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Understanding a law enforcement officer's decision-making process: The influential factors and resultant effects of an unethical choice

Author: William H. Solomons
There is a paucity of research in the area of law enforcement ethical decision making, especially when it comes to the moment of an unethical decision and its aftermath. In this basic interpretative qualitative study, six former law enforcement officers who lost their jobs as a result of one unethical decision were interviewed. Semistructured interviews were used to gain an understanding and interpretation of the impact of training and the law enforcement subculture. Additionally sought was the participants' use of various decision-making theories, including (a) the techniques of neutralization, (b) proximity, and (c) locus of control. The impact of the decision and its continuing influence on the participants' lives was also explored. The research findings imply a potential need for better education in the area of ethics and decision making for law enforcement officers, improved communication regarding policies, procedures, agency goals, and key departmental priorities between administration and line personnel in a law enforcement agency, and the intrinsic benefits gained by an agency when an officer believes that he or she has some measure of power over his or her professional life.

vi Table of Contents Acknowledgments v List of Tables ix CHAPTER 1. INTRODUCTION 1 Introduction to the Problem 1 Background of the Study 3 Statement of the Problem 7 Purpose of the Study 9 Research Questions 10 Rationale and Significance of the Study 10 Nature of the Study 12 Definition of Terms 15 Assumptions and Limitations 18 CHAPTER 2. REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE 22 Theoretical Framework 23 Additional Potential Theoretical Support 24 Crucial Theoretical/Conceptual Debates 30 Bridging the Gaps or Resolving the Controversies 31 Review of the Critical Literature 33 Decision-Making Theories 48 Organizational Culture 75 Evaluation of Viable Research Designs 79 ii

vii Conclusion 85 CHAPTER 3. METHODOLOGY 91 Introduction 91 Researcher’s Philosophy 92 Research Design Guide or Model 94 Research Design Strategy 97 Sampling Design 99 Measures 104 Data Collection Procedures 105 Pilot Test 106 Data Analysis Procedures 107 Limitations of the Methodology 111 Internal Validity 113 External Validity 116 Expected Findings 117 Ethical Issues 118 Conclusion 124 CHAPTER 4. DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS 126 Introduction 126 Data Analysis 127 Findings for the Central and Ancillary Research Questions 129 Conclusion 155

viii CHAPTER 5. RESULTS, CONCLUSIONS, AND RECOMMENDATIONS 158 Introduction 158 Limitations of Research 158 Results and Discussion of the Findings 160 Discussion 161 Tentative Hypotheses/Recommendations for Future Research 174 Other Recommendations for Future Research 176 REFERENCES 178 APPENDIX A. QUESTIONS TO GUIDE THE SEMISTRUCTURED PARTICIPANT INTERVIEWS 188

ix List of Tables Table 1. Overview of the Participants 127



Introduction to the Problem While the nature of law enforcement work, in terms of education, equipment, training, pay, and skill required, continues to evolve historically, the answer to the question why an officer commits an unethical act continues to elude society. Of all the professions that exist in this world, there are few that seem to be more racked by scandal and the presence of unethical behavior than law enforcement. Perhaps it could be argued that politicians find unethical behavior to be a greater problem than law enforcement, but there is quite possibly no more pressing concern in law enforcement today than understanding the essence of unethical actions committed by those who are sworn to protect. Punch (2000) pointed out that historically, there has been a considerable amount of speculation regarding crime in general; however, there is a lack of research contributing to understanding the causes of unethical behavior by law enforcement. Traditionally, in law enforcement, scandal has been a constant reminder that the people who serve in these positions are human and as such are subject to the same temptations that entice all humans. However, the temptations and perceived availability that lead people down an unethical road in law enforcement exist in few other occupations; the fact that the law enforcement community is charged with the responsibility of enforcing the laws and the task of denying constitutionally guaranteed freedoms exacerbates its transgressions in the eyes of the public it serves. Sunahara (2004) argued that ethical behavior, like all learned behavior, is shaped by experience. In


