Excerpt: When Bad Cops Happen to Good People by Array

Police Bribery and Fraud

“Power attracts the corruptible. Suspect any who seek it.”

– Frank Herbert

In November 2021, after spending 43 years behind bars, Kevin Strickland was released from prison. He’d been wrongfully convicted of murder in 1979, setting the record for the longest wrongful imprisonment in the history of Missouri. Back in 1979, at the scene of a triple murder, eyewitness and gunshot victim Cynthia Douglas named two men as the gunman. Neither one was Kevin Strickland. But the next day, Douglas picked Strickland out of a lineup.

Her choice haunted her. For years she tried to tell police that Strickland was not at the scene, that police coerced her into choosing him from the lineup. In 2009, Douglas contacted the Midwest Innocence Project, convincing a Jackson County prosecutor to investigate. Douglas recanted her original testimony, explaining that police manipulated her during the lineup. The two actual gunmen who were eventually convicted for the murders said Strickland wasn’t involved. After over four decades, Strickland was set free. He was not compensated for the wrongful conviction.

Since 1989, people have spent over 25,900 years locked behind bars, only to be later exonerated for their crimes.1 Analysts report that cases of known police misconduct are responsible for over 35% of wrongful convictions in the U.S., mostly due to misconduct during interrogations and failure to disclose evidence. In 83% of cases of wrongful conviction involving police misconduct, no disciplinary action is taken.2

Data shows that discrimination plays a large role in police misconduct, with 72% of police misconduct cases resulting in the wrongful conviction of people of color. For drug crimes, 47% of wrongful convictions involving official misconduct had black defendants, compared to just 22% of those with white defendants. Such disparity is also seen in murder and death penalty cases, though to a lesser degree.3

Since reporting and discovery of police misconduct are severely lacking, the numbers are probably much higher. Investigating police misconduct is expensive, both in time and money. Typically, only repeat police offenders are examined closely. Only major criminal offenses or offenses highlighted in the media spark enough interest and potential risk to investigate. Police misconduct is likely rampant in minor crime convictions as well, though little data exists. Police officers work diligently to hide their illicit behavior. While police misconduct is common, discovering an act of misconduct is rare.

Types of Police Corruption

America’s founding fathers attempted to thwart government corruption by dividing our government into the legislative, judiciary, and executive branches, the assumption being that, by functioning independently, these separate branches would be less vulnerable to unjust influences like bribery, fraud, extortion, nepotism, and favoritism. However, individual branches are certainly not immune.

Within the executive system, police corruption has become a norm, both internally and externally. Police officers use dishonest tactics for financial or personal gain. External police corruption involves interactions with the public, while internal corruption involves interactions within the police department and other legal systems.

Witness Tampering

Studies on wrongful convictions involving police corruption show that the most common types of misconduct include witness tampering, interrogation misconduct, and evidence tampering (fabrication or concealment).4 Police engage in various types of witness tampering to achieve personal or financial gain. They may ask people to lie in their testimony or omit certain parts of their story. They may tell a witness who to point out in a photo lineup. In some cases, police will tell people to ignore their summons.

Witness tampering plays a major role in wrongful convictions. A recent study found that, in 79% of cases of verified witness tampering, the defendant was convicted of (and eventually exonerated for) murder or child sex abuse. In 80% of those cases, police officers were the ones who did the witness tampering.5 Police use all means necessary to convince a witness to lie or omit information in testimony. They may threaten themselves or their families with criminal charges or harsh prison sentences. They may manipulate witnesses, paying them money or promising immunity or light sentences or release.

In some cases, police will lie to the witness about the evidence they have against the defendant, convincing the witness that their false testimony is the morally right thing to do. For example, police might say the defendant is a known child abuser and if the witness doesn’t lie during testimony, that known child abuser will go free and continue to harm children.

Interrogation Misconduct

In August 2006, 70-year-old Herbert Fields was found dead by gunshot in New Haven, Connecticut. It looked like a robbery. Connecticut police detective Clarence Willoughby interrogated 16-year-old Bobby Johnson about the incident. His parents were not present. Johnson repeatedly stated that he was innocent. Eventually, detective Willoughby said the police had physical evidence linking him to the crime. Willoughby told him that he would get the death penalty if he didn’t confess. If he did confess, he would get probation. Johnson decided to confess.

