Ethical Issues in Forensic Psychology


Written by V. Marion
Ethical Issues in Forensic Psychology. Ethical issues and dilemmas are vast in the area of police psychology as it relates to domestic violence perpetrated by police officers. Ethical challenges may include identifying the client, Competence, adequate training, Confidentiality, Dual relationships, role conflict, boundary issues, and Dealing with organizational demands.

Identifying the client. Identifying the client is one of the most challenging ethical issues for any psychology professional, yet it is even more challenging for the police psychologist or psychology professional who works with police officers who engage in domestic violence. Dual Relationships, Role Conflict and Boundary Issues are the most common ethical issues and pose a risk for the development of other ethical dilemmas. Depending on the role that the forensic psychology professional is working will help in identifying the role that they will engage. For example, a psychologist who works for the police department on a regular basis may confer with investigators on a case; perform Fitness for Duty Evaluations (FFDE); in addition to administering in-service training to law enforcement personal within the department. 


Furthermore, the psychologist working for a police department may be responsible for providing psychological services to all members of the police department including officers who may have attended or were engaged in previous services as mentioned above (Zelig, 1988). Working as a consultant, evaluator, and therapist within a police agency may cause conflict and boundary issues if the psychology professional is not cognizant of their role for each individual interaction. 


A study performed by Zelig provided: “The ethical problems most often reported as ethical issues working as a police psychologist within a police department included confidentiality, dual relationships, and conflicts between the ethical standards of the psychologist and needs of the agency as the most commonly reported issues” (Zelig, 1988).  “Principle 6 of the Ethical Principles addresses many of the concerns raised in this discussion: Psychologists respect the integrity and protect the welfare of the people and groups with whom they work. When conflicts of interest arise between clients and psychologists' employing institutions, psychologists clarify the nature and direction of their loyalties and responsibilities and keep all parties informed of their commitments” (APA, 1981).


Competence. Another issue found to contribute to ethical issues in police personality, police psychology and domestic violence includes the scarce amount of evidenced-based practice regarding this topic.  Competence is not only required to do any job, but it is also an ethical obligation of the psychology professional. “According to the APA Code of Ethics, “Psychologists undertake ongoing efforts to develop and maintain their competence. 2.04 Bases for Scientific and Professional Judgments Psychologists’ work is based on established scientific and professional knowledge of the discipline” (APA, 1981). The lack of scientific evidenced-based practice and lack of information and training puts the psychologist and the client in a precarious position; potentially resulting in harming the client. The psychologist may turn to the police agency for information to better understand the nature of the problem. Asking for guidance from the police organization to obtain information and knowledge about police topics, such as domestic violence by police officers in order to help the psychology professional to perform their job may potentially result in bias on behalf of the department and individual officer inquired about.  This act could potentially harm the victim, individual officer, or department.


According to the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology 4.01 Scope of Competence states “Forensic psychologists provide competent services to clients and other recipients of forensic services in a manner consistent with the profession. Competent provision of services includes the psychological and legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably n3ecessary for the provision of those services” (APA, 1991).  “In addition, the scope of competence encourages forensic psychologists to consult with other psychology professionals to establish competence in the area in question” (APA, 1991).


Adequate Training. Adequate training and competence go hand in hand. Information on domestic violence by police officers is scarce. It is vital for the psychology professional to familiarize themselves in the area of police issues, culture, dynamics of domestic violence and how it relates to the individual person or situation to provide an accurate assessment. The psychologist should always follow ethical guidelines provided by the APA, be aware of research in the field, be knowledgeable about applicable laws, including jurisdictional, federal, state, and case law that may impact Practice”(McCutheon, 2000).  Furthermore, it is important for the psychologist to use the most up to date information in the field.


A key component in addressing the issue of maladaptive police behaviors, including police officers who engage in domestic violence begins with understanding the cultural influences involved. Additionally, another key component comprises of lack of departmental policy when an officer engages in domestic violence. Only three states in the country have approved a law to mandate that all police departments within the state have a department policy on domestic violence by police officers. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has developed a model policy for departments to utilize in helping them to design such policy; however, it should be noted that it is only a model policy. It requires laws to be passed to force departments to design internal policies for their department.


This poses yet another problem; the police are designing individual departmental policies to police their own. This causes great bias and issues for victims and the community; in addition to putting the psychologist in a precarious position with no laws to guide them on the issue. The internal departmental policies are typically designed to protect the individual officer and the police agency to which the officer works.


