The Canadian Review of Policing Research (2004)

ISSN: 1710 6915


David F. Sunahara

Dr. Sunahara is leads the research program at the Canadian Police College. The research on which this summary is based was carried out in 2003. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Canadian Police College, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or any government department or agency. Dr. Sunahara may be reached at or at 613.998-0797


Ethical behaviour is learned, and like all learned behaviour, is shaped by experience. In an environment where temptations and threats are few, acting ethically comes easily. In more hostile environments, where temptations, insults and threats are commonplace, acting ethically poses a greater challenge. And this is the dilemma facing police. They work in a professional environment that challenges the high ideals that draw new recruits into policing.

The weakening of high ideals is more than a normative issue. It also represents a change in the attitudes and values of officers. As such, it can be subjected to social-psychological investigation. In this essay I draw together various strands of research to model the processes that may explain the relationship between a challenging professional environment and unethical behaviour.

The Model

The model begins with four givens: the corrosive street environment, an unsupportive workplace, idealistic, motivated officers and the police subculture. The model argues that each of these shapes the emotions and personality of officers and that these changes contribute to various forms of unethical and unprofessional behaviour.1

The Corrosive Street and Organizational Environments

Police officers are caught between the harsh world of operational police work and an organizational environment that can add its own injuries. Operational police work is characterized by the conflict inherent in attempting to control the behaviour of others. Police are also the bearers of unwanted news and the duty-bound accomplices to actions they personally see as unjust or simply fruitless. Police work obliges officers to function in a world where hypocrisy is made manifest. They see behind the facade of respectability and witness the sinister behaviour of ostensibly good citizens. The harsh professional world of police goes beyond these direct dealings with the public. Critical media and political commentary and hostile private observations are part of everyday life for police.

The organizational environment is often no less harmful. Research2 describes an organizational environment where shift work, intrusive policies, authoritarian management, onerous paperwork and a lack of respect often characterize the organizational life of rank-and-file officers. So instead of acting as a refuge from the hazards of the street, the organization adds its own insults.

The Corrosive Environment and Affective Behaviour

The psychological consequences of working in corrosive environments are threefold. Most obviously such experiences generate emotions that lead to affective acts that violate the norms of democratic policing3 . Police are all too familiar with the sequence of events that begins with a high speed pursuit and ends with the pursuing officer assaulting the offending driver. But such emotion-driven behaviour is not limited to the street. Affective acts also accompany the insults delivered by the organization. The filing of vexatious grievances and complaints, the undermining of management controls and the ongoing criticism and conjecture over the motives of management typify the affective acts routinely seen and heard in police services.

The Corrosive Environment and Entitlement

While heightened emotions may be transient, other changes may be more long lasting. The corrosive experience of the street and organization may change how police see themselves and the world they live in. Gilmartin4 argues that the harsh treatment accorded police officers causes them to see themselves as victims. And as victims they develop a sense of entitlement. That is, they begin to feel that they deserve special compensation for the harsh treatment accorded them and the onerous duties they must perform. Unethical behaviour arises when officers’ demands for compensation overrides their public duty.

The compensation sought by police can take a variety of forms. At one end are the illegal material benefits an officer may extract from the public or organization. At the other are psychological rewards. Public deference and officers exploiting their position to obtain sexual favours are examples of the psychological rewards demanded by some officers.5 Regardless of whether the compensation sought is material or psychological in these cases, the public good is sacrificed in the pursuit of private interests.

The Corrosive Environment and Alienation

An abrasive environment, in the office and on the street, can also cause officers to redefine their relationship with their employers and the larger community. This aspect of police work has received substantial attention. The alienation of police officers, or as it is often labelled police cynicism, has two dimensions: mistrust and hopelessness. The mistrustful officer constantly searches for ulterior motives, conspiracies and ambushes and their absence is merely proof that the enemy is clever. This mistrust is not the same as the prudent wariness that every police officer must possess. It is a debilitating and bleak world view that causes the police officer to engage the world with extreme and unfounded pessimism. Hopelessness, the second dimension of alienation, is the sense that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The alienated officer sees the future as bleak and that all effort is pointless.