So police helped him practice a tape-recorded confession. They then had him revise the confession after the ballistics lab results returned negative. Willoughby reinforced to Johnson that his story had to match the evidence, or his probation offer wouldn't stand. Johnson confessed to the murder, pleaded guilty, and got 38 years in prison. He spent nine and a half years behind bars before being exonerated in 2015. Johnson’s release came after new evidence identified the man who committed the murder.

A defendant’s confession is almost as powerful as DNA evidence in the eyes of a jury, especially in murder cases when life in prison or the death penalty is on the table. Why would anyone confess to a crime and throw their future away if they didn’t do it? Don’t they have the right to remain silent? You would think false confessions are rare, but false confessions are responsible for hundreds of wrongful convictions in the U.S. Twelve percent of all wrongful convictions between 1989 and 2019 involved false confessions, nearly 70% of those occurring in murder cases.6

In 49% of the wrongful convictions involving false confession, the false confession was obtained via interrogation misconduct.7 Interrogation misconduct occurs when a police officer’s behavior is highly coercive, so coercive that any confession must be deemed involuntary.8 This behavior violates our constitutional right to due process. In cases where a cop uses violence or threatens violence to get a confession out of a person, the confession cannot be used in court.9 Otherwise, when a confession is present, the court must examine the circumstances of the interrogation to decide whether a confession was involuntary.

For example, threatening to target someone’s family member on a drug charge unless a suspect confesses is misconduct. So is promising a lesser sentence or promising to drop the charges in exchange for a confession? Police don’t have the power to make those decisions. Interestingly, police are not allowed to lie about their legal authority, but they are allowed to lie about evidence and facts to compel a confession. This means a cop can tell a suspect that they have their fingerprints and DNA at the crime scene or they failed their polygraph (when they actually passed). They can even promise not to arrest a suspect if they’ll just say they committed the crime.

Cops will often lie and tell a suspect that a codefendant already confessed to the crime and is blaming them, and if they don’t tell her side of the story right now, then they won’t get another chance. Police can lie and tell a suspect they were seen committing the crime, that they have an eyewitness. In many murder cases, police will try to give the suspect an “out,” telling them that if they killed the victim in self-defense, that’s fine, they aren’t a bad person, they just need to tell the cops why they killed the person—leading the suspect to confess to a murder with a self-defense story.

Police are also allowed to interrogate a suspect for up to 24 hours. Many police interrogations happen at night, lasting all night through the morning, when the suspect has already been awake for sixteen hours. Sleep deprivation enters the picture. Sleep-deprived individuals have lower impulse control. They have a harder time weighing the long-term outcomes of decisions. They are more likely to create false memories in response to repeated influences. They are more susceptible to external influences. Reasoning and judgment are impaired.

A majority of false confessions involve trickery, fear, confusion, and exhaustion. How is this scenario not violating our constitutional right to due process? Well, we have Miranda. In the United States, a suspect who is about to be questioned must obtain a Miranda warning, letting them know they have the right to remain silent, and that if they choose to speak, anything they say can be used against them in court. Without this warning, any answers to police questions are inadmissible in court.10 For the Miranda warning to be valid, the suspect must confirm that they clearly understand its meaning. If they confirm that they understand, they are considered a knowing and intelligent suspect who is speaking voluntarily.

The right to remain silent is critical. Every suspect, no matter the crime, should remain silent. But in a majority of cases, suspects fear that if they refuse to speak, they will look guilty. They want to appear innocent to the police. They believe an innocent and cooperative attitude will get them off the hook. Police eat this up. The cops will go right along with the innocent act, all the while collecting statements that they can weave together to make a strong case against that suspect. Police want to succeed, and success is conviction.

Evidence Tampering

Police tampering with evidence is another form of misconduct that results in wrongful convictions. Police may alter, destroy, create, or plant evidence to help convict a suspect. They may also create false evidence and then present it as if they think it’s real evidence to mislead others into believing the suspect tampered with evidence. Cops will also tamper with evidence to protect themselves from allegations of using excessive force.

Tampering with evidence is a charge on its own, but it is often paired with an obstruction of justice charge. Depending on the case, the tampering charge can be a felony or misdemeanor, leading to anywhere from a year in jail to 20 years of prison time plus thousands of dollars in fines. But proving that police are guilty of tampering with evidence is challenging. For example, if an officer claims they accidentally shredded an important document, they may not be charged with evidence tampering because proving someone has tampered with evidence requires that the person acted with (1) knowledge that the material could have served as evidence, and (2) intent to alter the course of an investigation.

