The Quality of Ethics in Police Work

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Today, the topic of law enforcement is regularly discussed from multiple perspectives, including ethics. People demonstrate different attitudes toward police work and the progression of necessary and unnecessary violence by police officers. On the one hand, most police representatives believe that they try to save lives, and violent behaviors can be approved for some reason (ABC News, 2013). Such terms as “police integrity,” “noble cause corruption,” “racial profiling,” and “proactive policing” are commonly used to explain why unethical means may be appropriate (Martinelli, 2006). On the other hand, police impunity and brutality have already resulted in many Americans experiencing serious emotional and physical traumas or even losing their lives. The case of Breaion King is just one of many examples of how police officers exceed their powers and unnecessarily damage human lives. In this essay, Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, Rawl’s theory, and Bandura’s moral disengagement theory will be examined to prove the quality of ethics in the police. There are many ways to show how ethical and unethical police behaviors co-exist in the modern world, and a specific theoretical background promotes a better understanding of the police merit system.

Video Context and the Actions of the Police Officers

People want to believe that their police officers do everything possible to protect their lives and maintain order on the street. Unfortunately, current examples contain unpleasant evidence when racial profiling, corruption, and rampant violence spoil an overall image of trustful and fair relationships between police officers and ordinary citizens. When the Austin school teacher, a black woman, Breaion King, was brutally arrested by a white police officer, Bryan Richter, the city was divided based on mistrust and misunderstanding (Viviani, 2016). In addition to the process of arresting, the video contains the conversation between the victim and another police officer who admitted that the “violent tendencies” of black people concerned many whites (Viviani, 2016). Observing this situation, it was hard to understand why the ambiguous nature of police work cannot be eradicated in US society. Similar cases usually occur on many American streets where the black youth have to fight for their rights and clarify the reasons for arrests or checkups (ABC News, 2013). Uncooperative attitudes, suspicious behaviors, or even random turns or looks may be another cause for a police officer to stop citizens and check their profiles.

Another example of how police corruption penetrates American life is the possibility of breaking the speed limit and staying unpunished, regardless of the purposes and outcomes. Although no victims or accidents were related to the actions of the police officers, this report reminded people that it is expected from police officers to “obey all of the laws at the rest of us obey” (ABC News, 2014). Compared to other individuals who might get fines or other restrictions, those law enforcement representations ended with a warning, questioning the worth of their work and contributions to public order.

Ethical and Unethical Behaviors

One of the first conclusions is that the police officers demonstrated unethical behaviors because of excessive violence and unfair judgments. Video recordings become the best evidence for ordinary citizens to prove that they follow the police officers’ requests. King did what Richter asked her to, but, nevertheless, she was dragged out of her care and thrown to the ground (Viviani, 2016). Richter handcuffed the woman as she was a serious and dangerous criminal and used violence to protect himself and maintain order. However, it was seen that the woman did not have enough time to comply. His responsibility was to patrol the assigned zone and enforce the local law. Speed limits were established, but there was no evidence that King broke them at the moment. Instead of respectful and reasonable talk, the police officer’s brutality was revealed. Similar speed limit breaking was observed on another video, but regarding the position of the driver and his relationships with the police, he got a notice, with no violence being applied to him (ABC News, 2014). Many law enforcement questions emerged to explain why the police still support unethical behaviors.

Regarding the ambiguity of the chosen topic, one may admit that some activities of police officers are ethical and meet the police tasking and responsibilities. When police officers walk outside, most people think that they are under protection and nothing terrible could happen to them at that moment (ABC News, 2013). Corruption might occur for different reasons, and Martinelli (2006) mentions that if violent behaviors of police officers are done in the name of good ends, justification is possible. Many police officers and law enforcement representatives address the statistics to verify the correctness of their actions. For example, Ray Kelly, who is in charge of the New York Police Department, notices that the history of shootings has been 25% reduced due to proactive policing (ABC News, 2013). However, most black Americans cannot share the same opinion because of racial profiling, as the price they have to pay for this achievement is too high for them and their emotional well-being.

Theories to Analyze Police Ethics

In modern criminology, several theories can be applied to explain the ethical and unethical actions of police officers. In the middle of the 20th century, John Rawls offered the theory of justice, where he combined right-based concepts and utilitarian ideas to explain the distribution of justice in society (Pollock, 2018). There are two principles in his approach: equal rights for each individual as a part of basic liberties and the arrangement of social and economic inequalities to create advantages (Pollock, 2018). Although the theorist did not try to help people solve the existing ethical dilemmas, he wanted to describe the work of the criminal justice system. Rawl used the veil of ignorance and proved that the self-chosen principles of police officers contradict the main idea of justice in society. Thus, police behaviors question the concepts of integrity and equality and make the US law enforcement system inconsistent.

Kohlberg’s moral stage theory also contributes to a better understanding of the ethics of police behaviors and defines three levels of human decision-making. The pre-conventional level includes personal interests and motivation to take action through the obedience-punishment prism (Pollock, 2018). The conventional level is based on the idea that all members of society have a number of responsibilities and rules to be followed for maintaining social order. The post-conventional level addresses universal good for all communities, and not many individuals are able to achieve this level of moral development (Pollock, 2018). By their nature, people may understand each other’s desires and needs, but they do not take enough steps to achieve the goal. Following Kohlberg’s approach, it is possible to find enough credible reasons and explain police brutality against the black community and other minorities. Police officers do their jobs to ensure their conformity is considered through expectations and intentions to keep safety in society.

Finally, Bandura’s moral disengagement theory demonstrates how personal standards may not be enough to explain all unethical behaviors. According to the theorist, people behave in accordance with self-regulatory mechanisms that may be neglected under certain circumstances (Pollock, 2018). Unethical decisions are acceptable if there is a chance to find some moral justification for human behaviors, introduce advantageous comparison, diffuse or displace responsibility, and distort consequences (Pollock, 2018). The examples in the videos could be interpreted from the perspectives mentioned above, like justification or comparison, which proves the necessity of police brutality and violence. Corruption, report falsification, and evidence fabrication are necessary to protect individuals. Police officers are all humans, and they can make mistakes like any other individuals (ABC News, 2013). The police leader offered this opinion to support his colleagues and explain proactive activities. Regrettably, these people have guns compared to ordinary citizens, and it is inappropriate to continue the same discussion, neglecting the level of power, authority, and trust.


Regarding the offered examples, theories, and ethical concepts, it is still impossible to give a clear answer if all police brutality cases are right or wrong. People face multiple factors to make their final judgment and admit if everything is done ethically or unethically. Racial profiling, noble corruption, and police responsibilities are mixed and confusing. However, all people deserve a chance to be understood regardless of their positions, statuses, or skin colors. King was a victim in that situation, and Richter’s behavior was unethical at that point. Still, the numbers and evidence that public order has been improved significantly during the last several decades cannot be ignored. The only thing that matters is human life, and police officers, as well as ordinary citizens, should always remember and follow this truth.


ABC News. (2013). NYPD’s stop-and-frisk racial profiling or ‘proactive policing’? [Video]. YouTube.

ABC News. (2014). Washington police caught speeding past state troopers [Video]. YouTube.

Martinelli, T. J. (2006). Unconstitutional policing: The ethical challenges in dealing with noble cause corruption. Police Chief, 73(10), 148-156.

Pollock, J. M. (2018). Ethical dilemmas and decisions in criminal justice (10th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Viviani, N. (2016). Dashcam video shows white cop in violent conformation with black motorist. 13 Wibm.

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