Ethical Relativity in Law Enforcement

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Griffin Police Department Chief Dan Ainsworth is faced with an ethical dilemma when he learned of methamphetamine use occurring just outside of his hometown. Not only is he informed by BCI Agent William Frawley that many rural residents are using and distributing methamphetamine but is also informed there has been a rise in gang activity. The question for Ainsworth is one involving normative ethics, where he must decide what is the right thing to do for the residents he serves (Pollock, 2013)? He ultimately decides to not get involved with the issue and tells Agent Frawley to come back if he finds that the methamphetamine problem has spread to Griffin.

As to why Ainsworth chooses to abstain from becoming involved, it is possible that he has both personal motives and a concern for his community’s image. It is stated that he is popular and has gone many years without any major crime in his city. As a result, he is likely hoping to keep it that way. Furthermore, he has a good relationship with the mayor and city council members of Griffin, and if they are informed of a methamphetamine problem, the relationship could become strained. He is also afraid of frightening the residents of Griffin, as the methamphetamine problem is currently affecting rural communities.

He states, “I’d just as soon not bother the mayor or city council and scare them with the idea that drugs are all over Griffin.” While it is partially right due to the fact that the drug problem has been largely outside of Griffin, he also has to acknowledge the problem is growing and could spread to Griffin. Ultimately, one of the imperfect duties is to be honest (Pollock, 2013), and he should be honest with the city’s leaders and residents by letting them know there is a growing drug problem in and around in the city. That still does not necessarily mean he should become involved in the situation, but he should at least alert the mayor and city council of the investigation so they are not surprised later. By not alerting anyone of the problem, he is essentially employing the ethical system of egoism, where he is mainly concerned with his own image without worrying about how the problem could eventually affect Griffin residents (Pollock, 213).

It would be wise for Agent Frawley and the BCI to contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation or Drug Enforcement Administration in an attempt to enlist their assistance. Frawley claims the drug problem is serious, with Griffin being a major distribution point for various drugs, so the two agencies would likely be interested in assisting with the problem. If he is contacting Chief Griffin for help with manpower, he is likely short on agents to deal with the problem. Federal agencies could provide the assistance necessary to help make the necessary arrests and disrupt the market.

Government efforts in reducing the influence of the methamphetamine market have proven to be successful in the past. For example, the government was able to reduce the purity of methamphetamine from 90 percent to 20 percent and triple its price in 1995 (Dobkin and Nicosia, 2009). A similar intervention could help solve rural Griffin’s drug problem before it spreads to the city of Griffin itself. In doing so, Frawley would essentially alert the mayor, city council, and possibly the city residents of the problem. However, he is engaging in more of a utilitarian approach, as opposed to the egoism approach Ainsworth has taken (Pollock, 2013). His primary concern is ensuring the rural residents are not affected by drug use or the crime that comes with it. He is also working to make sure the problem does not spread to Griffin and become even harder to quell.

In the end, Dan Ainsworth is engaging in ethical relativism. This is evidenced by the fact that Ainsworth says he will become involved if Frawley finds drugs in Griffin, but not if he finds them directly in and around Griffin. Therefore, he acknowledges that intervention is necessary, but only if it is directly affecting the citizens he serves. As a result, stopping the spread of drugs and drug use is morally acceptable if they are found in Griffin in order to prevent crime and ensure safety, but he does not care if they are found in the surrounding communities.

The primary ethical issue involved is Ainsworth not doing everything in his power to provide safety for the residents of Griffin. An ethical issue is one that requires an individual to make a choice that has consequences for others (McDevitt and Van Hise, 2002). By ignoring the problem, he is allowing the methamphetamine problem to potentially spread in Griffin. This could have many consequences, including increased crime and unwanted residents moving to the area after realizing Griffin is a major distribution city for the drug. If he were to tackle the problem immediately, Ainsworth is doing everything in his power to solve the problem before it becomes worse, even if that means alerting city residents that there is a growing drug problem near the city. Likewise, by not informing the residents of the drug problem around the city, he is potentially putting them at risk of becoming victims of so-called "victimless crimes" because they would likely take further measures to protect their property if they knew of the problem.

In conclusion, Ainsworth’s interests are mostly egoist ones. He is more concerned with keeping a clean image for himself and his city than stopping a growing problem. By acknowledging that he would become involved if the problem reaches Griffin, he showed that there should be some sort of intervention. He is only willing to do so if it reaches his city though. This is due to the fact that he is attempting to ignore the problem with hopes that someone else will solve it so he does not have to inform the mayor or city council of the problem because it could potentially damage his reputation.


Dobkin, Carlos, & Nicosla, Nancy (2009). The war on drugs: Methamphetamine, public health, and crime. The American Economic Review, 99, 324-349.

McDevitt, Roselie, & Van Hise, Joan (2002). Influences in ethical dilemmas of increasing intensity. Journal of Business Ethics, 40, 261-274.

Pollock, Joycelyn M. (2013). Ethical dilemmas and decisions in criminal justice. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.