The Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 22, 1999
Feb. 22, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 23


Aristotle, Plato Guide Police Officers Studying Ethics Case

By Glenn Small
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Two officers with religious objections to abortion tell a supervisor they want off a detail protecting abortion clinic workers from anti-abortion demonstrators. An African American police officer tells a supervisor he will quit rather than provide protection at a Ku Klux Klan rally.

For three hours, participants in a recent two-day conference on policing and ethics wrestled with these two issues, both drawn from real life cases. Should the officers be ordered to work the abortion protest anyway? Would letting the officers avoid the assignment open the door to having others pick and choose assignments based on their political beliefs? And should the supervisor respect the African American officer's sentiments against the klan?

"If you found these difficult, then you know what it's like to be a police officer," Stephen Vicchio told the more than 200 officers and citizens present. "But these types of questions don't just happen once a week. They happen two or three times a day. It's a really hard job to be a police supervisor."

Vicchio, a philosophy professor at the College of Notre Dame who regularly teaches ethics courses to police officers enrolled in the Hopkins Police Executive Leadership Program, designed the ethical case studies. He had the participants meet in separate rooms, grouped according to their status. Chiefs met in one room, sergeants in another, citizens in another--all debating the same issues.

In the end, the groups gathered to present their conclusions. Interestingly, all the groups decided the officers should be ordered to complete the assignments, with qualifications. But they arrived at their answers differently.

"If you noticed, the citizens' group was much tougher on the officers," said Terry Katz, a lieutenant in the Maryland State Police. "They had very high expectations of law enforcement."

Led by Vicchio, the officers tapped into decision-making thought processes employed by ancient philosophers, such as Aristotle and Plato. And by all accounts, Vicchio had their full attention.

"It was a superior piece of training," said Katz, who taught last year at a similar Hopkins conference, on gangs and gang activity.

The sessions for gang activity were "packed," Katz said, "But [that topic] was jazzy. This was not. Ethics is nuts and bolts. Without it, the structure will fall down."

Mark G. Spurrier, director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Community Policing Institute, which organized the event, said feedback on the conference was "excellent."

Baltimore County Police major Brian Uppercue, a 1998 graduate of the Hopkins police leadership program, said that while much of the ethics discussion felt like a good refresher course rather than new information, he still gets a charge out of applying age-old principles to modern police work.

"If you can apply a principle from thousands of years ago and it's just as appropriate today, it's awesome," Uppercue said.

Katz put it another way.

"When was the last time you had a cops class where you were talking about Socrates and Plato," Katz asked, rhetorically, pausing a beat, "and nobody left?"