Rethinking Ethics in Law Enforcement

By Fitch, Brian D. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Ethics in Law Enforcement


Fitch, Brian D., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Law enforcement agencies strive to recruit, hire, and train only those who demonstrate strong moral values before they enter the academy. Yet, even departments' best efforts will not prevent instances of police misconduct from garnering attention. Such incidents undermine public trust, jeopardize important investigations, and expose agencies to considerable liability. Many departments respond to these events by adopting formal ethics training programs that focus on character development, which Aristotle referred to as virtue ethics. (2) Like the Socrates quote, Aristotle's philosophy teaches that as conduct reflects officers' character and, thus, the various ways that they respond to moral dilemmas, this illustrates fundamental differences in their personal values.

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Virtue ethics relies on dispositional qualities, such as personality traits, values, or attitudes, to explain deviant behavior. For example, if officers fabricate evidence to obtain search warrants, their actions reflect their dishonest character. According to this view, character predisposes officers to act certain ways, regardless of the situation. An honest officer feels obligated to tell the truth, while a dishonest one feels inclined to steal. Similarly, a brave officer strives to act courageously, whereas a coward recoils at danger. In either case, officers possess long-term, stable dispositions, and they behave in highly predictable ways.

Unfortunately, decades of research contradict the theory that people differ strongly in their basic character; nearly everyone holds virtuous at the abstract level, and most individuals endorse a similar set of high-level moral values. (3) For example, studies have found that delinquent juveniles subscribe to the same set of conceptual values as their less troubled counterparts, despite their unruly behavior--which suggests that lofty moral values often matter much less than what is commonly believed. (4)

Proponents of virtue ethics argue that certain officers misbehave because they lack character. These "bad apples" managed to "slip through the cracks" despite their unethical values. They argue that police abuse occurs in isolated incidents and involves a few immoral opportunists who were corrupt before they became officers. Unfortunately, this interpretation fails to explain how otherwise exemplary officers with no prior history of wrongdoing, many of whom are sterling role models in their families, churches, and communities, can become involved in misconduct.

Certainly, officers' character, or virtue ethics, still are crucial to their success. However, this narrow view concentrates almost exclusively on moral values and thus ignores the situational and psychological factors that influence behavior. Mitigating the risk for officer misconduct requires a more complete understanding of human behavior and motivation. This article offers law enforcement professionals a new way to think about misconduct. This explanation emphasizes moral development, social learning, and cognitive rationalization and suggests tactics to foster a culture of ethics in any agency.

Moral Development

Before officers can behave ethically, they must recognize the morals at stake in the situation, understand the principles and values involved, and choose the proper course of action. (5) To explain this reasoning process, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg proposed perhaps the most influential theory of moral development. He believed that moral development proceeds along three highly predictable, invariant levels, termed preconventional, conventional, and postconventional, with each one organized into two distinct stages. (6) According to Kohlberg, at each stage, people employ increasingly sophisticated explanations and problem-solving strategies to address moral dilemmas.

At the simplest level of reasoning, the preconventional, external consequences guide individuals' sense of right and wrong--punishment in stage one and self-interest in stage two. …

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