I’m a police ethics instructor. Our system helps cops decide when and how to stop another officer from hurting people
We help officers think through ethical decisions about interfering in the work of fellow officers.
On May 25, in the vicinity of 38th and Chicago South in Minneapolis, a 911 caller reported a man for attempted forgery and possibly being under the influence. A course of events followed, culminating in the tragic death of George Floyd after he was subdued and arrested by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin can be seen on video with his knee pressing down on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes while he pleaded for his life, saying, “I can’t breathe,” and a heartbreaking “Don’t kill me.” The fact that Chauvin is a white police officer and Floyd is a black citizen exacerbates the circumstances.
As director of the Institute for Law Enforcement Administration at the Center for American and International Law, I oversee an organization that has provided continuing education for law enforcement administrators, supervisors and instructors since 1957. Our focus is on developing competent professionals who are people-oriented and who concentrate on community service and justice. Principled leadership and ethical decision-making permeate all levels of our instruction.
Policing is a high-stress job being done by everyday people. Most of the time, we are ordinary people who manage out-of-the-ordinary situations effectively. However, that does not always happen, and the well-being of all involved is put at risk.
An ethical dilemma is also created for other officers on the scene who are faced with a decision to make: “What do I do if a fellow officer has lost control to the point he is completely unaware of the harm that he is inflicting on another human being, or he is so angry that he does not care?”
Many officers who attend ILEA programs are law enforcement supervisors. In our core courses, the School of Police Supervision and the Texas Sergeant Academy, these and other ethical dilemmas are presented to our students. They read about and visualize a problem and must decide what to do when a fellow officer has crossed the line. We discuss it, but more important, we give police officers ethical decision-making models to help guide them when they find themselves in the very situations that have the potential to cause serious harm and to incite community unrest.
There is an unwritten code in our profession that you do not interfere with a lead officer or senior officer as he or she manages a call. You support that officer. The key is knowing when to break that code or to simply follow a value of doing what is right.
A.C.T. is a decision-making model for officers when they face such an ethical dilemma.
- A = Alternatives. Ask, “What are my alternatives?” One might be to do nothing, let the lead officer handle it. A second may be to actively participate, and another is to intervene or stop the officer.
- C = Consequences. Each alternative has good and bad consequences. Ask, “What are the possible good consequences of doing nothing or actively participating?” and “What are the possible negative consequences?”
- T = Tell your story or defend your action. We advise our students to view their decisions through a positive/negative prism. Ask, “Can my action or inaction be defended in a manner that makes me proud?”
Finally, we teach our students when facing an ethical dilemma and when using the A.C.T. Ethical Decision-Making Model to always do a stakeholder analysis. Ask, “Who will be affected by what I do or choose not to do?”
So, what does this all mean? Police officers are under tremendous pressure and sometimes may succumb to that pressure. It is up to fellow officers to look out for one another, and that means stepping in when needed, going against the informal culture and doing the right thing. The ethical thing. The principled thing. The moral thing.
I ask officers to support ethics education at all levels. Why? Because it provides an antidote to protect one from anger, frustration or fatigue. It is another level of armor. It is a stimulus that helps us think.
I ask administrators to not ignore education in the areas of ethical decision-making and ethical leadership.
Given what we do, ethics education can save lives.
Posted in the Dallas Morning News on June 5, 2020.