The alienated officer sees no reason to be loyal to the rules of society or the police organization. And those that represent the rules, such as police managers, are also deemed unworthy of the officer’s loyalty. Under these conditions, the pursuit of private interests becomes permissible and can be rationalized on the grounds that, in a corrupt world, there is no reason not to seek personal advantage.

Professionalism demands the diligent performance of duties. But from the alienated officer’s perspective there is little reason to strive in a corrupt, hopeless world. Thus diligence can become a victim of the corrosive environment too often found in policing. Acts such as careless record- keeping, tardiness, poor deportment, and so on, can begin to characterize the performance of the alienated officer. While such actions are not commonly seen as moral issues, they clearly fall in the realm of unprofessional conduct. And as such they must be addressed in any discussion of professional ethics.

Police work brings officers face to face with the hierarchical structure of Canadian society. All large-scale societies contain a complex, vertical arrangement of groups scattered along continua of wealth, ethnicity, race, religion, and so on. And invariably, some of these groups come into more frequent contact with police than others do. Repeated exposure to such groups can lead to the development of stereotypes, namely simplified representations of group membership. Visible markers such as skin and hair colour, dress, residence or lifestyle figure prominently in these stereotypes.

Developing stereotypes is a normal psychological process to which everyone is subject. This normal process, however, becomes problematic for democratic policing when these images gain control over an officer’s behaviour, when the officer reacts, not to the substance of a person’s behaviour, but to the markers of group membership6 . The nature of Canadian society and the nature of police work may combine in this way to threaten the integrity of police officers.

A Corrosive Environment and Noble Cause Corruption

An aversive work environment may create more complex consequences for police than for other workers. For police officers bring to their work a sense of mission7 . When this sense of purpose collides with an alienated world view, the sense of mission may survive but allegiance to procedural justice may be left in tatters. Procedural justice gives way to rules of the officer’s own making, and valued ends come to justify illegitimate means. This aspect of unethical police behaviour has been labelled “noble cause corruption”8 . It can underlie such problems as wrongful conviction and the use of excessive force when officers assume personal responsibility for ensuring the guilty are punished. This same pursuit of noble ends and disregard for acceptable means can also be found in an officer’s relationship with his or her employer. Whistle blowing and a willingness to cut policy corners in the name of effectiveness and efficiency can often be seen in policing.

A Motivated Workforce

Police recognize that they more than most are motivated to do good and to serve the public interest. They are also aware that this dedication has placed them in a taxing and sometimes dangerous profession. This awareness can translate into a sense of being part of an elite group, a sense that is probably reinforced by the social isolation of many officers. Because of this, the image of the knight errant may figure prominently in the minds of some. Both good and ill can come from this self-definition. It can lead to extraordinary focus and dedication but it can also lead to a sense of entitlement, a sense that he or she is deserving of more than those who do not play such a heroic role. And heroes can, in their own minds at least, justifiably seek rewards to which others are not entitled9 . This elitist and heroic self-image can be the precursor to placing private interest above the public good.

Bringing a sense of public service to a taxing profession has one additional consequence. And like the situations described above, the public may find itself poorly served as a consequence. Those whose work represents a vocation are far more prone to burnout than those for whom their job is just an economic necessity10 . And the consequences of burnout may be indistinguishable from the negligent and indifferent performance of those who care nothing for their work. Diligence, a trait of motivated police officers may become a victim of the very dedication that brought them to policing at the beginning of their careers.

The Police Subculture

While not synonymous with the police occupational subculture, loyalty is one of its dominant features. And loyalty, as an important sub-cultural value, transcends time and space. Police from very different societies value loyalty, and this universality is explained by its being instrumental for those who must face a hostile world11 . In such a world, loyalty is instrumental; it ensures one’s safety and success.

Loyalty, as discussed here, is neither a virtue nor a vice. The value we assign it is situational12. The object to which loyalty is shown determines its moral worth. The loyalty that causes a police officer to risk his or her life to save another police officer is virtuous because the life of that officer, like all human life, is valuable. The loyalty that underpins a cover-up is corrupt. Refusing to “rat out” other officers and backing up threatened officers serve very different ends. The first serves the private ends of police in the same way as accepting a gratuity serves a private end. And backing up a threatened police officer serves the public good just as protecting the innocent serves the public good.


