Police Misconduct

The term police misconduct refers to illegal or inappropriate action engaged in by police officers. Police misconduct can include instances of such things as discrimination or even obstructions of justice. Modern times have seen a huge increase in the number of people possessing mobile devices capable of recording video and sound. Because of this, more police misconduct is being captured on video and posted to social media websites, thereby making the public aware of issues that may have existed long before the mobile devices were around to capture them. To explore this concept, consider the following police misconduct definition.

Definition of Police Misconduct


  1. Improper or illegal behavior engaged in by a police officer while attempting to administer justice.

Origin of Misconduct

1700-1710       Mis- + conduct  (“wrong conduct”)

What is Police Misconduct

Police misconduct is also referred to as “police corruption” because both involve the violation of police department rules and regulations. Police misconduct sometimes involves law enforcement officers who violate state and federal laws, as well as the civil rights of the citizens they are sworn to protect. Examples of police misconduct include the excessive use of either physical or deadly force, arresting people based on discrimination, physically or verbally harassing people, or being selective with the laws they enforce.

Types of Police Misconduct

There are numerous types of police misconduct that officers can engage in, and they do not have to be on the job in order to be guilty of misconduct. Some examples of police misconduct include:

  • Bribing lawmakers – Some officers will try to persuade officials to either pass or keep laws that work to give the police excess power.
  • Selective law enforcement – An example of police misconduct of this sort would be to arrest someone simply because the officer “dislikes” him for some reason. Similarly, an officer choosing not to punish someone he does like but who should be charged with a crime is also selective law enforcement. The officer is “selecting” which laws he will enforce, and which ones he won’t, rather than treating everyone fairly under the law.
  • Witness tampering – Witness tampering is one of the more common types of police misconduct. This behavior concerns an officer who attempts to either change a witness’ testimony, or prevents a witness from testifying in a criminal or civil proceeding.
  • Noble cause corruption – This is a situation wherein the officer wrongly believes that a positive outcome justifies the bad behavior that was engaged in to get that positive result. In other words, the ends justify the means.
  • False confessions – Some officers convince individuals to give false confessions, convincing them to plead guilty to something they did not actually do. This behavior may be engaged in so as to protect the person who is truly guilty of the crime.
  • Racial profiling – Racial profiling is the use of someone’s race or ethnicity as a justification for suspecting him of committing a crime. For instance, assuming a man must be a terrorist because he’s Muslim, or assuming a black man driving an expensive car must have stolen it.

Other types of police misconduct include:

Addressing Police Misconduct

There are federal laws in place addressing police misconduct in both criminal and civil issues. If someone makes a complaint – addressing police misconduct with the Department of Justice (DOJ) – more than one department of the DOJ may be involved in investigating the complaint, depending on its severity.

As is to be expected, criminal and civil cases addressing police misconduct are treated differently by the DOJ, even if they concern the same incident. In a criminal case, the DOJ will bring a case against the officer who is accused of a crime, determining whether the officer should be criminally charged. In a civil case, however, the DOJ brings the case against a governmental authority or law enforcement agency, either through litigation (filing a civil lawsuit against the organization), or with an administrative investigation.

Just like in a criminal case against a civilian, a criminal case addressing police misconduct must establish proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” of the officer’s guilt. Once established, the wrongdoer is punished by imprisonment or whatever other sanctions the law specifies.

In civil cases, however, the proof only needs to satisfy the “preponderance of the evidence,” which is the amount of convincing evidence that is presented, rather than the quantity of evidence that is presented in general. When it comes to punishment, the DOJ will attempt to correct the law enforcement agency’s policies that allowed such misconduct to happen. When appropriate, individual relief for the victim(s) may also be sought.

Role of Video and Audio Recording in Addressing Police Misconduct

With the increase in mobile devices that have recording capabilities, more police misconduct has been brought to light than ever before. This has worked to illustrate that police misconduct has been occurring with more frequency than anyone could have imagined. For instance, public defender Jami Tillotson was arrested by police in San Francisco after asking police officers not to take pictures of her client. The officers told her she was being arrested for “obstructing a police investigation.” Tillotson then sued the officers in federal court for violating her civil rights.

