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International Criminal Justice Review 1l:l2004 College of Health and Human Sciences

Volume 14,2004 Georgia State University

EVALUATING THE SERIOUSNESS OF POLICE


MISCONDUCT: A CROSS-CULTURAL COMPARISON
OF POLICE OFFICER AND CITIZEN VIEWS

Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovic

This article examines citizen and police evaluations ofthe seriousness ofpolice misconduct. It uses a questionnaire
with 10 scenarios describing police corruption and one scenario describing the use of excessive force. The
respondents-police officers and college students in the United States and Croatia-were asked to evaluate the
seriousness ofthese scenarios. The results suggest that, although absolute evaluations ofseriousness differ, their relative
rankings match closely across the two types of respondents (police officers and students) and across the two societies
(the U.S. and Croatia). These results expand on previous findings ofa shared hierarchy ofcrime seriousness by showing
that the perceptions of the seriousness of police misconduct are shared across cultures, thus transcending national
boundaries and suggesting a conunon understanding of crime seriousness.

With The Measurement ofDelinquency (1964), Sellin and Wolfgang spurred a


wave of research focusing on crime seriousness. The authors used questionnaires
containing descriptions of various crimes and concluded that, despite the dif-
ferences in the magnitude of seriousness estimates (i.e., absolute seriousness), the
relative order or ranking of these crimes (i.e., relative seriousness) seemed quite
similar across several groups of respondents:
The most strongly supported conclusion on the basis ofthe data at hand is that all the raters,
although unconstrained in their use ofthe magnitude scale assignments, tended to so assign
the magnitude estimations that the seriousness of the crimes is evaluated in a similar way,
without significant differences, by all the groups ...A pervasive social agreement about what
is serious and what is not appears to emerge, and this agreement transcends simple
qualitative concordance; it extends to the estimated numerical degree ofseriousness ofthese
offenses. (Sellin & Wolfgang, 1964, p. 268)

The authors further concluded that "implicit judgments about the severity of
crime are imbedded in our social institutions" (Wolfgang, Figlio, Tracy, & Singer,
1985, p. v). Indeed, research studies have consistently indicated that, despite dif-
ferences in the absolute values between various groups--offenders and non-
offenders (Figlio, 1975; Velez-Diaz & Megargee, 1971), men and women (Rossi,
Simpson, & Miller, 1985), African-American respondents and Caucasian respon-
dents (Rossi et al., 1985; Wolfgang et al., 1985), the old and the young (Wolfgang
et al., 1985), and victims and non-victims (Wolfgang et al., 1985)-there is a high
degree ofsimilarity in terms ofrelative seriousness (Figlio, 1975; Rossi et al., 1985;
Velez-Diaz & Megargee, 1971; Wolfgang et al., 1985). Furthermore, beginning

25
26 Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovic

with the seminal studies of, e.g., Sellin and Wolfgang (1964), Kelly and Winslow
(1970), and Hsu (1973), general studies of crime seriousness have indicated that
relative evaluations of seriousness are often shared by members of various
subcultures within the same society.
From the perspective of police misconduct, the existing research on crime
severity suffers from three shortcomings. First, it primarily or exclusively focuses
on ordinary street crimes and typically neglects to include cases of police
misconduct, a form of white-collar crime; that is to say, most studies do not treat
police officers as offenders. Second, it rarely describes police officers as victims.
Third, the respondents evaluating crime seriousness traditionally have been mostly
students; police officers have been respondents in very few studies.
As reports by independent commissions demonstrate, police officers are far from
being immune to abuses of their office (see, e.g., Christopher Commission, 1991;
Knapp Commission, 1972; Mollen Commission, 1994). In fact, policing as an
occupation abounds with opportunities for abuse. It involves a highly discretionary,
coercive activity that routinely takes place outside the range of supervisors' sight
and before witnesses who are often perceived as lacking credibility (e.g., prostitutes,
drug dealers) or who are not willing to talk because of the code of silence (e.g.,
police officers).
To investigate the extent to which evaluations of the seriousness of police
misconduct are country- or culture-dependent, this article uses data from two very
different countries: the United States, an established democracy with a common
law tradition and a highly decentralized police, and Croatia, a country in transition
with a civil law tradition and a highly centralized police. Members of the public
and police officers from these two countries were asked to evaluate the severity of
11 hypothetical cases of police misconduct.

