Every profession has its own code of ethics that guides professional behavior. The ability to adhere to the professional code of conduct while achieving the objectives of an assigned position is translated as professionalism and is a notable phenomenon in all professions. However, there are certain professional issues that may not find relevance in the general application across the globe. In the police profession for instance, there is the unspoken ‘code of silence’ that applies when one of the team members is engaged in a worrisome activity such as any practice that would be considered criminal. The police are tasked with protecting citizens from criminals through keeping law and order. Consequently, when the police are involved in law breaking, it becomes difficult for citizens to handle the issue effectively. The code of silence also does little to help. In an article published in the New York Times, Davey (par. 2) reports the case in which a policeman murdered a civilian during a shooting, in which other three police officers present shooed away eye witnesses to cover up for their colleague’s crime. This incident raises concerns as to the ethical applicability of the code of silence. To what extent should the code of silence be applied and what are its implications on the moral and ethical social fiber?
Application of Ethical Theories to the Incident
To better understand the implications of the code of silence on social ethics, the news article will be reviewed from the perspective of various ethical theories namely, egoism, utilitarianism, deontology and care ethics. Each of these theories defines an aspect of social living in which ethical application is required. The Egoism theory focuses on the interests of the self and one’s needs. The egoism theory posits that a subject is considered good or bad depending on the extent to which it satisfies the needs of the self and one’s desires. Actions are described as good or bad based on their impacts on the interest group only, without consideration of the impacts of those actions on other people. While applying the egoism theory, one chooses actions that would yield maximum benefits for them regardless of its impacts on others (Sadler 6). The interest under consideration here can be either the enlightened self interest as applicable in the theories of capitalism or simply the self- interest. Application of the egoism theory to a situation therefore, requires selfishness and does not entail empathy in most cases.
The case of the three policemen who shooed away the eye witnesses in order to cover up their colleague is a perfect example of the application of the theory of egoism. According to Davey (par. 1-5), the police officers served with protecting all citizens, attempted to protect only the murder, Jason van Dyke. By collaborating to concoct a story that painted the dead teenager as having attempted to stab the three officers with a knife, they were held liable to charges of conspiracy, official public misconduct, and obstruction of justice. The officers mentioned the code of silence as the motivation behind their actions. Regardless of the code, the decision to protect a single colleague at the expense of several other people amounts to egoism. Furthermore, the officers denied the eye witnesses an opportunity to support and probably give evidence of what happens is also sufficient proof of the egoistic decision making process entailed in the code of silence, which is fundamentally wrong in so far as the action being hidden harms a group of people.
The second theory under consideration was the theory of utilitarianism. The theory is founded on the principle of the greatest happiness, whereby an action is defined as either right or wrong depending on the greatest number of people. The principle of utilitarianism is on maximizing positive benefits for the greatest number of people and minimizing the negative outcomes for the greatest number of people (Sadler 7). Actions that cause emotional and physical pain to pain should only be consider based on the extent to which other groups or people are affected. Individual needs and desires take a back seat in the consideration of the effects of our actions on other people. Pleasure and pain is thus defined through their impacts on others rather than on ourselves.
Davey (par. 2-3) defines a scenario in which the officers involved in the crime considered maximum benefits for a few. It can also be said that the utilitarianism principle counters egoism in the sense that it focuses outside the self. The death of the teenager inevitably caused a lot of emotional pain on the parents, his community and even the bystanders who saw individuals tasked with protecting all people harming one of them. The impression that could have been made on the people who witnessed the event was probably that of uncertainty in police protection. If the teenager was killed in public, eye witnesses prevented from giving their reports on the murder and the police provided a corroborated report on the event, it means anyone could be subject to such inhumane murder and no one would speak on their behalf. This was against the ethical principle of utilitarianism and thus morally inappropriate.
