Chapter 1: Ethical Behaviour

1.2 Ethics and the Pursuit of a Law Enforcement Career

Without a doubt, the most important attributes of an individual applying for a job in law enforcement are the applicant’s integrity and moral behaviour. In order to be a law enforcement officer, individuals must demonstrate a life lived morally.

Of course, in some instances, an applicant may have on occasion been involved in isolated immoral activities. This is often understandable; however, law enforcement employers will not hire an applicant if they detect a demonstrated pattern of immoral behaviour. Recruiters and the agencies they work for may differ in the specific number of illegal or immoral acts they will allow an applicant to have committed before hiring that person, they all agree that it is very few. Some law enforcement agencies, in hiring climates where they have numerous applicants to consider, have the ability to be very selective and may choose only those applicants who have not demonstrated any moral lapses.

The moral history of an applicant is closely scrutinized by law enforcement agencies through background checks, polygraphs, detailed interviews, and integrity questionnaires. Each of these methods are used to root out applicants who may have exhibited poor moral choices in their past. Right or wrong, law enforcement agencies view past performance as a predictor of future moral performance.

Predicting an applicant’s future moral conduct is largely based on the common acceptance of the slippery slope theory of ethics. According to this theory, applicants who exhibit minor moral infractions are viewed as likely to progress to more serious immoral behaviour. Punch (2009) describes the slippery slope as being small deviant acts that become increasingly easy and lead to participation in larger, more serious acts. Punch (2009) refers to the slippery slope as a “ladder” in which corruption is the end result, after a series of immoral steps.

Punch (2009) also describes the journey of some police officers as they travel from being moral civilians to immoral police officers. This often occurs because indoctrination into the police culture can negatively affect police recruits’ ethical behaviour and have disastrous consequences (Souryal, 2011). Punch (2009), in describing this journey into the police subculture, states that the result is the slippery slope during which immoral decisions start as minor breaches of organizational or occupational rules and evolve into major corruption. Accordingly, Punch infers that even those applicants who have taken part in minor immoral activities would likely progress to serious immoral behaviours.

Punch (2009) refers to qualitative research, illustrating how the slippery slope theory may have played a role in the corruption case of Bob Leuci of the New York Police Department (NYPD). In this instance, Leuci joined the NYPD and was determined to remain straight, but slipped into corruption in a desire to fit into the police culture. Eventually, he became involved in serious corruption, resulting in his being fired, charged, and criminally convicted.

Contrary to proponents of this perspective, Prenzler (2009) argues that the notion of slippery slope has been incorporated into the police subculture not because the theory is valid but rather as a way to keep young officers from committing even minor ethical or moral infractions. Lafolette (2007) also rejects the theory, arguing that proponents of the slippery slope argument are imposing a general structure in which the cause of immoral activity can be traced back to even morally permissible activity.  He breaks down the argument into a formula, asserting the following:

Action x is prima facie (or believed to be) morally permissible

If we do action x, then through small analogous steps circumstance y will probably follow

Circumstance y is immoral

Therefore x is immoral

Lafollette (2007) asserts that the above argument leads to unrealistic and unlikely conclusions because it assumes that all slopes move are downward toward immoral behaviour, and never considers that a slope could be upward, toward more moral behaviour. We should be prepared to consider that individuals who act immorally may regret their actions and decide to act more morally, or at the very least, cease their immoral practices. Essentially, Lafollette (2007) argues that we can learn from minor bad behaviours, regret the immoral behaviour through guilt or empathy, and strive to improve or reform. Thus, he argues, a person who commits fraud for the first time and later regrets the act will change his or her behaviour and not commit fraud in the future. What the person learns is that the feelings of guilt are not worth the gains made from fraud.

Caless (2008) enlarges Lafollette’s critique with his observation that absolutists, viewing minor moral breaches in black or white terms, further promote the slippery slope theory. Caless (2008) questions the assumption that everyone is susceptible to corruption, and, as a result, minor immoral breaches must inevitably lead to major ones. He argues that if the slippery slope argument is to be accepted, then all officers who have ever received even a free cup of coffee will eventually perform major immoral actions.

The slippery slope theory also proposes that corrupt individuals who have entered law enforcement are more likely to engage in future criminal activity whether they have that first free cup of coffee or not. Coleman (2004) responds to this argument by suggesting that if only a few officers slide into immoral behaviour as a result of receiving a gratuity, then all officers should be denied such opportunities. Police corruption is so serious that it should be prevented at all levels, even if this means banning all gratuities.

If you are pursuing a career in law enforcement, how do you know if you pass the ethics test?

Ask yourself what a law enforcement agency would think of your poorest moral decisions, and how these decisions would appear if you made them while your were employed by that agency. When did you make these moral mistakes? Were you young and therefore they could be considered childish mistakes? Problems arise when we make moral mistakes as adults, especially if we are young adults who have declared an interest in pursuing a law enforcement career.


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Ethics in Law Enforcement Copyright © 2015 by Steve McCartney and Rick Parent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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