Focus on Ethics

Rethinking Ethics in Law Enforcement 

By Brian D. Fitch, Ph.D.
Depiction of a king-on-king checkmate.

“To know the good is to do the good”


Law enforcement agencies strive to recruit, hire, and train only those who demonstrate strong moral values before they enter the academy. Yet, even departments’ best efforts will not prevent instances of police misconduct from garnering attention. Such incidents undermine public trust, jeopardize important investigations, and expose agencies to considerable liability. Many departments respond to these events by adopting formal ethics training programs that focus on character development, which Aristotle referred to as virtue ethics.2 Like the Socrates quote, Aristotle’s philosophy teaches that as conduct reflects officers’ character and, thus, the various ways that they respond to moral dilemmas, this illustrates fundamental differences in their personal values.

Virtue ethics relies on dispositional qualities, such as personality traits, values, or attitudes, to explain deviant behavior. For example, if officers fabricate evidence to obtain search warrants, their actions reflect their dishonest character. According to this view, character predisposes officers to act certain ways, regardless of the situation. An honest officer feels obligated to tell the truth, while a dishonest one feels inclined to steal. Similarly, a brave officer strives to act courageously, whereas a coward recoils at danger. In either case, officers possess long-term, stable dispositions, and they behave in highly predictable ways.

Unfortunately, decades of research contradict the theory that people differ strongly in their basic character; nearly everyone holds virtuous at the abstract level, and most individuals endorse a similar set of high-level moral values.3 For example, studies have found that delinquent juveniles subscribe to the same set of conceptual values as their less troubled counterparts, despite their unruly behavior—which suggests that lofty moral values often matter much less than what is commonly believed.4

Proponents of virtue ethics argue that certain officers misbehave because they lack character. These “bad apples” managed to “slip through the cracks” despite their unethical values. They argue that police abuse occurs in isolated incidents and involves a few immoral opportunists who were corrupt before they became officers. Unfortunately, this interpretation fails to explain how otherwise exemplary officers with no prior history of wrongdoing, many of whom are sterling role models in their families, churches, and communities, can become involved in misconduct.

Certainly, officers’ character, or virtue ethics, still are crucial to their success. However, this narrow view concentrates almost exclusively on moral values and thus ignores the situational and psychological factors that influence behavior. Mitigating the risk for officer misconduct requires a more complete understanding of human behavior and motivation. This article offers law enforcement professionals a new way to think about misconduct. This explanation emphasizes moral development, social learning, and cognitive rationalization and suggests tactics to foster a culture of ethics in any agency.

Moral Development

Before officers can behave ethically, they must recognize the morals at stake in the situation, understand the principles and values involved, and choose the proper course of action.5 To explain this reasoning process, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg proposed perhaps the most influential theory of moral development. He believed that moral development proceeds along three highly predictable, invariant levels, termed preconventional, conventional, and postconventional, with each one organized into two distinct stages.6 According to Kohlberg, at each stage, people employ increasingly sophisticated explanations and problem-solving strategies to address moral dilemmas.

At the simplest level of reasoning, the preconventional, external consequences guide individuals’ sense of right and wrong—punishment in stage one and self-interest in stage two. At this point, they possess no internalized values or rules to guide behavior.

As people progress to the conventional level, they determine right and wrong based on social expectations (stage three) and the desire to maintain social order by following laws and showing respect for authority (stage four). They determine moral reasoning through conformity to social rules, norms, and expectations.

Finally, at the postconventional level, people judge morality based on the desire to protect the basic liberties of all members of society. In stage five, individuals only uphold legal principles that promote fairness, justice, and equity; by stage six, they follow self-selected ethical and moral principles that encourage respect for human life, equality, and human dignity. If these internal principles conflict with societal laws, the self-chosen principles reign supreme.

While officers’ stages of moral development obviously impact their on-the-job behavior, most adults determine proper behavior, as well as the moral implications of those actions, after they observe other group members. This especially rings true in unfamiliar or ambiguous circumstances, which often describes the situation of newly assigned officers.

In the 1960s, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram demonstrated how external factors influence moral judgment in a series of experiments on obedience.7 The experiment involved teams of three people: an experimenter, a “learner,” and a teacher (the only actual subject of the experiment). The experimenter instructed the teacher to quiz the learner, a confederate of the researcher, on a list of word pairs. Each time the learner answered incorrectly, the teacher administered shocks from what they thought was an electroshock generator. The learner, located in another room and hidden from view, pretended to express increasing discomfort, even banging on the walls and reminding the teacher of a “preexisting heart condition.” As the shocks approached 135 volts, many of the teachers began to question the experiment. Almost invariably, the subjects (teachers) looked to the experimenter for ethical guidance. When the experimenter instructed the teachers to persist, the majority of subjects delivered shocks to the maximum level of 450 volts despite the learner’s desperate pleas.

