Home Career Research Will Investigate Ethics of Criminal Justice Students
Research Will Investigate Ethics of Criminal Justice Students

Research Will Investigate Ethics of Criminal Justice Students


By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety

Police officers are sworn to uphold the law and are generally held to a higher standard of ethical conduct than the general public.

“Ethics are the foundation of the criminal justice system,” said Charles M. Russo, faculty member at American Military University. “It’s what helps us develop the moral reasoning we use, how we define criminal activity, and what we, as a society, deem as acceptable punishment.”

Because high ethical standards are such an important quality for police officers, Russo has set out to research the moral and ethical character of people interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement.

Studying the Ethical Nature of Criminal Justice Students

Making ethical decisionsFor his doctoral thesis, Russo will investigate what factors most influence criminal justice students’ ethical decisions and behaviors. A person’s ethical standards help him or her make a choice when faced with an uncertain situation and determine what is right and wrong. Individuals use emotion, instinct and personal values when making these choices and are also influenced by factors such as age, gender, religion and other attributes.

“How do criminal justice students think? Here are individuals who are 18 to 20 years old and interested in law enforcement. What makes them want to become a police officer or get into the criminal justice system?” he asked. “How do they think when faced with a moral dilemma?”

Russo will study a minimum of 64 students who are seeking a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at a traditional brick-and-mortar university or college. None of the students included in the study will have any professional experience in the criminal justice profession.

Russo’s research will be a quantitative study, evaluating student responses to survey questions. The survey questions will look at biological, sociocultural and economic factors. Questions will include information about gender, age, religious affiliation, where individuals were raised, and what their family income was growing up. Such information can provide insight into what influences a person’s ethical decision-making.

The survey will also include a section where students are given scenarios that represent a moral dilemma. Each participant will assume the position of an actor in the situation and be asked to make a choice regarding what action should be taken. Students will then be asked if the action was appropriate or not.

Specifically, Russo’s research will consider two hypotheses:

  • There is a significant influence of personal factors in the ethical decision-making of an undergraduate criminal justice student.
  • One of the three factors (biological, socioeconomic, or sociocultural) will be more influential than the others in affecting moral decision-making of an undergraduate criminal justice student.

Such research could help provide agencies with more information about the ethical standards of new recruits and what training needs to occur throughout officers’ careers. During four months of research, Russo found only a handful of recent studies from the past 5 to7 years that touched upon ethics curriculum or ethics training of law enforcement officers. According to his literature review and anecdotal conversations with officers, there seems to be very little agency training provided that deals specifically with ethical or moral decision-making after officers complete the academy.

[Related Article: Being an Ethical Warrior]

This is problematic, particularly considering acceptable ethical behavior often shifts over time. “Society changes what it considers acceptable ethical behavior. We see that with police officers and agencies,” said Russo. “For example, in the Michael Brown case, when the Department of Justice investigated the police department it found corruption. What were the ethical issues that allowed certain things to happen? How was that departmental culture cultivated over time?”

Future Application of Research

Russo hopes his research starts the conversation about enhancing critical thinking and decision-making training for police officers. Understanding how personal influences impact ethical decision-making of criminal justice students can improve the curriculum of courses taught by colleges and universities.

It can also influence how agencies pursue enhanced training. Throughout their careers, police officers must be constantly challenged to think about what constitutes ethical behavior, said Russo. Without these conversations, when officers are face with an ethical dilemma, they may not be adequately prepared to address the scenario.

By studying the ethical standards of students interested in criminal justice, Russo hopes that the law enforcement profession can start to learn what’s needed to ensure ethics become a bigger part of the training for police officers.


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