4.7. Police Misconduct, Accountability, and Corruption

Tiffany Morey and Kate McLean

Learning Objectives

This section will cover police misconduct and accountability. After reading this section, students will be able to:

  • Discuss the different corruption types in policing
  • Explain the difference between a meat eater and a grass eater
  • List the different ways an officer engages in noble-cause corruption
  • Describe how a police officer uses stereotyping on the job
  • Discuss the importance of having a reliable internal affairs division/bureau
  • Explain why excessive use of force is difficult to quantify

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. How are grass eaters and meat eaters different?
  2. What is noble cause corruption?
  3. Why are there misunderstandings of police accountability?
  4. What are the functions of an internal affairs division/bureau?
  5. What happens if a police department shows a pattern of excessive use of force?

Corruption Types

Police officers have a considerable amount of power. With one fell swoop, an officer can seize a person’s freedom. An officer is also given the authority to carry a gun, and for protection of either the officer or a person, take the life of a citizen as well. These decisions are rarely easy, and at times, there are officers who not only overstep their legal boundaries but jump directly into the pit of corruption.

One of the problems with police corruption, including unjustified uses of force, is that there are few accurate, comprehensive, and public-facing measures. As discussed previously in the text, the FBI’s “Use of Force” dataset captures less than half of all police agencies in the United States; the best data on use of force (both legal and illegal) is collected by non-profit organization, who source their information from the media. Moreover, police corruption ranges across a broad spectrum, and may not come to administrators’ attention – or result in punishment. Finally, as will be discussed in subsequent sections, police subculture is defined by values that stress loyalty and suspicion of outsiders (and even police management.) The “blue wall of silence” represents a powerful barrier to addressing corruption in police ranks.

Of course, no matter the profession, corruption can occur. In an occupational context, corruption refers to the misuse of one’s position for personal gain. What may be unique – and dangerous – about corruption in law enforcement is the power that individual law enforcement officers may leverage. Whether seeking personal advantage, money, or simply a sense of power,

Grass Eaters

In 1970, The Knapp Commission coined the terms ‘meat eaters’and ‘grass eaters’ after an exhaustive investigation into New York Police Department corruption. Police officers that were “grass eaters” accepted benefits. Whether it was a free coffee at the local coffee shop, fifty percent off lunch, or free bottled water from the local bodega, these cops would take the freebie, and not attempt to do the “right thing” by explaining that they could not accept the gift or tip. By accepting these informal benefits, the officer was, in turn, implicitly agreeing that whoever gave it to them may receive something in return. What if the coffee shop wanted the officer to patrol their shop every morning between the busy hours of six and seven a.m.? Would that be fair to other coffee shop owners that did not give free coffee to the officer? [1]

Meat Eaters

Unlike “grass eaters,” “meat eaters” openly expected, solicited or took some reward or kickback personally from those they served, as a condition of doing their job. Whether it was monetary “shakedown” to ensure a convenience store was not robbed, or money taken from a drug dealer during a drug raid, such officers felt entitled to an unofficial bonus, and were aggressive in making sure they got it. The most notorious “meat eaters” – and the inspiration for the Knapp Commission – were the officer-conspirators who attempted to murder Frank Serpico, who exposed their cooperation with a high-level narcotics gang in 1970s New York City.

Noble Cause Corruption

Noble-cause corruption is a lot more commonplace then one might think. Many officers work twenty-five years and may never see a fellow cop steal something, but they will see noble-cause corruption. Most officers join the force to make the world a better place in one way or another. While officers understand they cannot solve everything alone, they do think they can make a difference. The noble-cause is the goal that most officers have to make the world a better and safer place to live. “I know it sounds corny as hell, but I really thought I could help people. I wanted to do some good in the world, you know? That’s what every cop answered when asked why he became a police officer. [2] However, officers’ belief in their own righteous motivation – the noble cause – can be used to justify less-than-noble actions, or illegal means. Noble cause corruption may take many forms: giving false testimony to back up a less-than-legal arrest, planting evidence that was seized in a search that was not “by the books,” or adjusting an offense upwards to ensure a higher penalty. All of these actions may become routine for an officer who seriously believes that they are working in the public interest to take dangerous people off the street.

