Ethics in Law Enforcement and Intelligence


Intelligence and Law Enforcement professionals are in positions of trust in which integrity is integral. As professions, the public expects that personnel maintains a higher ethical standard due to their authority over personal liberties and their duty of enforcing the law. Training and education are paramount to ensure these professionals know that their ethical and moral codes are lived each day. Without ethics, public trust is lost.

Ethics in Law Enforcement and Intelligence

Ethical codes assist an individual in making morally based judgments and decisions when they encounter uncertainty in situations. The underlying notion for an ethical framework is to help differentiate between what is right or wrong; or what is acceptable behaviors or not based on personal discretion and judgment regardless of profession. Law enforcement and Intelligence Analysts/Officers use discretion while assessing a situation for an appropriate response is done throughout their carrying out their duties, all the while with the expectations that they all are setting aside personal biases and assumptions. The events of the past several years (2016 to present) have highlighted many instances of  a perceived lack of ethics on the part of some law enforcement and intelligence personnel and agencies and, more importantly, on our society as a whole, from potential improprieties by individuals within the U.S. Intelligence Community and specifically the Federal Bureau of Investigation  and abuse of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants to allegations of excessive use of force by police officers (Cook, 2020; Gstrein, Bunnik, & Zwitter, 2019). Many researchers agree that various individual and socio-cultural characteristics influence individuals’ ability to recognize an ethical dilemma or make an ethical decision in split-seconds and often under severely stressful conditions (Conway & Gawronski, 2013; Friesdorf, Conway, & Gawronski, 2015; Russo, 2018a). It is vital to understand and analyze the socio-cultural and personal influences of an individual that help law enforcement and intelligence analysts make the right ethical decisions considering the sheer power, authorities, and discretion they hold in carrying out their duties while protecting the citizens of the United States because a lack of ethics on an individual’s part can lead to unethical or even illegal acts and decisions.  Let us be clear; unethical behaviors do not translate to criminal behaviors.

Expectations of Ethical Behavior from Law Enforcement and Intelligence Personnel

Everyone faces moral and ethical dilemmas in daily life, but not many individuals encounter decisions that may lead to taking someone’s life or liberty away. We know this to be true by virtue of living life. Do you not work, yet claim hours on your timesheet? Do you choose to tell a lie in place of the truth because you don’t want to be embarrassed? What do we do when faced with lending assistance or not when someone is screaming for help? We are faced with right and wrong decisions, which are made throughout the day, ethical and moral. Individuals such as law enforcement and intelligence officers make decisions and judgements which have a direct impact on another individual’s life or liberty. Do they have all the facts? Are there facts that are unknown, yet to be discovered while others can be proven? Remember, the individual facing the dilemma does not necessarily know all the facts. These individuals have imperfect duties to make decisions and judgments based on possibly incomplete information and unverified facts. That is why personnel in the criminal justice or intelligence professions should be expected to hold higher ethical standards than those of the general public. The sheer power, authority, and discretion they exercise, daily, in protecting the civil rights and liberties of the public translate into higher expectations of ethical behavior. However, law enforcement officers frequently face challenging situations where they must balance the conflicting interests (self-interests) based on their discretion to either escalate or not a situation from detaining and releasing with a warning or to effect an arrest. Of course, this discretion given to the officer is based on the policies of a department as to how to deal with the seriousness of the offense. The officer can decide to escalate further of whether to arrest and if necessary, escalate to the use of force if required by a situation. The need to be aware of Egoism and its implications in criminal justice and intelligence is significant. Egoism in criminal justice is a serious issue, which is linked to overstepping authority.

Egoism in CJ and Intelligence

Egoism is referred to as “the pursuit of self-interest as a moral good” (Pollack, 2017, p. 42). Self-interests equate to personal bias and assumptions. Egoism is natural to humans and is only meant to be a fulfillment of one’s own self-interest. When it comes to law enforcement or any authority, the potential for abuses of that authority are exponential, making them indifferent to unfair practices such as use of repeated misuse and ignorance of written policies regarding the use of force.

