Teaching Ethics in the Training Academy: A State-of-the-Art Approach


The Evolution of Law Enforcement Ethics

The topic of ethics has always been a central feature in police academy training. Recruits throughout the ages have been introduced to core values of the law enforcement profession, including duty, honor, loyalty, public order, justice, protection, and integrity. They become steeped in the time-honored words of the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics adopted at the 64th Annual IACP Conference and Exposition in 1957 and the sacred Oath of Honor.2

Ethics training in law enforcement became a particular priority in the mid-1990s, when the IACP established an Ad Hoc Committee on Police Image and Ethics. The committee acknowledged that increased litigation alleging police misconduct, problems with the public’s perception of police, and personal distress among officers required enhanced ethics training. Based upon a needs assessment conducted by an independent consultant, the IACP offered several recommendations, including providing job-specific ethics instruction for all ranks and throughout an officer’s career; improving instructional content by incorporating decision-making models, discussing values, and employing critical thinking exercises; and developing appropriate training utilizing adult-learning models. Also, in 1996, community leaders, police chiefs, and officers met in Washington, DC, at the National Symposium on Police Integrity to address ethics issues. The symposium recommended a national workshop facilitated by representatives from law enforcement leadership programs develop an ethics curriculum for training programs for both pre-service recruits and in-service officers.3

For decades, ethics training in police academies consisted primarily of relatively brief, succinct overviews of the core values that constitute the profession’s moral foundation. Over time, ethics trainings in some, but not all, police academies have become more sophisticated and nuanced, reflecting the remarkable growth of the broader discipline of what has become known as professional ethics, applied ethics, or practical ethics.4

The field of professional ethics, which has transformed ethics education in all professions, emerged as a distinct entity in the 1980s and has matured significantly since then. It is essential for ethics training in police academies to keep pace with this rapidly expanding knowledge and pedagogy.


Ethics Education in the Professions

Since the early 1980s, there has been a remarkable increase in many professions’ efforts to enhance ethics education. The earliest initiatives were launched by the Hastings Center and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. In the early 1980s, the Hastings Center embarked on the first comprehensive effort to promote ethics education throughout the professions. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a group of 20 ethics experts (including one of the authors) met for two years (1980–1982) to identify compelling ethical issues in various professions and design curricula to be taught in professional education programs.5

Since then, ethics education in the professions has burgeoned and matured. Ethics education has moved far beyond abstract discourse about luminaries such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Bentham, Mill, and Kant to include fine-grained, conceptually rich and rigorous analysis of ethical challenges that professionals encounter in the proverbial trenches. Examples include physicians’ and nurses’ challenges related to end-of-life care, reproductive rights, and genetic engineering; business professionals’ management of conflicts of interest and whistle-blowing when they encounter fraudulent activities and corruption; journalists’ judgments about protecting sources; lawyers’ moral judgments when clients perjure themselves on the witness stand; social workers’ and psychologists’ decisions about disclosing confidential information to protect third parties from harm; and police officers’ handling of a wide range of ethical challenges related to discretion, deception, peer pressure, use of force, and corruption.

Beginning with these early efforts, considerable consensus has emerged among ethics educators about the principal goals of ethics education.6 These goals are particularly relevant to ethics education in law enforcement.

Stimulate the moral imagination. Policing requires strict adherence to complex rules and protocols related to core elements of the profession including patrol procedures, investigations, report writing, emergency vehicle operations, defensive tactics, firearm skills, use of force, stress management, human behavior, cultural diversity, and legal guidelines, among others. In regard to ethics, typical curriculum content on ethics and professional conduct must include straightforward guidelines on what to do and not do (e.g., regarding inappropriate disclosure of confidential information, corruption, excessive use of force, and fraudulent reporting and documentation). However, to be deeply meaningful, ethics education must move far beyond obvious black-and-white issues to explore complex moral challenges that include gray areas. The academy is the ideal place for future officers to awaken their moral imagination as they anticipate complex, and quite possibly controversial, choices they might need to make. As bioethics pioneer Daniel Callahan observes,

A course in ethics can be nothing other than an abstract intellectual exercise, unless a student’s feelings and imagination are stimulated. Students must be provoked to understand that there is a “moral point of view” . . ., that human beings live their lives in a web of moral relationships, that a consequence of moral theories and rules can be either suffering or happiness (or, usually, some combination of both), that the moral dimensions of life are as often hidden as visible, and that moral choices are inevitable and often difficult.7

Recognize ethical issues. During the authors’ careers, they have encountered police officers who faced disciplinary proceedings, criminal indictment, and prison, in part because of their inability to recognize the moral and ethical elements embedded in the scenarios they faced. In some instances, the officers’ judgment was clouded because of impairment, for example, officers who struggled with mental illness, addiction, or debt. In other instances, officers simply failed to recognize the ethical issues involved.

