Keeping Your Ethics in check
By James F. Ford, Jr., Ph.D.

Will Rogers once said, “I want to lead my life in such a way that if I sold my talking parrot to the town gossip, I wouldn’t have to worry.

The late U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy implied that by the time one reaches the point of being a college student, hopefully he or she (and it might be added, everyone who is studying the field of criminal justice) will have deeply ingrained the desire to practice exemplary and ethical behavior (The Enemy Within, Perseus Books, 1994). In most postsecondary higher education institutions, ethical behavior is taught. Professors explain the need for academic honesty, and how students should avoid plagiarism or cheating on exams as examples. There is free software available to students to avoid plagiarism, and yet some still don’t take advantage of it. It might be said that “Character” is “Who we are when no one is watching.” We all know that character cannot be taught at a police or correctional academy, or in law schools. Character and ethical conduct of criminal justice professionals mean that they would never betray their oath of office, public trust, or their own agency’s code of ethics. One only needs to read today’s headlines to understand the need for ethics in all professions, not only criminal justice. The law enforcement community is on the so-called frontlines, or in the trenches if you will, and they must set the example of being beyond reproach. Do you remember a time when your character or ethical behavior was tested or brought into question? How did you feel?

I can remember in grammar school where our teachers provided case scenarios and we responded accordingly. We were taught right from wrong at a very young age, and this basic premise has been ingrained in us through the years. While teaching a class of undergraduates one semester, they couldn’t understand why one of my pet peeves was tardiness. I explained to them whether I’m teaching an eight o’clock in the morning or an eleven o’clock class, I expect everyone to be on time. I explained to them that one of my main roles at the college is to prepare you for the “real world.”

In the real world. How long do you think you will last at a job if you are habitual late/tardy or have excessive absenteeism? I usually get the deer in the headlight stare but then they eventually understand. I understand that we all are going to have that time when we will be late because of traffic, personal or family emergencies. I am not talking about that. I’m referring to the same students who just can’t seem to arrive on time for a class week after week. If I’m giving an exam and a student is late, the door is closed and sorry you can take a different makeup exam for partial credit. I can count on one hand the times that I have had to give a makeup exam for tardiness. I give another scenario to my students; you have been working the all-night shift (12 hours) and you cannot wait to go home but your relief is late, and it occurs more and more frequently. How do you react? Don’t you wish he/she were on time, so you could be on your own time? It is important to our criminal justice students who aspire to enter the criminal justice profession to be ethical in their decisions.

It is understood that ethics involves fair and honest conduct standards. It is also the ability to recognize right from wrong. Absolute Ethics is a belief that something is either good or bad, black or white, and that certain acts are inherently right or wrong in themselves, irrespective of one’s culture (Kenneth Peak, 2016). Some examples of Absolute Ethics, the unethical behavior: perjury, theft, and excessive force. Relative Ethics is a belief that determining what is good or bad is relative to the individual culture and can depend on the end or outcome of an action (Peak, 2016). An example of Relative Ethics is when the police might not follow the letter of the law or may even violate a drug dealer’s civil rights to effect an arrest and get him off the street to protect the community they serve.

A self-test question to ask yourself when in doubt. Would you be willing to see your actions on the front page of the paper, or is this worth your career?

As criminal justice professionals, we all try to make the best decisions and be the good person and be consistent and fair. Know the difference between the spirit and letter of the law and don’t forget you have discretion to a point. Your job is not easy as you apply laws, local ordinances, and policies without bias or fear to the best of your ability. Be aware that there are people who have lost their moral compass and look for others to be dragged down with them. Don’t become a victim!

Paraphrasing the late President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “Be the best you can, wherever you are, with what you have.”

Dr. Jim Ford is a retired lieutenant from the Chatham Township Police Department. Currently, Dr. Ford is a Professor of Criminal Justice and the Director of Graduate Program in Justice Administration and Public Service at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown. He is an author of two books, “The Other Side of the Line” and “Shift Work & Criminal Justice Professionals” management consultant in criminal justice, author, and a licensed private investigator.