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Paul's Justice Page > CJ Ethics > Pt 3 Moral Issues in Policing | Buy CJ Ethics

Overview, Part 3: Moral and Ethical Issues in Policing

This section explores issues in police ethics, including police codes of ethics; deception, seduction and entrapment; and issues related to discretion and selective enforcement

Police Ethics & Codes
Small Mercies
Street Cop Ethics
Christian Burial Case
US v Tobias

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Author, Title & summary

Criminal Justice Ethics topics and pages

This section on policing opens with an article by John Kleinig, “Ethics and Codes of Ethics” from his book The Ethics of Policing. Kleinig traces the development of a police code of ethics in the larger context of the “general flowering” of professional codes. Ethical codes go beyond personal morality to help establish public trust and accountability, although Kleinig is well aware of their limitations. The Appendix of Criminal Justice Ethics contains more information about professional codes of ethics, and information about finding the codes of ethics for professions the readers are most likely to enter.

Police Ethics

CJ Ethics Appendix: Codes of Ethics

Small Mercies: A Former Officer Reflects on Police Discretion in Malaysia

Deception, seduction and entrapment

In “The Ethics of Deceptive Interrogation,” Jerome Skolnick and Richard Leo argue that tactics involving physical coercion are rare, but psychological persuasion and manipulation are “the most salient and defining features of contemporary police interrogation.” They survey a range of police practices while drawing out three competing principles: ensuring reliable evidence, due process and fairness, and deterring police misconduct. 

Gary Marx elaborates on the questions of police tactics by posing the question, “When, if ever, is it appropriate to use friendship and the lure of sex as part of an investigation?” In his article “Under-the Covers Undercover Investigations,” Marx is interested in sorting through issues related to the use of the physical intimacy of sex and/or the psychological intimacy of friendship. He lays out a typology and discusses many perplexing, humorous and troubling examples within each category to highlight what is at stake. 

U.S. v Tobias deals with entrapment. Tobias called an organization that was a front for the Drug Enforcement Administration to place an order for material to make cocaine. He later cancelled the order because he realized he did not have the background in chemistry, but he “just wanted to make some money.” The DEA agent told him that making PCP was as easy as “baking a cake” and for $500 Tobias could have everything he needed. He ordered the chemicals and the recipe, then called 13 times for technical advice before the DEA arrested him on drug charges. The majority opinion reasons that he had the prerequisite disposition to commit a crime and was not entrapped as a matter of law, nor was the government’s involvement so outrageous as to violate due process; his 15 year prison term is affirmed. The dissent argues that if the Government had stopped assisting Tobias, he could not have produced the drug and it is not acceptable for the government to “vicariously manufacture PCP through Tobias in order to gather evidence to justify his prosecution.” 

The final reading in this section on police tactics is Carl Klockars’ “The Dirty Harry Problem.” Many readers will have seen the Clint Eastwood movie from which this article draws its name, although that is not required to appreciate the timeless moral question: “When and to what extent does the morally good end justify an ethically, politically, or legally dangerous means for its achievement?” Klockars affirms the reality of this question in police work and reviews the conditions that make it a true moral dilemma – one that will admit no final solution or resolution. He reviews some thoughtful, but defective, attempts at resolution. Ultimately, “the danger in Dirty Harry problems is never in their resolution, but in thinking that one has found a resolution with which one can truly live in peace.” 

Police deception, entrapment & use of seduction

Brewer v Williams - the Christian Burial Case - raises issues related to Skolnick & Leo about police interrogation

law enforcement technology

Under the Covers Investigations (full text)
Gary Marx homepage (with links to many of his writings

Police discretion and selective enforcement

The final readings on law enforcement involve the issue of police discretion and selective enforcement of the law. Laws are written in categorical language that calls for arrest and charging of persons doing legally prohibited acts, but police officers exercise a certain amount of discretion in deciding whether or not to arrest and/or charge individuals who in fact violate the law. For humanitarian reasons, a police officer may bring a juvenile home to his parents for discipline rather than to the station house where he will earn a lasting arrest record, or issue a warning for speeding rather than a summons. Sometimes, however, discretion is exercised to gain leverage over potential informants, and sometimes in ways that appear to reflect racial bias against nonwhites and/or class bias against the poor and unemployed. In the debate that follows, John Kleinig argues, in “Selective Enforcement and the Rule of Law,” that police discretion is tacitly approved by the citizenry, that it allows the police to correct for unnecessarily harsh outcomes, and that it is not dangerous because it amounts to the police using less than their full legal power rather than more. In “Against Police Discretion: Reply to John Kleinig,” Jeffrey Reiman contends that discretionary enforcement amounts to police exercising powers that were not given them in law, that it renders the law vague and uncertain (is the speed limit the posted one, or is it the one that police are actually enforcing?), and that it gives the police unjust leverage over citizens from disadvantaged groups in our society.

Why Driving While Black Matters

Small Mercies: A Former Officer Reflects on Police Discretion in Malaysia

Up ] Ethics Overview ] 1: Morality of Law ] 2: What Should Be A Crime ] [ 3: Police Ethics ] 4: Courts & Lawyers ] 5: Penology & Punishment ] 6: Emerging Issues ] Appendix: Ethical Codes ]

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