Ethics And Civil Liability

            Ethics is a branch of philosophy that study the concepts of good and wrong. Criminal justice ethics is the study of these concepts as they apply in law enforcement. Law enforcement agents are expected to operate within ethical guidelines consistent with the society’s standard. Ethical considerations should be central to decisions that involve force, discretion or due process; criminal justice actors should recognize the moral consequences of their actions. Civil liability is a legal obligation requiring a party to compensate for losses they have caused to an individual or any other private party, like a corporation.

Utilitarianism And Deontological Ethics

            Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. It states that the morality of a decision is based on the consequences of the decision made. This theory holds that ethical action is one that promotes the most good or happiness, for the majority (Mill, 1895). Therefore, right or wrong is not determined by the actions, but by the effect, it has on the people.

            On the other, deontological ethics, also called deontology, is a contrasting moral philosophy to utilitarianism. Deontology argues that the morality of actions or decisions should not be based on the consequences, but on a set of rules (Alexander & Moore, 2007). These set of rules may be internal or external, and they can arise from religious law, cultural values, universal codes of conduct, or personal values. This ethical theory ascertains that action is more important than the consequences.

 Both of these philosophies can be, and are, applied to criminal justice. The justice system follows a set of rules (the laws are written in the constitution) to dispense equal justice to all citizens. The constitution, therefore, acts as the ethical guidelines for law enforcement officers, a form of deontology. Criminal laws are written to protect the citizens and maintain order. Due to statutes being meant for the good of the people, the concept of utilitarianism prohibits breaking these laws. Therefore, no law, however inadequate, should be disobeyed by the citizens (Mill, 1895)

Categories Of Unethical Police Behavior

            Selective enforcement is an example of unethical police behaviour. It involves favouring a specific group of people, or an area, over others. In selective enforcement, the police will dispense justice unequally. Faster police response to an emergency in suburban neighbourhoods as compared to relatively deprived areas is an example of selective enforcement.

            Police brutality is another example of unethical police behaviour. Police brutality occurs when the police use unnecessary excessive force. The case of Eric Garner (Baker et al., 2015) is an example of the use of excessive force leading to death.

            Corruption is dishonest behaviour by a law enforcement officer, usually involving bribery. Bribery occurs when officers trade favours for financial gains. An example is a law enforcement agent releasing a lawbreaker for financial gain, or other favours.

            Profiling is the use of existing information about some people to generalize the behaviour of the whole group of people. Profiling usually happens to non-white individuals. An example is when an officer arrests a few black people and then assuming that all black people are criminals and treating them as such.

Civil Liability Under Federal Code 42 U.S.C. Section 1983

            Federal Code 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 is a civil rights act of 1971 that allows people to sue the government, whenever a government agent violates their civil rights. The law promotes civil liability by protecting legal actions against law enforcement actors, who violate people’s rights and immunities protected by the constitution. This law enforces civil rights, it does not provide them.


42 U.S. Code § 1983 – Civil action for deprivation of rights. LII / Legal Information Institute. (2020). Retrieved 11 August 2020, from

Alexander, L., & Moore, M. (2007). Deontological ethics.

Baker, A., Mueller, B., & Goodman, D. (2015). Beyond the Chokehold: The Path to Eric Garner’s Death. Retrieved 11 August 2020, from

Mill, J. S. (1895). Utilitarianism (Vol. 3). Routledge.

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