The Intelligence analyst thinks critically of the information they are provided and is left with how to postulate the meaning, even when no all facts are known. They have the latitude to present information in written form to decision-makers. Although, IA’s employ Structured Analytic Techniques to mitigate personal bias and assumptions, which directly affects egoism in this case. According to Godfrey (as cited by Goldman, 2006) the intelligence discipline is “rooted in the severest of ethical principles: truth telling” (p. 2). Remember, intelligence is concerned with telling the truth as opposed to collecting the truth. Law enforcement collects the facts in a case, then passes to the attorney’s for prosecution. In either case, the integrity of the individuals charged with processing or collecting information must be unapproachable.

The intelligence analyst who reviews information related to a case or operation has their own bias and assumptions to deal with when assessing raw intelligence or information received from multiple sources such as Human Intelligence reporting, and Signals Intelligence (intercepted communications), etc. Their ability to separate their assumptions or bias is part of having critical thinking skills and understanding their ethical influences. These situations lead to uncertainty in their decision-making and judgements. Assuming and categorizing that an individual is a terrorist when they may only be a facilitator or enabler, worse yet would be the individual is completely innocent, merely in the wrong place at the wrong time or associated with the wrong person.

This uncertainty is further compounded due in part because the analyst may be presented with insufficient or inaccurate information. For the law enforcement officer, it may be their involvement in emotionally charged situations such as domestic violence calls, therefore, not knowing who the aggressor may be and their having to make decisions based on a chaotic scene with limited visibility and information. Any shortcomings on their part, either deliberately or inadvertently, can promote the wrong decision, either placing someone else in danger or detaining and arresting the wrong individual based on what their perceptions. Meaning they may have biases based on gender, race, color, or age among other attributes. Therefore, it is indispensable for law enforcement personnel and intelligence personnel to strictly adhere to the moral code of conduct while dispensing their duties. The need for incorporating more ethical training for students and future practitioners of the criminal justice system is more than ever. According to Chappell (2008), as cited by Russo (2018a), “Training on ethics, ethical decision-making, or moral reasoning represents, on average, 10% of the academy training time and is done mostly during on the job training” (p. 8). Intelligence personnel are not provided training on personal ethics other than the legal ethics training pertaining specifically to what is permissible during intelligence operations or investigations. The Federal Bureau of Investigation uses the Attorney General Guidelines and the Domestic Intelligence and Operations Guides (DIOG) to ensure investigatory policies are followed.

Why Law Enforcement and Intelligence Officers need to Follow Ethical Principles

The desire to serve the public and to uphold law and order in our society attracts many people to the criminal justice and intelligence professions. This dedication and commitment motivate such individuals to run towards the gunfire rather than away from it. They win and preserve public confidence and favor not by catering to the popular opinion, but by demonstrating impartial services to the law. However, many scandals involving acts of unethical behaviors, racial discrimination, and deadly force have spotlighted the persistence of the lack of ethical behavior in criminal justice and intelligence professions. This lack of professionalism encourages many officers and analysts to get involved in malicious and unethical activities contrary to the ethics training and code of conduct they received while in their respective academies. Examples of malicious and ethical behavior could include; the misuse of their position when faced with adverse contact with other law enforcement agencies, false whistleblowing, conflict of interests, and failure to recuse themselves from cases. Such unscrupulous behavior leads to ethical breaches, performing illegal searches, lying under oath, planting evidence, falsifying reports, overstepping the line of authority, other violations of  the civil rights of people protected under the Fourth Amendment (Fortenbery, 2015) and acting contrary to various organizational rules, regulations, and policies. This unethical conduct debilitates the public’s confidence in the justice system and erodes the ability of institutions to protect and safeguard the civil rights of people (Isaacson, 2017). It also brings the lack of ethical education of officers to the forefront, which are to be instilled in these professions during their training.

