Being a criminal justice professional for many years requires many balancing acts of ethics and public safety. Keeping the public safe is paramount, but at the same time, it is important to ensure that individual Constitutional rights are not violated. There are several aspects which address this balance.
It is a difficult balance because, in the past, champions of civil liberties were often accused of being anti-American or a fellow traveler of Communists (Inbau, pp. 1421). This, of course, is not true, because the police cannot hold all the power, otherwise, the United States would be a police state (Inbau pp. 1422). One issue is interrogating suspects. The McNabb-Mallory ruling can make it difficult to interrogate suspects accused of local crimes, such as rapes and robberties (Inbau pp 1425). Yet, such a ruling is necessary in order to prevent tactics such as the “third degree” (Inbau pp 1425). The best thing to do is to hire and promote officers based upon merit, and train them in the law and good ethics (Inbau pp 1425). Having them study the various laws, and showing them example on videos can help them learn what to do, and what not to do, during interrogations.

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Reward and punishment is another facet of the criminal justice system. Commit a crime, and there is punishment, which usually entails a loss of something, such as money or freedom. Don’t commit a crime, and the individual continues to live their life freely. Yet, the system isn’t always about punishment. For drug and alcohol offenders, for example, there is an offer of treatment, yet, some prefer jail time to the offer (Cooper pp.
21). Studies show that 80 percent of jail inmates have an issue with drugs or alcohol, and yet jailing them for offenses related to it as punishment doesn’t seem to work, as within
three years of release, almost 70 percent are arrested for another crime and 95 percent
have relapsed into their behaviors (Cooper pp. 22).

Plus, around the country, drug court judges have reported that defendants have said that nobody has ever said anything positive to them, instead, they were always being chastised or punished (Cooper pp. 22). This illustrates the difficulty in balancing reward and punishment. Many of the inmates have deep-rooted issues, such as family problems, which cause them to have anti-social problems (Cooper pp. 22). And many of these are problems that the police cannot solve. However, there are ways for the police to help. They can be a positive influence in the community, coming up with reward systems for children, such as partnering with businesses for coupons, for good behaviors. A free ice cream for a child found wearing a bike helmet, for example, may go a lot further than yelling at the child for not wearing the helmet.

My philosophy and approach to using immoral means to achieve desirable ends depends, of course, on the situation. I would never advocate using physical force on a subject beyond defending oneself if necessary. However, while it is always desirable to take the high road, there are times when it is necessary to take the low road. One situation would be lying in interrogations, to achieve information. Courts have held that it is legal to lie to suspects by making false assertions about evidence, however, fabricating evidence is illegal (McKee).
The use of a lie in interrogations has to be judiciously. For instance, if an emergency situation arose, such as a kidnapped person who may still be alive, I would not have a problem with lying to the suspect in order to find out the victim’s location. The end justifies the means. The victim’s safety is more important than the hurt feelings of a suspect. Caution does have to be used though, because it can backfire. One example is the case of Michael Crowe, who confessed to killing his sister, even though he didn’t do it, because he was just 14 years old and the stress of the situation and the lies caused him to make a false confession (McKee).

Three ways to use ethics in decision-making about criminal justice issues is education, sound judgment and good problem analysis. Education is one of the key issues. Teaching officers about good ethics can go a long way towards building trust with the community, and to prevent possible problems from cropping up. This education can be used in several ways. Having guest speakers come in and talk about situations is one way. Using role-playing techniques is another way. Have the officers act out roles as both the police and the victim. One example that is commonly used today for the use of tazers is to have each officer get tazed themselves in a controlled environment, so they know how a suspect might feel and to prevent them from being too eager to use the weapon. Sound judgment is another key. Everyone has their own personal backgrounds and biases. But an educated officer is better trained to have good judgment when confronted with a situation. While no one situation is ever alike, knowing what to do and to be prepared for any possibility is a method of good judgment.

Problem analysis is another method. Knowing how to defuse situations, and taking different approaches with different people is important. Not everyone responds the same way to the same stimuli. As the example given earlier, stressful methods may work too well with children. Hardened criminals, though, may be used to the stressful methods, or vice versa, and it may or may not be effective. Being ethical, though, gives credibility to the officer and the agency, which helps when dealing with the public. They may be more apt to give the benefit of the doubt, should something go wrong, and they may be more inclined to be helpful to the department in the future.

  • Inbau, Fred E. (Summer 1999), “More About Public Safety Vs. Individual Civil Liberties”, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 89, Article 14, Retrieved from
  • McKee Emilia (2012 November 14), “The Line Between Deception and Fabrication”, Temple Law Review, Retrieved from