applicable law, but disagree on departmental policy. They may agree on law and policy until the discussion turns to ethical analysis. If an applicable law or policy exists and if class members nonetheless express an ethical concern about whether to follow such a law or policy, the issues of civil disobedience and duty become relevant.

For example, can officers be considered ethical if they follow a personal code of ethics that contradicts a departmental directive? What if the departmental directive is not supported by any ethical system? These are sensitive and important issues, and officers should be allowed to express their concerns during the discussion.

If no law applies to a given dilemma and if departmental policy is silent or ambiguous, then the discussion can be directed quickly to an ethical analysis of possible solutions. The instructor can direct these discussions in one of two ways. First, the instructor can assign participants to groups and ask each group to determine a solution justified by a specific ethical framework, e.g., utilitarianism, ethical formalism, or the ethics of care.

In the second approach, the instructor asks the class to suggest the best solution to the dilemma and then analyze that solution using a specific ethical framework. For example, a class could be asked to analyze the following dilemma:

An officer responds to a call from the security office of a business that is holding a shoplifter. The 75-year-old woman had been caught attempting to slip some needed medications into her handbag. The store insists on filing charges against the woman.

Is there an applicable law? Yes. The woman obviously broke a law. Is there an applicable departmental policy? Obviously, the departmental policy would be to enforce the law, especially if the complainant wants to press charges.

Does this resolve the dilemma? For some officers it does. Some officers believe that the duty of the police is to enforce the law, not to mediate it.

Others, however, would respond by saying that an ethical issue exists aside from duty. These officers identify this situation as a dilemma. Their solution may be to try to convince the store owner to drop the charges. Others may even go so far as to offer to pay for the items themselves. Is this their responsibility? Obviously, no professional duty dictates such action, but some believe that personal ethics require a more complete response to the situation than merely acting as an agent of the law.


After discussing the dilemmas, the instructor asks the officers to apply ethical frameworks to the possible solutions. At this point, the instructor lists, describes, and briefly discusses the different ethical systems. Each participant should be able to discuss a resolution of the submitted dilemmas by applying various ethical systems.

At the same time, the instructor stresses that ethical systems should not be confused with moral decisions. Rather, they are guidelines to which an individual can refer when making a moral decision.

A discussion of ethical systems provides a procedural framework but also demonstrates that there often is more than one "correct" resolution to a dilemma and more than one way to arrive at the same resolution. Likewise, a person may use the same ethical system to resolve different moral dilemmas or use multiple ethical systems to resolve a single dilemma.

Religious Ethics

What is good conforms to a deity's will. Religious ethics borrows moral concepts from religious teachings and draws on the participants' various religious beliefs. Discussions lead students to recognize that religious philosophies are ethical systems based on absolute concepts of good, evil, right, and wrong.

Natural Law

What is good is what conforms to nature. If what is natural is good, then students easily can appreciate the constraints of a natural law ethical system within the artificial constructs of modern society. It becomes clear that natural law theory offers only limited assistance when students compare peoples' most basic, natural inclinations with their motivations in resolving complex dilemmas.(3)

Ethical Formalism

What is good is what is pure in motive. When discussing ethical formalism, students are asked to resolve a specific dilemma by selecting a resolution that is pure or unblemished in motive, regardless of the consequences. Discussions within this framework present almost absolute answers to ethical dilemmas and show that some actions have little or no ethical support.


What is good is what results in the greatest good for the greatest number. Students who find the consequences of resolving a dilemma more ethically significant than the motive behind the decision-making process will resolve a dilemma with what they perceive to be an acceptable consequence. Yet, in most instances, predicting the consequences is virtually impossible. This results in discussions that become simply a means to project the most likely effects of choices.(4)

Ethics of Care

What is good is that which meets the needs of those involved and does not hurt relationships. Police agency mottoes often reflect a philosophy based on the ethics of care, such as "To protect and serve." The ethics of care is founded in the natural human response to provide for the needs of children, the sick, and the injured. Many police officers operate under the ethics of care when they attempt to solve problems rather than rigidly enforce the law.


Discussions regarding ethical systems should show that some decisions have little or no ethical rationale. Some rationales can be described as egotistic, because they serve only the individual's needs.

On the street, police officers are seldom forced to present ethical rationales for their decisions. Some do not like the experience, even in a classroom setting. Yet, others express views suggesting that all police officers could benefit from such training. Drawing on dilemmas and discussing various ethical frameworks give officers a realistic view of work situations they may face and supply them with the tools needed to resolve dilemmas.


Clearly, an ethics course for criminal justice practitioners must be relevant to their experiences to be effective. Hypothetical situations have little place because every officer probably has faced an ethical dilemma at some time. One way to ensure a sense of relevance is to use officers' own dilemmas in guiding the discussion, while the instructor provides the ethical framework for analyzing these dilemmas.

Most of these law enforcement dilemmas fall into clear-cut categories. Matters such as what to do with an elderly shoplifter, whether to enforce an outstanding warrant for a poor mother, or whether to report a minor fender bender during a shift may not be the stuff of action-adventure movies, but they weigh on many police officers nonetheless. The same structured analysis can be used for all types of ethical dilemmas; the benefit of such an analysis is that it gives police officers the tools for identifying and resolving their own dilemmas.

Applying this approach to ethics education strongly suggests to officers that the shaping of an ethical philosophy does not depend on recognizing and avoiding those dilemmas most often sensationalized by the media and the public. Rather, an ethical philosophy is shaped by the way an officer deals with the confusion, ambiguity, and compromise that insinuate themselves into the behavior and decisions confronting police officers every day. Recognizing these common dilemmas, acknowledging the ethical systems, and resolving these dilemmas by using an ethical philosophical framework can provide officers a working foundation to mediate all dilemmas, large and small.


1 A. Swift, J. Houston, and R. Anderson, "Cops, Hacks and the Greater Good," paper presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, Kansas City, MO, 1993; F. Schmalleger, Ethics in Criminal Justice: A Justice Professional Reader (Bristol, IN: Wyndom Hall Press, 1990); S. Souryal, Ethics in Criminal Justice: In Search of the Truth (Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing Co., 1992).

2 This article is a summary of a paper by the authors published in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education 6 (Spring 1995): 1-20.

3 J. Pollack, Ethics in Crime and Justice: Dilemmas and Decisions, 2d ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1994).

4 J. Gold, W. Braswell, and B. J. McCarthy, "Criminal Justice Ethics: A Survey of Philosophical Theories," in Justice, Crime and Ethics, ed. M. Braswell, B. R. McCarthy, and B.J. McCarthy (Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing Co., 1991).

Dr. Pollock chairs the Department of Criminal Justice at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.

Mr. Becker is a professor of criminal justice at Southwest Texas State University.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Focus on Training; police officers
Author:Becker, Ronald F.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Nov 1, 1996
Previous Article:Building an organizational foundation for the future.
Next Article:Pretext traffic stops.

Related Articles
Culture, mission, and goal attainment.
The role of internal affairs in police training.
Project 48: a holistic approach to training.
Accelerated learning a new approach to cross-cultural training.
Police ethics training: a three-tiered approach.
Integrated use-of-force training program.
Managing for ethics: a mandate for administrators.
The model precinct: issues involving police training.
Police training in the 21st century.
Making ethical decisions: a practical model.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |