Bridging the Gap: Instilling Moral Courage and Impelling Moral Action in the Public Safety Sphere

– Executive Summary

Foundational to the credibility and legitimacy of law enforcement agencies is the moral behavior of their workforces. Despite efforts to enhance the moral competence of police officers, instances of moral failure continue to occur with unfortunate regularity. Such events undermine public trust and impair fulfillment of the law enforcement mission.[1] Police agencies’ recent efforts to address moral failure primarily target individual-level ethical beliefs and fail to address structural and contextual influences that impel or impede behavior. A better understanding of the multidimensional determinants of moral behavior and drivers of moral failure within policing is needed to craft meaningful strategies aimed at enhancing the moral competence of individual officers.

Using a relational developmental systems (RDS) approach, this thesis examines the individual, team, organizational, and situational determinants of moral behavior in law enforcement. The RDS metatheory asserts a fixed, mutually defining relationship between individual and context and offers a multidisciplinary analytical template through which the multiple interrelated dimensions of law enforcement may effectively be examined.[2] It consists of three “moments” of analysis—the identity of opposites, the opposites of identity, and a synthesis of wholes—which comprise the framework used in this project.[3] To test theoretical assertions and ensure consistency, this thesis draws on three notable cases of moral failure in the law enforcement enterprise: the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Community Resources against Street Hoodlums scandal, the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force scandal, and the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

At the individual level, officers possess agentic, dispositional, and conditional qualities that substantially influence their response to moral challenges. Officers must view themselves as moral actors with the obligation and capability to act in advancement of ethical principles. Officers also form dispositions that are heavily influenced by the normative environment. These dispositions determine how officers approach issues and tend to gravitate toward enforcement and indifference at the expense of caregiving and empathy.[4] Police officers are also impacted by conditional factors such as emotion and burnout, which further influence their behavioral choices. Situations exercise notable power over the emotional state of individual law enforcement officers, especially when they evoke feelings of anger or fear.

The team context occupies a central place in developing the normative culture of a law enforcement agency. Field training officers and seasoned personnel act as referent others for more junior officers. These referents exercise normative and informational influences that guide the values adopted and policies followed. Referents and other team members use systems of rewards and sanctions to regulate the conduct of officers within the team. Informal rewards and sanctions, such as acceptance and ostracism, exercise a greater effect than those of a formal nature.[5] Because of the proximity of relationships and the in extremis contexts in which they form, strong loyalty affiliations define the team environment.[6] This loyalty can compete with the ethical and moral imperatives placed on officers, resulting in a value conflict. Given its ability to legitimize organizational expectations and aid in situational decision-making, the team dimension is foundationally important in developing morally competent officers and their subsequent engagement in ethical conduct.

A law enforcement organization provides the framework for guiding and regulating the moral behavior of its workforce. It communicates explicit values describing the idealized behavior and outcomes associated with the agency’s operations.[7] More impactful, however, are the implicit values derived from the organization’s processes and priorities. In many instances, such as community-oriented policing, implicit values conflict or compete with explicit ones, leading to poor instillation of the latter. Training serves a multifaceted role in the moral development of police officers. Beyond providing a vector to communicate organizational values, effective ethics training enhances officer self-efficacy and moral agency. Generally, law enforcement organizations poorly integrate moral considerations into training and use policy to compel behaviors. However, a policy is only effective if officers are competently trained and encouraged to abide by it. When instances of moral failure occur, law enforcement organizations often turn to accountability processes to assign blame and dispense punishment.[8] Such an approach, however, impairs a holistic examination of the conditions surrounding the failure, thereby impeding meaningful change.

Situational factors profoundly affect moral behavior through issue salience and vividness, temporal pressure, and situational appraisal. The salience and vividness of a moral problem directly affect the extent to which it is perceived as such. The clearer and more emotionally resonant an issue, the more an officer feels compelled to act in response.[9] High temporal pressure results in heuristic decision-making and greater deference to peers and teammates, thereby diffusing responsibility and diminishing individual moral agency.[10] Issue and outcome appraisals represent the interface between the individual and situation. An officer’s disposition toward an event and perception of its potential consequences influence whether and how the officer chooses to engage.

From the research conducted, this thesis makes three distinct conclusions relevant to moral behavior in law enforcement. The analysis reveals that value consistency promotes moral competency among police officers. The explicit values of the organization must be reflected in the normative team environment and in the implicit values communicated by organizational processes to meaningfully encourage their adoption and expression by individual officers. This thesis also notes a preference for disengagement and an elusiveness of ownership across the individual, team, and organizational dimensions of law enforcement resulting from conventional accountability processes that emphasize blame and punishment. Last, this work notes the power of salience, socialization, and self-efficacy in manifesting moral behavior. These three elements crucially fulfill respective roles in developing officers’ moral knowing, feeling, and action, which comprise their moral character and competence.[11]

From these findings, this thesis recommends three strategic initiatives to enhance the moral competence of police officers. Current training efforts inadequately represent the ethical dimension inherent to various topics and situations. As such, ethical considerations and moral dilemmas should be integrated throughout law enforcement training and reflect the nuance and realism of the contexts encountered. Recognizing the power of the normative environment, law enforcement agencies should also reimagine their field training programs as moral apprenticeships to acculturate newer officers into the moral values and behaviors expected of the profession and demanded by the organization. Last, this thesis recommends a just-culture approach to ethical accountability to promote a holistic assessment of and response to moral failures. The adoption and implementation of a just ethical culture could increase trust and participation in law enforcement accountability efforts, thereby lessening moral disengagement and providing a vector for multidimensional reform.

Due to the scope of this study, a number of limitations and opportunities for future research exist. Beyond the individual, team, organizational, and situational dimensions, other areas remain unexplored, including the societal and familial contexts. These additional domains could significantly impact the moral behavior of law enforcement officers, and an examination of their influence could alter or better inform the findings of this work. Future human subject research can and should be used to empirically study the conditions influencing moral behavior identified in this thesis. These same conditions should also be investigated in other public safety professions to determine whether these findings have wider application or are specific to the law enforcement enterprise. Finally, future research should evaluate the barriers and results of recommendations made in this project. These include analyzing legal challenges to their enaction and evaluating their effects once implemented.


[1] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Trust and Public Policy: How Better Governance Can Help Rebuild Public Trust (Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2017), https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264268920-en.

[2] Richard M. Lerner and Kristina S. Callina, “The Study of Character Development: Towards Tests of a Relational Developmental Systems Model,” Human Development 57, no. 6 (2014): 325–26, https://doi.‌org/10.1159/000368784.

[3] Willis F. Overton, “A New Paradigm for Developmental Science: Relationism and Relational-Developmental Systems,” Applied Developmental Science 17, no. 2 (2013): 98–103, https://doi.org/‌10.‌1080/10888691.2013.778717; Lerner and Callina, “The Study of Character Development,” 326–28.

[4] Bernardo Zacka, When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2017), 66–110.

[5] Richard C. Hollinger and John P. Clark, “Formal and Informal Social Controls of Employee Deviance,” Sociological Quarterly 23, no. 3 (1982): 339, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4106074.

[6] Patrick J. Sweeney, Michael D. Matthews, and Paul B. Lester, “Leading in Dangerous Situations: An Overview of the Unique Challenges,” in Leadership in Dangerous Situations: A Handbook for the Armed Forces, Emergency Services, and First Responders, ed. Patrick J. Sweeney, Michael D. Matthews, and Paul B. Lester (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 7–9, ProQuest Ebook Central.

[7] Wade Engelson, “The Organizational Values of Law Enforcement Agencies: The Impact of Field Training Officers in the Socialization of Police Recruits to Law Enforcement Organizations,” Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology 14, no. 2 (1999): 12, https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02830064.

[8] David H. Bayley, Police for the Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 65, ProQuest Ebook Central.

[9] Thomas M. Jones, “Ethical Decision Making by Individuals in Organizations: An Issue-Contingent Model,” Academy of Management Review 16, no. 2 (1991): 380–82, https://doi.org/10.2307/258867.

[10] M. Deutsch and H. B. Gerard, “A Study of Normative and Informational Social Influences upon Individual Judgment,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 51, no. 3 (1955): 630, ProQuest.

[11] Thomas Lickona, Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 53; Thomas Lickona, “Chapter IV: Educating for Character: A Comprehensive Approach,” Teachers College Record 98, no. 6 (1997): 46, https://doi.org/10.1177/‌016146819709800604.

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