Ample empirical research demonstrates that people who are otherwise astute and perceptive, including police officers, sometimes overlook seemingly obvious phenomena. The best-known research has been conducted by psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. In a remarkable series of imaginative, precedent-setting studies, Chabris and Simons demonstrated how easy it is to look right past compelling evidence and how important it is to cultivate keen awareness.8 Chabris and Simons conducted an experiment in which they instructed subjects to watch a one-minute video of a basketball game and to count the number of passes made by the team wearing white. In the middle of the video, a woman wearing a gorilla costume walks into the scene, stops, faces the camera, thumps her chest, and walks off. Remarkably, half the subjects watching the video did not see the gorilla. Moreover, when asked afterward, “Did you notice a gorilla?” they were unable to believe that they had missed it, and they were astonished when they watched the video a second time and saw it. Some subjects accused the experimenters of switching the videos. These results have been replicated many times. Chabris and Simon’s research demonstrates that people often do not consciously perceive aspects of their world that fall outside of their narrow attention. Police officers who focus intently on their customary law enforcement duties must be vigilant in their efforts to recognize ethical issues that emerge in their work to avoid what Chabris and Simons call “inattentional blindness.” Ethics training in the police academy must be designed to cultivate an awareness of such issues.

Develop analytical skills. Ethical analysis does not come naturally to everyone, and police recruits are no exception. For many, it is an acquired skill that can be enhanced through rigorous, conceptually oriented, and in-depth instruction. One of the fruitful byproducts of the emergence of the professional ethics field has been the impressive evolution of pedagogical tools to teach ethics-related analysis. The most skilled ethics instructors no longer use the “sage on the stage” approach, where they lecture to relatively passive and silent police recruits who take notes. Instead, skilled ethics instruction in the academy includes a wide range of engaging pedagogical approaches designed for adult learners. For example, instructors can divide recruits into small groups; present them with a complex ethics case that requires challenging moral choices; and, after reconvening the full class, compare and critique the small groups’ reasoning and conclusions. Also, instructors can present the class with videos that enact realistic simulations requiring ethical decisions and facilitate discussion of various options at various points in the scenarios. Such case studies and videos might focus on difficult moral choices related to lying to suspects, falsifying reports, intervening with an impaired officer, and reporting corruption, among others.

Elicit a sense of moral obligation and personal responsibility. If ethics training in the police academy is to be effective, it must move beyond abstruse concepts that have little direct application to policing. Protracted discourse about abstract values and rules may do little to enhance police officers’ ethical judgment in challenging circumstances. Rather, a key goal of training must be to make ethics deeply personal and relevant. The challenge for ethics instructors is to convince recruits that sound moral judgment—and “wrestling” with difficult ethical choices—matters. Recruits must truly understand that their ethical choices, their efforts to “do the right thing,” can have profound consequences for the public they serve, the police departments they represent, and their own careers.

Develop the ability to respond to ethical controversy and ambiguity. Inevitably, police officers find themselves facing morally ambiguous dilemmas. When, if ever, is it permissible for police officers to lie to suspects during an investigation in order to acquire much needed evidence? What is an officer’s ethical responsibility when he or she is concerned that a fellow or superior officer is impaired? How should a conscientious officer respond when he or she encounters blatant corruption in the ranks? Ethics education must seek to enhance officers’ ability to navigate such ethically ambiguous circumstances skillfully and with integrity.


A Model Approach

Toward these ends, ethics training in the police academy should include three major components.: (1) the nature of ethical dilemmas in law enforcement, (2) ethical analysis and decision-making, and (3) ethics risk management.

The nature of ethical dilemmas in law enforcement. Ethical dilemmas occur when professionals encounter conflicting duties and obligations.9 When professionals face ethical dilemmas, typically they must make what ethicists call hard choices. In his classic work The Right and the Good, British philosopher W.D. Ross describes this as choosing among competing prima facie duties in order to identify one’s actual duty.10 Put differently, hard ethical choices are like Odysseus’s unenviable choice in The Odyssey, where he had to choose between confronting Scylla (a rock shoal), on one side of the Strait of Messina, or Charybdis (the fierce whirlpool) on the other side. Each option came with potential peril.

