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Criminal justice ethics - a view from the top
By Steven R. Eastvedt , 26-year veteran corrections Deputy, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, Portland, Oregon.
Published: 11/24/2008

1118view For many years I have talked to various high-ranking administrators in both law enforcement and corrections about the necessity for providing ethics education and training programs in the criminal justice field. Typically, both police and corrections administrators seem very receptive and supportive to the concept and the necessity of ethics education and training, but in the long run do not pursue actual steps toward the development and implication of such programs for their staff. The most common argument they offer for not pursuing ethics education and training concerns a lack of funding.

Although I do not have access to the costs of legal fees and damage awards litigating a single tort claim and lawsuit resulting from an ethics violation, it seems an ethical education and training program would be the better bargain. The only real conceptual problem is the simple fact that despite implementing the best possible ethics education and training program, it is impossible to insure that ethical violations will no longer occur. This too has been an argument by some administrators to justify apprehension for funding such programs.

In comparison, most law enforcement and correctional organizations put out a huge amount of public funds for their officers to learn defensive tactics, use of force, and to hone their abilities to use weapons in an effort to help insure their survival in the field. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that despite all of this training, officers will not be seriously injured or killed in the line of duty. All this training can provide is an increased likelihood of survival.

Ethical education and training is no different. All it can provide is an increased likelihood that officers will be able to avoid ethical violations and survive throughout their careers without being sued, or losing their jobs for making poor choices and serious mistakes.

It cannot be ignored that, in this day and age there is a much greater social focus, and media attention, on ethical violations in virtually every occupational career field. This makes ethical education and training an absolute necessity. It cannot be merely deemed a nice idea, or an option that can be easily dismissed for any reason.

When discussing the idea of ethical education and training with a fellow correctional deputy a couple of years ago, I was met with the following question:

“If it gets the job done and it’s not unlawful, what’s the big deal?”

Of course, this was a better response compared to another deputy who countered with, “Ethics? What’s that?”

Recently, Dr. Kevin Katsampes, my academic advisor at Walden University for my Ph.D. in Criminal Justice, asked, “Can something be lawful, yet at the same time unethical?”

The study group, consisting of extremely bright Ph.D. students from around the United States, people with vast experience in the criminal justice field, answered in concurrence with a resounding “yes.”

Actions and behaviors can be lawful while at the same time unethical. Many of the students cited a wide variety of specific examples, base on actual case studies and their own experiences in the field of corrections.

One of the most prominent themes to explain this unprecedented phenomenon is based simply on the fact that legal statutes and department policies and procedures cannot address all of the varied situations and circumstances that correctional peace officers may ultimately face in the field. As a result, just because a behavior is not specifically banned or restricted by legal statute or department policy and procedures does not justify engaging in that behavior.

Dr. L. Murphy Smith, professor of accounting at Texas A & M University, published a presentation on ethics in business and society (date unknown). In it, he outlined the following:

“In a recent Wall Street Journal article, psychology professor, Dr. Steven Davis, says that cheating by high school students has increased from about 20% in the 1940s to 75% today.”

He went on to state, “Students say cheating in high school is for grades, (and) cheating in college is for a career.”

Professor Smith makes a very direct observatory statement; “If students lack ethics in high school and college, then there should be little surprise that they lack ethics in their careers.”

After all, if people can so easily justify unethical behaviors, such as cheating in high school and college, wouldn’t it make sense that they could easily find justification for unethical behaviors in their careers?

Remember the question that was posed to me by a fellow correctional deputy, “If it gets the job done and it’s not unlawful, what’s the big deal?”

This question can be easily answered with a couple of counter questions.

“Do the unethical behaviors of people in your organization affect the entire organization?” And, “do the unethical behaviors of people in your organization affect you personally?”

Granted, it may be true that unethical behaviors that occur behind the walls of correctional facilities rarely hit the 6 o’clock news or the front page of the newspaper, but when it does happen, everyone within the organization is seriously affected. Administrators are held to account, and all of the staff may become demoralized and discredited. Morale among the troops can plummet dramatically. Inmates may use the incident to question and challenge line officer authority, making it increasingly difficult for correctional staff to do their jobs.

