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Ethics in Arson and Terrorism Cases

Updated on September 3, 2014

Throughout the history of police agencies, the inability to establish a standard of ethical investigation and prosecution has consistently resulted in a negative public opinion. These repeated outcries have resulted in an ever increasing need for emotional intelligence training among these agencies. This writing will discuss the ethical considerations of law enforcement and prosecutors, the problems when they fail to make these considerations, and what can be done to help eliminate these problems. In example of these ethical considerations, two areas of crime involving arson and terrorism are discussed.

In legal terms, arson is the act or crime of willfully, wrongfully, and unjustifiably setting property on fire, often for the purpose of committing fraud. Arson was considered the fastest growing crime in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Even though it is one of the most costly of crimes in economic terms, this crime has one of the lowest conviction rates of all crimes. (Osterburg, 2007) There are multiple reasons for why this crime is subject to such low conviction rates, in effect determining if a crime was committed in the first place. An investigator has to determine if corpus delicti exists by establishment that a fire has occurred, that someone set it, and that it was intentional.

In most cases, the firefighter is the first responder. His primary action is to first determine if anyone is in harm’s way, then to determine the best method to extinguish the fire and prevent the spread to other property. The least of the firefighter’s initial objective is to determine if arson was involved. For this reason, they may saturate evidence with water, and through their movements, disturb the evidence. If the firefighter should see signs of arson, another question arises; is the firefighter acting as an agent of law enforcement when he makes his report? And from this report, does this give the investigator the grounds to request a warrant?

The investigator is already behind the game, because he is the secondary responder. The primary objective of the investigator at this time is to preserve the scene through photography, cataloging of evidence, preventing looting and avoiding contamination through movement at the scene. Contamination is a prime ethical concern when investigating arson. Much of the scene is now very fragile because charred remains are brittle, and can fall and distort any piece of evidence that may remain. Burn patterns on a wall can disintegrate with the slightest movements and must be carefully photographed and preserved.

Even though all of the activities in the investigation are carefully controlled, it appears that there are a lot of opportunities for human error. This is one reason why so many of these crimes never result in a conviction. In addition to this, the insurance companies may have already dispatched their own investigators, and even though they are thorough and have even more tools in their investigative tool boxes, they too impact the integrity of the scene. Not to mention that their interests are in protecting the insurance company, so this may not be in the best interest of the investigation or the prosecution.

The media can also have an ethical influence on an arson case, as well as in the next crime of focus; terrorism. For example, Richard Jewell, the security guard wrongly accused of setting off a lethal bomb at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, had a negative influence on the legal proceedings of the case. Jewell sued the media companies involved, citing that he was convicted in the court of public opinion and that he endured eighty-eight days of condemnation. Even though Jewell was dismissed as a suspect in the case, his personal image and integrity were damaged for years following the incident. It is most imperative that we seek the individual responsible for the acts, and not be so quick to point a finger until we have all of the facts.

The objective of a terrorism investigation is to determine the motive for the operation, and also to figure out what group is taking responsibility for the incident. In definition, “Terrorism is the unlawful use or threat of violence against persons or property to further political or social objectives. It is generally intended to intimidate or coerce a government, individuals or groups to modify their behavior or policies.” (Osterburg, 2007) There are many schools of thought where one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. The way that history is written is determined by which side of the incident is viewed, and which side wins in the outcome of the incident. Because many offenders cross borders when committing these crimes, it is difficult to determine who has jurisdiction in a case. Due to the differences in the rules of evidence gathering and prosecution of offenders from country to country, many times these criminals are returned to their society without being held accountable for their actions under a particular countries law.

Ethical questions have been a part of police agencies ever since the first policing forces were started in England in the 1700’s. Although almost all of these questions have changed throughout the centuries, society is still calling for an accountability of investigators and prosecutors; as they should. In addition, new scientific methods of investigation have substantially increased the accuracy of investigations. The clear implication for law enforcement professionals is that there will be a greater reliance on scientific forensic evidence in the future due to the failure of the traditional paradigm of criminal investigations. (Rodriguez, 2011) However, it remains that ethical considerations will still play a vital role in the judicial system.

Ethical training is the area where great improvement can be made in agencies across the USA. Many officers are simply unaware that what they do today will affect the lives of people far from the immediate situation. And these considerations should be a focal point not just while on duty, but in one’s personal life, also. An officer never knows; what if in a citizen’s eyes they are seen as a drunkard in a bar one night, only to be working the case of a murdered family member the next? How much credibility does that give? In addition, how much information will now be available for the lawyer to pick apart in a court of law?

In conclusion, it is stated that an officer’s legacy is directly related to the handling of ethical matters during their lifetime and their investigative and prosecution career. Let it be challenged for all officers to never betray their badge, their integrity, character, nor public trust. They should uphold the Constitution and the community that they serve; if for nothing more than to regain a positive view of the ethical standards that we are committed to uphold.


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    • ram_m profile image

      ram_m 5 years ago from India

      Yes officers should be conscious of the image that they project, which you have rightly pointed out in the hub. I think prejudice too needs to be avoided. A very enlightening hub.Thank you GStewart.