Ick Or Ethics? The Officers’ “Coin Flip”

OK, it wasn’t really a coin flip, as many news sources inaccurately reported. And, true, there is no definitive evidence that the virtual coin flip two police officers allegedly resorted to in order to make the call whether to arrest a reckless driver or not actually was the reason they arrested her. It is even possible that they did the opposite of what the cell phone app told them to do.

Never mind. It’s still an interesting ethics story. I would make it an ethics quiz, except that I am sure of the answer.

Here is the background: In the city of Roswell,  outside of Atlanta on April 7,  Sarah Webb was running late for work. Police saw her go by at what they estimated was over 80 miles an hour, caught up to her, and told her she was diving recklessly, especially since the roads were wet.

She was arrested. Then it came out that this happened, (from the New York Times account):

In the footage of the arrest, the officers can be heard talking about what to do. One said that she had not been able to measure the exact speed of Ms. Webb’s vehicle but had to drive as fast as 90 miles per hour to catch up with her. Then she could be seen pulling out a phone.

“A, head. R, tail,” said one of the officers — A for arrest, or R for release.

“O.K.,” said the other.

Then a sound effect can be heard: a cartoonish chime and click, like a coin flipping and landing.

“This is tail, right?” said one officer.

“Yeah. So, release?” said another.

“23,” came the reply, referring to a police code for an arrest. Ms. Webb was handcuffed moments later.

In the aftermath, the charges were dropped and the officers involved have been suspended, with the police chief saying, “This behavior is not indicative of the hard-working officers of the Roswell Police Department. I have much higher expectations of our police officers and I am appalled that any law enforcement officer would trivialize the decision-making process of something as important as the arrest of a person.” Meanwhile, the reckless driver, in an exhibition that should at least be entered for the 2018 Gall of the Year award, is vocally claiming victimhood, saying,

“My civil liberties were violated. To think that these are the people who are supposed to be helping us and looking out for us. My freedom was put at risk because of a coin flip. It was a game to them…I just don’t want this to happen to anybody else because the next person might not get so lucky.”


  • Is this really ethics, of just the Ick Factor, a situation that viscerally looks wrong and feels wrong so people employing reflex emotions rather than ethical analysis default to a conclusion that there was an ethical breach?

It’s a close call. Maybe I should flip a coin…

  • In close calls, in all sorts of decisions and with all sorts of decision-makers, random factors as well as irrelevant factors determine the ultimate decision. In this case, the officers could have been  swayed by the woman’s demeanor, which shouldn’t matter, her tone of voice, her appearance, whether they were in a bad mood, whether they had a fight with their spouses the night before.  Did the driver remind one of the officers of her best friends in college? Her worst enemy? Was one of the officers having Golden Rule flashbacks, to when she had been speeding to get somewhere, and a kind officer had let her off?

Maybe bias was an issue: I don’t know what the races of the driver and the officers were, but suppose that the officers were white and the driver was black.

  • One advantage a coin flip has over decision-making in such a situation is that it undeniably eliminates bias, and today police are being accused of bias routinely. I could argue that using the coin flip app was more ethical, more fair, than any other method.

Will I?

  • No, I won’t. In situations like this, when professional conduct is involved, “ick” IS ethics. The use of a coin flip to make the kind of decision that a professional, in this case a law enforcement officer, is supposedly trained to make looks terrible, and creates an appearance of incompetence,  lack of diligence, lack of respect for process and the system, and indifference. Thus the virtual coin flip, even if the officers didn’t follow its dictates, is unethical. It harms all police, and undermines public trust.

The answer is, therefore, that this is both “ick” AND unethical.

20 thoughts on “Ick Or Ethics? The Officers’ “Coin Flip”

  1. When I was going to school in Boston, I made my beer money by working in emergency medical services. Part of that work was in a district of the city, and part of it was in the northern suburbs; the latter company was a private concern that had the EMS contract for three contiguous towns and did a boatload of transfer work on top of it. A terrible company, long since sold out, but that’s another story. Suffice to say that I liked the work itself, even if the company itself was lousy.

    In that role, I came to know a lot of cops and firefighters really well. They weren’t that different from us, other than the fact that their jobs were a lot more dangerous than ours – and ours were dangerous.

    First-response work requires that the teams work in very close proximity with one another, and teams are mostly together for their entire shifts. Depending on the branch, shifts can last between eight hours and 48 (yes, you sleep if there’s nothing going on). Inherent in a smoothly functioning unit in all three first-response disciplines is a good relationship between crew members; partners or teams at odds with each other become a huge problem. If they can, supervisory personnel will usually do their best to ensure that the personnel in a given car or truck get along well. It’s remarkably intimate.

    In the world of first responders, gallows humor and inside gags predominate. The intensity and stress of the jobs virtually demands it. Things get said on the way to calls and on the trip back to the barn that many people probably wouldn’t appreciate. Jokes and gags run rampant, almost invariably with a dark, job-focused edge to them.

    It doesn’t impact the ability of the vast majority first responders to do their jobs with competence once they arrive on the scene or are actively interacting with civilians.