Maintaining security within the jail or prison becomes, at least for a time, a more challenging and daunting task, increasing the risks to staff and inmates alike.

The answer to the question, “Do the unethical behaviors of people in your organization effect the entire organization?” can only be answered with a resounding, “Yes!”

At this point, I would like to ask three questions to correctional administrators. First, where do moral and ethical behaviors within any organization begin? Second, who has more influence on the moral and ethical behaviors within any organization? And, third, who ultimately bears the blunt of public and political responsibility when someone does do something wrong? Of course, the answers to these questions are the same. It is simply the top administrators of the organization.

As Robert Noyce (1930–1990), inventor and nicknamed the ‘Mayor of Silicon Valley,’ stated in a speech to his colleagues (date unknown), “If ethics are poor at the top, that behavior is copied down through the organization.”

With this in mind, it would seem logical and likely that no correctional administrator would dare swing his or her legs out of bed every morning without this in mind. They would never take a step or make a decision without thinking about how their behavior may be perceived down through the rank and file of their organization. This is not to suggest that they should become fearful and intimidated about doing their job as an administrator.

Such would make them stagnant and ineffective. It is to suggest that they should be ever mindful of how their behaviors can be copied down through the rank and file of the organization.

Without a doubt, there are some philosophical problems when considering ethical concepts. First, some people may charge that what may be ethical to one person, my not be considered ethical to others. Second, when talking about ethical behaviors, many believe that you may be preaching about religion, which is a huge ‘no–no’ in the United States today. Third, ethical concepts and ideals change from time to time, and place to place.

What was perfectly ethical yesterday may not be considered ethical today. What may be considered ethical in one part of the world may not be considered ethical in another part of the world. So, considering ethics, what are we really talking about? Are we talking about religious mores, or are we talking about something that goes much deeper into the bowels of societal development?

With regard to ethics and religion, it is true that virtually every religion embodies certain ethical conceptions of human behavior. However, ethical conceptions of human behavior are not strictly religious in nature. A study of history indicates that virtually every society, existing today or in the past has embraced various forms of religion.

Furthermore, virtually every society, existing today or in the past has embraced certain standards of ethical behavior. Although religious tenants may differ widely, the general societal conceptions of ethical behavior are basically the same from one culture to another.

So, what came first, ethics or religion? According to sociologists such as Emile Durkheim, John Rawls, et al., societal conceptions of ethical behavior are commonly incorporated into religious tenants, giving them the power of divine law, and not the other way around. As such, we can easily eliminate religion as a basis for a discussion of ethics.

Historically, ethical concepts have been voiced in a wide variety of terms. In Medieval Europe, much was written about virtues. From this era, we have what has come to be known as the seven deadly sins. Much more recently, we have what is often referred to as values.

As an example, the United States Military Academy at West Point has employed the concept of “Duty, Honor, and Country.” These are values they hold high.

Then, we have the concept of morals. Although many people will argue that this is strictly religious, it is not. Today, moral conceptions include such things as human rights and civil rights, which are man–made ideals.

Then, there is the historical conception of good versus bad. These conceptions date back to ancient China and have been adopted in the Middle East and Europe cultures.

One important example is the idea to, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Today, we speak more simply in terms of right versus wrong. For example, treating people with courtesy, dignity, and respect, or more specifically, polite versus rude behavior. Treating people in a polite and respectful fashion is almost always considered to be good. Treating people in a rude and disrespectful fashion is almost always considered bad.

One word that is often confused with ethics is integrity. Whereas ethics may be defined as a set of principles of right conduct, or a set of rules and standards that govern the conduct of a person or members of a profession, integrity can be defined as adherence to a moral or ethical code of conduct.

A strict analysis of the differences in these definitions indicate that ethics or ethical behavior precedes integrity. In fact, the ethical behaviors by which a person adheres to ultimately defines the person’s reputation and conception of integrity by others. A person can only develop a good reputation coupled with a high sense of integrity in relation to the ethical behaviors he or she demonstrates on a daily basis.

According to Dr. Lawrence M. Hinman, Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, in a speech delivered to WIC Program Administrators (date unknown), “Integrity is about what we will not do, about what we will not give up, about what we stand for at all costs. Integrity is very much at the center of who we are, and to lose it is to lose an essential part of our identity.”