environments where threats and temptations are few, acting ethically is easier than in an area like law enforcement, a more hostile environment. As Sunahara pointed out, in these environments, where threats and temptations are frequent, acting ethically is more difficult. Law enforcement workers, by virtue of the power they wield in society and their relative ability to act without supervision, are alone in today’s society in their ability, generally speaking, to act with impunity and without fear of discovery (Vicchio, 1997). If research could identify and confirm what motivates the unethical officer to act in the way he or she does, and if the findings of that research could be translated and incorporated into policy and practice changes, it is possible that the commission of these acts might be reduced. This research sought to examine what it is that increases the likelihood of deviant behavior by law enforcement, and if the likelihood is increased due to biological, psychological, or social factors, or a combination of several factors. Further examined were the variables that are present that influence an officer, at a particular moment in the officer’s career, to make an unethical decision that results in the officer losing everything, including the officer’s job, reputation, and respect. An officer today faces tremendous pressure and responsibility just in the course of the officer’s everyday activities. When the increased pressure of changing policies, court rulings, management issues, public scrutiny, and distrust is considered, it is incredibly difficult for law enforcement officers to maintain the vision they had when they started— a vision that included the belief that the justice system works (Harrison, 1999). Certain criminological theories were used to explain why a law enforcement officer commits an


unethical act, based on the underlying assumptions of that particular theoretical framework.

Background of the Study Historically, research in the area of law enforcement and ethics focused on the relationship between the community and law enforcement, the organization of the law enforcement agency, training, and scenario-based inquiries that were created in a vacuum. There is a gap in the research that examines the issue of law enforcement and ethics: the perspective of the officer who has made an unethical decision. There is no lack of research of law enforcement and ethics, and this research is useful when examining the issue from the perspective of this researcher’s study. A review of the literature encompassing law enforcement unethical behavior has demonstrated that there have been no studies conducted that examined this topic from this particular perspective. Further reviews of the research from other professions, including the medical and business fields, show that while ethics has been discussed at length, no studies look at the issue from the unique perspective that was utilized in this research, that is, from the viewpoint of the person who has acted unethically. Furthermore, law enforcement is unique insofar as the transgressions that some of the former officers who were part of this research committed were not such serious offenses that had they been engaged in by someone in a dissimilar profession would have resulted in that professional losing his or her job. As a result of the lack of research in this area, the results provided data to address this perplexing and significant problem.


Kane (2002) examined the relationship between levels of police misconduct and structural disadvantage, population mobility, and increased minority representation as factors that increase police misconduct. Kane’s longitudinal study found that population mobility, structural disadvantage, and increases in the Latino population predicted increases in police misconduct. Increases in the African American population, however, did not predict the same variations at either the division or precinct level. Seron, Pereira, and Kovath (2004) examined a citizen’s perception of police misconduct and agency leadership, and Wright (1999) examined the organizational climate and its impact on an officer’s ethical behavior. Kania (2004) posited that certain gratuities serve other purposes beyond a personal benefit to the officer and therefore are not necessarily part of the slippery slope that leads to further, more sinister unethical acts. Coleman (2004) argued that any acceptance of gratuities is a problem and that an officer should always refuse such a transaction. The application of the slippery slope argument is normally utilized in incidents in which officers progressed into large-scale corruption after being socialized into unethical behavior on what is considered a small scale such as accepting free food or coffee. This argument is germane to this research insofar as the researcher discussed with the participants any prior acts that they committed or witnessed that may have socialized them into the belief that in some circumstances, the unethical choice was the socially appropriate one. Beyond the slippery slope research, there exists a wealth of research in the area of law enforcement and ethics, examining the topic from both an officer’s and a citizen’s perspective.


Certainly there has been research regarding (a) ethics and law enforcement in general (Coleman, 2004; Kania, 2004; Punch, 2000), (b) ethics training (Chilton, 1998), (c) the variations in social ecological conditions and their impact on police misconduct (Kane, 2002), and (d) citizens’ perceptions of police misconduct (Prenzler & Mackay, 1995; Seron et al., 2004; Weitzer, 1999), but what was conspicuously absent in the review of the existing literature was the lack of empirical research that sought the opinions, attitudes, and reflections of former law enforcement officers who had lost their jobs as a result of an unethical act. Case studies and critical incident interviews of officers who had committed unethical acts and lost their jobs would be a very valuable means of gathering information about ethical decision making from the perspective of the offending officers. It is hardly surprising that there was a lack of research in this particular area as law enforcement officers have been notoriously hard to access because they are inherently suspicious of researchers, and the gatekeepers that control access to law enforcement officers can often find little benefit in allowing researchers to ask questions on the topic of ethical decision making. The difficulty encountered in gaining access to currently serving law enforcement officers is unquestionably increased when attempting to gain the cooperation of those former officers who have to relive daily the embarrassment, disappointment, and devastation of the unethical choices they made. Klockars, Ivkovic, Harver, and Haberfeld (2000) asked current police officers their opinions about ethical issues, but studies like Klockars and colleagues’ that explored the perspectives of law enforcement officers are not common and are often unable to be replicated. Furthermore, the limitations of such studies include the recognized


