Ethics Quiz: A Police Hypothetical From, Of All Places, “Diagnosis Murder”

Hallmark has launched an all-mystery channel, moving into the territory NBC’s Cloo cable channel abandoned when it went belly-up in February. (The name should have doomed it anyway.) The mainstays of the new channel are a fleet of “Murder She Wrote” rip-offs starring a string of female C-list stars TV and has-beens: Allison Sweeney, Candace Cameron Bure, Kelly Martin and Courtney Thorne-Smith so far. The flagship show is the real McCoy, Jessica Fletcher herself. Take it from me: there is no current scripted drama as trite, predictable or badly acted or written than “Murder, She Wrote”—the closest in years would be Debra Messing’s  idiotic “The Mysteries of Laura,” but that was officially a “comedy.”

Another mainstay on the channel is “Diagnosis, Murder,” which is marginally less terrible than watching in Angela Lansbury collect a check for doing the same thing over and over, in part because I am entertained by Dick Van Dyke doing anything.  ( “Diagnosis, Murder” was a drama, yet still about ten times funnier than “The Mysteries of Laura.” ) Still, I don’t expect thought-provoking episodes on the Mystery channel.

Two nights ago, I was surprised. The episode showed Dr. Dick’s police detective son (played by Van Dyke’s real son Barry, who sounds just like Dad) chasing a perp he had stopped while the man was roughing up a woman in  the park. Barry was chasing him on foot, gun drawn, and in the shadows (it was evening), the suspect quickly turned, stopped and pulled something metallic from his pocket. The officer fired, killing him. Barry’s troubled partner shows up (he had been backing up Barry) and checks the scene as police sirens are heard. He finds a flashlight, not a gun, right by the unarmed deceased man, and Barry says, mournfully, “I though the had a gun” His partner (played by Joe Penny) pulls a revolver out of his  own pocket, wipes it, and places it in the dead man’s hand as he pockets the flashlight. “Don’t worry,” he tells distraught Barry, contemplating his career going down the drain, “It’s clean,” meaning “It can’t be traced.”

The police arrive, and Joe quickly tells them that it was a good shooting, that the victim was armed. Barry knows that his partner has strikes against him already for substance abuse, and to rat him out about the flashlight would end his career for certain, and maybe Barry’s as well. He doesn’t say anything, thus becoming complicit in the cover-up.

Tough one!

What intrigues me is this: what if the shooting victim had been black? What if Barry was in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; or in North Charleston, South Carolina, where racial tensions over police shootings were already at the boiling point? What if this happened while Obama’s Justice Department was poised, as it always was, to immediately side with any black victim, and move to investigate such a shooting as a civil rights case? 

What if Barry and his partner immediately knew what lay ahead: Barry’s vilification as a racist, a prosecution for murder, the end of his career, national infamy, and riots and probably deaths, all sparked by a just shooting. (As portrayed on the show from the detective’s perspective, it really did look like the perp was turning to shoot. Who turns around knowing an officer is behind him and pulls out a flashlight? The guy was begging to be shot.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Under these circumstances, would the detectives cover-up be justifiable and ethical?

I recommend thinking about the Ethics Incompleteness Principle if you are even tempted to argue “yes.”

31 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: A Police Hypothetical From, Of All Places, “Diagnosis Murder”

  1. I would say “no”. I would think the evidence would back up Barry’s story; all they’d have to do is examine how the body fell, the gunshot wounds, and of course the flashlight in the guy’s hand. Barry should’ve stopped his partner right away, or failing that, come clean later. I can certainly imagine a Ferguson-like scenario making it more tempting to go with the cover-up, but Barry wouldn’t be responsible for what rioters do, and ultimately I think it’s better to do down for the truth than coast on a lie.

  2. Under no circumstances would a cover up be justifiable. A society that stands ready to charge a police officer who makes a mistake as a murderer makes it all the more tempting, but never justifiable. No one calls a doctor a murderer when his or her malpractice leads to a death, but we no longer give the same benefit of the doubt to our cops. If that fact leads to covering up evidence when a death occurs, or any time, trust will be completely lost. If trust is going to be restored we have to demand the best from our Police then support them even when they make mistakes. Justice will rarely come from charging a police officer with murder, Tusla being the most recent of several examples of that, and we have to become better at discerning when retraining, discipline or firing is an appropriate response.

