April 2006 Ethics Dunces

Officer Kelley

Can we all agree that while strict enforcement of the law is usually a desirable thing, a stubborn refusal to apply common sense to the general rule will lead to unethical results? If so, we can also agree that Officer Kelley, a San Fernando Valley, California policeman, needs to apply some minimum level of ethical balancing before the next time he is tempted to slap a $114 ticket on an 83 year old woman using a cane and carrying groceries because she was crossing the street too slowly.

Mavis Coyle, the octogenarian in question, began shuffling across the five lane street as soon as the traffic signal turned, but couldn't get all the way across before the lights turned again. Did Officer Kelley, applying his ethical values (caring, empathy, mercy, responsibility) think, "Oh dear! That poor woman! I better help her!" No. Did he, applying different but equally valid ethical values (fairness, tolerance, respect) decide to talk with the woman and explain to her that it was dangerous for her to cross the street under such circumstances? No again. Did he, noticing that the light changed after only 20 seconds, apply yet another set of values (accountability, diligence, competence, courage) and set out to remedy the real problem by letting the city know that the light was dangerously timed? No. He simply went by the book, and ticketed someone for going about the essential task of dealing with the world the only way she could.

Legally correct.

Ethically dumb.

Los Angeles police Sgt. Mike Zaboski of the Valley Traffic Division defended Officer Kelley's actions by explaining that police are cracking down on people who improperly cross streets because pedestrian accidents have been soaring (due to quick-trigger traffic signals, perhaps?). "I'd rather not have angry pedestrians," Zaboski said. "But I'd rather have them be alive." Alive, and apparently stranded on one side of the street forever. Ticketing someone for doing the only thing they can do under the circumstances, in this case trying to cross the street despite a fast signal, is a useless and pointlessly punitive gesture. When strictly enforcing the law will create an obvious injustice, it is ethical to find another option. All that is required is a little compassion, a little common sense, and a little thought.




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