Furthermore, the deontological theory developed by Immanuel Kant also provides a perfect rationale for the evaluation of the activities reported by Davey. The conformity of an action to some rational duty defines an action as good or bad. Any action that violates public principles of morality is considered wrong while any that aligns with moral requirements is considered to be good (Sadler 8). The basic principle of the theory is that one should choose actions that address their duties to self and to others. The duties have to be rational, understood by reason and/ or common sense. Any actions that violate legal statutes and religious teaching in a particular context would be described as wrong.
The primary role of police officers is to protect the public and their properties from unprecedented attacks, to maintain law and order, prevention of crime and maintenance of peace. By committing murder, the accused police officers violated all these basic functions of their profession in that murder is a criminal offence, which they are supposed to prevent. Furthermore, the action itself disrupted peace not only for the eye witnesses but also for a larger citizen population including the family of the slain teenager and the entire public (Davey par. 1). The fact that the murdered teenager was black also compounds the effects of the action further. The relationship between blacks and the police is already strained due to past seemingly racial police brutality events. The actions of the police officers and their decision to protect their colleague show their unwillingness to promote peaceful coexistence between the two groups, which violates their role in maintenance peace.
The fourth theory under which the case can be considered is in the care theory of ethics. This theory relates to the principle that an action can only be considered as good or bad depending on how it promotes caring for another by supporting interpersonal relationships (Sadler 10). The care theory is skewed towards a feminist rather than a masculine perspective like the other theories, and is built on the principle of supporting the vulnerable. Actions chosen should be supportive of others, particularly those who are considered vulnerable such as the children, employees and women. While considering the care theory, the perspective adopted is that this theory is a supplement to others and not an independent theory on its own. Hence, an action is first considered under the context of other theories before being considered in its capacity to support the vulnerable. For instance, an action aligned with the principle of utilitarianism can be further examined in the context of how it demonstrates care within the group in which it brings utmost benefit. Similarly, an action considered right under deontological theories could also be demonstrating care to those that it affects directly.
There are two groups of people in the case presented by the New York Times. The first group comprises of Officer Jason van Dyke and his colleagues while the second group is that comprising of the murdered teenager, his parents, family members and the onlookers (Davey par. 6). Among these two groups, the teenager’s group appears to be the most vulnerable due to two reasons. For one, the police are automatically considered more powerful than the general population due to the fact that they have guns, which are superior weapons. The fact that the officer could pump 16 bullets into the teenager’s body is an indication of that absolute power that corrupts, and the impression that the officers though no one would notice their wrong-doing. Secondly, the teenager was a black and by virtue of their position in the society, they are already considered vulnerable due to racial discrimination. Past police brutality is a confirmation of this vulnerability. By attacking the boy, the officers violated the principle of care. Shooting the teenager 16 times is additional evidence that the act was intentional and was meant to kill or maim the boy. By protecting the individual who murdered the teenager, these officers violate the basic rationality of care.
Ethical issues arise in every profession and how to deal with them should be directed by a combination of the professional code of ethics for that particular profession. In the case presented by Davey, various ethical theories are examined in the context of the case. From the perspective of the utilitarian theory, the officers, by collaborating to hide information about the crime of their colleague, violated the principle of maximum good for the greatest number of people. Similarly, their actions were contrary to the principle of deontological ethics in that murder in itself is ethically wrong, hiding a murderer is also against rational decision making and common sense. Given that the murdered boy was also more vulnerable compared to the police officer they were seeking to protect, their actions are contrary to the care ethical theory. This implies that the three officers acted egoistically, causing more harm than good and contravening basic responsibilities of the police force.
Davey, Monica. “Police ‘code of silence’ is on trial after murder by Chicago officer.” The New York Times, 3 Dec. 2018. www.nytimes.com/2018/12/03/us/chicago-police-code-of-silence.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FPolice%20Brutality%20and%20Misconduct&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=5&pgtype=collection. Accessed 6 Dec. 2018.
Sadler, Gregory. “Five ethical theories: bare bones for business educators.” Ethics in Business Education Project, 2011. www.academia.edu/1702607/Five_Ethical_Theories_Bare_Bones_for_Business_Educators. Accessed 6 Dec. 2018.