Police officers take complex steps to protect their acts of misconduct from detection. They may turn their bodycam off, then claim the battery ran out. They may plant a gun and then “re-enact” the moment when they found a gun at the crime scene on camera. They may force bystanders to delete recorded footage from their phones or take their phones by force. And with the blue wall of silence securely in place, officers will often work together to alter evidence against themselves or others.


Bribery has been a part of law enforcement since the beginning. Though acts of bribery do no direct physical harm, they allow dangerous and costly criminal behavior to continue and serve as an obstacle to justice. Using money, gifts, and services, criminals can bribe the cops to look away. Cops can likewise offer bribes to get away with unethical behavior.

One study suggests that accepting a bribe is often the first unethical act a police officer engages in. It’s usually a minor bribe. He writes a guy a speeding ticket and is offered five hundred dollars cash to tear it up. The officer decides he could really use those five hundred dollars. After this first conscious act of corruption, an officer’s moral compass continues to degrade.11

In the old days, police officers frequently used solicitation and bribery to control which politicians held office in their jurisdiction. Today, the practice is less frequent, but it still happens. In 2005, border patrol agent Jose Olivas Jr. befriended a member of an immigrant smuggling ring. For a year, Olivas worked as a scout when off duty and helped over 100 illegal immigrants cross the U.S. border. He helped ring members buy a car for use in illegal transport, let people pass through border patrol checkpoints, and even offered up his own birth certificate to help members obtain IDs. Olivas pleaded guilty in October 2007, saying the $2,400 he earned while performing the illegal acts helped him financially. He received a three-year sentence plus three years’ probation.12

Similar cases can be seen among local and state police officers who misuse their authority to gain personally or financially for themselves or others. They may help guard or receive stolen items, accept money in exchange for writing a traffic ticket, or accepts bribes to hide criminal activity. For example, police may agree not to report certain members of a sex trafficking outfit or drug ring in exchange for payment, protection, or access to information.

Internal Payoffs

In many cases, bribes will involve internal payoffs. Reports suggest the New York Police Department has accepted systematic payoffs for centuries, from gambling dens and brothels throughout the late 1800s through the 1950s.13 Police may accept regular payments from repeat criminals like high-stakes burglars, drug rings, and prostitution rings with the agreement that the cops leave them and their comrades alone. Payoffs may come in the form of courtesy discounts, for example, a cop getting free service from a restaurant whose owners conduct illegal activity. In exchange, the officer (and other officers in on the payoff) will turn a blind eye to any illegal activity performed by the restaurant owner, his associates, or family members.


Recently, Illinois courts tossed out 115 wrongful convictions after Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts and his team spent a decade, from 2002 to 2012, stealing narcotics, extorting drug dealers, and planting evidence on innocent people in a black Southside housing project.14 Often, bribery and extortion go hand in hand. For example, in July 2021, Detroit police officer Deonne Dotson was sentenced to just over six years in federal prison for extortion after accepting cash bribes from various auto collision shop owners in exchange for referring abandoned and stolen cars to their shops. Five other Detroit police officers also served prison time for involvement in the activity.15

In New York and many other U.S. states, extortion, also referred to as coercion, is defined as compelling a person to engage in an act through fear. Fear may be induced by threats to the victim's safety, health, business, career, reputation, financial status, property, or personal relationships. In many cases, extortion will involve threats to frame a person for a crime, prosecute or testify against a person, boycott a business, or expose a secret. In New York, when an officer succeeds in using extortion to get a person to commit or try to commit a felony, physical injury, or official misconduct, extortion is a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison and a hefty fine.16

Noble Cause Corruption

In some cases, law enforcement will use illegal or unethical acts to achieve some financial or personal gain and disguise the act as a “noble cause.” A Robin Hood-esque form of police misconduct and noble cause corruption carries the attitude that “it’s okay to steal from the rich because we’re giving it to the poor. We’re doing a good thing in the end.” In the officer’s mind, what’s the harm if the crime benefits the public?

Noble cause corruption can involve any corrupt act, including fabricating evidence, manipulating police reports, and giving false testimony. Violating an individual’s right to due process is a common form of noble cause corruption. For example, an officer may feel that using excessive force to obtain a confession is okay because the confession will ultimately get the criminal off the streets. Of course, blinded by ego and a drive to succeed, the officer fails to recognize that their reasoning is flawed. They are likely to compel a false confession by interfering in proper procedure. Meanwhile, the true criminal is still out there running around while an innocent person is behind bars.