POLICE OFFICERS AS OFFENDERS

Sociological studies (for a summary see, e.g., Adams, 1995; Kutnjak Ivkovich,
2003; Worden & Catlin, 2002), independent commission reports (e.g., Christopher
Commission, 1991; Knapp Commission, 1972; Mollen Commission, 1994), and
court cases (e.g., Harris, 1997; Kraska & Kappeler, 1999) clearly demonstrate that
police officers engage in various forms of police misconduct, ranging from
corruption, use of excessive force, and racial profiling to sexual misconduct and
perjury. Nevertheless, despite the abundance of evidence that police officers
engage in misconduct, in very few studies of crime seriousness have researchers
characterized offenders as police (Wolfgang et aI., 1985) or as public officials in
general (Rossi, Bose, & Berk, 1974; Wolfgang et aI., 1985). Even when they are
included, as in both the aforementioned studies, police officers and public officials
are described as engaging in the most conventional form ofpolice corruption-the
acceptance of a bribe.
International Criminal Justice Review 27

Wolfgang et aI. (1985) found that cases of corruption were evaluated as more
serious when the bribe amount was given in the scenario description. Moreover,
when no amount was given, the bribe recipient's official position had an impact on
the evaluation ofseriousness: The scenario was evaluated as the most serious when
the bribe was accepted by a county judge in exchange for a lighter sentence, as less
serious when accepted by a legislator in exchange for voting for a law favoring a
company, and as the least serious when accepted by a police officer in exchange for
noninterference with an illegal gambling operation.
. The study by Rossi et aI. (1974) indicated that the seriousness ofbribery was not
evaluated equally for the two parties involved. On a nine-point scale, the
acceptance ofa bribe by a public official was evaluated as more serious (average
score 6.240) than the offer of a bribe to a public official (average score 5.394).
Similarly, Wolfgang et al. (1985) found that the acceptance ofa bribe by a legislator
was evaluated as more serious than the offer ofa bribe by a company to a legislator,
even when the amount of the bribe accepted was one tenth the amount of the bribe
offered. A recent study by Rebovich and Layne (2000) confirmed the conclusion
that the acceptance of a bribe by a public official was viewed as more severe than
the offer of a bribe by either a private citizen or a corporation.
When perceptions of seriousness of white-collar crime are compared to
perceptions of seriousness of other types of crime, white-collar crimes are ranked
among the more serious, but not the most serious, types of crime. Rossi et al.
(1974) reported that respondents considered accepting a bribe to be approximately
as serious as practicing medicine without a license, burglarizing a home and stealing
a television set, embezzling company funds, stealing a car for the purpose ofresale,
and beating someone up during a riot. Similarly, Wolfgang et aI. (1985) found that
respondents evaluated bribe acceptance by a police officer as being approximately
as serious as setting fire to a building and thus causing $10,000 worth of damage,
paying a witness to give false testimony in a criminal trial, intentionally injuring a
victim so that the victim had to be treated by a physician and hospitalized, and
stealing property worth $10,000 from outside a building.
In an attempt to examine the degree to which public evaluations of crime in
general and white-collar crime in particular may have changed, Cullen, Link, and
Polanzi (1982) replicated the study by Rossi et aI. (1974) and found not only that
the absolute evaluations of the seriousness of white-collar crime scenarios had in-
creased but also that the mean seriousness rankings ofthe white-collar crime cases
had increased more than those of any other crime category (Cullen et aI., 1982, p.
92).

POLICE OFFICERS AS VICTIMS

Descriptions of the cases used in studies of crime severity have rarely included
police officers as victims. Rossi et al. (1974) included several versions of a few
28 Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovic

cases with variations in victim descriptions. In every case (i.e., planned killing, im-
pulsive killing, assault with a gun, beating up) in which the victim's characteristics
varied and included either a police officer, a spouse, or a stranger, crimes com-
mitted against a police officer were evaluated as more serious than the same crimes
committed against a spouse or a stranger.

