Ethical decision-making: a treatise into the role of ethics in 21st century policing

Edwards, Jonathan (2012) Ethical decision-making: a treatise into the role of ethics in 21st century policing. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


In 1829, on setting up the modern police service, Sir Robert Peel stated, "The police are the public and the Public are the Police" (Williams, 2003:100). He recognised the accountability the police service has to its communities. Integral to this accountability are the notions of legitimacy and public confidence. Police officers are charged with carrying out their duties with a great deal of autonomy, but implicit within that freedom is the confidence that police officers are ethical and make decisions based on the notion of impartiality and without fear or favour - in other words, ethical decision-making. In this study, the primary research questions focus on the manner in which ethics influences police decision-making, and why some police decisions and actions appear unethical. It explores the implications of the empirical findings for police training and practice. At the centre of the research methodology are qualitative interviews, which include the use of vignettes. These were used successfully to enable participants to reflect on and explain the practical realities of day-to-day policing. The research identifies three key elements in the day-to-day practice of police ethical decision-making that will directly contribute to knowledge and understanding of police operational decision-making, namely: • Police ethical decision-making is highly situated; It is strongly influenced by police occupational culture; The existing model of police training does not adequately prepare officers for ethical decision-making. This study further identifies that police decision-making, particularly the police use of discretion, is affected by subjective and contextual factors, such as the 'attitude test', where individuals refuse to defer to the police officers legitimate authority and show the 'necessary respect'. It also identifies that the notion of 'the nine o'clock jury' is a consideration in police decision-making and that the desire to avoid scrutiny might lead an officer to make a decision they perceive to be acceptable to the organisation, rather than one that may be 'right' at that time. The evidence generated during this study demonstrates that the National Decision Model (NOM), produced by the Association of Chief Police Officers, may prove a valuable tool in cases where police officers need to make ethical decisions as it provides a framework by which officers can 'test' their decision-making. The findings demonstrate that police occupational culture plays a significant role in the ethical decision-making of police officers. A feature that emerged during interviews was that, while there was a reluctance to 'grass' on a colleague, this would not occur at the expense of themselves, bringing to the fore the notion of 'self-preservation'. Authors, such as Reiner (2010), have identified that group solidarity and loyalty are common features in the police occupational culture, and this research provides evidence that police ethical decision-making remains heavily influenced by the 'esprit de corps', where the team bond remains a significant feature within police occupational culture. Finally, the study demonstrates that police training in relation to ethics and ethical decision-making is sporadic. Many officers identified that they received little or no training in relation to ethics and ethical dilemmas, which form an integral part of the reality of policing. A clear finding from this research study is that vignettes are a valuable research and training method and should be used more frequently for police-based research

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