Topics in Policing: Making Ethical Decisions

Written by Dr. Carole Garrison

Dr. Carole Garrison, an EKU professor in Criminal Justice, discusses PLS 326: Ethics for Policing, a course designed to hone your intellectual skills so you can be a truly competent professional.

“Life in itself is neither good nor evil. It is the place of good and evil, according to what you make it.”
- Montaigne

Should I give this guy a ticket or a warning? It’s almost 2 o’clock in the morning, and there’s no one out. He yielded before he turned. And, from the looks of him a $60 dollar moving violation will probably be a week’s salary.


“I’m taking you in to the station, you’re under arrest,” the officer told the young woman.

“Please officer, if I’m late again they will fire me,” she said pleading with him.


“Take the shot, take the shot,” his partner hollered from behind the squad car.


Not all questions have perfect answers – not all choices have perfect outcomes. In a democratic society, the questions police officers face on a daily, if not hourly basis, do not have perfect answers – their choices have unintended consequences. All decisions have real and potentially life changing consequences for the officer and the citizen. It is our mandate to help the student and potential officer develop the intellectual and critical thinking skills in advance of having to make these choices - skills necessary to achieve just and ethical results.

Yes, we have laws to guide us, personal morals and values to govern our decisions, even oaths of office and agency rules to minimize the vagaries resulting from our discretion on the job. The situation is made more difficult by the reality that often personal morals, values, laws and rules are in conflict. Ethics are somewhere in between. They are the guidelines of professions which help us determine the difference between what you have the right to do under the law, and what is right to do in a given situation.

We cannot make ethical decisions if we haven’t developed what William Muir calls positive intellectual perspective, reason and empathy, necessary to understand the consequences of our actions and balance the use of force with the principle of least harm. We do this through a learning process that includes self-reflection and critical analysis, away from the immediate pressures on decision making in the heat of the moment. Just as we develop and train our bodies, we develop and train our minds. Just as we create muscle memory, we can create intellectual knowledge.

To minimize ambiguity inherent in ethical actions, we concentrate on three core values based in the U.S. Constitution and/or having general consensus in our democratic society, they are: Equal Protection, Equal Enforcement and Least Harm Possible.

Throughout the “Ethics for Policing” course, we blend philosophical and personal concepts about values, freedom, rights, and duties and their application to Criminal Justice. We use our imagination to go beyond the limits of our personal experience to test our ethical decision making and to create a mental data bank to call upon when faced with real world choices.

Lack of competence is as unethical as using our skills incorrectly. As important as it is to use a service weapon, be able to disarm someone physically, we have a moral responsibility to be able to control and deescalate a situation without relying on excessive force - and that takes - an agile mind.


End notes:

  • William K. Muir Jr., Police: Street Corner Politicians, University of Chicago Press. 1977
  • Michel Montaigne, “The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir”

Published on February 26, 2013

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