Moral Dilemmas in Public Safety

By Dan Limmer

traffic-lightMany years ago when I was a young police officer in Upstate New York, I was dispatched to a domestic call. A young woman and her boyfriend had a violent dispute. He fled the scene before I got there. It concerned me because he had exhibited some classic power and control actions like cutting and burning her hair and ripping up her address book. This was before the significant domestic violence education officers receive now, but I recognized this as more than the usual spat. If he was there when I arrived, I would have arrested him. I was now concerned he may come back after I left the apartment.

We were busy that day and a sergeant—a crusty old sergeant—was dispatched as my back-up. He arrived and poked his head in, asking me what I had. I explained my observations and was essentially told to blow it off. The sergeant didn’t buy into the newer domestic violence theories and looked at this woman as a kid who had been in a fight—not a victim who could be in danger.

This put me in a position to either obey an order from my sergeant (which violated policy) or do what I felt to be right for the victim.

I figured I had three broad stroke choices in my situation:

  1. Listen to the sergeant and blow it off. Do nothing.
  2. Challenge the sergeant and risk the consequences.
  3. Come up with a solution that protected the girl and didn’t cause conflict with my supervisor.

I chose to come up with that alternative solution. It turns out that the boyfriend was on parole. A really bad guy. The victim happened to mention that they had been smoking a lot of marijuana recently. I called the boyfriend’s parole officer who went to the boyfriend’s house that afternoon, drug tested him, violated his parole and put him back in jail. It was a neat and effective solution to protect her.

She showed up for his parole hearing a few months later to testify about his good character. She pleaded with me to not testify and send him back to prison. I testified and he was sent back upstate.

In the 25 or more years since this happened, I’ve thought of this case many times. In the maturity I may have gained since then, I often wish I had stood up to the sergeant. It would have been a challenge since he was pretty set in his ways and I was a new cop. I was young and didn’t want to buck the system.

Even though I protected the kid, I didn’t stand up for the greater good. We sometimes have to make these decisions in public safety. Examples of this in EMS are wondering whether to turn someone in for false documentation or errors, treating patients poorly or ignoring a patient’s need for analgesia.

I wrote this because I saw an EMS friend post something on Facebook that indicated she saw something that she didn’t believe was right and she was struggling in a decision on what to do. She isn’t alone.

Good decisions are the hallmark of the best public safety professionals.

While there are times you choose not to fight a battle so you can stay effectively in the game for another day, you must balance that with the need to do the right thing for the system and the people who need you.

Decisions like this are often more difficult than most patient care decisions. Make them wisely.