Abuse of Process

In some cases, law enforcement may abuse the legal process for personal gain. For example, if a victim of excessive use of force is planning on prosecuting, the cop who beat him up could charge the victim with a crime, like a violent crime involving a firearm. In doing so, the cop aims to put the victim in a bad light in front of the jury, hoping the jury will think the cop was likely right in using excessive force because this man is incredibly dangerous. In this scenario, the victim could sue for abuse of process because the cop (the defendant in the excessive force case) initiated a legal process to alter the outcome of his case.

Even if the victim did indeed commit a crime involving a firearm at some point, the victim could still sue the officer for abuse of process because the firearm crime would never have come up if it weren’t for the officer’s intent to sway the jury. In turn, abuse of process cases is very difficult to prove. Proving that a legal process was initiated with “improper intent” is hard enough as it is. The plaintiff must show that the defendant had an ulterior motive and willfully initiated the legal process in line with the ulterior motive. When a police officer is involved, one who knows the law and how to hide ill intent wins in these cases are rare.

Causes of Police Corruption

Various conditions exist in law enforcement that allows and even promote acts of corruption, including poor supervision, low pay, weak leadership, low transparency, a culture of impunity, and high pressure to convict. Public officials are under immense public pressure to solve crimes, particularly high-profile crimes like murder and child sex abuse. Communities hearing about a murder in their town are going to demand safety and justice. In response, rather than working to identify the culprit using legal and constitutional directives, agencies will often rush the process and sidestep procedure, leaving a trail of damaging violations in their wake.

Police know their conduct is wrong. They also know that if they can get a conviction, they will enhance their career. Yeah, an innocent person might go to prison, but out of sight, out of mind. Of course, if it were their child or parent facing prison time, they would have a different outlook. What police officers so quickly forget is that their job is to serve the public, not their own career advancement.

High-profile crimes are typically the only crimes we can obtain accurate data on regarding police misconduct since convictions for these crimes are more likely to be scrutinized for misconduct years down the line. The time and resources required to exonerate innocent individuals from wrongful convictions are extreme. Convictions for lesser crimes aren’t going to get that same attention, or any attention, though police misconduct involving lesser crimes is most assuredly frequent.

Studies show that, among known wrongful convictions involving police misconduct, just 19% of police are disciplined or convicted for misconduct.17 Only when police corruption is visible to the public, through media or the courts, are officers and agencies held accountable. And the term “accountable” is used loosely here. An officer who engages in repeated corrupt acts may get, at worst, the opportunity to resign from their department (with glowing recommendations from superiors). More frequently, they will get a warning letter, be moved to another position, or receive a temporary suspension.

Because the consequences of police misconduct are rare to non-existent, while the benefits are immediate and significant, police have zero incentive to behave ethically. The only drive to behave ethically comes from within, upbringing and the innate moral compass. And after a year or two in the police force, these internal ethics quickly dissolve for officers who want to advance in their careers.

Potential Solutions

Corruption within U.S. law enforcement continues to damage our criminal justice system, public safety, and public confidence. Courts are unable to function effectively when judges and prosecutors cannot trust police testimony, biasing the process. Innocent people end up spending decades behind bars for crimes they did not commit, while the real criminals remain free. Investigation and reform at any level are costly and time-consuming, draining public resources. Police corruption invalidates the goals of the system, using organizational authority to create and promote crime rather than prevent it.

Confidence in police departments across the nation should be high. Their job is to protect and serve the public. But a 2021 Gallup poll found that just 27% of black adults, 49% of Hispanic adults, and 56% of white adults believe police have high or very high ethical standards. For other service jobs that are in place to protect public well-being, the confidence is significantly higher. For example, 57% of blacks, 63% of Hispanics, and 73% of white adults believe U.S. military service members have high or very high ethical standards.18

Any organization that engages in deceitful, fraudulent, and corrupt behavior ultimately harms the organization itself, the individual members of the organization, and the community the organization serves. In the current culture, police officers know they must participate in unethical acts or quit the force, generating anxiety and an inability to make objective and rational decisions. Without respect for the police, the community is less willing to cooperate with the police or adhere to the law. It becomes an antagonistic environment of “us versus them.” Police view civilians as enemies, and vice versa. It just takes one police officer to be reported in the media for misconduct to damage the reputation of the entire department.