But, as Dr. Hinman pointed out previous to making these statements, not all people share the same level of integrity. In fact, some people have little or no sense of integrity whatsoever. They rarely feel shame or embarrassment for their behaviors.

In a valid sense, they have nothing to lose by behaving unethically, inappropriately, and unlawfully. They can easily find justifications for their behaviors and feel little or no sense of shame or remorse.

In corrections, we see these type of people every day. We typically call them inmates. However, sometimes, for whatever reason, some people with little or no sense of moral and ethical values or integrity slip through the cracks of public scrutiny and gain positions of leadership where they can do the most harm to an organizational structure. Such people have become the leaders and administrators of organizations such as Enron, Singer, Global Crossing, and others.

In his ethics education program, Dr. L. Murphy Smith asks students about their highest aspirations. Although I have modified them slightly, I would like to ask the same questions.

In your career, prioritize the following personal career ambitions: 1) Wealth/Money, 2) Advancement/Promotion, 3) Authority/Power, 4) Fame/Popularity, 5) Knowledge/Skill, 6) Integrity/Reputation.

After asking his students to list their highest aspirations, or ambitions, he makes the following statement: “If integrity is second to any of the alternatives, then it is subject to sacrifice in situations where a choice must be made. Such situations will inevitably occur in every person’s life.”

This is a statement that virtually everyone in the United States should be made to consider over and over, perhaps beginning early on in their high school years. It is possible that waiting until they get into college would be too late.

After all, once some go heading down the wrong road of unethical and illicit behavior, there may be no turning back. Many inmates are proof of this notion, beginning with petty crime and never learning to correct their behaviors until they are finally doing a life sentence in a maximum-security prison without the possibility of parole.

Wealth and money are, of course, important ambitions in life. After all, without earning money and collecting a certain degree of wealth, it is nearly impossible for people to survive in the world. in a maximum-security prison Advancement and promotion are also an important ambition. With them people are able to earn a greater amount of money and increase their wealth, which can mean the difference between an active and nearly carefree retirement and a retirement that provides little more than a meager existence.

To some, authority and power over others are important. They may view themselves as natural born leaders and are not happy unless they are fulfilling themselves in this role.

Fame and popularity are important to others. For example, although wealth and money typically comes with stardom in the ranks of Hollywood, movie stars seem to thrive on the fame, the popularity, and the notoriety they receive whenever they are out among the public and their fans.

Knowledge and skills are very important to still others. Most college and university professors work hard to gain knowledge and skill despite the fact that the achievement of this knowledge and skill may not result in greater wealth, advancement, authority, or fame.

Finally, there is integrity and reputation. With all of the books and stories I have read, I have not found one, other than Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” (1843), that has eluded to a man’s greatness because of his business tactics and his achieving tremendous wealth and fame. Go to almost any funeral and listen to what people talk about when referring to a deceased man’s life. They will typically talk about a man’s life in reference to his reputation and integrity.

Unfortunately, there are ways for people to seriously damage and destroy their integrity: Lying or dishonesty; favoritism or employing the “good ol’ boy” game for selecting and promoting others; nepotism or hiring only family members or people with direct family ties to work with you; failure to show respect to others, especially subordinates; and failure to keep promises since this typically amounts to lying and dishonesty.

Other factors include inappropriate use of (public) funds, such as using a government provided vehicle to go on a private vacation at public expense, and having a harsh overbearing management style. As stated by Dwight D. Eisenhower, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership” (date of quote unknown).

Then there is failure to maintain confidentialities. Whenever leaders and administrators fail to maintain confidentialities they quickly find themselves taking part in the rumor mill. Other people’s lives and reputations are wrongfully damaged as a result.

Disciplining subordinates with proper investigation, fact finding, and providing for a system of due process, and the failure to support staff should also be considered.

After all, correctional peace officers work in a very dangerous, difficult, and hostile environment surrounded by people who are far from credible. Inmates have been known to contact newspaper reporters and make claims of all sorts of abuse by officers. These claims sometime become reported as facts when they are not.

