Police Corruption. Definition and Types

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Police corruption is a serious issue in police departments that is not always easy to measure, and it is critical to recognize the variety of its forms. The purpose of the research paper is to explore the state of knowledge regarding this problem and summarize information on the different types of inappropriate workplace practices that fall under the definition of corruption. The paper uses five sources of different types, including books, journal articles, and dissertations, to discuss the topic. As per the literature, common types of police corruption are presented by regular or one-time bribes, making and accepting payments for promotions, and the misappropriation of property or the items of evidence, such as drugs. In contrast to these obvious crimes, some forms of corruption, including gratuities and noble cause corruption, are more complicated from the ethical perspective.

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By definition, those working in law enforcement are expected to demonstrate outstanding moral qualities and an understanding of ethics to meet society’s expectations. Unfortunately, the cases of police corruption are not extremely rare in the United States and worldwide. They have a variety of negative effects, including severe reputational damages, the public distrust of police, and the need for new measures related to recruiting, human resource management, and ethics training. Police corruption takes various forms, including bribes, internal corruption, theft, noble cause corruption, and accepting gratuities, but not all researchers and police executives regard the latter as an inappropriate practice.

Definitions of Police Corruption

The aforementioned type of police misconduct involves a large number of inappropriate behaviors with different motives, which is why the definition of the term may vary depending on the source. Police corruption is often understood as a specific set of crimes committed by police officers and motivated by potential financial profits and career progression (Stinson, Liederbach, Buerger, & Brewer, 2018). As per Michael Palmiotto’s definition, police corruption involves police officers’ attempts to profit from performing activities that they are already obliged to perform, for instance, demanding payments from victims to initiate an investigation (Dempsey, Forst, & Carter, 2019). On the contrary, accepting services, valuable gifts, and money for not fulfilling their duties and ignoring specific criminal incidents also meets the definition of police corruption (Dempsey et al., 2019). Importantly, this form of police crime is not limited to unjustified actions that lead to personal gains (Dempsey et al., 2019). Involvement in corruption can also be targeted at receiving profits for entire groups of police employees and even organizations.

Types of Corrupt Police Officers: Meat-Eaters and Grass-Eaters

Subject matter experts distinguish between several forms of corruption among police officers, and there are classifications that emphasize the degree of involvement. One simplistic classification was proposed by the Knapp Commission that was founded in 1970 to investigate a series of police misbehavior scandals involving employees at the New York Police Department (Stinson et al., 2018). In the working group’s final report, those involved in corruption cases were defined as “grass-eaters” and “meat-eaters” (Stinson et al., 2018, p. 312). The first term applies to police officers who agree to accept gratuities but remain passive when it comes to searching for illicit enrichment opportunities. The second notion refers to more aggressive offenders who commit “more offensive corruption” and actively search for new illicit offers, for instance, by extorting bribes from others (Stinson et al., 2018, p. 312). Those engaging in corruption face the fear of being caught, so it can be supposed that passive approaches to the misuse of power are more widespread.


Taking gratuities is among extremely common and, at the same time, controversial forms of police corruption. In the context of police misconduct, gratuities are understood as small gifts and items of value that police officers are offered because of their professional role (Dempsey et al., 2019). Common examples of gratuities include free drinks and meals and discounts for these goods (Dwenger, 2020). Those offering these small gifts may wish to get something in return, but there are no explicit agreements between the parties. The hidden threats of these seemingly innocent gestures of courtesy that many people perceive as the demonstration of benevolence include police officers’ sense of obligation and the willingness to do something in return for kindness. The normalization of gratuities for law enforcement officers may lead to these professionals’ tendency to spend more time in specific settings or single out particular individuals when providing citizens with assistance.

There is an ongoing conflict among researchers regarding the status of taking gratuities as a form of police corruption. Prominent researchers tend to list this practice among corrupt behaviors or the examples of job-related deviance, and the acceptance of police gratuities is supposed to promote more serious forms of corruption (Dwenger, 2020). According to the official position of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the refusal to accept such offers is preferable, but police executives are allowed to conclude on the appropriateness of gratuities (Dwenger, 2020). The arguments for the normalization of gratuities include police officers’ decision-making freedom and non-binding gifts’ ability to promote positive interactions between law enforcement agencies and the public (Dwenger, 2020). Regarding the opposing position, it is not correct that gratuities are demonized (Dwenger, 2020). Instead, they are seen as a factor that can promote more aggressive corruption, similarly to marijuana in the gateway theory of addiction.

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The exact percentage of police officers that engage in taking gratuities remains unknown, but there have been attempts to study police executives’ attitudes to this questionable practice. According to Dwenger’s (2020) interviews with police executives from the Midwest Region, almost 50% of the participants perceived the regular acceptance of gratuities by officers as a potential ethical issue. At the same time, the interviewees were negative about the proposition to enforce internal policies that would ban police gratuities (Dwenger, 2020). Thus, despite the guidelines provided by the IACP, police gratuities are not seen as something harmful by definition.


Unlike the previously discussed practice, bribery is perceived as unethical and inappropriate regardless of the context. Bribes are defined as the payment of money to police officers in exchange for illegal services. Such services often include these professionals’ failure to fulfill their duties and enforce the law or extra protections for specific individuals (Dempsey et al., 2019). Based on the frequency of payments, experts single out two subtypes of this form of corruption. Among them are periodic and regular payments to police officers to overlook the ongoing activity of illicit businesses and one-time payments to avoid being arrested for specific offenses (Dempsey et al., 2019). The so-called meat-eaters are the type of corrupt officers that tend to involve in the transfer of bribes on a regular basis (Dempsey et al., 2019). Law enforcement officers often take bribes for political favors (Stinson et al., 2018). With that in mind, bribery can promote illicit enrichment among police officers, the neglect of crime prevention and victims’ complaints, and reductions in public safety.

