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Business ethics lessons from arrest of G20 cop

Accusations of police brutality can provide fodder for discussion of important issues in business.

Toronto police officers take up positions as they face off with protesters during a protest at the corner of Queen Street and Spadina Avenue on June 27, 2010 in Toronto, Canada (Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty)

What lessons can we take from a story about police brutality and apply to the world of business?

As many readers will know, the meeting of the G20 here in Toronto last summer was not, on the whole, a happy experience. Protestors, both peaceful and otherwise, were plentiful, and there were serious questions about the way the Government, and in particular the Toronto Police Service, conducted themselves. No one came out looking very good. Protestors torched cop cars and broke shop windows. Some of the tactics used to quell the riot resulted in accusations of police brutality.

Nearly a year later, after a fraught investigation by Toronto Police’s Special Investigations Unit, one police officer has been charged with assault. See this Toronto Star story, “Toronto police officer charged in G20 assault,” by Jennifer Yang:

After nearly one year, two closed investigations, and a public squabbling match between Toronto police and the agency tasked with investigating them, criminal charges have finally been laid in the case of Dorian Barton.

On Friday, the Special Investigations Unit charged Toronto police Const. Glenn Weddell with assault causing bodily harm in connection with Barton’s arrest during the G20 summit last June. The charge came on the same day the Toronto Star publicly revealed Weddell was the previous unnamed officer photographed during Barton’s violent arrest….

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a story about business ethics, but still it provides plenty of fodder for discussion of issues that are centrally important to business ethics. Issues such as:

  • Who watches the watchers? Any regulatory system—whether a system of policing criminality or a system of vetting new pharmaceuticals—requires safeguards to make sure those who wield regulatory power wield it wisely. That’s why police forces have systems for hearing complaints from citizens and for investigating wrongdoing by their own officers. And it’s also why regulatory decisions are typically subject to parliamentary oversight and judicial review.
  • With great power comes great responsibility. Self-regulation is crucial for those given the power to enforce rules. Such self-regulation can take many forms. First, it needs to include individual self-regulation and the adoption of principles of integrity and good conduct. But individual ethics needs to be bolstered by an informal system of peers reminding each other of their obligations. When one regulatory bureaucrat or police officer edges too close to crossing a line, it is essential that colleagues be ready to point out that “That’s not how we do things around here.”
  • What are the limits of team loyalty? It is no exaggeration to say that modern civilization is built on something akin to teamwork. And the No. 1 challenge in literally every organization involves getting a number of people with different personalities, talents, and points of view, to work together effectively. Fostering loyalty is a key part of that. But loyalty must have limits. Lawyers are supposed to act as zealous advocates, but are not allowed to suborn perjury. Police and soldiers and firefighters often depend on teamwork for their very lives, but they jeopardize their social value if they put fraternal loyalty above the public good. And corporate employees are expected to help build shareholder value, but not to break the law in doing so.

One of the worst mental habits that can be adopted by people who proclaim an interest in business ethics is that of thinking that the ethical issues found in business are categorically different from those found in other walks of life. Commercial contexts do raise a number of special issues, but we can learn a lot about those issues by thinking about the ethical issues that arise in seemingly quite different domains.