When a law enforcement officer breaks the law it is a major embarrassment for the agency that employs the officer, it damages morale within the department, and it erodes public confidence in the police. Like it or not, law enforcement officers are held to a higher standard than the average citizen. It is a breach of the public’s trust when those who swear an oath to enforce the law actually break the law. In the minds of most citizens, and many law enforcement executives, termination is the most fitting punishment to help restore public trust. But what influence might termination have on the life of the officer involved? One could argue that termination would destroy the life of an individual who has devoted so much to the profession. That is commonly the argument made by the officers themselves as well as the attorneys and/or union representatives who argue on their behalf in the hopes of avoiding termination. But what does the research show?
The Research Study
One of my research assistants and I conducted a study on this issue (Solomon & Johnson, 2013). We searched online newspapers of small communities across the nation, locating papers that routinely listed the complete local criminal court case docket and arrests made by all of the area law enforcement agencies. Within these newspapers we searched for news articles between 1990 and 2000 regarding a police officer being arrested for a crime. These searches revealed information on the arrests of 62 individual officers. As these newspapers were all from small towns or rural counties, all of these arrests were featured as major stories. Using information from these news stories, we determined whether the officer ended up separating from law enforcement through termination or resignation, or continued on with his or her law enforcement career at this agency or another agency nearby. We then conducted searches of the newspaper up to 2011 to determine if the officer (or former officer) was ever in trouble again with the law. We supplemented these activities with Google searches to learn everything we possibly could about the officers and former officers, and their lives after their first arrest.
Of the 62 arrested officers we studied, 97% were male and ranged in rank from officer to chief. Half had less than 4 years of police experience at the time of their arrest. The types of crimes committed that were most frequent included sex offenses, batteries, drunken driving, and drug offenses. About half of the officers were convicted or pled guilty, and the other half were either acquitted or had their charges dropped. For those convicted, the most common sentence was probation and none of the officers was incarcerated for a period of more than two years. Of the 62 officers, 39% continued on in their law enforcement careers, although some had to sue to get their jobs back first and others continued their careers with another nearby agency. The remaining 61% were terminated or resigned and had not returned to the profession as of 2011.
We found that 79% of those officers who were able to continue their law enforcement careers ended up being arrested again for another crime at least once before 2011. However, only 8% of the officers who had their law enforcement careers ended ever experienced another arrest. The results were basically the same when we considered only officers who were convicted of their offense. No differences in outcomes were found between officers who were convicted and officers who were only charged; if they continued their law enforcement career they were at much higher risk for being arrested again.
When we gathered online information about the 38 officers who ended their police careers, we found evidence that the vast majority went on to have productive professional careers in the community after their termination, in spite of their arrest record. Google searches revealed that all 38 former officers remained in the same geographic area where they had worked in law enforcement. Most now held such positions as small business owners, paralegals, attorneys, accountants, commercial pilots, insurance claims adjusters, electricians, college academic advisors, driving instructors, substance abuse counselors, or farmers. This information about the 38 former officers was easily located through local newspaper articles, LinkedIn pages, and business websites.
This evidence suggests that when a law enforcement officer breaks the law, and there is sufficient evidence to justify termination through a fair administrative hearing process, this outcome might not only be what is best for the agency and the community. It may also end up being what is best in the long run for the life of the officer. The evidence from this study suggests that in most cases the individual has the potential to be a productive and law-abiding member of society once removed from the temptations, opportunities, and stressors associated with a career in law enforcement.
Routine Activities Theory
One possible explanation for this is to apply routine activities theory to the officer’s criminal behavior. Routine activities theory (Clarke & Felson, 1993) is the foundation of problem-oriented policing strategies. This theory suggests that most crime consists of three elements: a motivated offender, a suitable target, and a place without guardians. In order for a specific crime to occur an offender must exist, that offender must be motivated to commit that crime at that time, there must be a victim suitable for victimizing, and the victim and offender must meet in space and time at a location that would permit the crime to occur. In the context of problem-oriented policing, this theory helps officers focus on strategies to eliminate at least one of these three elements. Problem-oriented policing strategies seek to reduce potential offenders’ motivations, make victims less suitable targets, and / or increase the security of places associated with crime. Since this theory explains the occurrence of most crimes, why wouldn’t it also be applicable to crimes committed by police officers?
Regarding motivation, perhaps the officer was never motivated to commit a crime before entering the career, but after witnessing the revolving door criminal justice system, lack of stiff penalties for offenders, and lack of respect from the media and public, the officer’s own psychological barriers to committing crime become weakened. In another case, an individual may never have been motivated to drink and drive before becoming an officer, but after experiencing several years of the stress and mental trauma associated with police work, he may be motivated to drink more often or abuse prescription drugs in order to self-medicate.
Regarding suitable targets, an individual may have been successfully resisting an urge to steal before becoming an officer and never felt she had a safe opportunity to steal. After being hired as an officer, however, she finds herself frequently overwhelmed in situations where she can easily pocket money with little risk of detection. Another individual may have had urges to act inappropriately with women, but before becoming a police officer women tended to avoid him. Once becoming an officer, however, women may express more interest in him or, at the very least, he now has the authority to stop and detain women.
Regarding places, police officers themselves are often the source of security in a place. If these guardians are corrupt, then there is no guardianship. Police work is filled with situations where officers act without direct supervision or observation by the public. Stops in secluded alleys, searches of buildings with open doors in the middle of the night, or interviews with people in the privacy of their own homes are common. Finally, an officer’s badge and uniform can grant him or her access to many secure places, such as schools, nightclubs, concerts, sporting events, and nonpublic areas of stores or banks.
So it could be argued that an individual who never engaged in crime before becoming a law enforcement officer did so due to a combination of a lack of criminal motivation, lack of access to suitable victims, and lack of access to places that helped them facilitate the crime. Once becoming an officer, however, the factors that restrained this individual from committing a crime were reduced. If this is true, then if an officer who commits a crime is removed from the profession, the officer is less likely to commit further crimes. The motivation, access to victims, and access to places that facilitate his crimes will have returned to what existed before the individual became an officer. This also suggests that if an officer retains his or her job after committing a crime, then future criminal behavior from this officer is likely. The officer continues to experience an environment of motivation, suitable targets, and reduced guardianship that helped contribute to the first crime he committed.
This further explains why, despite the fact law enforcement agencies spend tens of thousands of dollars to select and hire the best possible job candidates, they still end up with officers from time to time who display very poor judgment. Under the temptations, opportunities, and stressors associated with normal life and occupational circumstances, these individuals were good citizens and employees. Exposed to the far more challenging work environment of law enforcement, however, they are given far more authority, and far less direct supervision, than they have probably ever experienced before. Many can handle it, some cannot, and others can handle it for a certain period of time (i.e., those that begin engaging in bad judgment later in their careers). Police work is physically and psychologically demanding, involving constant risks of physical danger, civil liability, and administrative liability. Not everyone is cut out to be a cop. Sometimes we cannot determine if this is the case until the individual is actually working out in the field on his own and has time to experience the full stresses and responsibilities of the job. Perhaps it is best to view serious problem officers as good people who made a bad career choice, and who need help leaving the nest to find a career that better suits their skillset.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
Clarke, R. V., & Felson, M. (2004). Routine Activity and Rational Choice. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Solomon, S., & Johnson, R. R. (2013). Subsequent arrests of previously arrested police officers: the influence of continued employment in policing. Law Enforcement Executive Forum, 13(1), 24-33