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.
- 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.