“Mitigating the risk for officer misconduct requires a more complete understanding of human behavior and motivation.”

Milgram’s findings were unsettling, to say the least. However, a set of follow-up experiments designed to test a second person’s influence on participants’ behavior yielded very different results. When the second “teacher” (another confederate of Milgram) declined to administer shocks past 210 volts, the majority of experimental subjects also refused. This result implies that the mere presence of a second person sufficed to motivate the subjects to “vote their conscience” (i.e., to follow their best judgment and stop the experiment).

Despite the forecast of a group of psychiatrists who predicted that only 1 percent of subjects would administer the maximum shock of 450 volts, 2/3 of subjects (65 percent) in the original set of trials delivered the maximum shock. During the follow-up experiments, however, when a second teacher refused to proceed past 210 volts, only 10 percent of the subjects continued to the maximum level of 450 volts. Milgram concluded that the presence of an authority figure (experimenter) significantly influenced the teachers’ decisions to continue the shocks in the first set of experiments; however, the mere presence of another conscientious observer overcame those effects.

Milgram’s findings provide strong evidence for the theory that most people look to others for moral guidance, especially in unfamiliar situations. For law enforcement leaders, the lesson is clear—with ethics, most officers need to be led. Additionally, the formal and informal leaders who provide this guidance play a critical role in officers’ moral development and conduct.

Social Learning

Most officers enter law enforcement with minimal experience in the field or in handling the moral dilemmas that officers typically encounter. They learn how to perform their jobs, as well as recognize the organizational norms, values, and culture, from their peers and supervisors. While supervisors provide direct, formal reinforcement, officers’ peers offer friendship and informal rewards that, in many cases, hold greater influence than official recognition from the agency. Also, police often spend considerable time socializing with other officers, both on and off the job. This sense of community drives officers to adopt the behaviors, values, and attitudes of the group in order to gain acceptance.

Because behavior results from consequences, law enforcement officers learn about acceptable and unacceptable practices through a consistent, timely, and meaningful system of reward and punishment. Officers likely will repeat behaviors that lead to reinforcing outcomes, while they rarely will duplicate behaviors that lead to punishment—an occurrence referred to as the Law of Effect.8 If officers receive positive reinforcement after they perform certain actions, even illegal ones, they likely will behave similarly in the future despite organizational policies or prohibitions.

Officers observe how other group members receive recognition, both formally by the organization and informally by their peers, to learn what constitutes appropriate behavior in a process known as vicarious learning.9 Psychologists discovered that the most effective vicarious learning models possess specific attributes.

  • Competence: Most police officers take great pride in the ability to perform their duties with minimal supervision, even in demanding circumstances. Therefore, they model the behavior of the most competent and experienced officers.
  • Status: Typically, officers respect those with impressive organizational status. In law enforcement, though, an individual may hold status not within the larger agency, but only among an informal group or specialized unit. Informal peer leaders shape the behavior of less experienced officers who aspire to a similarly prominent position.
  • Power: Those who can reward or punish an officer’s performance, either formally or informally, tend to wield the most influence. Like recognition, power can be either formal or informal, and sometimes those with unofficial power hold significantly more sway than official organizational policies or formal supervision.

These informal power networks can exacerbate unethical behavior by transmitting a set of shared values, beliefs, and norms that depart from agency policy. Research finds that officers engage in certain forms of conduct to secure and maintain peer-group approval.10 If officers remain unsure about the legality or morality of a particular behavior, they look to the peer group for assurance, just as Milgram’s subjects relied on the experimenter for ethical guidance. When officers engage in immoral conduct, they often justify their actions through the values and beliefs of the peer group. 

“…most adults determine proper behavior, as well as the moral implications of those actions, after they observe other group members.”

Cognitive Rationalizations

Regardless of external influences, most individuals first convince themselves of the morality of their actions. Unethical officers might employ cognitive rationalizations, mental and linguistic strategies that sanitize or neutralize deviant behavior, to make their actions appear socially acceptable. Interestingly, research on white-collar crime indicates that corrupt individuals do not view themselves as such, and they explain their behaviors as part of normal, acceptable business practices. Similar studies of law enforcement found that police officers define misconduct in very narrow terms, while citizens define it more broadly. Officers may employ specific strategies to nullify their negative feelings or regrets about misconduct.11

