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Ethics in Policing

• Justice James Wood appointed
Commissioner of the Royal Commission into
the NSW Police Service in 1994.
• Justice James Wood concluded that “a state
of systemic or entrenched corruption”
existed in the NSW Police Service
• This suggests a massive failure of personal
and professional ethics


Explanations for Unethical Behaviour

• Shift away from “bad apples” view
• System supports corruption via:
– On-the-job socialisation of recruits
– Policing as a subculture
– Peer group reinforcement & encouragement
of rule violations
– Policing as a “brotherhood”

Justice James Wood highlighted other factors:
 Job of policing is itself corrupting (temptation and
contact with criminals)
 Victimless crimes do not attract complaints about
police inaction
 The demands of law and order campaigns and
“results-style policing” compromise due process
 Generally low risk of being detected and punished
 Much police work is unsupervised and discretionary


AUS Research: What is Unethical?

• But are police perceptions of ethics clear and
• From 1992, researchers from UNSW, conducted
4 studies on police ethics:
 Study 1: Perceptions of ethical dilemmas
 Study 2: Individual perspectives on police ethics
 Study 3: Practical ethics in the police service
 Study 4: Public perceptions of professional ethics


Study 1: Perceptions of Ethical

• Read 20 scenarios describing unethical
behaviours (e.g., Corruption of authority,
kickbacks, opportunistic theft, work
• Rated how serious each violation was for:
 Typical working officer
 Typical instructor
 The Department
 Personal view
• Rated each scenario from “0” Not at all
serious” to 10 Extremely serious)

Study 1: Main Findings
1. ‘Typical officers’ rated as viewing situations
as least serious, followed by personal views,
then instructor, then department
2. On almost all incidents, recruits rated most
serious, constables/snr constables/sergeants
as least serious; snr sergeants &
commissioned officers midway
3. Females gave more serious judgements of
incidents, viewing the typical officer and
instructor as less scrupulous than themselves


Study 2: Individual Perspectives on
Police Ethics

• Purpose: To investigate individual officers’
training, knowledge and understanding of
ethics in everyday policing situations
• Participants: 32 participants (26 males, 6
females); Recruits to superintendents;
Exposure to ethics from 11 weeks to 30 years
• Method: Detailed, semi-structured interview

Findings and Implications
• Junior officers reported receiving more ethics
training than senior officers, although training was
not viewed as relevant or practical
• Rules and regulations need to be written in a way
that is easier to understand
• Many temptations: opportunity and financial for
senior officers, emotional and peer pressure for
junior officers
• Resisting temptation: getting caught and being
punished for senior officers, personal integrity for
junior officers
• Getting caught: not smart enough, by outside
bodies not your mates
• Improving ethical behaviour: training,
organisational change, supervision


Study 3: Practical Ethics in the Police

• Purpose: To investigate individual and
organisational influences on ethical and
unethical behaviour among police officers
• Participants: 4655 participants from
NSW, QLD, SA; 91% male, M age 37
years; Exposure to ethics from 11 weeks
to 30 years
• Method: Survey study

Findings and Implications
• Estimated that 13%-28% of police acts
involve breaches of ethics
• Recommendations from survey:
 Improve work conditions: reduce stress and increase pay
 Improve selection (although recruits more ethical!)
 Make ethics training more practical and improve supervision
 Reward those who display ethical behaviour
 React less stridently to minor breaches (tolerate error)
• Need individual and organisational change


Research Outcomes

• In Aug 99, NSW Police
introduced revised “Code of
Conduct and Ethics”
• Has it helped?
 Public perceptions of
police (compared to other
professionals) improved
from 1995 to 1999 (Study
 Pattern of complaints may
have changed


• Police discretion

involves knowing when
to enforce the law and when to allow for
some latitude
• Those who support the use of discretion
argue that laws cannot take into account
all the situations police officers will


Discretion is commonly used for:

1. Youth Crime
2. Offenders with mental illness
3. Domestic violence
4. Use of force


1. Youth Crime

• Discretion is encouraged with youth
• 30-40% currently handled informally
• Belief that formal sanctions are not the
most effective response
• Responses include community referrals,
resolution conferences, and arrests


2. Offenders With Mental Illnesses

• Encounters with the police more common
since deinstitutionalization
• Responses include informal resolution,
escort to psychiatric facility, or arrest
• Problems with institutions leads to
frequent use of informal resolution and
jail (Teplin, 2000)
• Often results in criminalization


3. Domestic Violence

• Historically, domestic violence was often
ignored by police
• Recent changes in policy encouraging
• Discretion is still important
• Responses include separation,
community referral, and arrests (Melton,


