police misconduct | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Policing

Police misconduct involves illegal or inappropriate actions by officers during their official duties, including excessive force, discrimination, and false arrest.

First and foremost, it’s important to understand what police misconduct is. It involves police officers breaking the law or violating someone’s rights. This could happen in many ways. For example, an officer might use more force than necessary when making an arrest. Or an officer could stop someone based on their race, which is called racial profiling. Police misconduct damages the public’s trust in law enforcement. After all, officers are supposed to protect us, not harm us.

Types of Misconduct

It’s important to understand that the examples provided here are just that—examples. There’s a wide range of possible unethical or illegal conduct by police officers. Now let’s dive deeper into some common types of misconduct.

Excessive Force

One prevalent type of police misconduct is excessive force. In simple terms, this happens when an officer uses more force than is needed for a given situation. Imagine a scenario where a person is running away, and the police shoot at them, even though they’re unarmed and pose no immediate threat. Or consider a situation where an officer uses a Taser on someone who is already on the ground and not resisting. These are examples of excessive force, which is both illegal and dangerous.

False Arrest and Wrongful Imprisonment

False arrest and wrongful imprisonment are another set of issues. For instance, let’s say an officer arrests someone because they don’t like their attitude, not because they’ve broken any laws. Or what if police hold a person in custody without ever charging them with a crime? These are examples of false arrest and wrongful imprisonment, respectively. Like excessive force, these actions not only break the law but also violate a person’s rights, leading to potential legal consequences for the officers and the police department.

Discrimination and Harassment

Discrimination and harassment by police can take many forms. For example, an officer might pull over drivers of a certain ethnicity far more often than other drivers, which is known as racial profiling. Or an officer could make derogatory comments based on someone’s gender or sexual orientation. Another form of harassment could be unwarranted stops and searches of young people just because they’re wearing “street clothes” or hanging out in a particular area. These actions go against the principle of treating everyone equally and can also be grounds for legal action against the officers involved.

Consequences for Misconduct

When police misconduct occurs, there are consequences. First, the officer involved might face disciplinary action. This could range from a warning to losing their job. Additionally, they could face criminal charges and go to court. Furthermore, police misconduct often leads to lawsuits against the police department. After that, these incidents can lead to protests and public outcry, damaging the reputation of the entire department.

Reporting and Investigation

When someone experiences or witnesses police misconduct, it’s crucial to report it. Many police departments have internal affairs units that investigate these complaints. Also, civilians can file complaints with local or state agencies that oversee police conduct. If misconduct is proven, then the officer may face various penalties, including criminal charges.

Prevention and Training

Preventing police misconduct is just as important as addressing it after it happens. Accordingly, police departments focus on training to prevent these issues. Officers learn about citizens’ rights, how to de-escalate situations, and the proper use of force. Some departments also use body cameras to keep an accurate record of interactions between police and the public.

Why It Matters

Police misconduct is a serious issue for several reasons. First, it undermines public trust in law enforcement. If people don’t trust the police, they are less likely to cooperate in criminal investigations. Second, misconduct can lead to innocent people being hurt or put in jail. In the worst cases, it can even lead to death. All in all, preventing misconduct is crucial for a fair and effective criminal justice system.

The Role of Public and Media

The public and the media play significant roles in bringing attention to police misconduct. Videos and news reports can quickly spread information, sparking public discussion and even leading to legal action. While media coverage can be a double-edged sword, it generally promotes accountability and pushes for necessary changes.


In summary, police misconduct involves illegal or inappropriate actions by police officers, like using excessive force or falsely arresting someone. These actions have far-reaching impacts, from legal consequences for the officers involved to a loss of public trust in the police system. Prevention through training and accountability through reporting and investigation are key steps in addressing this critical issue.

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Last Modified: 08/26/2023

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