Navigating the Political Environment of Ethics: Challenges and Recommendations for Law Enforcement Administrators

By Grace, Lisa R.; Petras, Christopher | Law & Order, February 2016 | Go to article overview

Navigating the Political Environment of Ethics: Challenges and Recommendations for Law Enforcement Administrators


Grace, Lisa R., Petras, Christopher, Law & Order


Most law enforcement professionals know what constitutes 'good' or 'bad,' 'right' or 'wrong' behaviors. However, ethics scholars note that measures of 'good' and 'bad,' 'right' and 'wrong' are subjective requiring law enforcement professionals to rely more on intuition rather than concrete facts when facing ambiguous situations in the line of duty. Differing family backgrounds and educational cultures from which individuals, including law enforcement professionals, are socialized create differing beliefs and values of what constitutes 'good' or 'bad,' 'right' or 'wrong' behaviors. The subjective nature of ethics has recently allowed various anti-law enforcement individuals and groups to reshape the concept from that of an ideal to which law enforcement professionals may strive to achieve into that of a political asset used for obtaining media exposure and achieving political gain. As a result, the political environment of ethics is jeopardizing law enforcement effectiveness and the safety of citizens and law enforcement professionals.

The Politics of Ethics and the 'Ferguson Effect'

Ethics is a 'beauty in the eye of the beholder' concept. The subjective nature of ethics provides anti-law enforcement groups with needed political leverage to generate national media coverage in their efforts to depict the field of law enforcement as nefarious. As a result, the politics of ethics has polarized public opinion about law enforcement including the way in which the media portrays policing behaviors in the line of duty. The case of Ferguson, Mo. serves as a good illustration.

Media portrayals of the Michael Brown /Darren Wilson incident in Ferguson ignited public emotions and sentiments across the nation about which police actions constitute 'good' or 'bad,' 'right' or 'wrong.' Two competing perspectives of 'good' or 'bad,' 'right' or 'wrong' were presented in the news coverage. One perspective depicted Officer Wilson's actions as heroic because he protected the citizens of Ferguson from a suspect who allegedly engaged in threatening actions prior to and after his initial contact with Officer Wilson. The counter perspective offered by the media depicted Officer Wilson's actions as cowardly and racist because Michael Brown was an unarmed African-American teenager who lost his life due to alleged excessive force. The politics of ethics provided antilaw enforcement groups with a platform from which Officer Wilson was depicted as racist and cowardly despite a Grand Jury's conclusion his actions in the line of duty were compliant with departmental policies and the law.

The politics of ethics has created what many law enforcement professionals call the 'Ferguson Effect'-an anti-law enforcement movement placing law enforcement professionals and their families in increased danger. While some believe the Ferguson Effect is bogus and instead an effort to thwart any policies designed to scrutinize police actions more closely, law enforcement professionals are sensing a change around the country in public attitudes toward law enforcement professionals due to the politicization of ethics and the news stories highlighting the rhetoric of anti-law enforcement groups.

The Ferguson Effect has leftlaw enforcement professionals unsure as to whether or not they should act in life or death situations and to go above and beyond the call of duty. Many law enforcement professionals are choosing not to act unless absolutely required in a given situation.

The Political Pitfalls of Action or Inaction in the Line of Duty

Police officers and their law enforcement comrades are often placed into ambiguous situations while in the line of duty and where governing policies and statutory laws are absent or fail to provide adequate guidance in addressing a situation. As a result, front-line law enforcement professionals are confronted with two choices when facing situations where formal policy and statutory guidance are absent-either refrain from doing anything because no formal policy nor legal statute(s) exist to guide the law enforcement professional's behaviors in the situation or take action in a given situation and risk making a 'well-intended mistake' in order to achieve 'the greater good for the greater number of people. …

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