Rotten Apple Corruption Essay

Cheap Custom Writing Service

Rotten apple theory is an individualistic perspective of police corruption that views police deviance as the work of isolated individuals (“rotten apples”) who evade detection during the screening and selection process. Once inside a police agency rotten  apples prey on an unsuspecting public to further  their selfish needs or misuse their authority. This characterization of police deviance fosters the belief that incidents of police misconduct are isolated events initiated by a small minority of deviant officers, and that evidence of police corruption, when brought to light, should not be viewed as evidence of organizational or systemic dysfunction. These deviant officers are often viewed as having serious character and personality flaws. Some theorists have attempted to relate rotten apples to the authoritarian personality. The rotten apple perspective is related to other explanations of police deviance that view police corruption as a function of the individual  unit or agency or as being the product of widespread institutional and occupational corruption.

The rotten apple perspective was widely used by police administrators to deflect public concern with  police corruption. By insisting  acts of police deviance were the aberrant actions of isolated individuals (sometimes characterized as “rogue  officers”), police administrators sought to restore confidence in administrative oversight and responsibility. The rotten apples explanation of police corruption came under serious scrutiny following publication of the Knapp Commission Report on Police Corruption. Regarding the rotten apples theory, the commission concluded:

The “rotten apple”  theory won’t work any longer. Corrupt police officers are not natural born criminals, nor morally wicked men, constitutionally different from their honest colleagues. The task of corruption control is to examine the barrel, not just the apples— the organization, not just the individuals in it because corrupt police are made, not born.

The Knapp Commission conclusions  regarding rotten apples did not end fascination with the topic or the search for explanations for the rotten apples phenomenon. Although the Knapp Commission conclusions resulted in closer scrutiny of claims by police administrators that misconduct and corruption are the work of a few individuals, scholars continue to search for individualistic explanations for police misconduct and attempt to identify variables responsible for rotten apples. Although efforts to identify characteristics, causes, and the distribution of rotten apples have been inconsistent and have generally failed to receive empirical support, some of explanations of the rotten apples phenomenon have been proposed.

Police Personality and Authoritarian Personality Perspectives

Early attempts to identify rotten apples sought to identify a unique “police personality.” This perspective views personality as a fixed entity. Personalities of deviant police officers are, according to this view, permanent and not subject to change. According to this perspective, aberrant behavior results from pre-existing  personality traits that remain permanently fixed in later life. The goal of police administrators is, therefore, to screen for and identify these individuals before they have an opportunity to become entrenched in the police environment.

Later attempts to identify rotten apples focused on the “authoritarian personality.” The authoritarian  personality perspective asserts the police personality is characterized by aggression, cynicism, and conservatism. The authoritarian personality is further characterized as being highly supportive of internal controls while valuing autonomy and individual discretion. The authoritarian  personality tends to be ultraconservative politically and socially and to view issues in terms of black and white. The authoritarian police personality is viewed as reactionary and rigidly supportive of the status quo.

Authoritarian personalities are viewed as entering police ranks as a result of several processes, including self-selection, the tendency for police agencies to systematically exclude liberals, and recruitment of police personnel from authoritarian groups of people. Empirical evidence for this perspective has been mixed, but generally lacking. Numerous psychological studies of police officers have failed to demonstrate a link between this personality type and policing, and several studies have concluded the opposite—that police officers generally possess personality characteristics inconsistent with the authoritarian personality.

Sociopathic Police Personality Perspective

Later attempts to identify the rotten apple personality focused on characteristics described as the “sociopathic” police personality. The sociopathic police personality is characterized by a failure to conform  to social norms, deceit, impulsivity, aggressiveness,  recklessness,  irresponsibility, and lack of remorse for inappropriate behavior. Proponents of this perspective identify two variants of the sociopathic police personality, primary and secondary.  Primary sociopathic police personalities are characterized by a predisposition to deviant behavior. They are predisposed to antisocial or deviant behavior by virtue of their genotype. Secondary  sociopathic police personalities are individuals believed to exhibit antisocial behaviors as a result of the cultural or occupational environment.

