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Reasons Why Police Officers Engage in Corruption and Brutality

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The role of the police is to ensure the protection and safety of the public, yet an increasing number of police brutality cases have plagued the public and media. Biased media sources often sensationalize cases of police corruption which resultingly leads to distorted perceptions of the police. For this reason, the police subculture condemns any associations with the media and resorts to secrecy from the public. However, the police’s confidentiality has led the public to assume ulterior motives behind police corruption and has resultingly led to public mistrust of law enforcement agencies. By discussing the various causes of police brutality and corruption, the public can better understand the reasons for engaging in corruption and the police can use this information to develop better policies and reduce these practices. One explanation of why police engage in corruption is because of societal pressures as well as emotional and physical stress. The physical and emotional demands of police work, the pressure to perform in the eyes of the public and supervisors, as well as the financial stress due to a lack of benefits, can lead police officers to engage in corrupt activities.

Merton’s Strain Theory which explains the significance of stress in relation to unattainable goals and illegal behaviors also supports this argument. Another reason police officers engage in police corruption is because of the police subculture and the effects of social learning theory. Social learning theory outlines the process of observing and imitating the actions of others and ascribes this process to the police subculture. Through the police subculture, officers learn to engage in corrupt practices and justify their immoral actions. Albert Bandura’s psychological study of imitation and aggression also provides scientific evidence supporting the prevalence of the social learning process. The last reason officers engage in corruption and brutality is because of racially biased policing practices. Due to the nature of policing, the police subculture, and unconsciously established biases, police have learned to justify discriminatory policing practices without realizing it. However, recent research on a new disease called Excited Delirium Syndrome presents a possible explanation for several cases of police brutality which ended in a victim’s death. In this paper, I argue that police officers engage in corruption and brutality because of societal pressure and stress, social learning of the police subculture, and unconscious racially biased policing practices.

Police Corruption as a Result of Societal Pressure and Stress


One reason police officers engage in corruption is societal pressures and stress. The obligation to abide by policing policies, the pressure to perform according to the police agency, and simply working as a police officer can contribute to strain and resultingly, corruption. Likewise, Robert Merton developed the concept of Strain Theory which notes that societal pressures to reach unattainable goals lead individuals to resort to unconventional and illegal methods. In the context of policing, the lack of benefits and financial support from the government can lead police officers to feel cynical. This sense of inferiority and betrayal may lead officers to resort to unconventional methods to compensate for their perceived losses. Additionally, police officers are regularly exposed to criminals who earn much more money doing illegal businesses than themselves. This realization may encourage police officers to engage in illegal activities such as bribery, falsifying evidence, and police perjury in exchange for money. Similarly, a common occurrence in the criminal justice system known as the “revolving door of prison” exposes police officers to how easily criminals are released when they break the law. Seeing this along with the mounting stress of police work may tempt officers to break the law and engage in corrupt activities.

In multiple studies, researchers have found that the nature of police work greatly contributes to the engagement in corruption. For example, Waters and Ussery reported that changes in shifts can place an immense toll on the officer’s physical and mental health. Changes from a day to night shift, for example, cause significant alterations in “sleep cycles and bodily functions such as digestive system patterns”. The continuing demand required of police when on duty can also cause mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, which in turn can lead to domestic violence, and drug or alcohol abuse. For example, during dangerous confrontations, police are required to make rational yet immediate decisions to control the situation and ensure the safety of others. In addition to the danger and urgency of the situation, police officers also need to consider how their supervisors and the public would react to their actions. Altogether, these demanding issues lead to stress and the possibility of police corruption.