POLICE OFFICERS AS RESPONDENTS

Traditionally, studies of crime severity have typically included a sample of the


community (either a random sample ofcitizens or groups ofcollege students). Only
a few of the classic studies, such as Sellin and Wolfgang (1964), Kelly and
Winslow (1970), and Hsu (1973), have included police officers as respondents.
Among other groups of respondents, in their pioneering study, Sellin and
Wolfgang (1964) surveyed 286 police officers ofdifferent lengths ofservice, ages,
and diversity of experience. They argued that police officers are a particularly
interesting group because they belong to the lower stratum ofsociety based on their
education, occupation, and income. At the same time, they need to enforce legal
rules that embody middle-class values. On the other hand, college students were
used in the same study as representatives of middle-class values and of the general
population. The results suggested that the police officers provided higher absolute
scores of seriousness for the descriptions of the crimes presented to them than the
college students. Nevertheless, upon comparing the results for various groups,
Sellin and Wolfgang (1964, p. 275) concluded that "although absolute numerical
scores varied among rating groups, with the police scores generally higher, the
inherent ratio quality ofthe magnitude judgments means that the numbers used by
the raters are not particularly relevant and that the only fact ofreal importance is the
ratios of offense seriousness which are preserved intact."
Kelly and Winslow (1970, p. 131) also compared the evaluations of offense
seriousness from a sample of 150 college students and 32 patrolmen and found that
"comparison of the student sample with the police failed to produce significant
differences in the ratings." In fact, male students' ratings, female students' ratings,
and police officers' ratings were highly correlated (correlation coefficients of .82
or higher). Consequently, the researchers concluded (p. 134) that their results paral-
leled the results of Sellin and Wolfgang, suggesting "that seriousness is a unidimen-
sional phenomenon."
Hsu's study of crime seriousness (1973), conducted in Taiwan, showed that
culture may play an important role in the evaluations ofseriousness and, at the same
time, that ratings of seriousness may be very similar for college students, police
officers, and judges within a country. Her results clearly demonstrated a high
degree of similarity of these ratings across all three groups of Chinese male raters;
the correlation coefficients for these three groups were all above .90. On the other
hand, her results also revealed the existence ofgender differences in the ratings for
International CriminalJustice Review 29

students belonging to the same culture: The ratings by male college students were
far more similar to the ratings by police officers than were the ratings by female
college students.
A few studies have examined how police officers viewed specific types ofcrime.
For example, based on a sample of 672 police officers from three police agencies,
Cheurprakobkit, Kuntee, and Vaughn (1998) examined the attitudes of police
officers toward the drug war in Thailand. When comparing drug-related crimes to
the VCR Index Crimes, the police officers evaluated drug-related crimes as less
serious than murder, burglary, and vehicle theft but more serious than forcible rape,
larceny, and aggravated assault (Cheurprakobkit et al., 1998, p. 90).
Wilson, Cullen, Latessa, and Wills (1985) sought to examine how police officers
evaluated the seriousness of victimless crimes. Although they did not ask directly
about the seriousness of such crimes, they confronted the respondents-police
officers from a small midwestern city-with the related question ofthe appropriate
punishment ("how the courts should respond to victimless crimes") (Wilson et al.,
1985). More than 95 percent of the respondents argued that selling drugs, per-
forming illegal abortions, and selling child pornography deserved imprisonment and
thus indicated that these crimes topped the list of25 victimless crimes. On the other
hand, fewer than 25 percent of the respondents perceived that running a gambling
operation involving football scores, selling liquor on Sundays without a license,
being a male customer in a client-prostitution transaction, selling adult pornog-
raphy, loitering on school property, or being publicly intoxicated deserved
imprisonment.

POLICE OFFICERS AS OFFENDERS AND RESPONDENTS

One of the earliest studies that both included descriptions of police misconduct
cases and involved police officers as respondents asked police officers in "a
southern city" to evaluate the level of"wrongness" or perceived deviance ofseveral
cases of police misconduct (Barker, 1978). The respondents evaluated police
brutality as the least serious form of misconduct (with a score of6.72), less serious
than having sex while on duty (7.49) or sleeping while on duty (7.95). Forms of
police misconduct that were evaluated as the most serious included police perjury
(8.58) and drinking while on duty (8.72). .
More recently, Martin (1994) and Knowles (1996) asked samples of police
officers from Illinois and Ohio to evaluate the seriousness of a number of short
hypothetical cases ofpolice misconduct, ranging from police corruption and perjury
to use of excessive force and drug use. The results from both Illinois and Ohio
indicated that the acceptance ofa bribe and the theft ofproperty were always ranked
on the more serious side of the scale, while the acceptance of free food and the
fixing of a parking ticket were ranked on the less serious side (Knowles, 1996;
Martin, 1994).
30 Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovic

The Australian Criminal Justice Commission (1999) obtained similar results


based on four administrations of their survey to first-year constables. Cases that
were evaluated as the least serious (i.e., with means below 6 on a scale from 1 to
10) involved accepting holiday gifts (cartons ofbeer for a Christmas party), picking
up personal equipment outside the patrol area, and punching an arrested suspect
being led into the cells. On the other end of the scale (i.e., with means close to or
above 8) were scenarios that described falsifying official records (e.g., adding
words to a suspected rapist's statement), stealing items of small value from a crime
scene, and stealing and selling confiscated drugs. The greatest extent of variation
in the evaluations of seriousness was found in the cases that were ranked as least
serious (see Criminal Justice Commission, 1999, p. 9, Figure 16).
Three Australian studies (Criminal Justice Commission, 1999; Huon, Hesketh,
Frank, McConkey, & McGrath, 1995; McConkey, Huon, & Frank, 1996) tried to
determine the degree to which police officers' rank and experience had an impact
on their perceptions of seriousness. The results reported by Huon et al. (1995)
indicated that the least experienced officers (police recruits) and those with higher
rank (senior supervisors) evaluated the same cases as more serious than either the
line officers or the first-line supervisors (sergeants). Relying on the same seven
scenarios designed by Huon et al. (1995), the Criminal Justice Commission (1995)
also found that the extent of experience influenced evaluations of seriousness:
Recruits, the least experienced group, gave the highest (i.e., most serious) rankings
to cases, followed by first-year constables; detectives, the most experienced group,
provided the least serious evaluations. Despite these differences in absolute
evaluations, the rank order of case seriousness was very similar across the three
groups of respondents: "There was a fair amount of agreement amongst
respondents that it was a serious matter for an officer to steal goods from a crime
scene, interfere with the enforcement of the law against a family member, or
'verbal' a suspect" (Criminal Justice Commission, 1995, p. 19).
On the basis of police evaluations of two original scenarios describing serious
misconduct by line officers (developed by Huon et al., 1995) and two new scenarios
describing police misconduct at the supervisory level, McConkey et al. (1996, p. 33)
also found that a police officer's rank had a substantial impact on perceptions of
case seriousness: "The higher their rank, the more seriously officers regarded
ethical breaches associated with operational matters." Furthermore, McConkey et
al. (p. 34) varied the nature of the gain (personal vs. community gain), the place
where the activity occurred (public vs. private), and the outcome of the activity
(positive vs. negative). All of these factors seemed to matter: The behavior was
perceived as more morally wrong when personal gain was involved, when it
occurred in public, and when the outcome was negative (e.g., interference with an
arrest of a son when the son is guilty).
Instead of measuring the severity or seriousness of police misconduct, several
studies have focused on the issues of moral acceptability and approval of various
International Criminal Justice Review 31

forms of police misconduct. McCormack (1986) relied on questions involving


moral judgments. U.S. police officers from three agencies were asked how easy or
difficult it would be to justify engaging in eight types of corrupt activities. The
results indicated that "there are differences between officers in 'corrupt' and 'non-
corrupt' departments in terms oftheir perceptions ofpersonal standards ofhonesty"
(McCormack, 1986, p. 86). Police officers from a corrupt department regarded
fewer cases from the list as representing dishonest behavior than police officers
from the two clean departments (who evaluated almost all of the items as corrupt).
Recently, Beck and Lee (2002) examined how morally acceptable various forms
of police corruption are to police cadets and police officers studying at one of the
largest providers of officer training in the Russian Federation. They found that
students' and police officers' evaluations of moral acceptability were very similar
and that scenarios involving either no financial gain or victimless actions seemed
to be the most acceptable. The authors reported that experience in policing had
some effect: Compared to students, police officers were more tolerant only in the
case ofgetting a spouse's driving license back without a fine, while they were less
tolerant only in the case of taking a television set from a crime scene (Beck & Lee,
2002, p. 361).
In addition to providing multiple case descriptions, Son and Davis (1998)
systematically changed several factors in the descriptions (e.g., the rac~ of the
suspect, the types of drugs used, the amount of money involved). They discovered
that the respondents evaluated a case describing the use of excessive force in
arresting a shoplifter "as a fairly serious form of misconduct regardless of the
suspect's race, the suspect's behavior toward the officer, the consequences ofusing
force, and the characteristics ofthe neighborhood" (Son & Davis, 1998, pp. 24-25).
On the other hand, in a case describing a forced confession, the type of force used
and the type of suspect were the key factors that influenced the respondents'
evaluations of seriousness.