Figure 1 summarizes the arguments made in this essay. It portrays the hypothesized causal linkages that connect the police environment, culture and idealism of police officers to unethical and unprofessional police behaviour. Such behaviour falls under the headings of affective acts, noble cause and self-interested corruption, a lack of diligence and the prejudicial treatment accorded marginalized groups. Mediating between these two sets of variables are emotions such as fear and frustration, an alienated world view, the stereotypes that emerge in hierarchically ordered societies and the sense of being entitled to more than other members of the public.

The state employs police to apply coercive force on its behalf. And to ensure that the trust that underpins the public’s relationship with the state remains undamaged, police must act ethically in the use of this force. But by assuming this legitimate coercive role, police are placed in an environment that can erode those personal qualities needed to ensure democratic policing. That is, the legitimate role of police and the performance of this role can become locked in a downward, self-defeating spiral.

That there are so few Canadian officers who become trapped into this spiral is a testament to the character of Canadian police officers. If there is a failure, we should probably look to police institutions and their inability or unwillingness to hold officers accountable and to promote a healthy, professional culture. For police institutions, while they cannot change how the public acts towards police officers, have the power and obligation to ameliorate some of the consequences of this treatment. And by so doing, they will encourage the kind of behaviour that justifies the trust placed in police to use their coercive power ethically.


1. This discussion is part of a larger research project undertaken by the author. This larger project includes a survey designed to test the main hypotheses presented in this essay.

2. Akiva M. al, “Routine occupational stress and psychological distress in police”, Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, Vol. 25, 2002, 2: pp. 421-439; Daniel C. Lee and Brenda G. Stoneham. 1993. Survey of Work Stress. Ottawa: Health Services Directorate, Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

3. For a discussion of this see Sean P. Griffen and Thomas J Bernard, “Angry aggression among police officers”, Police Quarterly, Vol. 6, 2003, pp.3-21.

4. Kevin Gilmartin, Ethics-Based Policing…Undoing Entitlement [Online]. [cited August 20, 2002]. Available from Internet: <URL:HTTP:// entitlement.htm. >

5. The research highlighting the importance of demeanour and the police aversion to “ass holes” emphasize the importance that many police place on public deference. Clearly, there is an expectation amongst some police officers that they are entitled to respect and that the public should, at all times, defer to them. See for example, David A. Klinger, “More on demeanor and arrest in Dade County.” Criminology, Vol. 34, 1996, 1: pp. 61-82 and Robert E. Worden, and Robin L. Shepard, “Demeanor, Crime, and Police Behavior: A Reexamination of the Police Services Study Data.” Criminology, Vol. 34 1996,1: pp. 83-105

6. Stephen D. Mastrofski et al, “Police disrespect toward the public: an encounter-based analysis”, Criminology, Vol. 40, 2002, 3 (August 2002): pp.519-551.

7. John P. Crank, Understanding Police Culture. Cincinnati, Ohio: 1998, Anderson Publishing Company.

8. John Kleinig, “Rethinking noble cause corruption”, International Journal of Police Science & Management, Vol. 44, 2002, 4: pp. 287-314; Carl B. Klockars,”The dirty harry problem”, in Moral Issues in Police Work, edited by Frederick A. Elliston and Michael Feldberg, Totowa, New Jersey: 1985, Rowan & Allanheld Publishers: pp. 55-75.

9. Robert S. Pynoos, “Interpersonal violence and traumatic stress reaction”, in Handbook of Stress, second edition, edited by Leo Goldberger and Shlomo Breznitz, New York: 1993, The Free Press: pp. 573-590.

10. Ayala M. Pines, “Burnout”, in Handbook of Stress, second edition, edited by LeoGoldberger and Shlomo Breznitz, New York: 1993, The Free Press: pp. 386-402

11. Raymond G. Hunt and John M. Magenau, Power and the Police Chief, Newbury Park, CA: 1993, Sage Publications

12. R. E. Ewin, “Loyalties, and why loyalty should be ignored”, Criminal Justice Ethics, vol.12, no. 1, Winter-Spring 1993.