Doing the Right Thing


Tactical Sling


Every profession has a set of ethical standards that it’s members, are expected to follow, and SWAT should be no exception. The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics formulated by the International Association of Chief’s of Police is a general, an ethical guide for law enforcement officers. The principals also apply to SWAT leaders.

That said, SWAT Leaders often face dilemmas that are not covered by that particular code of ethics. Rather than facing street-level policing situations, they are much more likely to face problems from outside the department, SWAT managers face competition for limited funding, community accountability situations usually seen as undue criticism, and perceived or actual political pressures. Some principals you should familiarize yourself with are:

IACP Crowd Control
Army's Small Unit Leaders Guide to Crowd Control
California POST SWAT Manual
USDOJ Guide to first amendment protections

Although there may not be a specific SWAT Leaders Code of Ethics, asking yourself a few simple questions can help you make correct and ethical decisions throughout your career. So, when faced with making operational decisions in that "gray" ethical area, along with your guiding principles, here are a few questions to ask yourself.

Is my decision legal?

Although you are sworn to uphold the law, today's SWAT Leaders decisions may fall under a set of laws you didn't learn in the academy. Personnel decisions and assignments must be made carefully and with full knowledge of anti-discrimination laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act and a host of other employment laws. You must know when it is legal to enter a residence or business. Is the entry consistent with good common sense? Are sparking a confrontation that might not be necessary? ( see IACP’s “Improper Tactics and Use”) All Leaders decisions must conform to constitutional law and the civil and criminal civil rights laws. A SWAT Leader must not only know the provisions of the actual laws, but also have a working knowledge of the associated case law to avoid making decisions that may not pass legal scrutiny.

Is my decision based on emotion rather than facts?

With the recent upsurge in police officers being shot and ambushed emotions can run high. Emotional decisions are seldom-good decisions. The negative emotions of anger, and/or revenge, must not be allowed to adversely influence the actual facts and circumstances of a situation. Other emotional considerations such as compassionate understanding or empathy can be given weight in the decision-making process to mitigate the circumstances or motives, but good ethical decisions should be based on the facts.

Is it worth my job and/or my career?

SWAT Leaders can be faced with some very difficult ethical decisions. In some cases, extreme outside pressures can be brought to bear from civilian bosses, special interest groups and politicians, all seeking a favorable decision for their own purposes.

At times such as those, a SWAT Leader must evaluate the potential consequences of his or her decision, both pro and con. One single decision can have long-term influence and consequences. The question each individual leader must ask himself or herself is, “How far am I willing to go to maintain both my ethics and my job?” Only you know the answer to that question. Don’t ever use the excuse, “I was ordered to do it!”. If it is illegal or unethical, Don’t!!.

Is my decision fair to all?

After gathering the facts and circumstances of a given situation take the time to look at the situation in terms of the people involved in it.

If it is a tactical decision is it fair to the neighborhood, the homeowner, the deputies and the suspect? Always consider the safety and effects on all the participants. Destroying a residence or a business might be necessary but be able to articulate why it was necessary.

In personnel matters, if you choose to discipline a team member, is your action fair to the employee? On the other hand, would your failure to take disciplinary action be fair to others who do their best to follow the rules and avoid such disciplinary actions? Is that failure to act detrimental to the team?

Being a SWAT Leader, like other law enforcement work, is still a person-to-person business and it will remain so. Taking the time to evaluate a situation in human terms can help you make better ethical decisions. With fundamental fairness as the cornerstone of your decision-making process, you can better evaluate the totality of the situation and make sound and ethical decisions. “How will this affect the people involved and is my decision worth it?

Is it the right thing to do?

So many factors go into making the "right" decision that you cannot consciously evaluate each individual factor and its effects on your decision-making process. This is the time to take a deep breath and let your intuition take over for a moment. Do you have an uneasy feeling about making a particular decision? Then there is something wrong with it. On the other hand, if a particular decision intuitively "feels good," then it is probably the right decision to make.

As you progress in your career, you often will be faced with ethical dilemmas both small and large. How you respond to those challenges will determine who you are and how others, both inside and outside the department perceive you. It is your choice as to whether you are perceived as a competent and ethical SWAT Leader or as something else.

In your daily activities, as well as in those difficult dilemmas, rely on your years of law enforcement education, training and experience. In difficult situations, stop and ask yourself the five preceding questions. Then make your decision.

Chances are, you'll be doing the right thing.

This article was adapted from an article in Law Enforcement Technology. April 1999 by Roger Fulton, a retired New York State Law Enforcement Captain, is now the owner of Knight Management Corp., which provides management and training services to the law enforcement community. He can be reached at (804) 642-2343 or on the internet at “”.




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