Common ethical dilemmas in policing are well known. Examples include officers’ judgments about allegedly legitimate use of deception to further investigations; reporting fellow officers’ misconduct (what ethicists refer to as whistle-blowing decisions); compliance with seemingly unreasonable or unjust regulations, laws, and orders; and managing conflicts of interest (for example, when an officer investigates a matter that involves an acquaintance).

Ethical analysis and decision-making. Ethical decision-making protocols and frameworks have matured significantly since the advent of the professional ethics field in the 1980s. Today’s professionals learn a great deal about prominent ethical theories and how they can be applied to real-life ethical conundrums faced by police officers. For example, classic ethical theory distinguishes between what is known as deontological and teleological perspectives.11 Deontological theories (from the Greek deontos, “of the obligatory”) are those that claim that certain actions are inherently right or wrong, or good or bad, without regard for their consequences. Thus, a deontologist might argue that telling the truth is inherently right, in a moral sense, and that a police officer should never lie or use deception during an investigation, even if it appears that lying might yield valuable results. The same might be said about keeping promises made to criminal suspects or following superior officers’ orders. For deontologists, rules, rights, and principles are sacred and inviolable. The ends do not necessarily justify the means, particularly if they require violating some important rule, regulation, right, principle, or law.

In contrast, teleological theories (from the Greek teleios, “brought to its end or purpose”) take a very different approach to ethical choices. From this point of view, the rightness of any action is determined by the goodness of its consequences. Teleologists think it is naïve to make ethical choices without weighing potential consequences; to do otherwise is to engage in what the moral philosopher Smart referred to as “rule worship.”12

Therefore, from this perspective, police officers should weigh the potential benefits and costs of, for example, using deception during investigations and complying with questionable rules, regulations, and orders. According to the classic teleological school of thought known as utilitarianism, when faced with conflicting moral duties, one should do that which will produce the greatest good. In principle, then, a police officer who considers lying to suspects, for example, should engage in a careful calculus to determine whether such deception will produce the greatest good. Thus, when faced with ethical decisions, police officers who embrace a deontological view may reach a very different conclusion than police officers who adopt a teleological or utilitarian view.

In addition to acquainting police academy recruits with the implications of core ethical theories, it is important to teach them about other critically important components of ethical decision-making. These include consulting with colleagues and superior officers; relevant police department regulations; federal and state laws; and, when appropriate, legal counsel.13

Some law enforcement agencies have developed relationships with trained ethicists for consultation purposes. The concept of ethics consultation was introduced initially in the health care field in the 1970s, when the bioethics field began to flourish. An ethics consultant is a trained expert who provides case-specific ethics consultations and may also consult on ethics-related policy development and provide ethics education. Law enforcement agencies can use ethics consultants to sort through ethical challenges—both case-specific and broader policy issues—that are unique to policing. Ethics consultants can be particularly useful in agencies’ efforts to develop transparent citizen complaint and citizen oversight protocols.

Ethics risk management. Some law enforcement professionals’ ethical judgments are controversial and may lead to ethics complaints and litigation. Comprehensive ethics instruction should include discussion of negligence theory, including concepts of standard of care related to ethics, misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance. Recruits should understand how their ethical judgments will be measured against prevailing standards of care in law enforcement, defined as the degree of attentiveness, caution, and prudence that a reasonable person in similar circumstances would exercise. Failure to meet the standard is negligence, and the person who fails to meet the standard can be found liable for any damages caused by such negligence.14

Police professionals can violate the standard of care in several ways with regard to their ethical conduct and judgments.15 First, misfeasance occurs when police officers commit a proper act in a wrongful or injurious manner or perform an act that might have been performed lawfully if the intent was not corrupt. Examples include flawed informed consent (to search) procedures or inadvertent disclosure of confidential information. Malfeasance occurs when police personnel commit a wrongful or unlawful act. Examples include accepting a bribe, stealing evidence (for example, money or drugs) from a suspect for personal use, lying under oath, fabricating evidence for self-serving purposes, or knowingly including false details in a police report.