Sociological and Anthropological Perspectives

The  sociological  perspective  of  police  deviance posits that police occupational behaviors, like all behaviors,  are learned.  According  to this view, newly hired police officers learn their craft through interaction with persons already entrenched in the occupation. New officers are socialized into a new and somewhat alien culture. Probationary police officers learn how to become “real” police officers through interaction with other police officers and internalization of existing occupational values. Police officers learn deviant behaviors from deviant peers.

The anthropological perspective focuses on the relationship between  police subcultural norms and values and police misconduct. Proponents of this perspective view police misconduct as a function of socialization into the police occupational subculture. The unique relationship between the police and public creates unique subcultural values and norms that sometimes conflict with mainstream values. Certain behaviors (e.g., lying, use of force) widely condemned by the mainstream culture find acceptance in the police world. Socialization into the police world brings with it a propensity to engage in activities deemed inappropriate in mainstream society.

Rotten Apples, Rotten Branches, Rotten Barrels, and Rotten Orchards

The rotten  barrel metaphor first advanced  by the Knapp Commission has been expanded to include larger organizational units. The police misconduct literature now  includes  references to rotten branches (corrupt units within a police agency), rotten barrels (the entire police department as alluded to in the Knapp Commission), and more recently, rotten orchards (suggesting the entire occupational culture of policing fosters inappropriate conduct by perpetuating deviant values).

Some scholars have advanced variations of opportunity structure theory to explain development of rotten apples. According to this view, individual police misconduct can only occur in environments where a structure is in place to support misconduct. Absent this supporting structure, police misconduct is not likely to develop. This perspective provides a theoretical link between rotten apples, barrels, and branches; however, the theoretical link to rotten orchards is less convincing in light of the lack of empirical support for this perspective.

Empirical Investigation of Rotten Apple Theory

Robert Kane and Michael White provide an excellent discussion of the theoretical and empirical literature on police misconduct, including the rotten apple perspective. Summarizing this literature in a 2009 article titled “Bad Cop,” Kane and White conclude that their analysis confirms earlier empirical research findings that most police officers complete their careers without engaging in serious misconduct. Following extensive research on New York City police officers terminated for misconduct, Kane and White concluded factors most closely associated with police misconduct include “problematic work histories,” criminal justice contacts, and duty assignments involving regular, close interaction with the public.  Factors  that  appear  to insulate police officers from misconduct include job seniority, college education, and age at the time of initial appointment.

Rotten Apple Applications Beyond Law Enforcement

The rotten apples metaphor has been used in examinations of deviance in domains other than police work, and in nations other than the United States. Recent works have utilized the rotten apples perspective to explain phenomena as diverse as white-collar crime in the corporate world, deviant priests in the Roman Catholic Church, and misconduct by U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each of these studies have used the rotten apples metaphor to debunk individualistic explanations for misconduct and advocated closer scrutiny of the institutional and organizational structures that give rise to inappropriate conduct.


  1. Gottschalk, Petter. “Rotten Apples Versus Rotten Barrels in White Collar Crime: A Qualitative Analysis of White Collar Crime in Norway.” International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, v.7/2 (2012).
  2. Griffin, Catherine and James Ruiz. “The Sociopathic Police Personality: Is It a Product of the ‘Rotten Apple’ or the ‘Rotten Barrel’?” Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, v.14/1 (1994).
  3. Kane, Robert J. and Michael D. White. “Bad Cops: A Study of Career-Ending Misconduct Among New York City Police Officers.” Criminology and Public Policy, v.8/4 (2009).
  4. Kappeler, Victor E., et al. Forces of Deviance: Understanding the Dark Side of Policing. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1998.
  5. Smeulers, Alette and Sander van Niekerk. “Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror—A Case Against Donald Rumsfeld?” Crime Law and Social Change, v.51 (2008).
  6. White, Michael D. and Karen J. Terry. “Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: Revisiting the Rotten Apples Explanation.” Criminal Justice and Behavior, v.35 (2008).

This example Rotten Apple Corruption Essay is published for educational and informational purposes only. If you need a custom essay or research paper on this topic please use our writing services. offers reliable custom essay writing services that can help you to receive high grades and impress your professors with the quality of each essay or research paper you hand in.

See also:


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality

Special offer!