THE RESEARCH DESIGN

A questionnaire was distributed in the United States and Croatia as part of a


larger study on attitudes about police misconduct. I The questionnaire, which was
designed with a cross-cultural application in mind, included descriptions of
hypothetical cases that are realistic in modem, industrialized societies (see
Appendix A). It included 10 cases describing police corruption and one case
describing the use of excessive force (Case 10).

'The U.S. part ofthe study was conducted j ointly with Carl B. Klockars, William E. Harver, and
Maria R. Haberfeld. It was supported by grant # 95-IJ-CX-0058 from the National Institute ofJustice.
I would like to acknowledge the financial and logistic support given by the Croatian Ministry of the
Interior for the Croatian part of the study.
32 Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovic

Respondents were also asked seven questions regarding each ofthe 11 cases (see
Appendix B). The question that was selected for the analyses presented in this
article asked the respondents to estimate the seriousness of the behavior described
in each case. The answers, presented as a five-item Likert-type scale, ranged from
"not at all serious" (1) to "very serious" (5).
One ofthe challenges related to surveys ofpolice officers, especially in sensitive
subject areas such as police misconduct, is officers' reluctance to participate. To
increase the likelihood that police officers would participate in this study,
anonymity was guaranteed and the questions that dealt with demographic
characteristics were limited in order to reduce the chances that respondents could
be identified.
The analyses began with an examination of evaluations of case seriousness
provided by police officers and students within the same country. The expectation
was that, although absolute evaluations ofseriousness between the two groups may
differ to a certain extent, their relative rankings would be very similar. The second
stage in the analyses focused on the comparison of seriousness evaluations across
the two countries. Once again, although differences were expected in both police
officers' and students' absolute evaluations of seriousness, very few differences
were expected in regard to their relative rankings across the two countries.

THE RESPONDENTS

Croatian Police Officers

The sample of Croatian police officers was a stratified national sample that
included a substantial proportion ofpolice officers from the entire country. Forty-
one stations were selected in a manner that reflected as closely as possible the
national distribution of the Croatian police by region, size, type, and district. The
questionnaires were sent by a police courier to each ofthe police stations. Because
of the interest in learning about police culture, the goal was to distribute
questionnaires to all police officers employed in the 41 police agencies. Although
transparency is viewed as one of the key elements of democratic policing, the
questionnaires were distributed to police officers during a period between two large
military and police operations in 1995. Such timing limited the information that
was available to the public, including the size ofthe police agencies. According to
the available information, the response rates in the surveyed police agencies were
very high, above 80 percent. A total of2,000 questionnaires were distributed across
41 agencies (whose total number of sworn police officers was approximately
2,000). As many as 1,649 questionnaires were filled out and returned, yielding a
response rate of approximately 82 percent.
Because the Croatian police are a rather young police force (established in the
early 1990s), it is by no means surprising that most of the police officers in the
International Criminal Justice Review 33

study (74 percent) had been police officers for less than five years, and most (85
percent) had worked at their present police station for less than five years. About
19 percent ofthe respondents were employed in the supervisory ranks. Most ofthe
police officers reported performing patrol (41 percent) or traffic (21 percent)
assignments. Most worked in police agencies that were small (25-75 officers) or
medium-sized (75-200 officers).

Croatian College Students

The sample of Croatian college students consisted of 504 students at the


University of Zagreb. The questionnaire was distributed at four different schools:
the School ofEducational Studies (44.6 percent), the School ofPhysical Education
(31.0percent), the School of Electrical Engineering (11.9 percent), and the School
of Veterinary Medicine (12.5 percent).
Thirty-nine percent ofthe students were either first-year or second-year students.
None of the students had previous experience as police officers and only very few
(1.4 percent) reported that they were planning to-become police officers.