    Thus, I don’t view it as unethical. I view it as a natural and extremely typical example of what goes on in fire trucks, ambulances and police cars every day. This kind of thing is simply a coping mechanism that helps people the public depends upon to get in the morning, go to work and do their jobs without becoming so enraged, bitter and disheartened by what they see that they kill themselves – either slowly through drink, or quickly with their own bullet.

    So let me add a third option to your impromptu quiz: is this a) unethical, b) ick, or c) an invasion of privacy? I would select c.

      • Flattered – but before you make it one, let me add that if all this happened in front of the person – I appear to have missed that part – then what these two cops did was in fact extremely unprofessional and a suspension is warranted. If it happened while they were still in the car and were simply recorded doing so, I consider it an invasion of privacy.

  2. Simple answer. Arrest everyone speeding over 80 or no one. There is no more fair way to distribute enforcement.

    • They said the roads were wet. 80 on a sunny day is very different than 80 in a rain storm. The amount of traffic on the road should be a consideration as well. A fair system cannot eliminate human discretion.

      • Dan, I agree but each of those factors can be quantifiable and used in the decision process.

        What I was getting at was that if you don’t arrest someone for doing 80 on dry pavement but do arrest someone on wet pavement then just do the same thing each time. Qualitative factors should not enter into the equation such as her looks or gender, her demeanor, or race. None of those are relevant to the reason for the traffic stop or offense for which a citation is issued. Weather conditions are prima facie evidence of reckless behavior in a variety of circumstances.

  3. By the way. Who was the she who was seen pulling out the phone a female police officer or the driver? Also, who made the statement 23?

  4. Is being jaded to the point of indifference or random chance a form of bias when enforcing the written laws is required?

    • Arrest everyone who is breaking the law, especially when the possible harm is so great.

      Lady decided to be reckless with several tons of steel and plastic. She should have been arrested.

  5. Ok, I am going to make an argument that this could have been ethical. I use coin flips to force me to make tough decisions. The coin flip outcome is irrelevant. While the coin is in the air, you will pick a side you want to win. The coin flip forces you to come to the conclusion that needs to be made. Maybe they didn’t want to arrest her because she seemed like a nice person and they really didn’t want her to suffer the serious personal consequences such an arrest would cause. The coin flip could have made them realize what they needed to do. They just shouldn’t have made it known they were using a coin flip.

  6. I believe I can adequately explain what is actually causing the real problem here. If there was a coin flip, the reckless driver should have been the one who was forced to call heads or tails. This would have ensured the reckless driver was a meaningful participant in her arrest and not left feeling as her civil liberties were violated. A very good lesson can be learned by the movie “No Country for Old Men”. The mysterious character played so well by Javier Bardem gave a sense of his humanity and fairness when he let citizens call heads or tells when he flipped a coin in order to decide if these citizens were to lose their civil liberties. A person’s fate should obviously not be decided without the full due process in which a coin flip can render if a coin flip is to be used. Also, the incredible lack of bias shown in the outcome of the coin flip by Bardem have left some real coin flips looking like arbitrary emotional exercises in self indulgence which is exactly the type of decision making process law enforcement should stay away from today. The optics are just bad on this. I actually think it’s best to leave the coin flips out of law enforcement.

  7. Ick or unethical is only after the fact. The coin flip if it was used came AFTER the driver put how many lives at risk on wet roads or along the sidewalks because of her wish to speed.

    The cops should be suspended for a while, to remind them to keep some actions and words out of public eye. Unless the driver can prove Jason or Hannibal Lechter was chasing that she had to go 80 to escape, any rudeness came after her screwup. The arrest should stay as she is still a threat to public safety, and now a cocky one. My cynical heart suspects if her child or pet was killed by a speeder, she’d be protesting why they didn’t do SOMETHING to prevent it.

    “Your lack of planning does not constitute my (or any) emergency…”

    • The coin flip, in this case, was a random choice between justice and mercy, not between injustice and fairness. But, you describe, some situations do not warrant mercy – or at least some situations that may warrant mercy are not within the realm of the officers to decide.

  8. “One advantage a coin flip has over decision-making in such a situation is that it undeniably eliminates bias, and today police are being accused of bias routinely. I could argue that using the coin flip app was more ethical, more fair, than any other method.”

    Is this true though?

    In a multi-factorial situation, which you indicate this was, in which a wide variety of factors (and biases) could be swaying the officer’s decision either way, what if the biases were in enough in one direction that made this a “50-50” decision, prompting the coin flip?

    That is, what if, without biases, what if the officers would have been more like 80-20 in favor of arrest or release, but that their biases caused that 80 to balance down and the 20 to balance up leading to the officer’s 50-50 dilemma.

    I don’t think a coin flip necessarily removes bias.

  9. I think we are missing the real reason the officers acted so unprofessionally: they forgot to wear a tinfoil hat, and the UFO was controlling their thoughts. It was an alien experiment (darn those Grays!)

    This IS Roswell, after all.

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