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Noble cause corruption is a major issue for the modern police force. Actions that were seen as unacceptable by the public a few years ago have become so common that they are not seen as issues by the police. The excessive use of force, racial profiling, and speeding outside of emergency situations can be extremely dangerous for the law-abiding citizens of the United States. This type of behavior has always been present among officers, but recently it has become much more public due to camera phones, and police cameras placed in their cars.
These actions are often taken to remove potential criminals from the streets either before they commit a serious crime or to jail a suspected criminal without clear evidence against them. This paper will examine this situation through the lens of virtue ethics, as well as other ethical theories.
Is it Ethical?
Virtue ethics theory is one of the oldest ethics theories that are still used today. How does this ancient set of beliefs apply to a relatively modern issue of noble cause corruption? The answer lies in the purpose and the implied public image of the police. Despite the cynical approach of some police precincts, the police are not just a business. The role of the policeman is to uphold the law dictated by the government and the constitution of the country.
This implies that a police officer should follow the law by the book or else their role will be compromised. An exemplary policeman or policewoman holds a set of ironclad principles and virtues that not only help to keep citizens safe but also provide an example for them of how to live an honest life. When an officer disregards the law, they lose a great deal of respect of the populace, and rightfully so. Going by this theory of ethics, the actions performed by the officers in these cases are not ethical.
Why is it Unethical?
Noble cause corruption leads officers to undermine their principles in order to achieve results that they believe to be right. These actions can include writing false information in police reports, planting evidence, the excessive use of force, and actions that are taken against people for petty reasons like belligerence and racial prejudice on the part of the officer (Martinelli, 2006). These actions go against three of the 11 moral virtues that were identified by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics (2017).
The virtues that officers are not upholding are magnanimity, truthfulness, and friendliness. They lack magnanimity due to some of these actions being done out of petty reasons, and with vindictive goals. An officer should not bend the definition of law just to make the life of a person who they do not like worse. Cases when officers use physical force to apprehend or even just intimidate people that present no danger to them are shockingly common.
Excessive force is often applied to women for no other reason than the “attitude” they expressed to the officer (Francis, 2016). Sometimes this type of corruption can put citizens in direct danger. When police cars speed without an emergency, they put other people at risk, often for seemingly petty or arrogant reasons (CBS News, 2016). The second virtue that is being disregarded by these actions is truthfulness. When an officer files false information in the report, they are lying.
A person willing to lie while performing their duty undermines the inherent trust in the police forces that people have. Even if these actions are justified in their heads, it taints all the honest work they have done in the past. The last virtue that is not upheld by these officers is friendliness. There is no reason to insult people while they are being searched during a routine check, especially when they are likely to be an innocent citizen. However, there is an alarming number of reports of verbal and physical abuse by the police officers during frisking.
While the practice itself is controversial, the way it is performed only makes it a larger problem. A reasonable approach could go a long way to establishing a positive attitude toward police in these cases. By trying to justify these actions as acceptable realities of preemptive policing, the police force is inviting harsh criticism from the public that negates all the positive results that were achieved. Also, these actions are likely to lead to lawsuits towards the precinct, only lowering people’s opinion of the police (Associated Press, 2016).
Noble cause corruption is often described as a utilitarian approach to policing. Its advocates preach that bad things can be done for the greater good of everyone. However, this is a very short-term view of the issue. The consequences of these actions do not stop after a criminal is jailed by planting false evidence on the scene of the crime or filing a false report. The consequences of these actions are much more far-reaching.
There are multiple cases where this type of action can lead to negative results. After such an arrest, it is likely that the court would find the alleged criminal innocent based on the false evidence presented. If this is not the case in this instance, it could be in the next one. When the truth becomes public, all previous successes will lose all meaning, and the police force as a whole will only lose trust and respect of the public. Therefore, noble cause corruption could be seen as unethical even in the utilitarianism theory of ethics.
Deontological theory of ethics would see these actions as unethical by their nature because they break the police code of conduct, as well as social and ethical code. It is the duty of a police officer to uphold the law, but all of these actions only serve to break the law to achieve results. These actions taint the results, making them unethical in the lens of the deontological theory. The authoritative status that police officers have gives them an obligation to be truthful and follow the rules that they are trying to uphold.
It is unfortunate that despite the constant surveillance, modern police refuses to perform their duty in a legal and ethical manner. The divide between ordinary citizens and police has become dangerously deep, which only makes every case of noble cause corruption worse for everyone involved. When the police do not deserve the respect of the people, it is not unreasonable that people might choose to break the law. While some theories could be used to justify these actions, it is unlikely that these justifications examine all the possible outcomes.
Aristotle. (2017). Nicomachean ethics. Raleigh, NC: Lulu.
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Associated Press. (2016). Police misconduct complaints have cost DC $31M since 2005. The Washington Times. Web.
CBS News. (2016). Video shows white cop in violent confrontation with black motorist. CBS News. Web.
Francis, E. (2016). DC Police officer appears to hold woman off the ground, pinned to patrol car. ABC News. Web.
Martinelli, T. (2006). Unconstitutional policing: The ethical challenges in dealing with noble cause corruption. Police Chief, 73(10), 148-156.