In contrast, acts of nonfeasance (or omission) occur when police personnel fail to carry out a duty that they are ordinarily expected to carry out in accordance with law enforcement standards of care. Examples include failing to disclose a fellow officer’s serious misconduct or failure to respect a citizen’s civil rights.

Based on the authors’ extensive experience, many ethical lapses in law enforcement are the result of impairment. Impairment can be defined as

Interference in professional functioning that is reflected in one or more of the following ways: (a) an inability and/or unwillingness to acquire and integrate professional standards into one’s repertoire of professional behavior; (b) an inability to acquire professional skills in order to reach an acceptable level of competency; and (c) an inability to control personal stress, psychological dysfunction, and/or excessive emotional reactions that interfere with professional functioning.16

Extensive research on impaired police officers and other professionals suggests that impairment often manifests itself in the form of poor moral judgment, misconduct, mental illness, and addiction. Research evidence suggests that common causes of impairment in law enforcement include job stress (both acute and chronic); illness or death of a family member; marital and relationship conflict; parenting stress; addiction (substance, gambling, sex); financial problems; mental illness; physical illness; legal problems; workplace disputes; low morale; burnout; and media scrutiny.17

It is important for recruits to hear real-life vignettes of officers whose ethical misconduct had dire consequences. Examples include the New York City police officer sentenced to prison for shaking down drug dealers and selling cocaine; the Chicago, Illinois, police officer convicted of extorting $8,000 from a man he threatened with arrest; the Oklahoma City officer sentenced to 263 years in prison for raping women while on duty; the Providence, Rhode Island, officer convicted of stealing items and cash from the department’s property and evidence room; and the Memphis, Tennessee, officer sentenced to prison for stealing cash from drivers he pulled over and searched.18

Acquainting recruits with ways to seek assistance with significant stressors in their lives is essential to preventing moral lapses. Ordinarily this includes accessing confidential employee assistance program (EAP) services and following stress management protocols. Typical EAP services include stress management, individual and family counseling, addiction counseling, peer support, and anger management counseling.19 Ethics training should include discussion of common reasons why police personnel do not seek necessary assistance (for example, denial that a problem exists; skepticism that professional assistance will be effective; concern about confidentiality and career repercussions; and cost) and ways to surmount these concerns and obstacles.


Pedagogical Issues

To enhance its effectiveness, comprehensive ethics training in the academy should draw on state-of-the-art teaching protocols. Ideally, ethics training includes ample opportunities for lively discussion; this, however, can be a challenge in training academies where the norm is for recruits to listen carefully to lectures, take notes, and perhaps ask occasional questions. In sharp contrast, discussion of complex ethical dilemmas and challenges requires a vibrant exchange of ideas and a willingness for recruits to express opinions. Understandably, some recruits may be reluctant to express candid views on controversial ethical issues. Thus, instructors must do their best to encourage frankness. Often this is more likely to occur in small-group discussions, where recruits may feel safer.

In addition to presenting key ethics concepts, ethics instruction should include challenging case studies that raise complex moral questions and choices.20 Cases that include multiple shades of gray and invite competing points of view are best.

It is vitally important that ethics instructors be trained in professional ethics and familiar with law enforcement culture. This can be a challenging combination to find. Only some academy instructors have received formal ethics education, and few ethics experts have been immersed in law enforcement.21 One remedy is team teaching, where seasoned law enforcement professionals who are keenly interested in ethical issues are paired with trained ethicists who are willing to take the time to learn about modern policing and its idiosyncratic challenges. This collaboration requires considerable effort and discipline, but it is an approach that has been used successfully when teaching ethics in a wide range of professional schools (for example, schools of medicine, law, nursing, business, dentistry, journalism, and social work).

The instruction of police ethics has come of age. What was once a relatively superficial component of police training has developed into a conceptually rich and complex subject that requires in-depth coverage in the academy and beyond. It is now well known that modern policing poses both acute and chronic ethical challenges and daunting circumstances that require sound moral judgment. To enhance both public trust in police and sound risk management, it behooves today’s police academies to offer recruits state-of-the-art ethics education that includes a comprehensive overview of complex ethical dilemmas; nuanced decision-making protocols and frameworks; and practical risk management strategies. Such efforts can go a long way toward strengthening the integrity of law enforcement agencies and officers and bending the arc of policing toward the kind of justice to which this honorable profession aspires. ♦



1 Frederic G. Reamer, On the Parole Board: Reflections on Crime, Punishment, Redemption, and Justice (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

2 IACP, Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, 1957.

3 Michael I. Birzer, “Teaching Law Enforcement Ethics,” Illinois Law Enforcement Executive Forum, 2, no. 2 (2002): 81–91; Stephen J. Gaffigan and Phyllis P. McDonald, Police Integrity: Public Service with Honor (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1997); Heather Wyatt-Nichol and George Franks, “Ethics Training in Law Enforcement Agencies,” Public Integrity 12 (Winter 2009–10): 39–50.