acknowledgment that they create, the imposition of questions about a particular unethical situation in a vacuum, and the inability to approach the true environment that may exist. In examining law enforcement corruption and misconduct, it is clear that based on the types of offenses, law enforcement misconduct involves not only individuals seeking personal gain but also group behavior. This group behavior is rooted in established arrangements and/or extreme practices that are found in the structure and culture of police work and embedded in the police organization itself (Punch, 2000). As Punch (2000) noted, and as has been seen in the application of theories to explain officer misconduct, law enforcement officers have to be initiated into these practices; they have to develop their own distinct rationalizations for committing unethical acts, and they continuously have to create their own justifications for ongoing acts of corruption. In addition, the organization either has to encourage or condone these activities or else refuse to address them. This social behavior is powerful enough to override the officer’s ethical standard that existed prior to becoming an officer, the officer’s personal conscience, the officer’s oath of office, and the officer’s department’s rules and regulations as well as the criminal laws that the officer is sworn to uphold (Punch, 2000). Vold, Bernard, and Snipes (2002) posited that all unethical behavior is committed with one or more of three strategic styles: force, stealth, and fraud. They argued that the extent to which a person develops these styles is dependent of the interaction that occurs between sociocultural, developmental, and biological factors. All these factors affect a


person’s motivation toward crime, which Vold and colleagues believed is determined by how many resources a person has and how much that person desires. The difficulty in applying a particular criminological theory to law enforcement unethical decision making is that a theory is applied to a pattern of behavior. In this research study, the investigation was focused on one particular and isolated incident, which is not necessarily part of a pattern of behavior. Therefore it was critical to undertake a reexamination of the moment of the decision. This reexamination included an evaluation of the environment present at the time of the decision and the thought process the officer used in making that decision. By doing so, the researcher sought to understand and interpret the meaning of the experience from the former officer’s perspective and understand the social constructs that were used in that decision-making process.

Statement of the Problem On an almost daily basis, law enforcement officers are faced with situations that present the potential to make a decision whether to follow the rules or enforce the law. Harrison (1999) argued that the result of this decision constitutes an individual utilitarianism, which the officer bases on the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and that the personal nature of this interpretation of the greatest good often leads to questions of conduct versus desired outcome. Therefore the motivation and method by which the officer arrives at the decision to enforce the law for the greatest good (or is it based on greed and individual good?) is the underlying driving force that impels the officer to action in any moment of choice. What are the theories that might explain an


officer’s unethical decision, and do the theories that fit one particular type of misconduct fit others? Psychological theories germane to this research area potentially include Piaget, Kohlberg, and moral development. Although it might be possible to examine law enforcement misconduct from a variety of criminological theories, the theories utilized to explain the phenomenon investigated and those that are most applicable to the research are Sykes and Matza’s techniques of neutralization and Durkheim’s anomie. Also germane to explaining the phenomenon of officer misconduct are theories of rational choice, control theory, and decision-making theory, including Jones’s issue contingent model and Fang’s integrated construct, which are posited to impact an individual’s perception of the influence of organizational values and may influence an individual’s decision to commit an unethical act. In addition, no study of law enforcement unethical behavior would be complete without examining the issue of the law enforcement subculture. The phenomenon of interest is the decision-making process of law enforcement officers who make unethical choices at critical moments in their careers, resulting in what one would argue is a minimal gain but also resulting in a tremendous loss: career, respect, the reputation of the agency the officer served, law enforcement in general, and so on. Although research has been conducted (Arnold, 1997; Harrison, 1999; Huntington, 1999; Kelling, Wasserman, & Williams, 2000; Milazzo, 2000; Pollock & Becker, 1996; Vicchio, 1997) to promote and examine the potential and resultant effectiveness of ethics training for police officers, no research was discovered that examined this issue from the perspective of the officer who has acted unethically and what factors most impacted that


decision. Therefore there was a knowledge gap in understanding what former officers perceive to be the most influential factors leading them to make unethical decisions resulting in their separation from their agencies. By studying law enforcement misconduct from the officer’s point of view, the researcher began to understand the quintessence of that moment of unethical decision making and recognize the process by which the former officer’s decision-making processes evolved and were influenced. Furthermore, knowledge was developed that may assist in shaping ethics training for both recruits and veteran officers.

