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Factors That Contribute to Police Misconducts


Police misconduct is increasingly becoming a common concern worldwide. Actions by the police officers in Hong Kong against the public cause mixed reactions nationwide and in the international community. In September 2019, the renowned Citizen’s Press Conference declared that public satisfaction with Hong Kong police was as low as 0.02 per cent on a scale of zero to ten. However, a broad range of activities constitutes police misconduct, comprising unlawful destruction of property, filing false reports, and misusing or larceny of seized possessions, cash, or drugs, besides off-duty violence and unlawful actions. Therefore this essay discusses the factors contributing to police misconduct using available literature, and applies the rotten apple theory and rotten barrel theory.

Literature Review

The subculture of policing is among the issues causing police misconduct (Armacost, 2003). For instance, new police officers frequently try to conform to the standards and traditions of police behaviour as well as demeanor, failure to which they face ridicule and criticism. More so, police misconduct may be a result of personality. Police personality concerns the predispositions present before an officer joins the service (Sanders, 2008). Such traits allow a police officer to choose to fit into the police subculture or not. The other causes of police misconduct are improper training, a lack of accountability, and overall job stress (Bishopp et al., 2020). Social disorganization may also create an avenue for police misconduct since the citizens may lack the social networks needed to organize against malpractice by the law enforcement officers (Kane, 2002). Also, broad discretion, as well as a lack of supervision, leads to increased police misconduct.

The rotten apple theory claims that deviant police officers bring undesirable behaviours into the police institution when the government hires them (Bonanno, 2015). Under the rotten apple theory, the answer to police misbehavior is that the government should increase psychological screening of the law enforcement officers to exclude the rotten personnel from the barrel. Contrary, the rotten barrel theory of police misconduct argues that misconduct is a characteristic ingrained in the police structure (Gottschalk, 2012). For example, recruits in the police force meet senior officers who have no faith in the police force, and for the new officers to conform to the subculture, they engage in misconduct because they want to form ties of mutual trust with the other officers.

Studies on Factors Causing Police Misconduct

In assessing personality traits and police officers’ performance, Sanders (2008) examined a sample size of 96 police officers drawn eight non-metropolitan police departments. The results revealed that attitude significantly affects job performance than were personality traits. The study results indicate that a pessimistic work attitude negatively affects job performance. In examining whether procedural fair actions by law enforcement officers affects citizens behaviour during encounters, Dai, Frank, and Sun (2011) proposed that individual police officers respond, manage, as well as cope differently cope with stress based on their life experiences, thus reactions can be positive or adverse. The study reported that individual differences contribute to the police officers’ reactions.

Moreover, Chikwem (2017) established the link between job stress and job performance among police officers through a correlational study. The investigation employed online surveys to gather data 200 from police officers in two urban police units in the United States. Results from hierarchical regression revealed that stress at work explains about 80 per cent of work outcomes among police officers. Armacost (2003) explored whether organizational culture impacts police misconduct. The research reported that organizational culture affects how police officers act on their fierce predispositions. According to Wood, Tyler, and Papachristos (2020), procedural justice training decreases police application of force as well as grievances against officers. The study targeted 8,480 officers in Chicago, and complaints from the public reduced by 10 per cent while police brutality dropped by 6.4 percent.


The findings by Sanders (2008) that attitude is more significant in explaining performance imply that organizational influences interact with individual susceptibilities to yield police misconduct. Given the rotten barrel theory, the external environmental dynamics such as the working environment of the police officers, job stress, and code of silence influence the law enforcement officers’ misconduct. The police organization could be less concerned with supervising officers while on duty, while the officers may desire to cover up for their colleagues. The results align with Armacost (2003) that organizational culture plays a crucial role in police misconduct, as explained by the rotten barrel theory. The rotten barrel theory believes that police officers do not join the institution as fully-formed deviants, but the environment in part shapes how they react to situations. Chikwem’s (2017) findings that stress impacts job performance amongst police officers hinge on the barrel theory that job-related stress in the work environment can result in deviant behaviour among police officers because the officers are not in their right emotional state.

The rotten apple theory explains the findings by Dai et al. (2011) that individual differences contribute to police misconduct. The rotten apple theory asserts that wrongdoers have innate traits that make them susceptible to making mistakes at work. Therefore, the police agencies should conduct the psychological tests thoroughly before hiring. Finally, findings by Wood et al. (2020) support Bishopp et al. (2020) that training impacts police misconduct. The police organization needs to educate the officers on procedural justice to promote good behaviours among the officers. The rotten barrel theory emphasizes the need for a positive culture, and failure to train the police leads to increased cases of brutality and death of the citizens, among others.


Police maintain public order as well as safety and the law permits police to discourage, stop, and investigate offences. However, the police officers sometimes misuse this authority. Police misconduct risks harm to individuals and the whole society by jeopardizing the administration of justice besides crushing down the trust between the law enforcement body and the citizens. Therefore, it is essential to screen individuals before they join the force and create a culture that values effective service delivery since misconduct results from several interrelated factors.


Armacost, B. E. (2003). Organizational culture and police misconduct. Geo. Wash. L. Rev.72, 453.

Bishopp, S. A., Piquero, N. L., Piquero, A. R., Worrall, J. L., & Rosenthal, J. (2020). Police stress and race: Using general strain theory to examine racial differences in police misconduct. Crime & Delinquency66(13-14), 1811-1838.

Bonanno, E. R. (2015). An Evidential Review of Police Misconduct: Officer versus organization.

Chikwem, C. (2017). The relationship of job stress to job performance in police officers.

Dai, M., Frank, J., & Sun, I. (2011). Procedural justice during police-citizen encounters: The effects of process-based policing on citizen compliance and demeanor. Journal of criminal justice39(2), 159-168.

Gottschalk, P. (2012). White-collar crime and police crime: rotten apples or rotten barrels? Critical Criminology20(2), 169-182.

Kane, R. J. (2002). The social ecology of police misconduct.Criminology, 40 (4), 867

Sanders, B. A. (2008). Using personality traits to predict police officer performance. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 31(1):129-147.

Wood, G., Tyler, T. R., & Papachristos, A. V. (2020). Procedural justice training reduces police use of force and complaints against officers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(18), 9815-9821.


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