Domestic violence by police officers is still considered to be in its infancy making it challenging for the psychology professional to prevent role confusion.  The agency may ask the psychologist to write a report to favor the officer and/or department to prevent criminal or civil litigation.  The psychologist will need additional resources, time and research to accommodate ways to deal with issues of domestic violence within the police family.  Equally important includes utilizing up to date assessment instruments. “The psychologist that uses outdated assessment are not competent to perform at their current level of professional measures or measures not development typically used in the assessment of public safety populations and/or disregards public safety” (McCucheon, 2008).

Confidentiality.Confidentiality and identification of the client are paramount when working as a forensic psychology professional. Depending on the psycholegal question will help in identifying who the client is. According to Zelig “This problem is often embedded in the context of mandatory referrals in which a police officer is required to see a psychologist for treatment and/or evaluation. These occasions usually occur when an officer's fitness for duty is questioned when the officer is involved in a traumatic or critical incident; such as shooting a criminal suspect or being shot themselves; or when the police administration desires information about an officer's psychological status so that the most appropriate disciplinary action can be taken in cases of misconduct” (Zelig, 1988). Since domestic violence affects the officer, the victim, and the community, ethical obligations can easily become blurred. When a police officer commits domestic violence, the community loses trust in the officer.  Additionally, the community as a whole may lose trust in the police department if the department does not handle the incident appropriately.


There are many factors as to the ethical obligations of the agency, the officer, and the psychology professional which will be discussed in this literature review.  “In all these instances, confidentiality between the officer and the psychologist is at most limited and often nonexistent. Therefore, it may not be in the officer's best interest to reveal certain information. At the same time, this information may be valuable to the police administration (and the community secondarily) in making a decision of whether to retain, suspend, terminate, or change the work assignment of an impaired or traumatized officer” (Zelig, 1988).


Another issue arising from confidentiality and ethical issues is the duty to warn and dangerousness. “These concerns arise in police populations, not as the result of high rates of psychopathology, but because of an officer's high exposure to what Monahan (1981) described as environmental correlates of violent behavior such as the immediate availability of weapons and potential victims. Many officers of course, frequently encounter antagonistic and violent citizens who could provoke an inappropriate response from an officer whose controls and inhibitions are compromised” (Zelig, 1988).

Dealing with Organizational Demands. Organizational demands are another issue faced by police and forensic psychologists. “There are times when the administration asked the psychologist to perform psychological evaluations on officers and to change the results if the police administration did not like the outcome. Presumably, this was done so that the psychological evaluation could support the police administration's desire regarding the officer’s position; either to protect or remove the officer from their duties” (Zelig, 1988).  Other issues include asking the psychologist to perform psychological evaluations as a result of learning that an officer is taking medication such as Prozac for depression. 


The Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologist 9.02 Conflicts with Organizational Demands states “If the demands of an organization with which a forensic psychologist is affiliated or for whom they are working conflict with the Guidelines, the forensic psychologist clarifies the nature of the conflict, makes known the recommendations of the Guidelines, and to the extent feasible, resolve the conflict in a way consistent with the Guidelines” (APA, 1991).


Ethical principles are put in place as a guideline to protect both the client and psychology professional from harm and to guide them in delivering non-partisan, culturally sensitive care with clarity and objectivity.  The research has identified ethical principles as potential dilemmas. The ethical principles of beneficence, nonmalfeasance, autonomy, and justice are identified throughout the literature.


According to the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists 2.01.01 Impartiality states “When offering an expert opinion to be relied upon by a decision-maker, teaching, or conducting research, the forensic psychologist embraces nonpartisanship and demonstrates a commitment to the goals of accuracy, objectivity, fairness, and independence. The forensic psychologist treats all participants and weighs all data, opinion, and rival hypotheses impartially” (APA, 1991).

Beneficence and Nonmaleficence. Beneficence and Nonmaleficence go hand in hand. Beneficence is the promotion of good. This principle reinforces promoting actions to clients that will benefit them in making the best decision for them by weighing all available options. The option with the least possible harm should be taken (APA 2010).  It should be noted that the client to which the forensic psychology professional serves is not the only person or entity that the psychology professional is responsible to. Integrity is a foundational responsibility of the psychology professional. “Forensic psychologists hold trust relationships with clients, legal representatives, courts, all other participants in forensic matters, professional bodies, and society.  These trust relationships can be put at risk by lack of integrity, lack of responsibility, lack of respect, or conflicts of interest that may compromise independence, objectivity, or other professional responsibilities” (APA, 1991).


