Noble Cause Corruption Essay

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The phrase noble cause corruption refers to a specific form of police misconduct that is motivated by the desire for a morally good result. It can be summed up as, “the ends justify the means.” This is distinct from other forms of police corruption insofar as it assumes an altruistic motive rather than one that is egocentric. Other forms of corruption focus on abusing police powers for the purpose of gaining an economic or power advantage. Such behavior is therefore corrupt both in the behavior of the police officer and in the desired outcome. By contrast, noble cause corruption focuses on exploiting police powers for the purpose of obtaining a morally just outcome. Therefore, it is only the behavior of the officer that is corrupt; the desired outcome remains just, that is, noble. Noble cause corruption is a concern because, although motivated by righteous ends, it necessarily requires unethical means.

Behavior that falls within the concept of noble cause corruption varies in terms of wrongfulness. While all noble cause corruption is unethical, not all such behavior is necessarily illegal or unconstitutional. For example, the term noble cause corruption encompasses behavior as distinct as lying to suspects, something that in certain situations has been upheld by the courts as constitutional, and planting evidence against suspects, something universally condemned as violating a suspect’s constitutional rights. Noble cause corruption includes such behavior as beating suspects to punish them for their actions, fabricating probable cause, lying to suspects about what their partner in crime has or has not admitted to, and lying on a witness stand in a court of law in order to secure a conviction. The key to determining whether this behavior can be termed noble cause corruption lies in why the officer engaged in it in the first place: if it was to fight crime, protect the innocent, capture the villain, or any other behavior that can be perceived as noble, good, and just, then it can be understood to fall within the definition of noble cause corruption.

Noble cause corruption begins with a police officer’s desire to do good: to protect the innocent and to capture the villain. Some scholars suggest that this desire to do good is something internal to each individual officer and is something that he or she brings to the job. Other scholars argue that it is something which officers are socialized to hold dear and reflects a professional mandate. It is also plausible that the desire to do good springs from both sources in tandem. Whatever its source, there is nothing corrupt about such altruism. Noble cause corruption occurs when an officer feels that her ability to do good is blocked by legal restraints and takes unethical actions to overcome any barriers. Two such scenarios are that (1) due process stands in the way of doing good, and (2) a “revolving door” of justice negates officers efforts at doing the right thing.

“Due process” refers to how police officers are allowed to restrict the rights of citizens. Whenever an officer seeks to limit an individual’s movement or privacy, the officer must follow strict constitutional guidelines. For example, whenever an officer wishes to make an arrest, in general he must have probable cause—evidence that indicates that a crime has most likely occurred and that it was most likely committed by the suspect. Failure to follow due process can result in essential evidence being inadmissible in court, thus jeopardizing a conviction. Due process is not always easy to follow, however, particularly with regard to obtaining probable cause. Given the difficulty in following due process, coupled with the consequences for not following it, officers may perceive such processual guidelines as “handcuffing” their ability to do their job, that is, to protect the innocent and capture the criminal. In such situations, if an officer chooses to forgo due process, she is said to engage in noble cause corruption.

The “revolving door of justice” refers to the scenario in which a suspect is either acquitted of charges or released from being incarcerated early, for a variety of reasons, including plea agreements between lawyers and a judge. When this happens, an officer may become frustrated with the justice system’s perceived inability to hold offenders accountable. If such a frustrated officer decides to take the law into his own hands, using his policing power to dispense justice on the street, rather than (or in addition to) delivering a suspect into the hands of a judge, he is said to have engaged in noble cause corruption. In both of the preceding examples, the common elements are: a desire to do good, coupled with a willingness to engage in illegal, unconstitutional, corrupt, unethical, and/or inappropriate behavior to arrive at this just outcome.

While the motives of officers who engage in noble cause corruption are laudable, the behavior itself is cause for serious concern. For example, scholars have noted that even if the behavior is not technically illegal or unconstitutional, it remains unethical. Calling into question the integrity of the police simultaneously calls into question the integrity of the legal system itself. In this situation, citizens may find it more difficult to trust and work with the police, which may lead to unlawful behavior. Additionally, there is concern that noble cause corruption can devolve into behavior that is less than noble. For example, the infamous Buddy Boys of the New York Police Department justified robbing drug dealers with an appeal to the inadequacy of the justice system to punish such criminals. In other words, corruption that starts out as noble may itself turn into egocentric corruption motivated by self-gain in the form of money and/or power.


  1. Crank, John and Michael Caldero. Police Ethics: The Corruption of Noble Cause. Burlington, MA: Anderson, 2011.
  2. DeLattre, Edwin. Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing. Washington, DC: AEI, 2002.
  3. Klockars, Carl. “The Dirty Harry Problem.” The Annals, v.452 (1980).

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