4. Use of Force

• Has received much attention but only
accounts for a small number of police citizen
interactions (U.S. Bureau of Justice
Statistics, 2005)


Factors Influencing Arrest Decisions

• Seriousness of crime
• Strength of the evidence
• Whether victim supports arrest
• Relationship between victim and offender
• Degree of suspect resistance
• Race, gender, neighbourhood


Police Stress

• Policing involves high levels of stress
both on officers and their families
(Brown & Campbell, 1994)
• Perception, responses, and coping
strategies regarding stressors varies
from officer to officer


Sources of Police Stress

• Occupational stressors:
 E.g., Having to use a weapon
• Organisational stressors:*
 E.g., Paperwork
• Criminal justice stressors:
 E.g., Frustration with court system
• Public stressors:
 E.g., Uncooperative witnesses


Consequences of Police Stress

1. Physical
2. Psychological and personal
3. Job-related


1. Physical Consequences of Stress

• Police officers may be at an increased risk
of developing cardiovascular disease and
digestive disorders
• High blood pressure, ulcers, weight gain,
and diabetes are other ailments that may
• However, it is hard to distinguish if the
causes are stressors or lifestyle


2. Psychological and Personal
Consequences of Stress

• While some research indicates the
following problems are especially
problematic for police officers, other
studies do not:
 Drinking and substance abuse
 Depression, anxiety, suicide
 Violence
 Marital problems


3. Job-Related Consequences of

• Consequences include poor morale,
absenteeism, reduction in effectiveness,
turnover, and early retirement
• These problems may result from physical,
psychological, or personal consequences of


Preventing and Managing Police

• Many programs are in place to prevent
and manage police stress. These include:
 Physical fitness programs
 Professional counseling services
 Family assistance programs
 Teaching adaptive coping strategies*
 Critical incident debriefings*


Adaptive Coping Strategies

• Attempt to change maladaptive coping
(e.g., substance abuse)
• Teach adaptive coping skills (e.g.,
better communication)
• Has been shown to result in general
health improvements and increased
work performance (McCraty et al., 1999)


Critical Incident Debriefing

• One of the most commonly used methods of
debriefing is Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD;
Mitchell, 1983)
• CISD is a group debriefing procedure in which
members discuss the traumatic event in a controlled
and rational environment
• There are many positive aspects of CISD

• Some research has shown that CISD shows no
positive effects on PTSD levels (e.g., Rose et al. 2000; van Emmerik
et al. 2002)
• Some research has even shown that CISD may have
a negative effect on psychological wellbeing (e.g., Hobbs et
al., 1996)
• Research on civilian witnesses suggests that people
report misinformation that is mentioned during
psychological debriefing (Devilly et al., 2007)


The Contradiction

• While the legal system incorporates procedures
designed to reduce or prevent civilian co-witnesses
from discussing an incident with each other, postincident
debriefing, a standard procedure within the
emergency services, is designed to actively promote
co-witness discussion.


Problematic Stages of CISD?

• Since there are many good aspects of CISD, we don’t
want to through the baby out with the bathwater!
• Stages:
– Introduction
– Facts
– Thoughts
– Reaction
– Symptom
– Teaching
– Re-entry


Problematic Stages of CISD?
• Fact Phase:

where participants each describe their
memories of the event witnessed. By the end of this
stage a consensus must be reached on exactly what
happened during the event.
Hypothesis #1: Discussing facts may lead to memory


Reaction phase:

where participants discuss their
emotions as they remember experiencing them
during the height of the trauma.
Hypothesis #2: Discussing emotions may have a
negative effect on psychological wellbeing.


Study (Paterson, Whittle, & Kemp, 2015)

• To determine the impact of two stages of CISD on
psychological wellbeing and recall of the event.
• 74 undergraduate psychology students
(42 females, 32 males)

1) Stimuli: Autopsy Video (two versions)
2) 1st Delay: 5 minutes
3) Debriefing Condition:
i. Emotion-focused debriefing
ii. Fact-focused debriefing
iii. No debriefing control
4) Individual Questionnaires:
i. Memory
 Free recall
ii. Psychological Reactions
 Impact of Event Scale (IES)


Stress/Anxiety Measures

• The Impact of Events Scale measures PTSD
symptoms and has two subscales:
– Intrusions: Frequent re-experiencing of the event
through thoughts. Flashbacks, and repeated
nightmares or dreams
– Avoidance: Persistent avoidance of stimuli
associated with the trauma and a general numbing
or deadening of emotions (feeling detached or
estranged from others)


Results: Free Recall

• No differences between conditions on Correct Items recalled, p = .21

• Participants in the Fact-Focused Debriefing group reported more Misinformation
than the other two conditions, p’s