  3. Unequivocally no. I am not sure what the dilemma is: his partner should be run out of the force as unfit to serve as a police officer; the partner is a menace to law enforcement. There is absolutely no justification for planting evidence. Doing so undermines the legitimacy of the law enforcement system as well as the justice system. If the partner suffers economically, legally, and professionally, well, that’s too bad – he made his bed so he should lie (lay?) in it. The partner’s actions not only undermine this fact scenario, they call into question every other case he has been involved in. This happens every time an investigator’s questionably illegal tactics are uncovered: for instance, here is a link to a scandal brewing in the Houston Crime Lab, where incompetence seems to reign supreme:

    As for Barry, he has an affirmative duty to report it. Failing to do so will compound the problem. Barry’s shooting as described may have been a justifiable use of deadly force – he may have had a reasonable belief that his life was in danger. Planting evidence (a crime in most jurisdictions) and failing to report his partner’s actions destroy the defense and call into question Barry’s fitness as a police officer and the department’s professionalism.


    • I don’t think anyone is dealing with the hypothetical. In the actual show, this result is clear. They hypo is in a different context. Is it ethical and fair that an innocent cop, though the actions of a felon (we say him battering a woman), who reacts in legitimate self-defense (we saw the shooting; we saw the guy reach into his pocket and start to pull out an object.In this case, there is no dispute that the shooting was clean; that’s stipulated. So: scenario A: Detective plays it straight; Al Sharpton leads a protest, politicized Marilyn Mosby-style DA panders to a rioting mob; the riot causes millions and damages, a couple deaths; the cop is indicted for murder; BLM uses him as a portrait of a racist on its website; his children are threatened and harassed in school; the prep for litigation goes on for at least a year; the community is roiled; even if he is acquitted the activists hold him guilty. His life is ruined, millions lost, kids and family hurt…benefits: what, other than the satisfaction of playing it straight and being a martyr?

      Traditional ethics only causes unethical results in Bizarro World, where everything is upside down. Truth doesn’t matter, honesty doesn’t matter, fairness doesn’t matter. Do you lie to keep the runaway slave in your basement from being dragged back to his owner? Isn’t this that kind of situation?

      • I totally understand what you’re saying, and you’re making some valid points. On the other hand, we cannot be responsible for other peoples behavior, either. What Al Sharpton and his ilk decide to do is out of my control…I can only control what I do. If I choose an unethical action, even if it is to ensure a more pleasant result, it is still an unethical action, even if the result is as ethical as all get out. And it may be that nobody will ever know about it…but I will.

        • If Al and BLM and a Mosby-like vigilante prosecutor and a lynch mob press hold the cards with the Justice Department cheering them on, of course you can control them: you can avoid giving them a stick to beat you, your family, police and the community to death with. That can be called self defense as well.

          • Again, a valid point, and you just told me why I am conflicted about this. Yes, it would look an awful lot like self-defense to me, but I still wouldn’t do it, because I still have to answer to me. And somehow, this just doesn’t feel right to me.

          • And, I’m not really sure it would avoid that stick. I’m almost certain that an old paramour would be produced who would swear that the shoot-ee had never carried a gun and never been violent before. She would swear that this had to be a set-up.

          • Someone has to stop the downward spiral. It can never be acceptable for a police officer to lie or plant evidence and we have to aggressively weed that out at first light. Even the thought that this would be tolerated or justifiable makes the stick you talk about bigger, a video that shows a dirty cop dropping a gun would throw every cop under the giant stick. The insanity must stop somewhere.

            • Question then: If you are the police officer in my hypothetical and due to uncontrollable conditions out of your control that mean that your legal shooting will be used as political propaganda to vilify you, the police, ruin your life, destroy your family, destroy you and your career, wreck your children’s future, and you can prevent all of that by doing something that is “unacceptable” in the abstract, where the alternative course is ethical but results in multiple injustices to untold innocents, would you really choose martyrdom?

              • Doesn’t planting the gun have at least as much potential to unleash all of those consequences? If a police officer violating his public trust like that becomes something that is “unacceptable in the abstract” we are in deep trouble. Our lawful society is in jeopardy if we can’t agree on three things. First, that it is objectively unacceptable for a police officer to lie or plant evidence. Second, we have to hire, train and equip the best society men and women among us to trust with the authority to police us – then hold them accountable if that trust is violated. Third, we have to support the men and women that we send into sometimes impossible deadly force situations. The farther we move away from that standard the harder it will be to get back, but for the police officer, their decisions and conduct are the only things they have any control over.