Waters and Ussery noted that the police subculture and the public’s image of police officers as strong and courageous can cause officers to internalize pressure and conceal their stress. However, according to the former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse Alan Lechner, doing so builds up immense internal tension and officers often resort to drugs and alcohol to relieve this stress. Although certain drugs and alcohol are legal, the effect of self-medicating oneself to cope with internal problems may lead to illegal practices such as domestic violence and illegal drug and alcohol abuse. When officers become reliant on drugs and alcohol, they also face an additional financial burden when unable to afford the medication. Desperate for emotional relief, officers will engage in corrupt activities such as bribery and mooching to meet their needs. Arter also mentioned that one of the highest-order workplace needs is occupational recognition and acceptance. However, the public often associates interactions with the police as negative and thus officers lack acceptance from the community. Officers feel isolated and inadequate and resultingly, resort to illegal activities of corruption to cope with the emotional stress. Ultimately, a significant contributor to police corruption is the social, mental, and physical stress of police work.

Police Corruption as a Result of Social Learning and Police Subculture


Another crucial factor contributing to police corruption is the police subculture and the reinforcement of illegal practices. According to Social Learning Theory, all behaviors including police corruption are acquired through learning, reinforcement, and imitation. The learning and reinforcement of corruption and brutality are attributable to the police subculture, known as the blue wall or the blue code of silence. The blue wall represents a code of silence that essentially protects other police officers and promotes loyalty of brotherhood over criminal law. One of the most important elements of the police code is to ensure secrecy within the organization and forbids police officers from snitching on others when engaging in corrupt activities. Police officers believe that by falsifying claims and denying knowledge of corruption, they protect their brothers from media and public exposure as well as possible punishment from the agency. Although certain police officers may want to report the illegal activities, they refrain from accusing officers of corruption in fear that when they require assistance in the future, others will refuse to come to their help.

Furthermore, officers have learned to justify corrupt behaviors as well as how to cope with feelings of guilt or responsibility through the police subculture. Sykes and Matza’s Neutralization Theory outlines the concept that individuals learn to justify illegal and inappropriate conduct through personal rationalizations such as denying personal responsibility and denying any injury. According to Sykes and Matza, when an individual denies responsibility, they claim that the outcome of their actions was unintentional or that their actions were beyond their control. Similarly, when an individual denies injury, they assert that their actions may be wrong but were not immoral and therefore were not responsible for the consequences. In the case of police brutality and corruption, officers may neglect responsibility for excessive use of force by stating that the victim was overly aggressive and therefore put the safety of others in danger.

Albert Bandura’s study on aggression and the power of imitation supports the argument that police officers learn to engage in corruption through the observation and imitation of other police officers. In his study, Bandura presented a group of young children with of film of an adult model performing aggressive actions on a Bobo doll. Bandura found that if the aggressive adult was praised, children would not hesitate to act aggressively when confronted with the Bobo doll and when the adult was punished, the child imitated the aggressive actions less but still engaged in the act. This study can be applied to law enforcement agencies and explain why corruption continues to be an issue in the police profession. A common issue in cases of police corruption is that law enforcement agencies control the investigation and adjudication of the officer’s misconduct. In attempts to reduce media attention and public protests over the issue, the agency often resorts to minor internal policies to “punish” the offending officer. As demonstrated in Bandura’s study, the lack of enforcement of corruption policies signifies to other officers that engaging in such illegal practices is acceptable and will not be severely punished, thus reinforcing corrupt practices among police officers. Under these circumstances, police brutality and corruption can be attributed to the social learning of the police subculture.

Police Corruption as a Result of Racially Biased Policing


When analyzing cases of police corruption and brutality, researchers also need to consider the significance of unconscious racial and ethnic stereotypes as well as the influence of the police subculture in supporting these discriminatory practices. To begin, the police subculture can be ascribed to the significance of racially biased policing in promoting corruption and brutality. Satzewich and Shaffir noted that because police officers take part in the same training procedures, they learn to respond to policing situations in an analogous manner. This was proven in a laboratory study conducted by Scott, Ma, Sadler, and Correll where officers engaged in a computer-based shooter task that showed armed and unarmed black and white males. The researchers discovered that the training and experiences of police officers contribute to the reinforcement of cultural stereotypes. Scott et al. concluded that if the training exercise consistently portrayed black armed males and unarmed white males, the training would reinforce the police officer’s bias and “association between black and danger”.