4Cyndi Banks, Criminal Justice Ethics: Theory and Practice, 4th ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage, 2017); Howard S. Cohen and Michael Feldberg, Power and Restraint: The Moral Dimensions of Police Work (New York: Praeger, 1991); Edwin J. Delattre, Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing, 6th ed. (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 2011); Douglas W. Perez and J. Alan Moore, Police Ethics: A Matter of Character, 2nd ed. (Clifton Park, NY: Delmar, 2013); Joycelyn M. Pollock, Ethical Dilemmas and Decisions in Criminal Justice, 9th ed. (Boston, MA: Cengage, 2017).

5Daniel Callahan and Sissela Bok, eds., Ethics Teaching in Higher Education (New York: Plenum, 1980); W. Brad Johnson and Charles R. Ridley, The Elements of Ethics for Professionals (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008).

6 Tom M. Beauchamp and James F. Childress, Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 7th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

7Daniel Callahan, “Goals in the Teaching of Ethics,” in Ethics Teaching in Higher Education, eds. Danial Callahan and Sissela Bok (New York: Plenum, 1980), 64–65.

8 Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us (New York: Crown, 2009).

9James Rachels and Stuart Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 8th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2015); Frederic G. Reamer, Social Work Values and Ethics, 4th ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

10W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (New York: Oxford University Press, 1930).

11David Copp, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

12J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

13Frederic G. Reamer, “Ethics Consultation: The Wisdom of Crowds,” Social Work Today; James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds (New York: Anchor, 2005).

14J. Stanley Edwards, Tort Law, 6th ed. (Boston, MA: Cengage, 2016); Frederic G. Reamer, Risk Management in Social Work: Preventing Professional Malpractice, Liability, and Disciplinary Action (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

15Joseph W. Glannon, The Law of Torts, 4th ed. (New York: Aspen, 2010).

16Douglas H. Lamb et al., “Confronting Professional Impairment During the Internship: Identification, Due Process, and Remediation,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 18, no. 6 (1987): 598.

17Jeffrey E. Barnett, “Impaired Professionals: Distress, Professional Impairment, Self-care, and Psychological Wellness,” in Handbook of Clinical Psychology: Vol. 1. Adults, eds. Michael Hersen and Alan M. Gross (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2008); Robert H. Coombs, Drug-Impaired Professionals (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

18Joseph B. Treaster, “Convicted Police Officer Receives a Sentence of at Least 11 Years,” New York Times, July 12, 1994; “Ex-city Cop Gets 16 Years in Shakedown,” Chicago Tribune, March 28, 2001; Sarah Larimer, “Disgraced Ex-cop Daniel Holtzclaw Sentenced to 263 Years for On-Duty Rapes, Sexual Assaults,” Washington Post, January 22, 2016; Katie Mulvaney, “Veteran Providence Police Officer Admits Stealing Money, Gun in Evidence,” Providence Journal, July 19, 2016; U.S. Department of Justice, “Former Memphis Police Officer Sentenced for Civil Rights Violations,” press release, September 13, 2007.

19Michael A. Richard, William G. Emener, and William S. Hutchison, Jr., eds., Employee Assistance Programs: Wellness Enhancement Programming (Springfield, IL.: Charles C. Thomas, 2009).

20Jocelyn C. Pollock and Ronald F. Becker, “Law Enforcement Ethics: Using Officers’ Dilemmas as a Teaching Tool,” Journal of Criminal Justice Education 6 (1995): 2–20; Nancy A. Stanlick and Michael A. Strauser, Asking Good Questions: Case Studies in Ethics and Critical Thinking (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2015).

21A valuable ethics training resource is the Center for Law Enforcement Ethics (Institute for Law Enforcement Administration), which offers ethics seminars, train-the-trainer ethics courses, and seminars in ethical leadership.


 The opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employers.