U.S. Police Officers

The U.S. sample consisted of sworn police officers from 30 police agencies.
Unlike the Croatian sample, the U.S. sample was a convenience sample. Municipal
police agencies are overrepresented, and the sample includes no state police
agencies, only one sheriffs agency, and one county police agency. In terms of
geographic location of the agencies surveyed, the sample overrepresents police
agencies in the Northeast, although it does contain agencies in the South, the
Southeast, and the Southwest.
Although, as in Croatia, an attempt was made to have the questionnaires
distributed to and completed by all police officers employed in the selected
agencies, the response rates varied from 16 percent to 93 percent. In more than half
of the agencies in the sample (57 percent), the majority of the police officers
employed by the agency participated in the study. Furthermore, in an additional one
quarter of the agencies (23.3 percent), between 40 percent and 50 percent of the
police officers participated, and in only 20 percent ofthe surveyed agencies was the
response rate lower than 40 percent. Unreported analyses confirmed that the
representation of supervisors among the respondents from each agency was not
systematically related to the response rates.
The survey yielded a sample of 3,235 respondents. Only one in four police
officers in the study had been a police officer for less than five years.
Approximately one in five respondents (19.8 percent) was employed at a
supervisory rank. Most police officers (63.1 percent) reported performing patrol
34 Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovic

assignments. The majority of the officers in the sample (59.9 percent) reported
working in very large agencies (more than 500 sworn officers).

u.s. College Students


The sample of U.S. college students consisted of 375 students enrolled in
sociology and criminal justice classes at the University ofDelaware. The majority
of the students (56.8 percent) were either freshmen or sophomores. Furthermore,
approximately half (53.1 percent) were criminal justice majors, although relatively
few (12.8 percent) planned to become police officers.

THE RESULTS

Estimates of Seriousness: The Croatian Respondents

An inspection of the evaluations of seriousness reported by the Croatian


respondents suggests several conclusions (see Table 1). First, both the college
students and the police officers considered the described scenarios to be of a wide
range of seriousness, with group means ranging from 1.37 to 4.96 on a five-point
scale. Cases that were evaluated as the least serious (with means below or close to
3.0) included two cases of acceptance of gratuities and holiday gifts (Case
4-holiday gifts from merchants; Case 2-free meals, discounts on beat) and the
.case describing off-duty employment (Case l-off-duty security system business).
On the other hand, the cases that were evaluated as the most serious (with means
close to or above 4.0) included opportunistic thefts (Case 5--erime scene theft of
watch; Case l l-s-theft from found wallet) and a case ofa classic quidpro quo bribe
(Case 3-bribe from speeding motorist).
Second, the college students typically evaluated the scenarios as less serious than
the police officers. In nine cases, the evaluations of seriousness by the college
students were significantly lower, and in two cases they were significantly higher,
than the evaluations by the police officers. However, based on the size of these
differences, in only four cases may the differences actually be considered to be of
substantive importance. 2

2Relatively small differences in absolute terms, such as .30 on a five-point scale in Case 4, were
statistically significant in part because of the large sample size. In evaluating whether a statistically
significant difference in mean seriousness scores also signaled a real and meaningful difference of
opinion, I used a rule ofthumb by regarding only the differences in the mean scores that exceeded .50
in absolute terms on a five-point scale as substantively important.
Table 1

Reports of Their Own Perceptions of Offense Seriousness by Croatian College Students and Police Officers

College students Police officers

Mean
Case number and description Mean Rank Mean Rank r-test
difference

Case I---Qff-duty security system business 2.12 2 2.57 2 -.45 -6.32***

Case 2-Free meals, discounts on beat 2.50 3 3.01 4 -.51 -7.36***

Case 3-Bribe from speeding motorist 3.89 9 4.47 9 -.58 -9.64***

Case 4-Holiday gifts from merchants 1.83 1 2.13 I -.30 -4.76***

Case 5---Crime scene theft of watch 4.57 11 4.72 11 -.15 -3.36***


;;-
Case 6---Auto repair shop 5% kickback 3.41 5 3.86 7 -.45 -6.75*** <;;
~
Case 7-Supervisor: holiday for tune-up 3.71 7 4.09 8 -.38 -5.99*** sa.
o
Case 8---Cover-up of police OUI accident 3.45 6 2.79 3 +.66 9.29*** ..
Q
Case 9-0rinks to ignore late bar closing 3.38 4 3.85 6 -.47 -6.87*** sS
Case lo--Excessive force on car thief

