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Unethical Behavior

Though the prevalence and strength of questionable values within the criminal justice system are not as strong today as in the past, some officers still take advantage of their professional position. Despite the many officials who cannot be tempted into corruption or portray themselves as anything less than exemplary professionals, the focus here must center on those who act unethically. It is important to explore the perceived rights of officers, the types of misconduct that occur, and the reasons for unethical behavior. Unethical situations may emerge when officers are perceived to have more rights, either by society or by themselves, than the average citizen. One example includes the perceived right of police officers to accept free coffee or discounted meals within their districts. Although many business owners (and police for that matter) may simply see this as a method of hospitality, others may disagree. People may question the motives of the business owners (e.g., what do they expect from the officers in return?) or the perspective of the officer (e.g., does he or she feel that the owner owes him or her a cup of coffee to patrol the area?), which can lead to mistrust. Another example is the perceived right of officers to enjoy professional courtesy when breaking the law. If an off-duty officer is pulled over for speeding, he or she expects that the fellow officer will not ticket him or her as a method of police professionalism. Is this fair? If the person is an officer, he or she should know not to speed in the first place. However, is it because of this professional courtesy that the officer thinks speeding is allowable? Where is the line drawn as far as crimes that go unpunished? What if the crime was not speeding, but burglary? Or worse? Where is the line drawn? The final example is the perceived right of officers to use brutality against suspects or inmates. Though force is often necessary, when does it become excessive? What if the officer justifies his or her actions by stating that the force is used as a means of assisting with rehabilitation? Once again, where is the line drawn regarding how much force is excessive? The perceived rights of officers are transmitted values that may be seen by some as perks of the job, whereas others feel the actions may contribute to unethical behavior.

There are three main types of unethical behavior in the criminal justice field (Pollock, 2014): lying and deception, prejudice and discrimination, and egoism and abuse of power. This discussion may cause uneasiness; however, the goal is to generate awareness that hopefully will lead to a decrease in problems. The first type, lying and deception, occurs intentionally and is worsened by self-deception and the extent to which a person intends to deceive. Lying is a learned behavior that destroys confidence in a person and may affect anyone. Lies occur by commission or omission (e.g., “If I just don’t tell my supervisor that the reagent was bad, she will simply think the test failed”). There are three primary types of lies: helpful lies, teasing lies, and malicious lies. A helpful lie is telling a family that a victim did not suffer before his or her death, it does not change the outcome of the investigation, and it simply makes the circumstances more tolerable for the family. An example of a teasing lie or a lie told in jest is when an officer is interviewing an uncooperative, sarcastic suspect and leaves the room saying, “I will be right back; I need to go grab a donut.” In reality, the officer is not going anywhere; he is giving the suspect time to stew but chooses to provide such a lie as he leaves the room. Malicious lies include actions such as planting evidence, committing perjury, or creating a story to get someone fired. In criminal justice, an officer may coerce a suspect into providing a statement but tell the supervisor that the statement was made of free will. Lying is considered a shameful action even though extenuating circumstances may justify some lies. If a person debates whether to tell a lie, the following guidelines should be considered:

  • • Are there truthful alternatives? (if so, try those first)
  • • Will lying produce the same result as the truth? (if so, tell the truth)
  • • Is the lie a last resort?
  • • Will a higher moral good be achieved by lying? (e.g., self-defense)

When using the last guideline, it is important that the situation and potential lies are publicly recognized in advance to lessen the chance of people later creating lies to help their cause. So why do people lie? People lie for protection, defense, support, or fun. Institutional lying occurs when professionals deliberately defy an agency’s laws, rules, or procedures. During preservice training, officers learn tactical lying, which is encouraged in certain situations and discouraged in others. As one would imagine, the difference in situations may create confusion for trainees. Police learn the value of lying in certain situations that require violation of proper procedure. Situations where the ends seem to justify the means, such as gaining access without a proper warrant, using excessive force, or avoiding necessary paperwork, are common problems. In addition, experience may influence officers to lie as they develop coping mechanisms (e.g., excessive alcohol abuse). The need to excuse actions or inactions may alter everyday tasks. Lying is harmful, but in criminal justice, it could permanently damage society’s trust and create an unsafe environment. Deception should occur only as a last resort in certain cases because the officers’ work becomes even more difficult when trust is lost by the public, superiors, coworkers, or informants.