Has Policing Become a Numbers Racket?

Police corruption may take some surprising forms; it may also flow from the top, down. One of the most recent instances of widespread departmental corruption involves the celebrated New York City Compstat program, a data-driven approach to policing that is often credited with the miraculous fall in crime in that city. Under Compstat, precinct-level crime data was made publicly available on a weekly basis, while precinct chiefs were required to give regular presentations to the “brass” demonstrating how they were reducing crime in their areas. However, crime can arguably only fall so much.

Under constant pressure to continuously lower crime, police administrators began informally pressuring their officers boost the data – by effectively burying reports or deterring would-be reporting victims. At the same time, officers were tacitly encouraged to increase signs of police activity, by doing as many stop-and-frisks possible, even without reasonable suspicion. When a whistleblower attempted to reveal these corrupt practices, the NYPD once again retaliated. Read more about whistleblower Adrian Schoolcraft’s takedown of Compstat here.

Use of Force

As discussed throughout this chapter, police in the United States have a considerable amount of power, including the legal ability to deploy deadly force; however, we must keep in mind that police use-of-force exists on a continuum, from mere police presence to the use of lethal methods. Proper police use-of-force is governed by federal court rulings, state laws, and individual departmental policies, which generally stipulate the following levels of force <footnote>National Institute of Justice, “The Use-of-Force Continuum,” August 3, 2009, nij.ojp.gov:

  • Officer presence (Police deter criminal activity through their physical presence)
  •  Verbalization (Police commands, which may increase in volume or aggression)
  • Empty-Hand Control (Bodily force, ranging from holds or blocks to punches or kicks)
  • Less-Lethal Methods (Batons, projectiles, chemical sprays, or Conducted Energy Devices)
  • Lethal Force (Use of firearms when necessary to preserve an officer’s or other individual’s safety)

How does an officer know what level of force should be used in any given situation? Departmental policies generally require that officers only use methods that they “reasonably believe” to be necessary to execute an arrest, enforce the cooperation of the suspect, or preserve the officer’s/public’s safety; some departments also stipulate that officers first attempt to deescalate a situation (through presence or verbalization), before employing physical methods of force. Nevertheless, both agency-specific policies and court decisions have recognized that police may find themselves in situations that require split-second decision-making, thus giving officers wide latitude to use their discretion when it comes to use-of-force. For example, in the landmark case, Graham v. Connor (1989), the Supreme Court determined that a standard of “objective reasonableness” should be used to determine whether an officer’s use-of-force was legal, while further privileging the officer’s judgement in the moment: “The “reasonableness” of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” The Graham standard has been used to affirm the “reasonableness” of lethal force incidents including the shooting deaths of Michael Brown, Samuel DeBose, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile.

At the same time, the Supreme Court has issued rulings that attempt to qualify the use of deadly force by police, such as the qualified “fleeing felon” prohibition offered in Tennessee v. Garner (1974). In this case, the Court decided that lethal force could not be legally employed solely for the purpose of preventing a suspect’s escape; instead, the pursuing officer must also have probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others” <footnote>Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985)</footnote>.

In the News: PA’s Fleeing Felon Law

In December 2021, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments on the constitutionality of state law concerning use-of-force on fleeing individuals. Specifically, Philadelphia prosecutors (in their case against a Philadelphia Police officer who shot a man escaping on a dirt bike) asserted that PA law were in violation of Tennessee v. Garner, in that they allowed law enforcement to use deadly force when an (1) individual was trying to escape; (2) had committed, or tried to commit a forcible felony; and (3) had a deadly weapon. Read more about the case here.

Is this standard appreciably different from that set by Garner? And if so, should it be rewritten?


  1. Caldero, M. A., Dailey, J. D., & Withrow, B. L. (2018). Police Ethics: The Corruption of Noble Cause (4th ed.). New York, NY, USA: Routledge/Taylor and Francis.
  2. Baker, M. (1985). Cops: Their lives in their own words. New York: Pocket Books.


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4.7. Police Misconduct, Accountability, and Corruption Copyright © 2019 by Tiffany Morey and Kate McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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