Case II-Theft from found wallet


3.82

4.31
8 3.03

4.55
5

10
+.79

-.24
11.21***

-4.50***
-'"
l:l

~
10 ~.
~
p < .OS. p < .01. p < .001. ~
~.

w
Ul
36 Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovic

The two cases that the police officers evaluated as substantially more serious than
the students included Case 2 (free meals, discounts on beat) and Case 3 (bribe from
speeding motorist). The college students were more tolerant of the acceptance of
free meals and discounts on the beat (Case 2) than the police officers were.
Although police officers and students may be equally likely to perceive the
acceptance of freebies and other gratuities as a normal way of social
communication, education in law and knowledge of internal rules seem to have
enabled the police officers to better differentiate between the situations in which
"let me buy you a drink" cultural norms apply and the situations in which those
norms should not apply.
The college students also evaluated Case 3 (bribe from speeding motorist) as
substantially less serious than the police officers. This is an especially probing case
because the corrupt activity described in the scenario involves both police officers
and citizens. Consequently, it is quite revealing that the members of the police
profession-the potential bribe takers--evaluated the acceptance of a bribe from
a motorist as more serious than the citizens-the potential bribe givers. One
plausible explanation is that the consequences of such an activity may be more
severe for police officers than for citizens: In addition to being as exposed to
criminal prosecution as citizens would be (albeit probably with a more serious
punishment attached), police officers would likely be dismissed from the police
force and thus lose their jobs. An additional explanation for the differences is that
college students may be more willing to underestimate the seriousness of a case of
police misconduct that they can imagine involving themselves as bribe givers
(compared to other cases of police misconduct that involve other citizens).
The next two cases in which the citizens' opinions differed substantially from the
opinions of the police officers are Case 8 (cover-up of police Dill accident) and
Case 10 (excessive force on car thief). Compared to the other cases in the
questionnaire, these two are rather atypical. The first case describes a corrupt
behavior that does not involve direct material gain and can be interpreted as a.
misjudged case of police collegiality. The second case is the only one in the
questionnaire that describes the use ofexcessive force (and not police corruption).
Although the behavior described in the case definitely could be classified. as a
violation of official rules and a criminal activity, because of their everyday
experience, police officers are probably more likely than college students to
understand the adrenaline rush that follows such a chase and the related challenge
of being able to momentarily refrain from violence once the suspect is subdued.
Third, the emphasis on evaluations of relative case seriousness in the previous
crime severity literature calls for a comparison of relative perceptions of
seriousness. Ranking the mean estimates of seriousness for each group, from the
least serious to the most serious (Table 1), suggests that the college students and the
police officers ranked the cases very similarly. Spearman's correlation coefficient
International Criminal Justice Review 37

is very high (.873), suggesting that citizens and police officers indeed share a
hierarchy of seriousness of police misconduct cases (see Table 2).

Table 2

Spearman Correlation Coefficients: Rank Ordering of Their Own Views of


, Seriousness by Croatian College Students and Police Officers and by U.S.
College Students and Police Officers

Croatian Croatian U.S. U.S.


students police officers students police
officers

Croatian students 1.000

Croatian police .873***


officers 1.000

U.S. students .909*** .809*** 1.000


U.S. police officers .809*** .909*** .882*** 1.000

* p < .05. ** p < .01. ***p < .001.