Since policing and intelligence work involve power and authority that can have significant consequences to an individual’s civil rights and liberties.   Consequentially, ethical conduct should be at the forefront of any organization and the individual who are a part of the organization. If disproportionate power is wielded unethically, it can have devastating impacts on society, the agency’s morale, and irreparably damage the relations with the very citizens they are sworn to protect and serve. Active and goal-oriented policing requires real public favor to achieve desired results and it is possible only by exhibiting the highest ethical standards. Unethical behavior proves time and again to be detrimental to the community trust and public favor; we are reminded that extensive education on ethics is needed and warranted both on a departmental and individual awareness standpoint.

Need for More Ethical Training of Students

Law Enforcement and intelligence are unique career choices where moral and ethical complexities are encountered almost daily. It is necessary to provide better ethical training to the criminal justice students and the intelligence cadre to help them manage their emotions in heated situations; to make ethical decisions in serving the public; to examine the legal and judicial protocol involving the use of force. Proper training and practice reinforce high ethical behavior and its efficacy in the policing profession (Pumphrey, 2016). The National Intelligence University explored ethics within the U.S. Intelligence Community and the potential to establish a Code of Ethics (Bailey & Galich, 2012). By doing so, this would present the diverse workforce of over 17 partnerships, which make up the U.S. Intelligence Community with the opportunity to all be on the same page ethically and establish what is right and wrong in intelligence collection and operations.

Today’s criminal justice students are the future of law enforcement and represent the next generation of criminal justice professionals; hence, it is vital to carefully observe their ability to make ethical decisions and instill ethical behavior both by positive and negative reinforcement. To better serve the community, future police officers ought to receive extensive ethics training beyond legal ethics. This, too, goes for intelligence analysts and officers. They ought to learn the significance of acting within the moral code of conduct in exercising their powers over citizens and others, which would positively affect their career and the community they serve.

Researchers have proven that an individual’s continual exposure to making ethical decisions improves his morally sound decision-making (Chang & Kajackaite, 2019; Russo, 2018a). That is why practitioners posit that due diligence should be given to criminal justice students to counter misconduct and reinforce their ethical behavior. Only then would they be poised to better serve the public with the highest institutional integrity and professional standards. It will also increase their morale and capacity to reduce crime and uphold law and order in society. Thus, leaders ought to articulate curriculum meant to enhance students’ ethical decision-making skills before fieldwork and continued study of ethics to make individuals aware of their ethical principles, ensuring they are aligned with the organizations. However, one can only design better training programs once they thoroughly understand the variables that influence an individual’s ability to make ethical decisions (Russo, 2018a; Russo, 2018b).

Research Study: Exploring Ethical Decision-Making Among Students

Researchers and practitioners have examined the variables affecting decision-making, especially in tough situations (Chang & Kajackaite, 2019; Conway & Gawronski, 2013;2015, Friesdorf et al., 2015; Russo, 2018a). There is substantial evidence that points to individual and socio-cultural factors are directly impacting a person’s decisions (Chang & Kajackaite, 2019; Conway & Gawronski, 2013;2015, Friesdorf et al., 2015; Russo, 2018a). Extensive quantitative research was conducted to determine what characteristics affected students’ decision-making processes, pursuing a degree in the criminal justice system (Russo, 2018a; Russo, 2018b). The results presented that age, gender, socio-cultural traits, social status, and religious affiliation are predictors of ethical decision-making (Russo, 2018a).

Furthermore, gender was a significant determinant of ethical decision making, and women have, comparatively, higher levels of ethics, and deontology (duty and obligation) (Russo, 2018a). Education was also a significant factor but cannot be considered a predictor of ethical decision making (Russo, 2018a). It was found that students have majored in criminal justice showed higher levels of deontology compared to students who majored in other branches of education (Russo, 2018a). Participants age did play a part, but it was not a predictor of deontology and ethical decision making (Russo, 2018a). People with more experience and age did make better ethical decisions but cannot be considered significant in overall judgment (Russo, 2018a). People are having higher levels of religious affinities also had higher levels of deontology (Russo, 2018a). However, it was not a significant variable in deciding ethical decision making (Russo, 2018a; Russo, 2018b).  Students with criminal justice as a major were better poised to make ethical decisions than students having majored in other education (Russo, 2018a).