It is often difficult to estimate the degree to which this form of profit-motivated crime is common in U.S. police officers. In their study, Stinson et al. (2018) explore career-ending incidents at the New York Police Department between 2005 and 2011. As per the analysis, among profit-motivated offenses, taking bribes is the second most common illicit practice and accounts for 18.6% of cases (Stinson et al., 2018). Thus, not all facts of police officers’ engagement in bribery become known, but the data on detected bribery cases still offer some insight into the issue.

Police bribery cases are not always easy to detect, but information on corrupt activities can come from a variety of sources. One peculiarity surrounding the detection of public corruption cases, including bribe-taking police officers, is that new information is often provided by criminal defendants in exchange for the mitigation of punishment. For instance, according to Artello and Albanese (2020), arrested individuals are commonly interviewed about suspicious activities among police officers. Additionally, observations reported by confidential informants often lead to the detection of profit-motivated crimes. For instance, in the 1996 case of corrupt police officers from New Orleans, the reported acquisitions of overly expensive cars that police officers could not afford fueled the investigation (Artello & Albanese, 2020). The negative consequences of police bribery are tremendous, so potentially valuable information from the various sources should always be considered and checked thoroughly.

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Internal Corruption and Theft

As the term suggests, internal corruption is the form of police misconduct involving the presence of inappropriate collaboration or illegal agreements between several law enforcement specialists. Among the examples of this type of misconduct are covert agreements in which police officers pay other professionals from their departments for promotions and the conferment of higher ranks (Dempsey et al., 2019). Although the information on separate cases of internal corruption can be found in news sources, modern researchers do not cite statistical trends that would help to conclude on the incidence of such cases.

Theft is another form of corruption involving police officers, and it includes severe violations of ethical principles pertaining to law enforcement and the rules of crime scene investigation. In general, it can be described as the misappropriation of money, property, or even the items of crime-scene evidence by the police during the performance of their duties (Dempsey et al., 2019). Police officers can easily gain access to multiple locations, which involves extensive opportunities for burglary. Some of these locations include stores, warehouses, crime scenes, suspected criminals’ houses, and so on (Dempsey et al., 2019; Stinson et al., 2018). The cases of drug theft can take place during illicit drug trafficking investigations and before the completion of drug inventory procedures (Dempsey et al., 2019). The instances of shakedowns of drug traffickers for drugs and stealing from parked cars while patrolling streets are also known (Stinson et al., 2018). Unfortunately, due to the nature of their work-related tasks, it can be relatively easy for dishonest police employees to steal others’ property without being caught.

Burglaries and thefts belong to the number of very common offenses that end police officers’ careers in law enforcement. In their quantitative study, Stinson et al. (2018) demonstrate that unclassified theft has become the key reason for 16% of arrests of New York Police Department employees in the period between 2005 and 2011. In the descending order of their frequency, other offenses of this type included theft from buildings while on duty, stolen property offenses, the theft of goods from shops, and taking property from others’ motor vehicles (Stinson et al., 2018). Other, less common offenses related to theft committed by police officers were presented by the misappropriation of motor vehicles and their parts and stealing valuable items from their victims’ pockets (Stinson et al., 2018). With that in mind, thefts and burglaries can be considered a serious and common issue when it comes to police misconduct.

Noble Cause or Process Corruption

Noble cause/process corruption is a peculiar type of police misbehavior since, as the term implies, it is not motivated by financial reasons and opportunities for enrichment. The acts of noble cause corruption involve police officers’ deliberate violations of internal protocols and laws in the name of noble values, such as justice and the protection of the vulnerable (Van Halderen & Kolthoff, 2016). Some examples may include attempts to fabricate/distort evidence, implement illegal search procedures, limit suspects’ rights, and give false testimony to achieve outcomes that are considered as positive and righteous (Van Halderen & Kolthoff, 2016). Importantly, experts from the Wood Royal Commission highlight the hypocrisy of the term (Van Halderen & Kolthoff, 2016). According to their investigations, the instances of the so-called noble cause corruption turn out to be closely interconnected with the cases of corruption for self-benefit (Van Halderen & Kolthoff, 2016). This form of misconduct is of interest to philosophy researchers due to the means-ends dilemma that it introduces.


In summary, police corruption is broadly understood as inappropriate acts that police officers commit to gain profits for themselves or their organizations. Many types of corruption, including theft, taking and extorting bribes, and paying for promotion, are widely regarded as absolutely inappropriate. Taking gratuities, however, presents an exception since police executives do not recognize it as an ethical issue until the instances of accepting small gifts from citizens or local organizations become regular.


Artello, K., & Albanese, J. S. (2020). Rising to the surface: The detection of public corruption. Criminology, Criminal Justice, Law & Society, 21(1), 74-89.

Dempsey, J. S., Forst, L. S., & Carter, S. B. (2019). An introduction to policing (9th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage.

Dwenger, W. L. (2020). Police perspectives on the acceptance of gratuities: A qualitative case study (Doctoral dissertation, Capella University, Minneapolis, Minnesota). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations. (ProQuest Number 28086637)

Stinson, P. M., Liederbach, J., Buerger, M., & Brewer, S. L. (2018). To protect and collect: A nationwide study of profit-motivated police crime. Criminal Justice Studies, 31(3), 310-331. Web.

Van Halderen, R. C., & Kolthoff, E. (2016). Noble cause corruption revisited: Toward a structured research approach. Public Integrity, 19(3), 274–293. Web.

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