Incidents like these might never have made the news before because they were local, so people were not aware of them. However, because this incident was caught on tape, it was brought to the attention of the local news, and so more people were made aware of police misconduct being carried out right in their own backyards. This has increased the public’s awareness of such incidents, and has served as a warning that all civilians should be fully aware of their legal rights in similar situations.

For instance, it is perfectly legal to videotape a police officer’s conduct, no matter what the officer says, so long as the incident is happening in a public place, and so long as the witness keeps his distance and does not in any way interfere with the police action. The reason for this is because, when a police officer is carrying out his daily functions in a public place, he is subject to being recorded, and nothing he says or does can stop a witness from recording his actions – so long as the person recording the incident stays out of the way and does nothing to interfere. Even if what the officer is doing is wrong, interfering with the situation can be damaging to the witness’ case.

Police Misconduct Example Involving a Corrupt Cop

In 2009, several robberies occurred in a Cincinnati neighborhood. After one of the robberies, a resident took down the license plate number of a car that he believed was driving suspiciously. The police traced the plate to Alicia Maxton.

Officer Julian Steele looked into Maxton’s background and found out that she had children, all minors. He then went to the children’s school and arrested all three of them. One of the children, referred to by his initials “RM,” is driven to the police station and interrogated, without the mother having been informed. In fact, he had instructed the school to not inform the mother that the children had been taken.

RM denied being involved with the robberies, but Steele told him that, if he did not confess to the crime, his mom would end up in jail for the crime, which would cause her to lose custody of him and his siblings. Afraid for his siblings, RM confessed, and was charged with the robberies and held in jail.

The next day, Steele actually told the school that he did not really think RM was connected to the robberies – RM’s description did not match the description of the suspect. Over the course of the next week, Steele scheduled several meetings with Maxton, having told her that he wanted to discuss her son’s case with her. One of these meetings was at Steele’s apartment.

During that meeting, Steele told Maxton that he might be able to get RM out of jail, saying that he knew his way around the paperwork and that he did not personally believe RM was responsible. He then made sexual advances, which Maxton went along with because she believed Steele’s claims that he had enough influence to get her son released from jail. She did not want to do anything that would stand in the way of that happening.

Within a few days, Steele’s scheme became clear. A prosecutor who knew about RM’s arrest thought he had gone home after he was processed. Once she learned that RM was still in custody nine days later, she immediately dropped all of the charges against him and released him.

The school, Maxton, and additional prosecutors confirmed that Steele had admitted to all of them that he did not believe RM to be responsible for the crime, even before he arrested him, and that the arrest was meant to serve as leverage in his investigation. Steele was charged with multiple crimes, namely using his authority as a police officer in connection with abduction, rape, intimidation, and extortion.

Steele was ultimately convicted on the charges of intimidating RM, and abducting him. Steele’s attorneys argued that the charge of intimidation should not be considered valid in connection with a police officer’s conduct during an interrogation because it is an officer’s job to intimidate in order to gain a confession.

The Ohio Supreme Court disagreed, saying that while police have some leeway insofar as being deceptive to gain a confession, there are limits to that practice insofar as the law is concerned. The Court found that Steele was indeed guilty of knowingly coercing a false confession, and that he then filed a criminal complaint based on that confession, knowing full well that the confession was false.

Insofar as the abduction charge was concerned, Steele’s attorneys argued that the jury had not been properly informed of the fact that there are valid reasons for police to arrest people that they simply suspect of committing a crime. The Court rejected this argument for two reasons:

  • Steele’s attorneys agreed to all of the jury instructions at the start of trial, so they could not complain about how things went by the end.
  • The same facts of the case that supported the intimidation charge also supported the abduction charge. Steele pulled RM out of school, put handcuffs on him, took him down to the station, threatened his entire family, coerced a confession (which he knew was false), and filed a criminal complaint using that false confession.

Steele was ultimately sentenced to five years in prison, followed by five years of parole.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Abduction – The act of forcibly taking someone away against his will.
  • CoercionThe act of using force or intimidation to ensure compliance.
  • Discrimination – The practice of unfairly treating different categories of people, especially on the grounds of ethnicity, national origin, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
  • Extortion – The act of obtaining something through the use of force or threats.
  • Intimidation – The act of frightening someone into submission.
  • Obstruction – An attempt to hinder the discovery, arrest, conviction or punishment of someone who has committed a crime.
  • Perjury – The willful telling of an untruth, or giving of false testimony, after having taken an oath.