Purpose of the Study The purpose of the study was to understand from former law officers’ perspectives the influential factors that culminated in an unethical decision by the former law enforcement officer, resulting in the officer’s voluntary or involuntary separation from his or her agency. Law enforcement officers that are put in the situation where they are faced with conflicting goods—an ethical decision (good for society) versus a self- benefiting decision (good for the officer)—may fall into corrupting the public trust, not necessarily for personal gain or revenge, but in an effort to fulfill a noble sentiment arising from the conflict endemic to the human condition itself (Harrison, 1999). Officer discretion is often pointed to as a contributor to unethical behavior: The knowledge, skills, and values that are required to shape officer discretion in the handling of events must be internalized into the professional self of the officer (Kelling et al., 2000). By studying the phenomenon of ethical decision making from the interpretative qualitative


point of view, the findings might help researchers to understand this critical decision- making process and gain insight into why officers make unethical decisions.

Research Questions The central research question asked, why do law enforcement officers make unethical decisions? As corollary research questions, this study sought to answer the following: 1. What factors do former law enforcement officers perceive as influential in leading them to make unethical decisions that resulted in their separation from their law enforcement agencies?

2. How important do law enforcement officers perceive the role of organizational values to be in the ethical decision-making process?

3. What do law enforcement officers perceive to be the impact of the environment on unethical decisions?

4. What is the impact, personally and professionally, when a law enforcement officer makes an unethical decision?

Rationale and Significance of the Study The study was undertaken to determine the perceptions of former law enforcement officers regarding the factors that were most influential in their unethical decision-making processes. By interviewing officers who were faced with critical decision-making situations and who made unethical choices, significant information is added to the body of knowledge that currently exists on ethical decision making in law enforcement. In its current state, ethics research (especially in terms of applicability to law enforcement) generally discusses ethics in historical terms, asks current officers


what-if questions, or offers various rationale for why one type of ethics training is better than another. The research study was designed to discover and understand (a) the essence of the decision-making process as it occurred, (b) the perceived factors that impacted the decision (personal, professional, departmental, financial, esteem related, etc.), and (c) the loss that occurred as a result. The study addressed a gap in the research wherein there had not been discovered a study that sought to interview former officers who made unethical decisions that resulted in them being separated from not only their agencies, but potentially the profession. The lack of research in this area resulted in the emergence of this area as a focus of the research. Officers, on a daily basis, are charged with making critical decisions in a wide variety of situations and, arguably more so than those in any other profession, are faced with the opportunity to act unethically. As Vicchio (1997) noted, the amount of time officers spend unsupervised and the dominant (but not most effective) reason for not committing unethical acts—the fear of getting caught—are a combination that will continue to result in officers acting unethically. Buried in this either momentary lack of integrity or pattern of inappropriate behavior over years is a force that compels a person to act contrary to his or her ethical foundation; this elusive force is stronger than an officer’s ethical foundation and causes the officer to act in a way that the officer, in the past, would have considered contrary to the officer’s fundamental values and belief system. The questions that were asked of the former officer were: (a) from where does that force emanate? and (b) was there a theoretical approach to explaining law enforcement corruption, and if so, how can change be initiated? The research explored


the culture in which an unethical decision is made as well as the personal, organizational, and environmental dynamics that led to that decision. Schein (2004) argued that one of the most intriguing aspects of the culture of an organization is that it points us to phenomena that are below the surface of an organization. These phenomena, Schein pointed out, are powerful in their impact but invisible and to a large extent unconscious. By exploring the decision-making process and influential factors, the information that is discovered might be extremely useful in gaining an understanding of the nature of police work and the inherent ethical dilemmas, contradictions, and critical decisions that are part of an officer’s day.

Nature of the Study The researcher conducted an interpretative qualitative study. An interpretative qualitative methodology is characterized by the assumption that familiarity with reality is obtained via social constructions such as shared meanings, tools, documents, language, consciousness, and other artifacts. The crux of this type of research is the attempt to understand phenomena through the meanings that people assign to them. The interpretative research style focuses on developing an understanding of the context of the phenomena under investigation and the process by which the phenomena influence and are influenced by the context (Klein & Myers, 1999). Holstein and Gubrium (2005) noted that interpretative practice engages both the whats and the hows of social reality, arguing that this type of research is centered in two areas: both in the manner in which people


methodically create their worlds and their experiences and in the configurations of meaning and institutional life that enlighten and shape their reality-constituting actions. This interpretative qualitative approach is based on the heuristic style of a conceptual humanist framework insofar as the premise is to intuitively generate constructive information to address a major social problem and generate social change, albeit with a value-laden approach (Simon & Francis, 1991). Merriam and Associates (2002) described basic interpretive qualitative research as having philosophically been derived from constructionism, phenomenology, and symbolic interaction and used by the researcher who is “interested in (a) how people interpret their experiences, (b) how they construct their worlds, and (c) what meaning they attribute to their experiences. The overall purpose is to understand how people make sense of their lives and their experiences” (p. 38). The intent of the research was to (a) gain an understanding of former officers’ experiences from their points of view, (b) examine the social realities of those who have actually experienced the genuineness of making an unethical decision, and (c) look at the resultant impact of that decision. The law enforcement community is historically one that researchers have had difficulty accessing. In this research study, former members of the law enforcement community who have left after being involved in some type of unethical behavior were sought. The embarrassment, shame, and sense of disappointment that the former officers may feel as a result of their decisions made access to these officers all the more difficult. Furthermore, records regarding former officers’ dismissals are routinely not public, except in the cases of egregious behavior that results in media coverage. In