Additionally, because of the dangerous nature of police work, officers are receptive to suspicious signs and therefore develop an unconscious and often racially biased concept of groups as dangerous. This concept rooted in the police subculture holds that black and brown individuals are more likely to engage in law-breaking behaviors compared to their white counterparts. This belief resultingly encourages racial discrimination and racially biased policing practices. Similarly, Dukes and Kahn claimed that officers often decide to engage in brutality based on the characteristics of the suspect. These include the individual’s race, ethnicity, and attire, as well as the location of the encounter. The most common basis for police suspicion arises from the suspect’s race. Unconscious biases established through media and political ideologies have portrayed racial minorities, especially young black males, as dangerous and violent and the effects of these biases have been proven through multiple studies. For example, Satzewich and Shaffir reported that racial profiling in the criminal justice system has become a routine because of the agency’s reluctance to acknowledge its significance. In a study conducted in Kingston, Ontario, researchers found that the police were 1.4 times more likely and 4 times more likely to pull over aboriginal and black individuals than their white counterparts. Scott, Ma, Sadler, and Correll also reported that police shoot at black suspects at a significantly higher rate than white suspects and are more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. Both these studies provide statistical evidence of corrupt policing practices and serve as an explanation for the large disparities between the use of violence against black and white individuals.

In addition to the previous argument on neutralization theory, Satzewich and Shaffir also noted that the police subculture promotes multiple deflection strategies when officers are accused of alleged racial discrimination. For example, police deny the existence of racial profiling by claiming that changes in the policing structure and organization have eliminated historic racist practices. The subculture also promotes the “multicultural society deflection” which asserts that updated recruitment processes and intense training of new officers have eliminated racist individuals from the force. Lastly, police officers claim that they are the true victims of racism and that the public is unaware of what true police work is. By providing such defenses against racial discrimination claims, police are, in a way, encouraged to engage in discriminatory policing practices for “the better of the community”. As a result of the influence of police training and the policing subculture, officers have been implicitly encouraged to engage in corrupt activities.

Counter Argument – Excited Delirium Syndrome


Excited Delirium Syndrome is a relatively new disease that has commonly been used by the police as a defense in cases of excessive force leading to death. Individuals diagnosed with the disease may die abruptly when exposed to the use of electrical weapons such as tasers or the use of force. In certain cases of excessive force leading to death, the discovery of this disease assumes the innocence of the officer because it rejects the assumption that the police force caused the victim’s death. The court finds that the cause of the suspect’s death was caused by pre-existing medical complications rather than the amount of force used by the police. On the contrary, the public could argue that police officers should be better educated regarding mental disorders and should be able to distinguish and take precautionary measures when handling such individuals. However, it is difficult for officers to firstly, establish that the suspect is in fact diagnosed with Excited Delirium Syndrome because of the lack of visible symptoms and secondly, to refrain from the use of force because they often are intoxicated, suffer from mental illness, resistant against law enforcement, hyper-aggressive, and have a much higher pain tolerance. Even if the officer knew that the suspect suffers from the disease, refraining from the use of force puts both the police officer as well as the public’s safety at risk. In conclusion, the defense of Excited Delirium Disease can divert liability from the police in cases of excessive use of force.

In conclusion, various aspects of the policing organization and police subculture are responsible for causing police brutality and corruption. Societal pressure and stress stemming from agency pressure to perform, financial difficulties, as well as physical and emotional demands can cause police officers to resort to corrupt activities to attain societal goals and relieve stress. The police subculture is another factor that influences corrupt behaviors within the policing organization. The learning, reinforcement, and neutralizing powers of the police subculture implicitly encourage officers to engage in corrupt activities as well as racially biased policing practices. However, despite the increasing concerns over police brutality, the recent discovery of Excited Delirium Syndrome brought to light a possible defense for the excessive use of force leading to death. In general, police brutality and corruption have been and continue to be an ongoing issues in the Canadian justice system. With such substantial evidence of corruption, the public needs to hold law enforcement agencies accountable to ensure equality under the justice system.  

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Reasons Why Police Officers Engage In Corruption and Brutality. (2022, April 29). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 17, 2022, from
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