Nonmaleficence is the bioethical principle promoting “to do no harm." This is a fundamental principle in psychology. In order to avoid potential ethical conflicts or violations, the forensic psychologist should weigh potential outcomes when evaluating risks versus benefits in each individual client.  “Because psychologists' scientific and professional judgments and actions may affect the lives of others, they are alert to and guard against personal, financial, social, organizational, or political factors that might lead to misuse of their influence. Psychologists strive to be aware of the possible effect of their own physical and mental health on their ability to help those with whom they work” (APA, 2010).


The criminal justice system is an adversarial arena and working with law enforcement takes on a whole new set of potential ethical issues. Police officers are often considered “To be the law”; they represent the law. Many individuals are intimidated by the mere presence of a police officer and society as a whole is conditioned to respect authority and the police profession. Police officers are trained to elicit the response they want to hear. They are trained in twisting the truth to elicit confessions and this training technique is often spilled over into other areas of their lives. 

It is essential that the forensic psychologist to remain objective and not get caught up in the partisanship of doing what an individual officer or agency expects from them if it is not within the scope of professional standards and practice. Police officers are trained to manipulate outcomes, elicit information in a way that the psychologist is agreeing with the officer. The psychologist should be vigilant in interrogation and interview techniques used by police officers to avoid falling into this trap. The psychologist could potentially be viewed as a “Gun for hire” if they do not remain objective. This would not only hurt the client but the reputation of the forensic psychologist that may also include sanctions from the state board. (APA 2010).

Autonomy. It is important for the psychologist to allow the officer to exercise their autonomy; however, it is suggested that police culture, training, along with police personality traits change the police officer’s overall persona, individuality and sense of autonomy. Autonomy is one of the bioethical principal’s that promotes the sense of “self” when making independent, individual choices and decisions regarding their care.

The issue of role conflict and confidentiality are concerns. For example, a police officer who is undergoing an FFDE will most likely be resistant to telling the truth in fear of losing their job.  Additionally, police officers are trained to skillfully deceive suspects to elicit confessions and this tactic is carried over into psychiatric evaluations with the psychologist. The psychologist can help the officer in attaining their individual autonomy by offering honest, clear, detailed information regarding evaluation, care, treatment planning and legal situation.


Justice. Finally, the research reveals that the ethical principle “Justice” refers to Justice is the principle that promotes moral rightness, fairness, or equity of the client. The psychology professionals can promote this principle by affording the client resources and the opportunity to receive medical and mental health services. Each client is unique and will require a unique treatment plan designed around their individual needs.


Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968. An ethical issue that arises in the research of domestic violence by police officers is a legal factor concerns a federal law: the Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968 (Family Violence Act) prohibits any person convicted of domestic violence from possessing firearms. A law enforcement officer with such a conviction cannot carry a gun (Allen, Hibler, & Miller 2000). This poses a significant problem for the officer because carrying and using firearms are part of the tools needed to do the job of a police officer. The officer’s personal life and professional life collide making it difficult to treat the problem of domestic violence by law enforcement.


The psychologist may fall into the same trap as other members of the judicial system, such as the judge when determining fitness for duty, or other decisions that may impact the officer. The psychologist may feel guilty about the officer potentially losing their job and livelihood threatened. They may fear retaliation by the individual officer or other members of law enforcement due to the solidarity of the force and the emotions of the psychologist may guide their decision. This would be a great injustice to all who the psychologist is responsible.

Appreciation of individual differences is another responsibility of the psychology professional. “When interpreting assessment results, including clinical and automated interpretations, the psychologist takes into account the purpose of the assessment of the person being assessed, including situational, personal, linguistic, and cultural differences that might affect the psychologist’s judgments or reduce the accuracy of their interpretations, and they identify any significant strengths and limitations of their procedures and interpretations” (APA, 1991). This ethical obligation may reinforce the potential confusion on behalf of the psychologist due to taking cultural influence into consideration. The psychologist must remember that they are not taking away the police officer’s position if they are convicted of domestic violence, but rather it is the police officer who committed the crime of domestic violence and should be held accountable for their actions.

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