But, as Mark Twain once stated, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the news paper, you are misinformed.” (1880s)

Failure to support staff by relying on claims from questionable resources has never endeared leaders and administrators to the people who work under them.

Remember what the ‘Mayor of Silicon Valley’ stated in a speech to his colleagues, “If ethics are poor at the top, that behavior is copied down through the organization.”

If top administrators of a correctional facility want their officers and staff to behave in a proper and ethical fashion, then they must first be willing to take a close examination of their own behaviors. They must be willing to do whatever it takes to build a reputation of trust and integrity that constantly strives to go beyond the norm.

They must strive to become living examples of what they want their subordinates to be, and understand that they can impose the best possible policies concerning ethical behavior, but if those policies are not adhered to from the top, they are for naught.

And, they must understand that, in the words of John Adams, American founding father and second U.S. President, “Societies demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.”

Top administrators must not just merely follow the policies and procedures they impose, the need to exceed them as an example to all. Only then will they be able to build and ultimately achieve a truly ethical organization.

Steven R. Eastvedt is a 26-year veteran Corrections Deputy at the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office in Portland, Oregon.


Adams, John, American Founding Father and 2nd President of the United States (date of quotation unknown)

Dickens, Charles, Author of “A Christmas Carol,” (1843), reference to Ebenezer Scrooge

Durkheim, Emile, Ph.D., (1857 to 1917), French Sociologist, “The Division of Labor in Society” (1893), and “On Morality and Society” (a collection of five of Durkheim’s works on morality)

Eisenhower, Dwight David, US General and Allied Commander, WW2, Eastern Theater of Operations and U.S. President (date of quotation referenced unknown)

Hinman, Lawrence M., Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, speech delivered to WIC Program Administrators (date unknown)

Katsampes, Kevin Ph.D., academic advisor, Walden University, Ph.D. program in Criminal Justice

Noyce, Robert (1930–1990), inventor and nicknamed the ‘Mayor of Silicon Valley,’ statements in a speech to colleagues (c1990’s, actual date unknown)

Rawls, John, Ph.D., (1921 to 2002), Harvard University Department of Philosophy, “A Theory of Justice” (1971), and “The Law of Peoples” (1999)

Smith, L. Murphy, Ph.D., Professor of accounting at Texas A & M University, Ethics in Business and Society (educational power point, date unknown)


  1. nhchap on 11/29/2008:

    Bravo! Well, said! My significant other is back through the 'revolving door' of the California Parole System and is incarcerated on a parole violation. I find it really quite incredible that the deputies who work in visiting find it so necessary to be rude and quite honestly demeaning to those of us who come to visit our friends, lovers and family members. And for what? What is it that they gain from their behavior? Maybe it's a sense of power. That was on yourlist of aspirations. It is really so simple to be polite yet they "choose" to be rude and confrontational. My fiance has long told me of some of the horrors that actually take place behind the walls and DON'T hit the six o'clock news. As an example he is not a man that will tolerate the insults that some guards seem compelled to deliver to inmates. He will tell me of instances where he is mistreated by everything from verbal to actual physical abuse but he does not belabor those stories. What I hear the most about are those officers who have integrety and character and who treat him with the deserving amount of dignity. He immediately becomes calmed when he hears the voice (he is legally blind) of one of them coming to see what the problem is because he knows that even if it isn't resolved the way he wants it to be he has still be treated with consideration. Those guards are the ones he knows the names of. Those are the men that he wants recoginiton for and he will ask me to call or write to their superiors and tell them what an exlemplory job they are doing. He appreciates their integrety to the utmost. It is what saves him from dispair. Those men are the light in the darkness. I have been teaching middle school students with learning disabilities for 18 years now. Unfortunately they are often the ones who end up incarcerated due to many factors but one that stands out for me is their inability to make social judgment calls. I have always taught character education to these students in hopes that something will "stick" and stir their moral characters to an awakening during their adolecent years. Thank you so much for your thoughts. They are so incredibly true. I shall send a copy to my finace. He too will love to read it. Maybe I'll make a copy or two for the correctional officers at visiting as well! You never know...

  2. correctionaljustice on 11/25/2008:

    I think that administrators should be given this training as well. Major corruption exists in correctional administration and it needs to be dealt with.

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