Police officers are poorly supervised, allowing illegal acts to go unnoticed. Some departments require police to work with a partner in an attempt to dissuade corrupt behavior, but as we know, the “blue wall of silence” means no corrupt acts are dissuaded or reported by fellow officers. Even in the case of George Floyd, the officers merely sat and watched as officer Derek Chauvin murdered him in front of their eyes. The culture of the organization paralyzed them.

Screening recruits and doing background checks on candidates helps weed out criminals in advance. But most police do not commit criminal acts until after they enter the police force. The ethical standards that police recruits have picked up in life dissolve rapidly once they learn that acting ethically is taboo. Likewise, training officers on ethical behavior does nothing to deflect corruption within the organization. Officers see training as a mere formality. Once they leave the classroom, any training on ethical standards is left behind.

Increased transparency has had the most impact on police reform, particularly in the form of recordings. Requiring dashcams on police vehicles and bodycams on officers helps remind officers that there is footage of their behavior, that could send them to prison if the right hands get ahold of it. Requiring video and audio recordings of police interviews, interrogations, witness identification, and photo lineup viewings has also helped officers adhere to legal standards in suspect interrogation. If any misconduct in interrogation is present, the information gained is inadmissible in court. Of course, recording requirements are not always enforced, and recordings may be concealed or destroyed. Strict enforcement of recording requirements must be carried out for this type of reform to work.

End of Excerpt


  1. National Registry of Exonerations. (2020). University Of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society, University Of Michigan Law School, Michigan State University College of Law.
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  3. Gross SR, Possley M, Roll K, Stephens K. (2020, September 1). Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent, The Role of Prosecutors, Police and Other Law Enforcement. U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 21-003, U of Michigan Law & Econ Research Paper No. 21-003
  4. Gross SR, Possley M, Roll K, Stephens K. (2020, September 1). Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent, The Role of Prosecutors, Police and Other Law Enforcement. U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 21-003, U of Michigan Law & Econ Research Paper No. 21-003
  5. Gross SR, Possley M, Roll K, Stephens K. (2020, September 1). Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent, The Role of Prosecutors, Police and Other Law Enforcement. U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 21-003, U of Michigan Law & Econ Research Paper No. 21-003
  6. Gross SR, Possley M, Roll K, Stephens K. (2020, September 1). Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent, The Role of Prosecutors, Police and Other Law Enforcement. U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 21-003, U of Michigan Law & Econ Research Paper No. 21-003
  7. Gross SR, Possley M, Roll K, Stephens K. (2020, September 1). Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent, The Role of Prosecutors, Police and Other Law Enforcement. U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 21-003, U of Michigan Law & Econ Research Paper No. 21-003
  8. Rogers v. Richmond, 365 U.S. 534 (1961).
  9. Haynes v. Washington, 373 U.S. 503 (1963).
  10. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 US 436 (1966).
  11. Bernardi, R. A., Witek, M. B., & Melton, M. R. (2009). A Four-Country Study of the Associations between Bribery and Unethical Actions. Journal of Business Ethics, 84(3), 389–403.
  12. Archibold RC. (2008, January 19). Border Patrol Agent Sentenced for Role in Smuggling Ring. The New York Times.
  13. Newburn T. (1999). Understanding and Preventing Police Corruption: Lessons From the Literature. Research Development Statistics. (B. Webb, Ed.) London: Home Office, Policing and Reducing Crime Unit, Research, Development and Statistics Directorate.
  14. Gross SR, Possley M, Roll K, Stephens K. (2020, September 1). Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent, The Role of Prosecutors, Police and Other Law Enforcement. U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 21-003, U of Michigan Law & Econ Research Paper No. 21-003
  15. U.S. Dept. of Justice. (2021, July 13). Former Detroit Police Department Officer Sentenced to 80 Months in Federal Prison for Extortion.
  16. N.Y. Pen. Law §135.65
  17. Gross SR, Possley M, Roll K, Stephens K. (2020, September 1). Government Misconduct and Convicting the Innocent, The Role of Prosecutors, Police and Other Law Enforcement. U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 21-003, U of Michigan Law & Econ Research Paper No. 21-003
  18. Jones JM. (2021, July 14). In U.S., Black Confidence in Police Recovers From 2020 Low. Gallup.

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