Protecting Our Badge from Losing its Shine
Does deception have a place in honest police work?By John Patston | Jun 26, 2018
As police agencies work to preserve civility, the all-too-near crescendos of sirens (many times our own) on a nearby street remind us that crime’s engineers are always at work. With the knowledge of ethical behavior and moral understanding in tow, police officers have two important responsibilities: 1) bringing criminals to justice, and, 2) doing so while remaining truthful to ourselves.
A fundamental question that each police officer must remember while bringing criminals to justice is how to best balance professional objectives with ethical dutifulness.
How Far do we Allow Ourselves to Stoop?
From an ethical standpoint, being deceptive is an offshoot of lying. Misleading someone or using trickery are tactics meant to stay away from arriving at the truth. Yes, deceptive practices are present in the police environment—not because being deceptive necessarily represents one’s moral depth, but rather because criminal investigations are often very complex. Deception is more common not from the police officer overtly going out of his or her way to be untruthful, but more in the sense that officers sometimes carefully consider words when asked a question.
Case in point: A common question that police officers get is, “Am I free to leave?” If the situation at that exact moment is purely an investigative and not interrogative one, very often the person asking that question is free to leave. However, allowing this person to leave may not be in the best interest of the officers (and the victim), who are simply gathering as much information as possible in order to maintain as thorough an investigation as possible.
A form of deception by the police officer, in response to this question, might sound something like, “Well, if you could just stick around for a bit longer, I would greatly appreciate it. We should have you out of here shortly.”
It’s an answer, but not to the question that was asked. A more direct and clear answer would be, “Yes, you are free to leave.” The officer has instead answered this question in a way that does not problematically detain the person, hoping to glean more information, when in fact the questioner is free to go.
Using this same hypothetical person, let us now consider him a bona fide suspect (imagine that he is being accused by his live-in girlfriend of striking her on the face). Another frequent question asked of police is, “Am I going to jail?”
Because this is now in the interrogative stage of a criminal investigation, with the Miranda warning already having been given, there most likely is enough evidence present to charge the suspect with Domestic Battery. In order to receive more answers from the suspect, the officer, after being asked this question, might use deceptive measures by saying something along the lines of, “We’re trying to get everything sorted out, and really appreciate your cooperation … Now, what was that you said about feeling angry toward your girlfriend?”
This is normal practice for a police officer who, again, is trying to reach the summum bonum to the extent possible under the circumstances. The officer is being deceptive by avoiding the answer and instead is tacitly encouraging him to give more statements. The truthful answer would have been simply, “Yes, you are.”
More often than not, after such an answer is given to a suspect, they’ll go silent.
Picture now the arresting officer back at his police department, writing his arrest report after returning from the jail, having charged and incarcerated his suspect for battering his girlfriend. The officer is now at the portion of his narrative that covers the interrogation of the suspect as he stood next to the squad car, on-scene.
He now realizes that after placing the boyfriend in handcuffs, some questions were asked that led to answers that were certainly incriminating. However, it was not until after a few interrogative questions were asked that the officer remembered to advise the suspect of his Miranda Rights. For the purpose of his report, the officer indicates that the suspect’s rights were read to him, but not exactly when. If this officer chooses to be deceptive, he will type something like, “The suspect was placed in handcuffs and led to my squad car… content now about statements made to the officer… The suspect had been advised of his Miranda rights.”
The truthful way to go about this would have been, “The suspect, who was now in custody, was led to my squad car, at which point I asked him questions regarding striking his girlfriend… statements made… At this point, I stopped questioning, and advised the suspect of his Miranda rights.” It is clear how the two transcripts are subtlety, yet profoundly, different.
Granted, this example is not one of cringe-worthy corruption, but when applying ethical principles, it does cause pause when considering how we (who should be held to a higher standard) go about our daily duties. Whether it is ethical to lie (or deceive) in order to obtain the truth is a complex question. I agree with the stance that says a lesser evil is tolerable in order to tackle a higher evil.
In contrast to this, a chaplain and police officer writes, “In order to live a life marked by truthfulness, one must recognize that truth is not a relative term… there cannot be ‘my truth’ versus ‘your truth’” (Miano, 2005, pg. 59). To uphold the truth, one must first realize that it is absolute, incapable of being manipulated, the likes of which cast a negative light onto the deceptive police officer (even if his goals are noble). Consequently, this indicates that there might be a gap between the code of ethics and how police operations are really conducted. Miano also provocatively proclaims that, “Holding tightly to the truth, day in and day out, regardless of the conditions, can likewise be uncomfortable and tiring” (pg. 58).
Police officers experience daily struggles in their attempt at upholding and enforcing the law. We also struggle with internal decisions that affect our short-term investigations in conjunction with our long-term moral armament. By acknowledging the prevalence of deception—even fighting against becoming predisposed to it—there can at least be a recommitment toward practicing virtue in our profession.
Indeed, sometimes our quest to vanquish evil is accomplished at a price.
Miano, T. (2005). Take Up the Shield. Bartlesville, OK: Genesis Publishing Group.