Rationalizing of Police Deviance

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Rationalizations (or neutralizations) are often used by individuals to minimize deviance, misconduct, or criminal behavior while still presenting an image of conformity. Whether termed rationalizations or neutralizations, these allow individuals to release themselves temporarily from conventional morality and engage in deviant or illegal behaviors. These techniques also serve to mitigate responsibility and/or avoid any associated social stigma. Police officers are no exception and also employ rationalizations for deviance.

All professions and occupations have workers that engage in deviance and/or misconduct, and these workers use rationalizations for these actions. However, policing is different from other professions in that officers are expected to adhere to a higher standard of behavior than are nonsworn employees. Policing is unique since it is part of the social control system in society involving enforcing laws, maintaining order, deterring and/or investigating crimes, and providing other miscellaneous services. Police are given powers and responsibilities distinct from those of the public, such as the ability to arrest, search and seize property, and use force. Moreover, the nature of police work presents more

opportunities to engage in deviance. Access to drugs, money, and property, and the ability to use discretion, allow for increased possibilities for misconduct/deviance. Training and socialization into the police culture shape the values, attitudes, and worldview of officers. This training and socialization creates a subculture with the central themes of secrecy and solidarity, which further contribute to deviance and the ability of officers to rationalize it.

Police deviance involves a violation of the public trust and can take many different forms. Misconduct committed by police can pose serious problems, resulting in lawsuits, decreased public confidence and trust in the police and/or overall criminal justice system, and overall diminished efficacy of police departments. When police deviance receives a large amount of publicity, particularly nationwide, this affects perceptions of police and causes the public to question all police actions. Many departments, in response to highly publicized cases of misconduct, have implemented rules and regulations aimed at stopping or eliminating police deviance. Despite this, police deviance and misconduct not only has had a long history but also continues to remain a problem within many departments.

Types of Police Deviance

Police deviance can range from relatively minor infractions (e.g., receiving free drinks while on duty) to involvement in criminal activities (e.g., fencing stolen property). Deviance committed by the police can be classified into four different types of behaviors: police crime, occupational deviance, corruption, and abuse of authority.

Police crime includes acts committed by officers that are clear violations of existing legal statutes (e.g., dealing drugs while on duty), and are characterized by officers committing crimes by using their position in law enforcement. Occupational deviance occurs when police participate in inappropriate work-related activities or behavior (criminal or not) that are made possible by being a police officer (e.g., police taking impounded vehicles). Although police corruption is often considered any crime committed by the police, the most common and accepted classification is when officers engage in activities that involve the abuse of power/authority in the pursuit of personal gain. For example, extorting money from criminals rather than arresting them would be considered police corruption since these activities involve personal gain for the officer through their abuse of their position. Although it could be argued that all police deviance can be considered police abuse of authority, the behaviors considered explicitly as this type of deviance are actions by officers that injure, insult, or violate a legal right of citizens without motive or intent. An example of this would be verbal assault, harassment, or ridicule of certain people, such as minorities or juveniles.

A subtype of occupational deviance is noble-cause corruption. These are deviant behaviors committed by officers who care too much about police work and want to make sure that the “bad guys are taken off the streets.” These behaviors are deemed “noble cause corruption” since they are committed in order to uphold the noble cause of police work. Yet, sometimes, in order to get the bad guys off the streets, officers engage in questionable and unethical activities, such as falsification or planting of evidence, or perjury. Officers are, generally, more tolerant of noble cause corruption than other types of police deviance, since these behaviors are perceived as upholding the police mission and goals, despite going against regulations or legal protections.

Another way of classifying police deviance is to group behaviors into categories based upon their seriousness. Listed in ascending order of seriousness, these categories are (1) acceptance of free/discount meals or services, (2) acceptance of “kickbacks” (e.g., receiving money for using only one company, such as an ambulance, for a service), (3) theft based upon opportunity, (4) “shakedowns” (e.g., threatening arrest to extort money from citizens), (5) protecting illegal activities (e.g., accepting bribes to “look the other way”), (6) accepting bribes to fix cases (e.g., receiving money to “lose” a citation), (7) criminal activity (e.g., police crime), and (8) internal payoffs (e.g., selling promotions). Sometimes a ninth category is also added, that of “flaking/padding” (i.e., adding or exaggerating charges in an arrest affidavit), which could be considered a type of noble cause corruption since it is done in order to make sure “the bad guys go away” or the “conviction sticks.”