The second primary type of unethical behavior in criminal justice is prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice is an adverse judgment or opinion formed without examination of all facts provided or before having sufficient knowledge, whereas discrimination is making a distinction based on a behavior pattern. Simply stated, prejudice is an attitude, whereas discrimination is the action resulting from that attitude. Examples of these issues in criminal justice include problems with legal representation of minority groups, bias in processing procedures, lack of language interpreters in court, and limited jobs in criminal justice for minorities. People overcome prejudice by developing sufficient knowledge to resist such negative attitudes. There are two forms of prejudice: culture conditioned and character conditioned. Culture- conditioned prejudice describes sociological prejudice or attitudes that are taught through normal socialization with family, friends, and neighbors, at school or at church. Character-conditioned prejudice describes psychological prejudice that results from personality features (Souryal, 2014). Although sometimes used synonymously, stereotyping is more rigid than prejudice;

people are automatically categorized by similarities to a group of people. People who stereotype others exhibit a lack of concern, not a lack of knowledge for differences. Racism is the primary example of prejudice and discrimination. Although racial injustice in the United States is less severe and much subtler than in the past, it remains a frequent problem. Allegations against police officers are that (1) African Americans are arrested before those of Caucasian descent and (2) more officers are deployed to minority crimes than other crimes. In the correctional system, allegations state that discrimination is so extensive that it is reminiscent of segregation in the 1960s. Primary allegations against parole officers state that African American inmates typically have to appear in front of primarily Caucasian review boards. Although laws may subtly reinforce racism, it is helpful if criminal justice professionals use the following facts as moral guidelines in their work:

  • • Racism is mindless.
  • • Racism is a contrived social label.
  • • Racism violates religious principle.
  • • Racism is constitutionally and legally wrong.
  • • Racism reflects a person’s serious character flaw.
  • • People deserve equal treatment despite racial differences.
  • • People deserve treatment as ends rather than means.
  • • Practitioners should treat members of other races and cultures honorably and generously.

Racial discrimination, which stems from ignorance and indifference, has led to many social problems inside and outside the criminal justice field (Souryal, 2003). Laws, policies, and procedures cannot fix the ethical side of discrimination; knowledge is the key to decreasing irrational behaviors, such as prejudice and discrimination. People who are open are better able to gain the knowledge necessary to prevent discrimination.

The final type of unethical behavior commonly found in criminal justice is egoism and abuse of power. Egoism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as follows:

The belief, on the part of an individual, that there is no proof that anything exists but his own mind; chiefly applied to philosophical systems supposed by their adversaries logically to imply this conclusion.

The theory which regards self-interest as the foundation of morality. Also, in practical sense: Regard to one’s own interest, as the supreme guiding principle of action; systematic selfishness.

It also includes a preoccupation with oneself, an inflated pride, and a gratification in showing others authority in an official position. Egoism reinforces the perspective of human nature or a human’s act for his or her self-interest. Egoism could lead to an abuse of authority or power. Authority is a person’s right to control others’ behavior and is defined by laws. Power is the force practitioners use to control others; as there are no clear rules, a person’s power requires justification. Acceptable justification of power is self-defense, support of authority, or that the action occurred within reason and necessity. Responsibility is the balance between authority and power. Ethically, an officer’s obligation to follow laws, agency rules, and his or her own reasoning is the most important responsibility, if he or she remains within acceptable limits. Egoism may weaken an officer’s responsibility and reduce his or her respect for authority, thus causing a violation of natural law, constitutional law, religious ethics, professional duty, and obligation to ethical codes. Knowing this, how can criminal justice practitioners allow egoism to direct their conduct? People who have power, are vulnerable, and have a great amount of temptation might easily allow such behaviors to occur. Behaviors stem from arrogance, irrationality, and the absence of ethics and are exhibited through brutality, shirking professional obligation, and violating a person’s civil rights. Although certain situations may require slight egoism, the unjustifiable examples far outnumber these situations. Any and all unethical behavior within the criminal justice field can damage the core principle of the profession, can provide an us versus them mentality with society, can deny citizens of their basic rights, can affect social order, can discredit practitioners’ ability to remain faithful to their duties, and may encourage corruption (Souryal, 2014).

