AMU Law Enforcement Public Safety

Turning Ethical Theory into Practice in Policing

By Dr. Jade Pumphrey, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

Police work often requires officers to make split-second decisions as part of their daily functions. When in difficult situations, it’s essential to have a solid moral compass governed by a strong understanding of ethical principles. From racial profiling to crimes involving suspects with mental illness, there are a variety of ethical dilemmas where officers must exercise discretion, appropriate forms of force, and due process.

Agencies must also do their part to conduct ongoing training so officers can better navigate concepts of right and wrong and use that knowledge to shape their decisions. Ethics training is a cornerstone for policing because it gives officers important insights about how to develop community trust and deal with various liabilities. There are three identifiable branches in the study of ethics:

  • Metaethics, which provides the framework for interpreting how “goodness” is defined and what good means concerning one’s moral philosophy.
  • Applied ethics, which examines specific issues concerning judgment and morality and is best represented as the clear application of theoretical ethics. A subset of this study of ethics is professional ethics, which relates to how ethics are applied in a specific professional field.
  • Normative ethics, which represents the final branch of ethical theory and provides the general framework for which individuals are judged by others based on their choices, decisions, and actions.

These three branches of ethics can help police officers understand how their judgments concerning discretion, force, and due process will be evaluated by political, legal, and social institutions.

How Ethics Impacts Police Discretion

Police officers have a great deal of discretion when making arrests. If a police officer decides to make an arrest, that person will enter into the criminal justice system and may later have charges filed against them.

To address issues regarding the amount of discretion officers possess and minimize the risk of subjecting citizens to specific inequalities, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) issued the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics summarizes the roles and responsibilities of police officers and demonstrates specificity on performance duties of police officers. The Code of Ethics outlines the responsibility of police officers when making discretionary decisions and outlines protocol concerning violence and use of force. It further outlines the expectations for integrity in the profession and expectations for maintaining confidentiality.

The purpose of the Code of Ethics was to create a general standard for police, but no code can be all-encompassing and such codes still leave room for ambiguity. Therefore, it is important to provide police officers with ongoing training so they can understand their own personal biases and standards of ethics. This will help them handle the ethical dilemmas they encounter on a day-to-day basis.

Applying Ethics to Use of Force Cases

Police officers balance their responsibilities between being a crime fighter and a public servant. Officers are often placed in situations where their lives are at risk and their ability to use force is considered an important component to keep both the officer and community members’ safe. Officers must ensure that they do not apply unnecessary force and recognize that different situations will call for varying levels of what is considered reasonable.

[Related: Police Training to Reduce Use of Force Cases]

There are two U.S. Supreme Court case decisions that are often cited when discussing use of force in policing. The first, Tennessee v, Garner (1985), set a precedent that a police officer can only use deadly force with probable cause when a suspect poses a serious threat or physical harm to officers or citizens. In the second, Graham v. Connor (1989), Supreme Court justices focused on the concept of “reasonableness” stating that use of force is often something determined by a split-second decision. They ruled that several factors must be considered when determining reasonableness including the severity of the crime, the threat posed to officers, whether the suspect was resisting arrest, and if the suspect was attempting to flee the scene.

These two cases set the precedent involving the use of force in policing and helped shape the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. Law enforcement officers need to demonstrate lawful authority and a lawful objective reasonableness before utilizing force.

Ethics and Due Process

The very fabric of our criminal justice system focuses on the concept of due process and equal protection under the law. Along with expanded protections under due process in the 1960s, the United States saw an expansion of citizens’ rights and limited police powers. In policing, due process is applied most often in evidence investigations, specifically search and seizure cases, as well as in arrest and interrogation procedures under the Fourth Amendment.

Police officers have an ethical duty to ensure that any evidence collected is done so in a lawful manner. Citizens cannot be subjected to illegal searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. In the 1960s, the Supreme Court ruled that before any type of interrogation occurs, officers must read suspects their Miranda Rights and make sure they understand that they have the right to be silent and have the presence of counsel when questioned by police.

Both the Fifth and 14th Amendments demonstrate that individuals cannot be deprived of their life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The due process clause of the Fifth and 14th Amendments ensures that individuals are “not to be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” The 14th Amendment expands the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment and provides due process application to the state, making state and federal obligations equal. In effect, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment requires that no state deny any person within its jurisdiction “equal protection of the law.”

Officers have the moral, ethical, and legal duty to ensure that individuals are afforded all due process protections under the law.

The Takeaway

Police have the duty to protect and serve and must do so using the highest ethical standards. Officers, like anyone else, will always bring their own set of moral values to a situation. To limit personal biases, it is essential that their individual values coincide with the core values and policies of their respective agencies, as well as the best interests of their communities.

Ethics training encourages officers to examine the legal and judicial protocol involving use of force and helps train officers how to manage their emotions in heated situations. Ethical training also provides officers with the foundation of how to intervene and prevent excessive use of force. Ultimately, police officers are encouraged to only apply the lowest necessary level of force and consider the totality of the circumstances to ensure their use of force is reasonable. As the ethical paradigm of policing continues to evolve, ethical theories must be turned into everyday common practice and this can only be maintained by ongoing training.

ethicalAbout the Author: Dr. Jade Pumphrey has worked in higher education since 2006 and has taught more than 65 different criminal justice courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. She currently serves as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. Pumphrey obtained an AS in General Science, a BS in Criminal Justice, an MS in Forensic Science Investigations and a PhD in Public Safety/Criminal Justice. In addition to her work in higher education, Pumphrey volunteers for her local police department as an on-call victim assistant.

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