In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Police Misconduct

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Overview
  • Forms of Police Misconduct
  • Brutality and Excessive Use of Force
  • Drug- and Vice-Related Police Deviance
  • Racial Profiling
  • Sexual Misconduct
  • Police Perjury
  • Causes of Police Misconduct
  • Controlling Police Misconduct

Criminology Police Misconduct
Timothy M. Maher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0186


Police misconduct, also called police deviance, refers to inappropriate actions taken by police officers in connection with their official duties. Coming up with a universally accepted definition of police misconduct is a daunting and vexing task, however, because it includes an extremely wide variety of police behaviors for which a police officer can be punished or disciplined. Some people suggest that police misconduct is really a “generic term” that includes any behaviors that are inconsistent with the official authority, organizational authority, or values and standards of ethical police conduct. Whether a police officer’s action constitutes misconduct is often subjective, however, and can depend on the social context of the behavior and who is asked (e.g., police administrators, fellow officers, members of the public, criminal suspects, the media, court officials). Many people contend that police misconduct must not only include actions taken by police officers that are in direct connection to their official duties, but also any inappropriate behavior by police officers, on-duty as well as off-duty, wherever and whenever an officer uses his or her authority and power as a police officer to commit an illegal or inappropriate act. Still others suggest that existing definitions of police misconduct are difficult to apply to actual cases, and that new classification schemes are likely necessary. This bibliography will primarily focus on police misconduct in the United States, although reference will be made to misconduct in its various forms, as well as the mechanisms for controlling such behavior, in countries other than the United States. It provides insight to most types of police deviance, but it primarily focuses on the most serious, often criminal varieties of police misconduct. These are the acts that are frequently identified in media accounts of police wrongdoing, account for many citizen complaints against law enforcement officers, and sometimes result in criminal and/or civil litigation against police officers and their employers.

General Overviews

Police misconduct and deviance has been explored in a variety of ways from a variety of perspectives. Even so, the empirical study of police misconduct has been largely neglected. The general lack of data and records, and the access by social scientists to existing police data and records related to incidents of police misconduct, has historically been problematic. This is starting to change, however, as more police administrators are beginning to provide researchers access to critical information needed to study the nature and extent of police misconduct. Much police misconduct remains hidden, however, and therefore the true extent of such behavior is unclear. No examination of police misconduct would be complete without a look at Skolnick 1994 (first published in 1966). Skolnick was one of the first scholars to analyze the problems involved in obtaining police adherence to legally prescribed procedural limitations on their conduct. An important development in the way police misconduct is conceptualized and studied came to light in the report compiled by the Commission to Investigate Alleged Police Corruption, known informally as the Knapp Commission (see Knapp Commission 1972), which was created to investigate corruption within the New York City Police Department. The report identified two particular classes of corrupt police officer: “Grass Eaters” and “Meat Eaters.” This classification refers to petty corruption based on opportunistic circumstances, often under peer pressure, or “eating grass,” and aggressive premeditated major corruption, or “eating meat.” To fully understand police behavior, one must consider the police officer’s view. Van Maanen 1995 provides a classic ethnography of police officers’ worldview, and how that view leads to abuse of authority and the disrespect of citizens. Lundman 1980 examines the sociological perspective of police deviance and suggests that corruption and deviance are not uncommon, and are present in nearly all police agencies that have been studied, but that the extent of deviance varies considerably from one agency to the next. Barker and Carter 1994 takes an extensive look at police misconduct. This book is divided into five parts that identify the fundamental concepts of police deviance, as well as the various forms of such behavior. Barker and Carter also devote several chapters to the control of police misconduct. Kappeler, et al. 1998 provides an overview of police deviance. It draws on contributions of many leading scholars in policing, criminology, and sociology to enhance the conceptual understanding of police deviance. The Cato Institute oversees the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, which gathers, evaluates, and publicizes credible media accounts of police misconduct from around the United States. The institute also identifies and critiques police policies directed at helping to control police misconduct.

  • Barker, Thomas, and David L. Carter. 1994. Police deviance. 3d ed. Cincinnati: Anderson.

    This text addresses the fundamental concepts of police deviance, police occupational deviance, police abuse of authority, and the management of police deviance. It offers ideas and perspectives aimed at generating debate and policy-oriented action in dealing with police misconduct.

  • Kappeler, Victor E., Richard D. Sluder, and Geoffrey P. Alpert. 1998. Forces of deviance: Understanding the dark side of policing. 2d ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

    This text provides an analysis of police deviance as the product of the organization of the occupation, the expectations of society, and the perceptions and interpretations of the role of the police. It examines the police working environment, the ideology and culture of police, and police officers’ motives and justifications for engaging in police misconduct.

  • Knapp Commission. 1972. The Knapp Commission report on police corruption. New York: George Braziller.

    This investigation consisted of hearings overseen by a five-member panel to look into corruption within the New York City police department. The commission uncovered and confirmed the existence of widespread corruption and made a number of recommendations.

  • Lundman, Richard J. 1980. Police behavior: A sociological perspective. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This text presents a sociological perspective on police behavior and addresses problems associated with a variety of police-citizen encounters. Lundman provides considerable insight into police misconduct and their exercise of discretion.

  • National Police Misconduct Reporting Project. Cato Institute.

    The purpose of this project is to gather reports of credible allegations of police misconduct so policymakers (and others) can make informed assessments of the nature and circumstances of police misconduct, and consider proposals that can minimize wrongdoing. Quarterly and annual police misconduct statistical reports are provided by this project.

  • Skolnick, Jerome H. 1994. Justice without trial: Law enforcement in a democratic society. 4th ed. New York: Macmillan.

    Skolnick’s book, first published in 1966, analyzes the problems related to police adherence to legally prescribed procedural limitations on their behavior. It is a foundational study of police culture and practice, police accountability, and rule of law.

  • van Maanen, John. 1995. The asshole. In Police and society: Touchstone readings. Edited by Victor E. Kappeler, 307–328. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

    Van Maanen’s ethnography explores the attitudes and typologies that police officers develop to classify and control citizens. He closely examines the treatment of suspects and the problems associated with distributing “street justice.”

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