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Research in Brief: Misconduct by Experienced Police Officers

By Philip M. Stinson, JD, PhD Assistant Professor, Criminal Justice Program, Bowling Green State University; and John Liederbach, PhD, Associate Professor, Criminal Justice Program,Bowling Green State University

The IACP Research Advisory Committee is proud to offer the monthly “Research in Brief” column. This column features evidence-based research summaries that highlight actionable recommendations for Police Chief magazine readers to consider within their own agencies.
The goal of the column is to feature research that is innovative, credible, and relevant to a diverse law enforcement audience.

Focus of Research

The study focuses on crimes committed by experienced police officers who are approaching retirement. Police scholars have traditionally been interested in the formative experiences that occur near the beginning of an officer’s career, wherein the expectations of “rookie” cops clash with on-the-job realities to promote cynicism, personal anomia, and potential attachment to delinquent police subcultures. The literature suggests that officers will tend to “get into trouble” earlier in their career rather than later; but, the occurrence of late-stage misconduct committed by experienced police officers presents a challenge to existing assumptions regarding the relationship between experience and various forms of police misconduct and also provides an opportunity to examine a stage of the police career that has not been the subject of much research.


The study identifies cases in which sworn law enforcement officers had been arrested for one or more criminal offenses through content analyses of published newspaper articles. Data were collected as part of a larger study on police crime. Data are derived using the Google News search engine and Google Alerts email update service. The research team located and printed news articles identified through these applications, examined them for relevancy, and archived them for subsequent coding and analyses.


The larger study on police crime identified 2,119 criminal cases that involved the arrest of 1,746 sworn officers during January 1, 2005, through December 31, 2007. Data on years of service were available for 1,434 of the cases. The data show that cases of police crime peak at 4 years of service and decline thereafter. The decline, however, is interrupted by spikes in crime during years 9, 10, 14, and 18 of service. These spikes in crime committed later in the career seem to contradict the notion of a stable experience–problem behavior curve and steady declines in misconduct that continue until retirement. Overall, the crimes committed by officers with 18 or more years of experience (n = 250) accounted for a considerable portion (17.4 percent) of the total number of crimes for which data on experience were available.1 The crimes of experienced officers differed from those committed earlier in the police career. For example, late-stage offenders were more likely to be supervisors and/or administrators, and they were more likely to commit crimes that were motivated by profit. Late-stage offenders were also distinguished in terms of employment outcomes. They were significantly less likely to be terminated as opposed to suspended than were less experienced officers. Cases that involved late-stage offenders were also significantly more likely to end in resignation as opposed to suspension than were the cases of less experienced officers. On the other hand, late-stage or experienced officers who were offenders were more likely to be convicted in criminal court, suggesting that law-breaking officers may become vulnerable to more severe legal sanctions in cases where the organization fails to dispense punishment that is perceived to be adequate.

Actionable Items

1. Police agencies need to recognize the possibility of problem behaviors among long-time employees and develop programs that anticipate the issues that commonly emerge late in the career or during the transition to retirement. Some agencies, for example, have implemented comprehensive personnel assessment systems that collect a wide range of data and have the means to address a broad range of problems, most commonly misconduct related to the use of force and citizen complaints. These “early warning” systems could be coupled with the internal affairs section of a department and be used to identify officers with a propensity for criminal behavior, but we are not aware of any that incorporate specific data on length of service to identify and select officers for intervention.

2. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) may provide a more promising avenue toward addressing pre-retirement issues. These programs typically provide personal and job-related counseling services to officers. The pre-retirement phase of the career often produces feelings of fear, insecurity, and practical concerns that could be related to the commission of late-stage misconduct and crime. The existing literature points to the need for practical assistance in four primary areas: (1) the long-term build-up of police stressors, (2) psychological problems related to the loss of identity, (3) family adjustments, and (4) the need for financial planning. The majority of large police agencies provide counseling to retired officers, but few provide counseling and stress-management training to pre-retirement officers. Further implementation of these types of programs needs to become a priority as the cohort of baby-boomer officers approaches this final but critical stage of the law enforcement career.

3. The occurrence of late-stage police crimes suggests the need for more studies on the mechanisms that influence the behavior of experienced police officers, especially those on the cusp of retirement. Police scholars and executives often recognize how the nature of the job and occupational socialization shapes officer values and the street-level behavior of police, but this body of knowledge tends to focus on experiences that occur early rather than late in the career. ♦

1Philip M. Stinson et al., “Exit Strategy: An Exploration of Late-Stage Police Crime,” Police Quarterly 13, no. 4 (2010): 413–435.

This project was supported by Award No. 2011-IJ-CX-0024, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.

Interested in submitting a research summary for Research in Brief?

Please cite as:

Philip M. Stinson and John Liederbach, "Misconduct by Experienced Police Officers," Research in Brief, The Police Chief 79 (November 2012): 12.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. , November 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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