Law enforcement officers face many types of ethical decisions on a daily basis. They can take a number of ethical approaches in making a decision about an ethical issue. When officers have to make decisions involving ethical matters, they are faced with ethical dilemmas. The biggest challenge of ethical dilemmas is that they do not offer an obvious solution that would comply with ethical norms. Resolving an ethical dilemma is hugely dependent on one’s personal values and attitudes.
Values and Attitudes
Values are principles or standards of behaviour. Examples of values are integrity, generosity, courage, gratitude, loyalty, independence, equality, justice and friendliness. Basic human rights are based on shared human values such as dignity, fairness, equality, respect and independence. Values are important because they influence our perceptions. They also cloud objectivity and rationality. Further, values lay the foundation for the understanding of attitudes and motivation.
Attitudes reflect how one feels about something. They can be negative or positive. Examples of attitudes are openness, tolerance, respect and acceptance. Attitudes are often based on one’s values. It is important for law enforcement officers to appreciate human rights values right from their initial training. This will enable them have positive attitudes towards human rights.
Importance of Human Rights Values in Law Enforcement
The reasons for instilling human rights values and attitudes in law enforcment officers are:
- Respect for human rights by law enforcement officers enhances their effectiveness.
- Positive attitudes towards human rights increases professionalism in law enforcement approaches to solving and preventing crime and maintaining public order.
- The public gains confidence in law enforcers and fosters cooperation.
- Prosecutions are successful because officers obtain evidence lawfully and it is credible.
- The public sees law enforcers as part of the community, performing a valuable social function.
- There is fair administration of justice and hence confidence in the criminal justice system.
- Law enforcement officers set an example for respect for the law by others in society thereby leading to a reduction in criminal activity.
- Law enforcers are able to be closer to the community and therefore in a position to prevent and solve crimes through proactive policing.
- The media and higher authorities give their support to law enforcement.
- There is peaceful resolution of conflicts and complaints.
Instilling Human Rights Values in Law Enforcement Officers
Law enforcement officers embrace human rights values by ensuring that:
- They respect and obey the law at all times.
- They fulfil the duty imposed on them by law at all times by serving the community and protecting all persons against illegal acts.
- They do not commit any acts of corruption.
- They respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons.
- They report violations of those laws, codes and sets of principles which protect and promote human rights.
- All their law enforcement actions respect the principles of legality, necessity, non-discrimination, proportionality and humanity.
Ethical dilemmas in law enforcement arise in two circumstances. The first is when an officer is unaware of the correct course of action. The second is when an officer is aware of the correctcourse of action, but it is difficult to undertake, and the wrong course of action offers a simpler way out. The officer can only resolve this ethical dilemma based on his individual values and attitudes.
The main ethical dilemmas in law enforcement are:
(a) Off-duty life
The public holds law enforcement officers to extremely high standards. They expect the officers’ personal lives to reflect the integrity of their positions. The officers must therefore maintain a professional image at all times because they are under constant public scrutiny. Thus, officers are faced with the ethical dilemma of maintaining their professional outlook at all times, on the one hand or separating this from their personal lives when off-duty. This often puts them in direct conflict with themselves and the public.
(b) Upholding the law and rights
Each officer swears an oath to uphold the law and to defend the constitutional rights of individuals. One of the ethical dilemmas that an officer faces daily is the ability to uphold these oaths when they are seemingly contradictory. This is because strict law enforcement often infringes on the constitutional rights of individuals. When enforcing the law, officers are forced to act in the best interest of the state rather than the best interests of the individual.
(c) Necessary force
Officers have the authority to use necessary force to uphold the law. An ethical dilemma arises on whether to use force or not to use force in each case. Sometimes, use of force may lead to the death or injury of an innocent person. However, at the same time, failure to use force may put the officers’ and other peoples’ lives in danger. In the majority of cases, an officer must make a split-second decision on what level of force is necessary. A misjudgement could result in injury or death for the officer or an innocent subject. This ethical dilemma is difficult to resolve in high stress environments. Therefore, officers find themselves easily coerced to use unnecessary force.
Another ethical dilemma that officers face is the requirement to act impartially even though such impartiality contradicts their values and attitudes. It is not always possible to act impartially, especially where the issue at hand is one that touches deeply on one’s values and attitudes.
Profiling is a major component of law enforcement as it helps officers work smarter and deploy strategically. However, an ethical dilemma arises where an officer’s ability to be impartial is overshadowed by his personal biases, prejudices and stereotypes. An ethical dilemma also arises where an officer is reluctant to profile a subject because profiling may seem to be unfair to a particular racial, ethnic or religious group.
Principles in Resolving Ethica Dilemmas
Law enforcement officers can be guided by the following principles in resolving ethical dilemmas:
(a) Serve the community
Every decision taken to resolve the ethical dilemma must serve the community. This means that the decision taken should safeguard the people within the community and protect them against oppression, violence or injustice. The decision taken should also protect the property of community members and ensure that their constitutional rights are respected.
(b) Uphold integrity:
The decision taken must preserve the integrity of the officer and of the law enforcement agency. Further, the decision must uphold the law.
(c) Be impartial
The decision made to resolve an ethical dilemma must be impartial and free from personal grudges, prejudices, beliefs or aspirations. The officer must not be compromised. The officer must also not make the decision with malice towards one party or favour to.
(d) Respect public office
Law enforcement officers are holders of public office. Thus, the decisions they make must respect that office. This is because public office is a symbol of public faith. Consequently, every decision an officer makes to resolve an ethical dilemma must reflect upon that symbol of public faith. The decision must not be influenced by corruption or bribery or lead to obstruction or a miscarriage of justice.
(e) Take responsibility
An officer should be able to take full responsibility of a decision he makes to resolve an ethical dilemma.
Steps to Take in Resolving an Ethical Dilemma
(a) Establish the facts surrounding the ethical dilemma.
To investigate all cases, officers must rely on facts to guard against misinformation and biases. However, if the facts are not known, the officer must investigate everything that surrounds the dilemma. This will ensure that they are acting on the right information. Officers should avoid acting on rumours and gossip by verifying information through factual information and evidence.
(b) Determine legal obligations and duties.
Professional and legal obligations will likely allow the officer to easily decide on a course of action to take in an ethical dilemma. Legal obligations and standards also make an officer aware of the consequences of their actions.
(c) Establish the interested participants involved.
It is important for the officer to know who will be impacted by the decision they make. This is important in ensuring that the rights of those who are not part of the majority are also considered.
(d) Determine the ethical values of each participant.
Determining ethical values is important in allowing officers to understand the impacts of their decisions. Thereafter, it will be easy for the officer to make the right decision to resolve the dilemma.
(e) Consider the consequences of your decision.
In making a decision, knowing the consequences may assist in guiding towards the right choice. If the officer considers the consequences, he will be unlikely to make a decision that falls outside the law, rules and procedure.
(f) Consider options that are ethically sound.
There may be several options to consider. Thus, an officer ought to consider each option critically by determining what harm it would cause. The officer should therefore consider the positives and negatives of the decision and determine the risks and benefits associated with each option.
(g) Consider possible negative and positive outcomes.
The officer must try to predict unintended consequences of their decision.