this research, the type of officer accused of some type of egregious behavior (use of force issues, domestic violence, drug use, or a pattern of behavior) was not representative of the sample that was being sought. The participants were those former officers who made one seemingly insignificant (at the time) decision—a decision that may have been influenced by (a) the law enforcement subculture, (b) the officer’s personal decision- making process, or (c) any other factors that were present at that particular moment. The officer who made a decision that did not result in any personal benefit is the ideal participant because such an officer’s act aids the discussion of the impact of motivational factors and, potentially, the law enforcement subculture on the decision-making process of such an officer. The population described in the preceding paragraph was not easily identifiable, as previously discussed, and accessing this population required purposive sampling in that the researcher was seeking (a) former law enforcement officers (most likely adult men, as they dominate the profession) who (b) completed academy training and were serving their respective communities; (c) committed a singular unethical act while in performance of their official duties as a law enforcement officer; (d) committed this act within the last five years; and (e) were caught and either voluntarily resigned or were terminated by their agencies. Mertens (2005) noted that researchers who work within the interpretative paradigm generally seek information-rich cases from their sample size that will allow them to study a phenomenon in depth. This type of purposeful sampling requires that a researcher be knowledgeable as to which individuals meet the specified criteria. The


researcher, being a member of the law enforcement community, had greater access to the population and a greater likelihood of gaining the trust of the participant. The potential interviewees were sent a general overview of the types of questions to be asked, although the critical incident interview was predominantly unstructured. Although some former officers were reluctant to discuss their traumatic experiences, by describing the study as a potential source of new learning for new officers, and because the researcher is a member of the law enforcement community, the former officers felt a lessening of distrust and more comfort in discussing the subject of the officers’ unethical decisions.

Definition of Terms Ethics Ethics has been discussed and written about for thousands of years, yet the true meaning of the concept still creates a debate today. Socrates (469–399 B . C .), the father of moral philosophy, was predominantly interested in ethics. He believed that self- knowledge is the sufficient condition to the good life and identified knowledge with virtue. If knowledge can be learned, so can virtue, and thus virtue can be taught. Furthermore, Socrates believed that the unexamined life is not worth living and that one must seek knowledge and wisdom before private interests. Knowledge is sought as a means to ethical action. Additionally, what one truly knows is the dictate of one’s conscience or soul (Fagothey, 1972).


Ethics, simply stated, is based on three kinds of acts: (a) what one ought to do, (b) what one ought not to do, and (c) what one may or may not do. Fagothey (1972) further noted that we persistently make these critical judgments, which not only determine our conduct but are the measuring stick by which we interpret the conduct of others around us. The fact that we make these judgments, according to Fagothey, is the framework of experience from which ethics takes its start. Ethics is not significant in relation to what a person does, except in comparison to what that person ought to do. The following, then, are the important questions: What is the right thing to do? What is the impact of this former question, which a law enforcement officer must ask himself or herself every time an ethical issue arises during the day? Most of the time, an officer knows, based on what he or she knows to be true and right, what the officer ought to do. However, too often, that officer’s knowledge is overpowered by what fellow officers believe is the proper course of action.

Full document contains 200 pages
Abstract: There is a paucity of research in the area of law enforcement ethical decision making, especially when it comes to the moment of an unethical decision and its aftermath. In this basic interpretative qualitative study, six former law enforcement officers who lost their jobs as a result of one unethical decision were interviewed. Semistructured interviews were used to gain an understanding and interpretation of the impact of training and the law enforcement subculture. Additionally sought was the participants' use of various decision-making theories, including (a) the techniques of neutralization, (b) proximity, and (c) locus of control. The impact of the decision and its continuing influence on the participants' lives was also explored. The research findings imply a potential need for better education in the area of ethics and decision making for law enforcement officers, improved communication regarding policies, procedures, agency goals, and key departmental priorities between administration and line personnel in a law enforcement agency, and the intrinsic benefits gained by an agency when an officer believes that he or she has some measure of power over his or her professional life.