Public Health vs. Law Enforcement: Balancing Individual Rights and the Collective Good

1. Introduction

The September 11th terrorist attacks in the United States brought into sharp relief the potential for serious public health threats originating from criminal activity. In response to these attacks, and the subsequent anthrax letters mailed to media outlets and US Senators, the US government significantly increased its investment in biodefense (Koh, 2007). This increase in biodefense spending has continued in the years since, with the goal of protecting the American people from intentional or accidental release of harmful agents (CDC, 2013).

One of the challenges posed by this increased investment in biodefense is the need to reconcile public health goals with criminal investigations. This tension was evident in the early days of the anthrax investigation, when law enforcement officials clashed with public health officials over access to information about individuals exposed to the bacteria (Frieden & Napolitano, 2011). The use of criminal justice system tools in public health investigations can also raise ethical concerns, as illustrated by the use of mandatory quarantine orders during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa (Gostin, 2014).

In this paper, we will address the challenges that arise in reconciling public health and criminal investigations. We will begin by discussing the nature of the relationship between these two fields. We will then turn to the tension between individual rights and the collective good, which is often at the heart of debates over public health interventions. Finally, we will discuss the use of criminal justice system tools in public health investigations, and the ethical concerns that can arise when these tools are used.

2. The Nature of the Relationship Between Public Health and Law Enforcement

The relationship between public health and law enforcement is a complex one. On one hand, there is a need for cooperation between these two fields, as each has something to offer the other. For example, law enforcement agencies have expertise in investigating crimes, while public health agencies have expertise in epidemiology and disease control. This cooperation is essential in responding to bioterrorism incidents or outbreaks of infectious disease (Frieden & Napolitano, 2011).

On the other hand, there is a potential for conflict between public health and law enforcement goals. For example, law enforcement officials may be interested in obtaining information about individuals exposed to a disease in order to determine who may have committed a crime. However, public health officials may be reluctant to provide this information due to concerns about patient privacy or confidentiality (Frieden & Napolitano, 2011). These conflicting goals can lead to tension between law enforcement and public health officials.

3. The Tension Between Individual Rights and the Collective Good

One of the central tensions that arises in reconciling public health and criminal investigations is between individual rights and the collective good. This tension is often seen in debates over public health interventions such as vaccination or quarantine. On one side of these debates are those who argue that individual rights should take precedence over the collective good. They contend that mandating vaccinations or quarantining individuals against their will violates basic civil liberties. On the other side are those who argue that protecting society from serious diseases requires sacrificing some individual rights. They contend that mandating vaccinations or quarantining infected individuals is necessary to protect others from contracting diseases (Gostin, 2014).

This tension was evident during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Some countries implemented mandatory quarantine measures for individuals who had been exposed to the disease, while others did not. The decision of whether or not to implement quarantine measures was largely based on balancing the need to protect the public from the disease with the rights of individuals to freedom of movement (Gostin, 2014).

4. The Use of Criminal Justice System Tools in Public Health Investigations

The use of criminal justice system tools in public health investigations can raise ethical concerns. For example, public health officials may use law enforcement powers such as search and seizure in order to obtain information about individuals exposed to a disease. This raises the possibility that individuals may be subjected to investigation without their consent or knowledge (Frieden & Napolitano, 2011).

Another concern is that public health investigations may use mandatory quarantine orders as a way to control the spread of disease. This raises the possibility that individuals may be forced to give up their liberty in order to protect the public health (Gostin, 2014).

5. Conclusion

The September 11th terrorist attacks brought into sharp relief the need for cooperation between public health and law enforcement officials. However, this cooperation can be difficult to achieve due to the tension between individual rights and the collective good. The use of criminal justice system tools in public health investigations can also raise ethical concerns.

FAQ

The most common health law violations committed by law enforcement officers are failure to maintain sanitary conditions, failure to provide adequate medical care, and improper use of restraints.

The lack of enforceability of health laws impacts public safety by creating an environment in which unsafe and unsanitary conditions are tolerated. This can lead to the spread of disease and illness, and can also result in injuries or death.

Some specific areas of health law that are particularly relevant to law enforcement officers include the use of force, the provision of medical care, and the handling of hazardous materials.