The Dirty Harry Problem

From: Carl Klockars (1980),The Dirty Harry Problem. The Annals 452 (Nov.) pp.33-47

The Dirty Harry Dilemma

      When and to what extent does the morally good end justify an ethically, politically, or legally dangerous means for its achievement?

      Policing constantly puts its practitioners in situations in which good ends can be achieved by dirty means.

The Dirty Harry Problem

    When the ends to be achieved are urgent and unquestionably good and only a dirty means will work , the police officer faces a genuine moral dilemma.

    A genuine moral dilemma is a situation from which one cannot emerge innocent no matter what one does -employ a dirty means, employ an insufficient dirty means,or walk away.

The Dirty Harry Dilemma

    The danger lies not in becoming guilty or wrong, that is inevitable, but in thinking that one has found a way to escape a dilemma that is inescapable.

    Policemen lose their sense of moral proportion, fail to care, turn cynical or allow their passionate caring to lead them to employ dirty means too crudely or too readily.

The Dirty Harry Dilemma

    The only means of assuring that dirty means will not be used too readily or too crudely is to punish those who use them and the agency that endorses their use.


Dirty Harry: The Movie Plot

    In the movie Dirty Harry, Inspector Harry Callahan has a case where:

    14 year old girl is being held captive by a psychopathic killer

    The killer Scorpio has already struck twice, demands $200,000 ransom to release the girl who is buried with just enough air to last a few hours.

Dirty Harry: The Movie Plot

    Harry gets the job of delivering the ransom.

    At their meeting Scorpio reneges on his bargain, decides to let the girl die, and kill Harry. 

    Harry manages to stab Scorpio in the leg before he escapes.

    Harry then tracks Scorpio through the clinic he goes to for his leg.

Dirty Harry: The Movie Plot

    Learning that Scorpio lives at a football stadium. Harry breaks into his apartment, finds guns and evidence of guilt and confronts Scorpio on the 50 yard line. Harry shoots Scorpio in the leg to prevent escape. Harry demands Scorpio tell him where the girl is and stands on the injured leg to torture location and confession out of him.

Dirty Harry: The Movie Plot

    It turns out that the girl is already dead.

    Scorpio must be set free.

    The evidence, the confession, the girl’s body cannot be entered into evidence as the fruit of the poisoned vine.

    The exclusionary rule triumphs


     The Dirty Harry Problem involves the juxtaposition of good ends and dirty means.

     Three questions must be asked:

    It also involves the connection between the dirty act and the good end – a matter of probabilities.  How sure are you that the target is guilty?

    Are there any other means other than dirty means to achieve the goal? 

    The Dirty Harry problem generally involves very serious matters or there is no dilemma. Is the matter serious enough to warrant such action?

Dirty Tricks and Nice Officers?

    Can you have both a just and innocent police officer who utilizes improper means?

    Does the officer taint themselves through involving themselves in such actions?

    The officer’s choice is between two wrongs…and in choosing either he/she sullies themselves.

The Realities of the Dirty Harry Dilemma

    The Dirty Harry Problem arises quite often in policing.

    Car stops for traffic offenses when drugs are sought.

    License plate light

    Lying to an arrestee

    New York Search Warrants


The Toll of Dirty Means

    Are police more hard boiled, less sensitive to dirty tricks than citizenry?

    Does the tough mindedness of police officers reveals a lack of sensitivity to  dirty means which suggest they are more likely to use such means towards good ends than the average citizen?

    Do they become ethically challenged?

The Dirty Means Must Work

    For dirty tricks to be acceptable:

    The person must be guilty

    Operative assumption of guilt

    The worst of all possible guilt

    The great guilty place assumption

    The not guilty this time assumption

Dirty Means as Ends in Themselves

    If dealing with guilty people, why not see dirty acts as rightful punishment and therefore rightful in and of itself.

    If one sees people as guilty there is justice when they are punished. 

    If the courts do not punish is it not the duty of police to punish.

The Exclusionary Rule

    The more they wish to see a felon punished the more they must obey the rules.

    The exclusionary rule was designed specifically to address the Dirty Harry Problem.

    When lawmakers make too many legal restrictions do we increase the probability of police deviance?

Three Defective Resolutions

    Snappy Bureaucrats (Bruce Smith, August Vollmer, O.W. Wilson.)

    Bittner’s Peace

    Skolnick’s Craftsmen: Distinction between criminal law and criminal procedure

Klockar’s Resolution

    Police violations should be handled in the same way as other law violations with punishment.

Noble Cause Corruption

    Related to the Dirty Harry Phenomena

    The noble cause - a commitment to "doing something about bad people” -- is a central "ends-based" police ethic that can be corrupted when officers violate the law on behalf of personally held moral values.

Power Corrupts

    The power that police use to do their work, and how it can corrupt police at the individual and organizational levels.



               planting of evidence

               verbal Threat and lies

               denial of basic rights 

               assaults and pressure to induce     confessions

               gilding evidence

Noble Cause Corruption

    posing as a solicitor to secure co-operation

    tampering with electronic intercepts

    ‘busing’ suspected offenders out of town

     taxing’ criminals seen to be beyond the law

Noble Cause Corruption

    The end or goal of policing is a moral good. However, there is a distinctive feature of policing: its use of what, under normal circumstances, would be  morally unacceptable methods.

    The use of coercive force, including deadly force, is a morally bad thing.

Mean Means

    Police means may be morally bad because they infringe on rights, such as the right to autonomy, or the right not to be coerced;

    it may be a morally bad thing because the person who is coerced, is harmed; or it may be morally bad for both these reasons and/or for some other reason.

Immoral Tactics

    The same point holds for other methods used in policing, including deception, co-operating with informers who are criminals, and intrusive surveillance.

    These methods, which are immoral in normal circumstances, are necessary in order to realize the ends of policing,  the protection of moral rights.

The Paradox

    Police use methods which are normally morally wrong to secure  worthy ends sets up a dangerous moral dynamic. The danger is that police will think that the ends always justify the means; accept the inevitability and desirability of ‘noble cause corruption’. From noble cause corruption, they can graduate to straightforward corruption.

Acting by the Rules

    When police officers act in accordance with the legally enshrined ethical principles governing the use of harmful methods, they achieve three things at the same time. They do what is morally right; their actions are lawful; and they act in accordance with the will of the community.

Competing Considerations

    Specifically, the problem of noble cause corruption remains when moral considerations pull in two different directions, and especially when the law thwarts, rather than facilitates, morally desirable outcomes. Types of cases need to be distinguished in this regard.