Rationalizations for Deviance

In 1957, Gresham Sykes and David Matza proposed that juvenile delinquents, rather than possessing values in opposition to the prevailing culture, are committed to the dominant social order, but free themselves by using neutralizations to participate in deviance or criminal activities without guilt or social stigma. This theory identified five neutralization techniques: (1) denial of responsibility (i.e., “they made me do it”), (2) denial of injury (i.e., “no one was harmed” or no real harm occurred), (3) denial of the victim (i.e., “they deserved it”), (4) appeal to higher loyalties (i.e., “protect your own”), and (5) condemnation of the condemner (i.e., claiming the condemners are hypocrites or secret deviants). Rationalizations can be used to account for various forms of police misconduct/deviance. Denial of responsibility may be applied if an officer uses excessive force with a citizen the officer perceived to be challenging his/ her authority. By challenging the officer’s authority, the citizen “made” the officer use this force. Both denial of injury and denial of the victim can rationalize noble cause corruption by conceptualizing deviant behaviors as a way to “win” against criminals. Police can justify using excessive force by reasoning that the citizen deserved what he or she received (“denial of the victim”) because the citizen is a criminal/was fleeing/fought back. Denial of injury can be used to rationalize stealing property from a suspect or the use of perjury to make sure an “already guilty” suspect is convicted.

Officers may also rationalize deviance through the rejection of rules, regulations, or policies aimed at restricting police authority or autonomy. Those who create complaints about or allege police misconduct, investigate police deviance (e.g., Internal Affairs), or who pass judgment on the police or police actions are condemned through the technique of condemnation of the condemners. These “condemners” are perceived as being hostile toward law enforcement, unable to “understand” the nature of police work and the dangerousness of the job, or are resentful due to being cited/arrested. By using this rationalization, deviant officers are able to retain confidence that their actions are appropriate by shifting attention from their own misconduct to that of the accusers.

Appeal to higher loyalties is the technique most often employed to rationalize police deviance and is intertwined with the culture of policing. Through recruitment, socialization, and informal social norms and control police learn and adhere to the ideology of the police. A main tenet within this ideology is to “protect fellow officers.” Police are taught and expected to be loyal and stand in solidarity with their “brothers/sisters in blue” by “never giving up” another cop (i.e., never tell superiors or the public anything that could harm a fellow officer, no matter how serious his/her behavior).

Explanations for Rationalizing Deviance

One explanation used for officers’ rationalization of deviance is the “slippery slope” argument. This maintains that police officers first start engaging in minor forms of deviance that are easily justified (e.g., receiving free drinks). As a result, an officer finds it easier to engage in and rationalize progressively more serious types of deviance. Some departments have instituted policies prohibiting the acceptance of free/discounted drinks and/or meals in an attempt to stop officers from sliding “down the slippery slope” and thus stop all types of misconduct.

The theory often used by chiefs or others within policing to explain deviance is that of the “rotten apple.” Rather than view the structure, organization, or attitudes of policing as contributing to rationalization of deviance, this theory postulates that there are a “few rotten apples” who act independently, tarnishing all of policing. Administrators use this “rotten apple” explanation when deviance is publicized to illustrate that other officers are clean and this deviance was an aberration. Thus, by getting rid of the “bad apples,” the department has been cleansed of deviance as well. However, relying on this explanation does not allow for an examination of other possible causes rooted in the structure, organization, and/or ideologies of policing, nor does it allow for changes to these to restrict rationalizations of future deviance. Others argue that the subculture itself contributes to deviance and its rationalizations with its emphases on solidarity, loyalty, and secrecy. Police learn how to rationalize deviant behaviors through their experiences in the academy and field training.


  1. Caldero, Michael A. and John P. Crank. Police Ethics: The Corruption of Noble Cause. 2nd ed. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson, 2004.
  2. Ivkovic, Sanja Kutnjak. Fallen Blue Knights. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  3. Kappeler, Victor E., Richard D. Sluder, and Geoffrey P. Alpert. Forces of Deviance. 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1998.
  4. Lersch, Kim Michelle and M. L. Dantzker. Policing and Misconduct. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.
  5. Sykes, Gresham and David Matza. “Techniques of Neutralization.” American Sociological Review, v.22 (1957).

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