Law enforcement is a unique and important component of the government. Law enforcement officers protect citizens and the government against anarchy and facilitate the rule of law. A well organized and ethically just police force breeds social wellbeing. Law enforcement officers have the choice to either represent or misrepresent government values and ethics. Police officers are faced with ethical dilemmas in the course of fulfilling duties due to the nature of their work. Ethical systems or theories are essential concepts that can help law enforcement officers make moral decisions. This paper aims to explore normative ethical systems and police subculture, as well as describe some unethical police practices.
Police officers have to make choices when resolving ethical dilemmas. The decisions made ought to be rationally justified to show why a particular choice is right and the other one is wrong. The understanding of ethical systems and theories will help police when solving ethical dilemmas through decision-making and articulation of justification for a given action or choice. A decision made by an individual may appear unethical on the surface, but the ethical systems will help in the understanding of the cause of that decision. Ethical systems enable an individual to show the intended morality of a given decision. They facilitate viewing moral matters from various perspectives and help in making an informed decision.
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Some of the ethical theories include Kantian duty-based ethics (deontology), teleology, utilitarianism, ethics of care, ethics of virtue, and ethical formalism. These theories are normative and provide reasons for implementing particular actions, as well as a rationale for making decisions in certain instances which can be counterintuitive to what may be thought as unethical. Normative ethics deal with standards, norms, and criteria that define the concepts of ethical practice (Pollock, 2014).
Kantian theory is a deontological one. According to Kant, the rightness and wrongness of any action do not depend on its consequences, but are determined by evaluating whether such action fulfills a person’s duty. Kant argued that before an individual implements a particular action, they must assess whether other persons can perform such actions and whether the said act fulfills the goals of humanity (Pollock, 2014). Utilitarianism is another form of normative ethics. According to utilitarianism, an action is considered ethical if its consequences are associated with happiness, and an act is morally wrong if it leads to pain or suffering. Police have to make decisions in many situations; if the decision-making is based on utilitarianism, the police officer should consider what is the greatest good for a large number of people. The personal interpretation of the greatest good often leads to the question of conduct versus desired outcomes (Solomons, 2010).
Ethics of care is concerned with the moral significance associated with relationships and dependencies in human life. The ethics of care involve the promotion of the well-being of both caregivers and care-receivers in social networks. Ethics of care is built around the motivation to care for the vulnerable and dependents (Pollock, 2014). The law enforcement workers often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders due to nature of their work, and this can result in debilitating health outcomes if it is not managed properly. Thus, the police need psychosocial support and care from professionals and colleagues. Concern about the well-being of others is considered an ethical virtue.
Ethics of virtues tends to emphasize personal virtues or moral character; this contrasts with the deontological approach which deals with rules and duties. It is also different from the concept of consequentialism because it does not focus on the results of decisions. The virtue of ethics is concerned with the role of character in ethical practices, and the moral person is the one who possesses the desired moral traits (Pollock, 2014).
Ethical formalism defines ethics based on logic. It puts more emphasis on logic than the content of the action, and every action is considered in an absolutist sense, so that any act is a hundred percent right or wrong. Ethical formalism operates under particular laws (Pollock, 2014).
There is an active subculture that is entrenched in the functioning of any police force. Police subculture is a unique set of values, principles, beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes that are common amongst the law enforcement officers (Martin, 2011). The police culture is characterized by loyalty, cynicism, negativity, and masochism. The police subculture shares values and norms that enable the law enforcers to survive in harsh work environments. The social virtues such as supportiveness, caring, empathy, sacrifice, and teamwork can enable police officer to cope with post-traumatic stress disorders; these are some of the desired norms in police subcultures. Some negative virtues associated with the police subculture include cynicism, closed-mindedness, suspicion, authoritarianism, non-scientific tactics, alienation, excessive conservatism, prejudice, and bias.
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Although law enforcement departments have some positive subculture norms, what is defined as ethical by society may be irrelevant in police subculture. The police subculture may involve the use of trickery and lies to induce confessions and accessing minor gratuities when fostering community relation. Thus, it is important to examine the ethics within the police subculture and identify the gray areas in the ethics and the gray areas under which the police function (Hoge, 2011).
When there is public disorder, the police are responsible for restoring order and protecting both lives and property. The police have to make moral and legal decisions that significantly impact the lives of others. Law enforcement officers are responsible for following criminals and, in most cases, they expose themselves to constant dangers. Furthermore, they must show kindness, compassion, and courtesy to citizens. One critical, stressful responsibility for police officers is the duty to kill someone under certain circumstances. The policing work is stressful; it causes debilitating consequences among the officers. Thus, police officers need support that enables them to cope with daily trauma. However, it has been noted that the police subculture limits such support. Police subculture shares beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, and ways of living. The police subculture can get stronger than family ties due to the shared experiences in the policing field and isolation from their families.
Unethical Practices amongst Law Enforcement Officers
The police subculture has been blamed for many cases associated with unethical practices in law enforcement departments. Particular unethical behaviors are prevalent among the police. First, incidents of excessive use of force have been reported; the use of excessive force by the police is unacceptable. Second, there is the issue of corruption. Corruption is a long-time problem that has become a part of police subculture. Diverse strategies have been developed to fight the vice of corruption, but it tends to persist. During recruitment, candidates with low ethical standards should be avoided. However, evidenced-based training that prevents corruption amongst law enforcement officers is lacking (Warner et al., 2011). The study of police corruption remains an unexplored field. Only 56 percent of people rated the police as having high levels of ethical practice (Warner et al., 2011). Gratuities in a form of gifts or rewards are a form of corruption because of its influence on police officers. Iit is a culture that acts as a foundation for corruption at higher scales (Warner et al., 2011).
Law enforcement departments is always evolving in various aspects which include education, equipment, skills, pay, and training. However, the concept of ethical practice and integrity in the police force is elusive (Solomons, 2010). Solomons observes that corruption in the police force is associated with the work environment and the responsibility of police to enforce the law and deny the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. This leads to an increase in perceived transgressions in the public eyes. It is easier to perform ethically in areas where there are as many threats and temptations as in law enforcement departments. Law enforcement officers can act with impunity due to the power they have and little supervision in the course of their work (Solomons, 2010).
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Third, some law enforcement officers have been accused of unethical behavior due to coercing suspects to confess. For example, police officers can place a plastic bag over a suspect’s head in an attempt to cause suffocation; this is a forceful extraction of a confession. Finally, other ethical malpractices exhibited by the police include brutality, lying, fraud, unethical sexual practices and harassment, disorderly conduct, and sleeping during working hours.
The law enforcement department as a government agency demands high levels of ethical standards. Police officers are the public servants who are under heavy public scrutiny. However, the police officers can find themselves in the limelight for wrong reasons which include excessive use of force, abuse of authority, misuse of public office, and theft. These are unacceptable behaviors that are being exhibited by the officers who are entrusted to serve and protect citizens. Unethical practices erode the trust in police officers. Thus, it is important for police officers to embrace ethical decision-making in the course of their work. Critical thinking is one of the approaches that police officers can use to determine whether their decisions are ethical or not. Additionally, they should ask themselves certain questions. Examples of such questions include: Is my action legal? Will the result be good? Will it work? Is there a less harmful way to achieve a similar goal? Can I justify my decision? Police officers ought to demonstrate exemplary ethical practices.