                The police officer in this scenario who shoots and kills someone who pulls out a flashlight that is mistaken for a gun has not violated their oath or the public trust. The police officer who plants evidence clearly has.

                The tragic personal consequences, that are only known because your hypothetical shows them in advance, make this seem like a hard choice, but it is not. I would not intentionally choose martyrdom, but I could never plant a gun. I don’t believe that makes me a pillar of virtue, I think that makes me minimally qualified for your trust.

                • That officer in the scenario I describe is also in a context where society has abandoned its duty to him, his profession, and his family. Would I plant a gun to prevent a riot and police assassinations, the ruination of my family and more? It’s an ethics conflict.

                  • You are forgetting how bizarre BizzaroWorld really is. The race of the police officer and the existence of a gun don’t prevent the rioting and vilification. Milwaukee, last summer:

                    A black police officer shot a 23 year old black man with body camera video showing him pointing a gun back at him. Days of rioting and burning followed. The Officer has been fired and awaits trial for Reckless Homicide.

                    I do appreciate the ethical dilemma, but the surest way to make things worse is to begin to rationalize dishonesty for the sake of self preservation.

                    • It’s really Kant versus Mill, though, isn’t it? And maybe not even Kant: would he argue that there is an ethical mandate to sacrifice oneself and one’s family and ones’ community and one’s colleagues for the abstract ideal of honesty, when the honesty results in only misery?

                      I would, in fact, play it straight if I were the cop in my hypothetical. But I have a hard time saying that anyone who would not is unethical.

                • MK, first, a disclaimer…because you are fairly new here, I checked out your profile and your blog, so I know a little bit (a very little bit) about you. I would say, first, that you are to be congratulated on your position, and I support you and your men, at least as far as someone can support someone who is as far away from me as you are. However, I have to tell you that not considering the political and/or social implications of a police officers actions, before he takes those actions may be a bit unrealistic. First, I will agree with you that planting a “throw down” is unethical (as is planting evidence a la Mark Forman). That is not now in question. What is in question, and an area in which I am deeply conflicted, is if an unethical behavior is both expedient and required, both for the officer and for the surrounding society . I have no idea whether the officer in question is black or white (tho I assume white, since Dick Van Dyke is white and the officer is his son) or the race of the victim. If we pre-suppose the victim of the shooting is black, the Shooting Review Boards decision is only the beginning of the problem. In todays society, let’s assume the victim is black. We immediately have headlines proclaiming “Unarmed black man shot by police in Chicago”, to move this to your jurisdiction. Al Sharpton shows up, Jesse Jackson shows up, riots are promulgated, looting by outsiders happens, innocents are killed or at least injured, property damage happens, and all for the sake of an ethical response by a police officer. Having said that, however, let me say that I do understand the implications of the unethical act…made worse by the possibility of the entire incident being caught on tape by someone or something, with the consequent erosion of trust for the police by the very constituency they are supposed to be protecting. You can, perhaps, now understand my confliction. If the police officer is ethical, and states what happened, he, his family and perhaps his department are forever considered bad guys, no matter what else they do, ever. If he drops a “throw-down”, unethical, he becomes an unethical law enforcement officer, and I don’t like to consider the implications of that. Worse, if he gets caught. Ethics, I think, is a field in which few absolutes exist. This may be one, I don’t know. Which is worse, dropping the “throw down” or allowing your entire community to be torn apart by violence, admittedly from outside influences? I can’t tell you how glad I am that this falls into your purview and not mine. I’m frankly not sure where I’d go with it.

  4. Gotta go with “No” on this one. If there was nothing wrong with the shoot in the first place, why arrange a cover-up? As far as the riots and looting go, they were not the fault of the shooting officers…they were the results of misguided attempts to grab glory by some people whom we call race-baiters and by the actual ignorance of the rioters. Probably more the latter than the former.

  5. Telling a lie against your sworn duty never works out well. I would be tormented day and night by the guilt, and I do NOT know that the outcome of coming clean will be that bad. I just know there is a good chance it could be.

    Tell the truth, stop the partner from planting the gun.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.