These findings are a testament to the fact that certain personal and environmental factors shape an individual’s inclination and the ability for ethical decisions. That is why it is imperative to increase the ethical training of criminal justice and intelligence professionals. At present, only 10% of the academic time is spent on ethical and moral reasoning, and it needs to be increased, considering the gravity of the situation (Chappell, 2008; Russo, 2018a).


Intelligence and law enforcement organizations must protect and serve the general public. They ought to use the highest moral and ethical standards to ensure they do so without bias and assumptions. Having sheer authority and power, vested by authorities such as the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, it is indispensable for them to strictly adhere to the ethical code of conduct to ensure positive public relations and deal with various civil liabilities. It is not only an institutional responsibility but also a pragmatic necessity. On the other hand, some efforts are afoot and continue the need to be expedited further to improve the students’ or professional’s ethical training.


Bailey, C. E., & Galich, S. (2012). Code of Ethics: The Intelligence Community. International Journal of Intelligence Ethics, 3(2), 77-99.

Chappell, A. T. (2008). Police academy training: Comparing across curricula. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 31(1), 36-56.

Chang, T. Y., & Kajackaite, A. (2019). Battle for the thermostat: Gender and the effect of temperature on cognitive performance. PloS one, 14(5), e0216362. Retrieved from:

Cook, B. J. (2020). Restraining the Unitary Executive: A Regime Ethics Basis for Administrator Defiance of Presidential Directives. Public Integrity, 22(4), 305-315.

Conway, P., & Gawronski, B. (2013). Deontological and utilitarian inclinations in moral decision-making: A process dissociation approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(2), 216-235.

Friesdorf, R., Conway, P., & Gawronski, B. (2015). Gender differences in responses to moral dilemmas a process dissociation analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(5), 696-713. doi:0146167215575731.

Goldman, J. (Ed.). (2006). Ethics of spying: A reader for the intelligence professional (Vol. 1). Scarecrow Press.

Gstrein, O. J., Bunnik, A., & Zwitter, A. (2019). Ethical, Legal and Social Challenges of Predictive Policing. Católica Law Review (2019), Forthcoming.

Isaacson, D. T. (2017, March 15). POLICE ETHICS: DOES EDUCATION MATTER? Retrieved from

Jay Fortenbery, M. (2015, May 05). Featured Articles. Retrieved from

Pollack, J. M. (2017).  Ethical Dilemmas and Decisions in Criminal Justice. Cengage Learning.

Pumphrey, D. J. (2016, October 6). TURNING ETHICAL THEORY INTO PRACTICE IN POLICING. Retrieved from


Russo, C. M. (2018b, October 13). STUDYING THE ETHICS OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE STUDENTS. Retrieved from













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Dr. Charles M. Russo is a current Full-Time Instructor with the College of Safety and Emergency Services at Columbia Southern University (CSU). Dr. Russo has over three decades of national security and criminal justice experience as an Intelligence Analyst with the U.S. Intelligence Community. Previous employments with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Navy. Dr. Russo's teaching background includes over eight years of higher academic teaching in the disciplines of Intelligence, Homeland Security, Counterterrorism, Strategic Security, and Criminal Justice. Among his subject matter areas of expertise are Intelligence Analysis, Theory of Intelligence, Ethics in Intelligence and Criminal Justice, and Counterterrorism. Dr. Russo received his B.A. in Intelligence Studies with a concentration in Analysis from American Military University and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies with a concentration in Collections. Dr. Russo also holds a Ph.D. in Public Safety with a specialization in Criminal Justice from Capella University.

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