RESEARCHING POLICE: IRONICAL ETHICAL CHALLENGES

Cliff Sayer

Police are provided with increasingly more powers to perform their functions, of protecting society.   There also appear to be increasingly more ‘ethical’ challenges in place to researching police activities.  This is perhaps somewhat ironical.

In liberal democracies power is circumscribed and restrained by systems of ‘checks and balances.’  Such systems are reliant on information flow and active endeavours to provide and maintain transparency.  This is reflected in the legal system by the duty incumbent on prosecution to provide all relevant information to the defendant, in order for the defendant to make an informed decision about their case, knowing the extent of the case against them.   Aside from being a legal requirement this also reflects an ethical position.

Ethical requirements, as embodied in Codes of Ethics and Codes of Conduct, are also an attempt to provide a systematic basis to restrain or circumscribe power.

In attempting to research the police, to scrutinise and shed some light; some ‘transparency’ into the modes of conduct and the exercise of police power, in particular over society’s most vulnerable, there comes a tension between the stringent requirements of ethics committees ostensibly protecting the same vulnerable population and the ability to conduct such research.  This presents a conundrum.

Research in proposing to ‘shadow’ or conduct an ethnographic study of police making bail decisions in a variety of socio- economic areas will inevitably face some ethical dilemmas; but the first of which is to overcome some significant methodological ethical hurdles required by the various research ethics committee.  This presentation will describe the consideration, reflection and attempts made to address this quandary.


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