  • Denial of victim: With this strategy, officers argue that the violated party deserved to be victimized. For example, an officer who steals cash from a suspected drug dealer during a search argues that the dealer holds no entitlement to the money because he earned it illegitimately.
  • Denial of responsibility: Police convince themselves that they acted improperly because no other options existed. The circumstances may involve peer pressure, an unethical supervisor, or an environment where “everyone else was doing it.” These officers view themselves as victims with no real choice but to participate in the misconduct.
  • Denial of injury: In this form of rationalization, guilty parties convince themselves that their actions did not harm anybody and, thus, were not really corrupt. For example, officers might feel tempted to justify stealing profits from a drug dealer when the dealer did not rightfully earn the money, and it would be difficult to identify an aggrieved party. Police neutralize this behavior by comparing their actions to the crimes of the drug dealer.
  • Social weighting: When relying on this form of explanation, corrupt police make selective social comparisons to justify their unethical conduct. For instance, officers who falsify a police report to convict a robbery suspect might minimize their participation in the misconduct and vilify a coworker who “lies all the time on reports.”
  • Moral justification: At times, people claim that they must break certain rules to achieve a more important goal. For example, officers may violate strict search and seizure laws to arrest a pedophile because, given the high stakes of the crime, they believe that the ends justify the means. Officers with this attitude feel that if the laws prevent them from effectively executing their job, then they must bend the rules or make an exception to arrest a dangerous felon. Unlike other rationalizations, moral justification not only excuses deviant conduct but can actually glorify such acts in the name of justice. Officers often convince themselves that their jobs demand such actions for the “greater good.”

In law enforcement, officers can invoke these rationalizations either prospectively (before the corrupt act) to forestall guilt and resistance or retrospectively (after the misconduct) to erase any regrets. Law enforcement leaders must remain alert to the presence of rationalization in their agency’s culture because rationalization alters the definition of unethical conduct to make immoral behavior seem socially acceptable.

Culture of Ethics

Law enforcement leaders must create a culture of ethics within their agency. First, the organization must ascribe to a mission statement and a clear set of operating values that represent more than hollow promises, but, rather, establish standards for employees’ behavior at all levels and illustrate that ethics play a crucial role in an officer’s success in the agency.12 If managers neglect ethics or, even worse, behave poorly themselves, this demonstrates to officers that neither the agency nor its leaders care about proper conduct. Strong moral behavior at all levels sends officers a clear, consistent message that the agency will not tolerate inappropriate behavior.

Next, supervisors should work diligently to reward appropriate conduct and correct inappropriate behavior.13 Because informal leaders significantly impact officers’ attitudes and behaviors, formal managers must confront ethical problems immediately and penalize immoral conduct quickly and appropriately. For an effective culture of ethics, officers must observe that ethical officers advance their careers and immoral ones receive punishment.

Often, supervisors struggle to accept that members of their agency behave unethically. Even when they openly acknowledge wrongdoing, senior management can blame the misconduct on rogue officers and argue that they misrepresent the larger agency. Law enforcement leaders must accept the possibility of pervasive unethical conduct and quickly address such incidents.

Finally, law enforcement agencies should frequently discuss ethics in the workplace.14 Like physical fitness, ethical fitness requires constant practice. Case studies provide an effective tool for this continual reinforcement; they allow officers to test their moral reasoning skills, discuss their views, and share their experiences in a safe environment.

Supervisors who facilitate case studies should select relevant, real-world examples that challenge officers to think critically. The facilitator should not recite a lengthy, theoretical monologue on the importance of ethics, but, rather, challenge students on key issues, promote discussion, and examine the consequences of different actions. Depending on the topic, the facilitator can showcase video documentaries, news stories, or fictional examples. Ultimately, an honest exchange of information and ideas stimulates moral development and proper ethical conduct.


“…law enforcement officers learn about acceptable and unacceptable practices through a consistent, timely, and meaningful system of reward and punishment.”

Law enforcement officers must safeguard the public’s trust to perform their jobs effectively. Because ethical conduct greatly impacts public trust, law enforcement agencies must closely examine their policies, reward systems, and training to ensure that their agency fosters a culture of firm ethical values. Instead of expecting that officers already possess a firmly engrained set of values (good or bad) when they enter the police force, managers must remember that all officers have the potential to act virtuously; but, when the work environment allows misbehavior either implicitly or explicitly, the potential for abuse skyrockets. Theognis of Megara, another ancient Greek philosopher, said, “Fairly examined, truly understood, no man is wholly bad, nor wholly good.”15 Police officers are not exempt from this idea. Effective law enforcement leaders bring out the best in their staff by ensuring that officers not only understand the right thing to do but actually do it.

A police officer stands at attention, saluting. ©

Dr. Fitch, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles, California, Sheriff’s Department, holds faculty positions in the Psychology Department at California State University, Long Beach, and with the Organizational Leadership Program at Woodbury University.

Dr. Fitch can be reached for comments at


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14 Brian Fitch, “Principle-Based Decision Making,” Law and Order 56 (2008): 64-70.
15 J. Banks, trans., The Works Of Hesiod, Callimachus And Theognis, London, UK: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2007, 457.