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How Susceptible Are Police to Corruption?

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By Dr. Michael L. Beshears, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

Edwin Sutherland is considered by most criminal justice scholars to be the Father of American Criminology. He published one of the first textbooks pertaining to criminology in 1924. Sutherland is best known for applying his theory of differential association to the study of deviant behaviors.

Differential Association Theory, also known as DA theory, suggests that “the process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning” (Scarpitti, Nielsen, & Miller, 2009, p. 211).

Essentially, Sutherland’s theory of differential association includes the following nine key points:

  1. Criminal behavior is learned. This means that criminal behavior is not inherited. Individuals are not born with the skills and knowledge of the techniques required for criminal activity.
  2. Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication. Communication may be verbal or non-verbal through gestures or even via simple observation.
  3. The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups. This means an individual is more likely to learn criminal behavior from those they trust. For example, a young police officer would likely first learn how to abuse their authority through other officers who believe it is okay to accept free meals, discounted merchandise or free admission to entertainment events from members of the community.
  4. When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime, which is sometimes very complicated, sometimes simple; (b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations and attitudes. Sutherland explains that merely learning how to commit a criminal act is not cause alone for an individual to actually perform a criminal act. Sutherland is expressing that the violation of law is influenced by the social, cultural and psychological attitudes that push an individual to commit a crime. A police officer, for example, who feels unappreciated and underpaid may rationalize that it is okay to accept a small bribe in the case of a routine traffic stop.
  5. The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favorable or unfavorable. There are those who have competing ideas as to what laws are reasonable and what laws are unreasonable. Those who favor the wearing of seat belts, for example, may do so because they were influenced by their parent’s favorable definition of the law or based on their own favorable definition based on research findings pertaining to safety statistics.
  6. A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of the law. In other words, the more one is exposed to those they trust with favorable definitions for violating the law, the more likely they are to be pushed to commit criminal acts.
  7. Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority and intensity. This speaks to “how often, for how long, how early in life and from whom” an individual is exposed to criminal associations and how it will affect an individual’s behavior. For example, a young child who is raised by a drug-addicted parent will be exposed to stronger definitions of deviant behavior than a teenager who witnesses a cousin snorting cocaine at a party. In this case, the child would be regularly exposed (frequency) for many years (duration) in early life (priority) to pro-criminal definitions” (Kapelos-Peters, 2008, para. 8).
  8. The process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning. This is explained by Kapelos-Peters (2008) that “a thief who steals cars or burglarizes houses, for example, will hone his or her skills to become more efficient and effective in doing so, learning over time to become quieter, faster, and more precise in such activities” (para. 9).
  9. While criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those needs and values, since non-criminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values. Here Sutherland points out that criminals and non-criminals are pushed by influences to either break the law or obey the law, but either choice cannot be contributed solely by general needs.

Officers Are Often in Contact with Criminals

Even though differential association theory was originally applied toward criminals, not police officers, Schmalleger (2009) argues that it could apply to them too.

The typical officer’s everyday job entails “issuing traffic tickets to citizens who attempt to talk their way out of a ticket, dealing with prostitutes who feel hassled by police and arresting drug users who think it should be their right to do what they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone” (p. 282). Officers’ encounters with such individuals often happen in private locations, away from the sight of supervisors, and only witnessed by people who are often regarded as unreliable. Coupling these circumstances with the discretion, power, and authority given to officers in the performance of their law enforcement duties generate enormous potential for abuse.

[Related: Research Investigates Ethics of Criminal Justice Students]

Sutherland’s theory of differential association may apply: It suggests that “frequent, continued association of one person with another makes the associates similar” (p. 282).

In other words, if a police officer is frequently exposed to criminals on the street, the non-criminal officer, over time, is more likely to become a criminal. The same logic holds true if a non-corrupt police officer is frequently exposed to corrupt police officers: The non-corrupt officer, in time, is more likely to become corrupt.

Most Prevalent Forms of Officer Corruption

According to Schmalleger (2008), police corruption activities, sorted by level of seriousness from low-level corruption to high-level corruption, include:

  • Gratuities
  • Playing favorites
  • Minor bribes
  • Being above inconvenient laws
  • Role malfeasance
  • Major bribes
  • Property crimes
  • Criminal enterprise
  • Denial of civil rights
  • Violent crimes

Furthermore, according to Barker’s (1977) seminal study findings, there were 10 other patterns of police corruption identified, which included (from highest to lowest level):

  • Corruption of authority
  • Kickbacks
  • Opportunistic thefts
  • Traffic fixes
  • Internal payoffs
  • Misdemeanor fix
  • Protection of illegal activities
  • Shakedowns
  • Felony fix
  • Direct criminal activities

The Knapp Commission’s 1972 report (as cited by Gaines & Kappler, 2008) of an investigation of the New York City Police Department described “those engaging in corrupt or unethical conduct as either grass-eaters or meat-eaters” (p. 375). Grass-eaters were officers who engage in illegal activities irregularly or when circumstances presented an opportunity. Meat-eaters were those who aggressively sought out corrupt activities. Meat-eaters, would regularly “actively solicit bribes by threatening arrest, cooperating with criminals, or committing crimes themselves.”

[Related Article: Being an Ethical Warrior]

In closing, law enforcement leaders should be mindful of their officers’ susceptibility to corruption, regardless of the form taken (i.e., grass-eater or meat-eater). Police leadership must be aware that, as DA theory indicates, law enforcement officers like anyone else are susceptible to corruption. Leaders may wish to contemplate steps for their organization to counteract these tendencies. In doing so, police leadership should consider Sutherland’s nine key points.

corruptionAbout the AuthorDr. Michael L. Beshears since military retirement has acquired over twenty years of teaching experience in the traditional and online teaching environment. Extensive background and first-hand experience in online pedagogy instruction, as one of the first Internet (online) course developers and instructors. Since 1994, he has instructed more than 10,000 online students and mentored numerous colleagues in the skills required to instruct online while promoting student success. Co-adviser for the Kappa-Kappa Chapter of the Alpha Phi Sigma – Criminal Justice National Honor Society. He has two baccalaureate degrees i.e., one in psychology and another in criminal justice from Drury University. In addition, he has two graduate degrees — one in criminology from Indiana State University and another in health services management from Webster University. He also has a Ph.D., in Business Administration with a specialization in Criminal Justice from Northcentral University. He is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at American Military University and is full-time faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies. You can contact him at Michael.Beshears(at)


Barker, T. (1977). Social definitions of police corruption: The case of South City. Criminal Justice Review, 1977; 2; 101. doi: 10.1177/073401687700200210

Gaines, L. K., & Kappler, V. E. (2008). Policing in America; 6th Ed., Publisher: LexisNexis and Anderson Publishing.

Kapelos-Peters, A. (February, 2008)

. Sutherland’s Differential Association and its nine propositions. Retrieved from:

Scarpitti, F. R., Nielsen, A. L., & Miller, J. M. (2009). A sociological theory of criminal behavior. Crime and Criminals Contemporary and Classic Readings in Criminology (2 ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Schmalleger, F. (2008). Criminal justice: A brief introduction; 7th Ed., Publisher: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Schmalleger, F. (2009). Criminal justice today; 10th Ed., Publisher: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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