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Ethical Decision Making Process

What is Ethics?
Ethics incorporates the study of principles of good conduct and systems of moral values. It is known
as standards of right and wrong that details what humans should do in terms of fairness, obligations,
and benefits to society. When it comes to law enforcement, there are many ethical dilemmas that
present itself during the course of routine policing. Through the process of repetition, tasks that once
required a complex decision, have now become so routine that little to no thought is put into the
outcome of it all. This in turn had led to numerous cases of ethical misconduct and unprofessional
behavior amongst law enforcement thus requiring more ethical training and a second look into the
ethical decision making process.
The Four Component Model
Making ethical decisions can be a lengthy process that can be an individual effort or one that involves
people from all different levels. In order for an ethical decision making process to be effective, four
main components must be considered. James Rest, who was an American psychologist during the
1980’s, specialized in these four components and developed a model that examined the ethical
decision making process. His first component of the decision making model is awareness, in which
the person faced with the decision, identifies a situational dilemma that is ethical in nature (Rest,
1986). He proposed that the key player or players involved need to be knowledgeable on the issue
requiring attention and recognize that an ethical situation exist. This process sets the tone for the
rest of the decision making process by gauging everyone’s feeling towards the situation.
Understanding the seriousness of ethical dilemmas is very important when trying to streamline a
process. Ensuring everyone on the decision making team is knowledgeable on the task at hand
should be the first priority in order to understand why this process needs to take place. Based off of
Rest’s model, the second component of his ethical decision making process is judgment and deals
with taking into consideration the best course of action needed to justify the situation. This process
involves identify the different options needed to address the current situation at hand. In addition
this step also requires reasoning through potential consequences to determine which one will have
the better outcome. The third component in Rest’s model is motivation. In order for the players
involved to stay motivated everyone needs to have a positive and accepting attitude toward the
lengthy process. Ethical decisions and situations can be a very sensitive topic and without positive
energy, the individual thought process and or team dynamics can be hindered. The final component
in Rests model is ethical action and involves determining the best way to implement the chosen
decision and having the ability and confidence to execute it to completion.
Reflective vs Reactive Thinking
In addition to the knowledge and attitude factors, two types of thinking also need to be discusses
during the decision making process. The two types of thinking are reactive and reflective. Reactive
thinking involves the uses of trial and error, situational cues, and memory to come to a resolution
when situations are familiar and quick thinking is required. These are usually the judgments calls that
people make every day. When it comes to ethical situation, this type of thinking encourages
superficial responses and can often lead to incident driven policing.
Ethical decision making policies are put in place to instruct law enforcement officers how to be less
reactive and more proactive, preventing crime and disorder with community-based problem-solving
strategies (Ortmeier, 2009). The reflective style of thinking on the other hand is more ideal when it
comes to making ethical decisions. This style if thinking involves the use of critical thinking in
unfamiliar situations, when planning and more comprehensive consideration is crucial. Reflective
thinking encourages logical and rational decisions while reducing the probability of dangerous errors
in judgment. Both methods of thinking are important when making decisions, however it is
important to differentiate when one style would be better to use as oppose to the other.
Alternative Ethical Decision Making Processes
When it comes to decision making processes specific to law enforcement, there aren’t very many.
However one of the most popular models used by law enforcement is the SARA (Scanning, Analysis,
Response and Assessment) model. This model was one of the first well-documented large-scale
demonstration projects introducing Problem Oriented Policing in the United States (Sidebottom,
2011). This model, unlike others, focus on the root causes of crime as oppose to traditional service
calls. Often, during routine policing, officers are face with situations when ethical dilemma may come
into play. Not always having other officers to rely on, quick thinking and problem solving will need to
be an individual effort.
Scanning, which is the first step in this SARA model process, deals with identifying and prioritizing,
recurring problems and the associated consequences, confirming that a problem exist and then
developing goals for corrective action. During this process, law enforcement personnel are
interacting with the people in the community and trying to get a better understanding of the current
issues that may be present. Ethical decision making comes into play during this step by forcing
officers to investigate all matters and not turn a blind eye to situation they may feel is not as
important. The second step in the SARA model process is Analysis. During this stage law enforcement
officers are focusing on identifying and understanding the events causing the issue, identifying
relevant information needing further research, figuring out how the problem is currently being
addressed if at all, narrowing the specific of the problem as close as possible, and seeking out any
additional resources that may assist with understanding the problem. During this stage law
enforcement are investigating problems and determining whether or not they warrant further
attention. Response is the third stage of the SARA model and involves brainstorming for new ways to
handle the problem, comparing the issues other communities have, outlining a response plan and
identifying responsible parties and carrying out the planned activities. During this stage, law
enforcement search for different solutions and then implementing the one with the better outcome.
The final stage in the SARA model is Assessment. This is the stage where the qualitative and
quantitative data is collected and deciding whether or not goals and specific objectives were attained
The interesting thing about the SARA model is how closely it relates to the Four Component Model.
Each of the four components mirrors the four SARA stages in almost the exact order. Both the
scanning and awareness stage involves gathering enough information about a subject to realize there
is an issue that needs to be addresses. The judgement and analysis stage both require investigation
into the issues and figuring the best approach to the next step which is the response and motivation
phase. This third stage is the bridge between the investigation and implementation stage and in the
final stages both assessment and action involve carrying out the mission to completion.
The Fish Bowl Profession
Of all the professions that exist, the one that seem to be surrounded the most by scandals is that of
law enforcement field. This is mainly due in party by the fact that police officers are held to a higher
standard than most other professions and are constantly being scrutinized by the public everyday
whether or not they are on duty or off. The fact that ethical issues are so apparent within law
enforcement should suggest the people who occupy these positions are only human and often make
difficult choices like everyone else. What the society should realize is that ethics is a learned behavior
that is molded by good leadership and personal experience and not every decision that is made is an
easy one.