Despite the negative outcomes and the public backlash created when those in the criminal justice field are unethical, it still occurs. Why? Primary reasons for unethical behavior are typically characterized as opportunity or incentive. Opportunity includes the potential for corruption. Corruption is the intentional violation of organizational norms by public employees for personal gain and ranges from theft of drugs or money to criminal conspiracy for drug trafficking. Corruption may occur as a result of officers’ discretionary decisions. Unless an officer has strong character and beliefs, is truthful no matter what, and is fully guided by self-respect and excellence, there is a potential for corruption. Discretionary decisions encourage unethical behavior when temptations are involved. Officers should have awareness that there is a very fine line between acceptable and unethical practices in policing. Temptations such as money, drugs, cars, and power are incentives for unethical behavior. Political power within the profession is also an incentive or a source of pressure for officers. When ethical principles and codes have been introduced as work strategies, officers have called them unworkable and naive because such principles are equated with weakness in this professional culture (Souryal, 2003). Does this mean that there are no principles or codes in place? No, many agencies have ethical codes of conduct that they follow.

However, this means either that the codes in place may not be as thorough as in other professions or that the codes are not being strictly followed by practitioners. Criminal justice agencies are in charge of justice for society so they should act fairly; when they do not, it could have a profound negative impact on society. Although the frequency of unethical situations is not as high as it was in the past, how officers react to questionable situations, values, or decisions is described by Braswell and McCarthy (2008) as their moral career. Whether reacting positively or negatively, where should the blame fall for officers who partake in unethical behavior within the profession?

The blame for unethical behavior in criminal justice gets evenly distributed, depending on whose opinions are asked. Some people accuse the nature of the system because, historically, police were considered ethical if they achieved the desired end of getting the bad guy off the street. Corrupt people tend to blame the system; ideas can be slanted or misinterpreted by officials, and those individuals influence the integrity of the government. An example of this is provided by slavery in the United States; although it was the norm at the time, not everyone was influenced, and those uninfluenced citizens eventually helped to overcome the injustice. Pressure is a commonly cited factor. When police officers make a mistake they are scrutinized more so than lawyers, media personnel, or most other professionals because more is at stake (e.g., someone being wrongly accused of rape could have severe consequences for the victim, the suspect, and the families and friends of those individuals). Probation and patrol officers have the same roles as police and correctional officers but have the added responsibilities of extensive reporting, huge caseloads, and continual paperwork. Temptations such as adaptation to pressure, convenience, and bureaucracy affect practitioners. Although the vast majority of police acknowledge and support the ethical components of the job, some find the temptation of working so close to the dark side of society too much to handle without surrendering to it. If checks and balances are faulty, the range of unrestricted powers might create a solution that makes it easy for someone to make bad decisions. Power is another factor responsible for unethical behavior in criminal justice. Police agencies’ abuse of power may stem from being the biggest, most armed, most expensive, and most unrestricted entity in society. This differs from some other pressures because professional power is outside the control of individual police officers. What is in the control of officers is how they handle the power bestowed on them. Camaraderie is a factor many people might not consider. It has been shown that superiors may tolerate or even encourage unethical behavior among their staff if they themselves have overstepped boundaries at one time or another. Agencies with alternate agendas may require some blame for unethical behaviors. Politically motivated agencies, agencies that enforce quotas, and agencies that encourage competition within its practitioners add to professional pressure. The resulting stress may lead to misbehavior and the crossing of ethical lines. Finally, a lack of concern by superiors influences unethical behavior. For example, as long as legal and administrative duties are done, people may choose not to concern themselves with moral issues, especially if they are not directly impacted. Many law enforcement agencies practice top-down management, where individuals in positions of power make decisions for the employees to follow. Supervision and oversight is important to the criminal justice culture as a means to aid in the discretion granted to officers. These factors are the primary source of blame for unethical behavior in the criminal justice professions.

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