Survey helps criminal justice students gauge career

Dec 29 2012 - 11:19pm

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OGDEN -- One of Bruce Bayley's favorite questions always has been "What if?"

During his career as corrections officer, Bayley often asked himself what he would do if the power went out and cells unlocked. Or what he would do if he were in an open cellblock when one of the inmates dropped to the floor, seemingly unconscious.

"By processing these scenarios beforehand, it gets me in a mental mode where I can react quicker," Bayley said.

So it was only natural that Bayley, now a criminal justice associate professor at Weber State University, would encourage his students to do the same.

Over three semesters, Bayley asked his 260 students to take online surveys on ethics related to law enforcement careers. Questions had no right or wrong answers, but some choices were more closely aligned than others with the personality traits of a successful law enforcement worker. For example, would the survey taker be able to shoot someone who was threatening the life of a fellow officer?

"The survey and the discussions that followed in class helped students reflect on whether their core values will help or hinder their chosen profession," Bayley said. "If I have a student whose conscience would not allow him to pull a gun and take someone's life to save a fellow officer, I would advise that student to seek a career path outside of law enforcement."

The surveys offered a snapshot into the ethical makeup of each class.

"I took the results of the survey and created lesson plans that tuned into the mindset of the class," Bayley said. "I presented many 'what if' ethical dilemmas that students likely may encounter in the future."

Bayley's results recently were published in the National Social Science and Technology Journal. His findings also allowed him to address one troubling trend he uncovered. About a third of his students gave answers revealing they were vulnerable to "noble-cause corruption," to doing bad things for good reasons.

"For example, if they knew about a drug dealer on the street who was a bad person, they would consider cheating, lying or manufacturing evidence to get him off the street," Bayley said. "Some students thought how you got the criminal off the street didn't make any difference, and it absolutely does make a difference."

Bayley said any such corruption would hurt all the people involved and would damage the public perception of the local and national justice systems. Community members would lose trust and would feel less safe in their everyday lives.

Because the survey takers are still students, there is time to address any misconceptions through discussion and course work.

"We hope their training in classes and in the (Weber State Law Enforcement) Academy have reoriented them to the correct views," Bayley said. "With continued testing, we should get that answer.

"We don't know exactly why some of them would have a problem with noble-cause corruption," Bayley said. "My theory is, they watch cop shows and movies, and in those shows, you do what it takes to get the bad guy. So they come to class or to the academy with a misperception of what really is."

Bayley said he doesn't know of anyone who has changed their entire career plans as a result of taking the ethical survey.

Still, students who examine their own ethical beliefs have a better chance of determining what job in law enforcement they would feel comfortable doing, Bayley said.

Internships also are valuable, he said. Students who do real-world internships quickly learn if they can handle the reality of the job they have targeted, or whether they need to look elsewhere. Bayley said there are so many different kinds of jobs in law enforcement, he is confident any kind of person could find a position he or she would enjoy.

Bayley said the surveys and resulting class discussions have been helpful. Online feedback from students confirms that. Eighty-one percent of students reported that the survey increased classroom discussions, and 86 percent reported that the quality of classroom interactions had improved.

Running mental scenarios will help future law enforcement workers know more quickly what they would do and understand the motivation behind their actions, Bayley said. Being able to account for decisions is key to those who work in the field, he said.

"Sometimes there is no good decision," Bayley said. "Like in life, sometimes there's no rosy outcome no matter what you do, but you still have to make a decision. You have to decide between bad choices, and at least eliminate the worst choices. It's always an advantage if you've asked yourself, 'What if?' "

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