Estimates of Seriousness: The U.S. Respondents

The U.S. samples consisted of two groups: one without prior practical police
experience and limited theoretical knowledge (college students) and one with
extensive practical experience and theoretical knowledge about policing (police
officers). Three key results stand out (see Table 3).
First, similarly to the Croatian respondents, the U.S. students and police officers
also evaluated the II cases to be ofvarying seriousness, with group means ranging
from 1.37 to 4.97 on a five-point scale. Like the Croatian respondents, the U.S.
respondents evaluated the cases describing the acceptance of gratuities (Case
2-free meals, discounts on beat; Case 4--holiday gifts from merchants) and the
case of off-duty employment (Case l-off-duty security system business) as the
least serious. The three cases that were evaluated as the most serious (Case
3-bribe from speeding motorist; Case 5-erime scene theft of watch; Case
II-theft from found wallet) by both the U.S. police officers and college students
are virtually the same cases that the. Croatian respondents identified as the most
serious.
w
00

Table 3 ~
~
1::>'
Reports of Their Own Perceptions of Offense Seriousness by U.S. College Students and Police Officers
~
.g
College students Police officers ~
~
Mean ~
~
Case number and description Mean Rank Mean Rank r-test ;:;:
difference

Case I-Dff-duty security system business 1.37 1.46 -.08 -2.04*

Case 2-Free meals, discounts on beat 2.05 3 2.60 2 -.55 -9.65***

Case 3-Bribe from speeding motorist 4.12 9 4.92 10 -.80 -17.22***

Case 4-Holiday gifts from merchants 1.81 2 2.84 3 -1.04 -17.99***

Case 5-Crime scene theft of watch 4.69 II 4.96 II -.27 -8.58***

Case 6-Auto repair shop 5% kickback 3.34 5 4.50 7 -1.16 -19.32***

Case 7-Supervisor: holiday for tune-up 3.10 4 4.18 6 -1.08 -17.40***

Case 8-Cover-up of police DUI accident 3.43 6 3.03 4 +.41 5.37***

Case 9-Drinks to ignore late bar closing 3.73 7 4.54 8 -.81 -13.74***

Case IQ-Excessive force on car thief 3.99 8 4.05 5 -.06 -0.92

Case II-Theft from found wallet 4.15 10 4.85 9 -.70 -14.84***

p < .05. p < .01. p < .001.


International Criminal Justice Review 39

Second, the college students evaluated 9 of the 11 cases as less serious than the
police officers. Because the differences between the means for the college students
and the police officers exceeded the .50 difference in absolute terms relatively
frequently (in 7 out of 11 scenarios), the discussion below will focus on the cases
for which the means for the two groups did not differ substantially.
One such case is Case 1 (off-duty security system business). This describes a
behavior that, according to two thirds ofthe U.S. police officers participating in this
study, is not against the rules in a number ofsurveyed police agencies and definitely
is not against the law in the United States (although it is forbidden in Croatia by a
national law). Therefore, it is not surprising that both the U.S. students and the U.S.
police officers evaluated this particular scenario as the least serious of all.
On the other end of the scale of seriousness is Case 5 (crime scene theft of
watch). This case was evaluated as the most serious by both the college students
and the police officers and there is no substantive difference between the means for
these two groups. The case depicts a behavior that is clearly criminal even if the
offender is not a police officer and is probably perceived as more serious when
committed by a person who is violating his or her professional authority to perform
the act.
Case I0 (excessive force on car thief) is another case for which the evaluations
of seriousness by the college students and the police officers were similar.
Although excessive force may have been used too frequently by some police
agencies in the U.S., as the Christopher Commission reported about the Los
Angeles Police Department (1991), strong public reactions that follow widely
publicized incidents of excessive force may send a clear message about the
inappropriateness of such conduct to both the general public and police officers
alike, resulting in similar perceptions of seriousness by citizens and by police
officers.
Case 8 (cover-up ofpolice DUl accident) is the only case for which the students'
evaluations ofseriousness exceeded those ofthe police officers in numerical terms,
although the difference was not large enough to be of substantive importance.
Third, analogously to the Croatian results, despite the differences in absolute
evaluations of seriousness between the police officers and the college students, the
rankings of the mean estimates of seriousness for the U.S. police officers and
college students turned out to be very similar (see Table 2). Like the strong positive
correlation between the rankings ofthe Croatian college students and the Croatian
police officers (.873), the correlation coefficient for the rankings ofthe U.S. college
students and the U.S. police officers was also very high (.882).

ESTIMATES OF SERIOUSNESS: A CROSS-CULTURAL COMPARISON

A cross-cultural comparison of answers provided by the same types of respon-


dents from two different countries brings further insights. First, a comparison of
40 Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovic

absolute mean values assigned to each case by police officers from the U.S. and
Croatia indicates that, although the differences were statistically significant in all
11 cases, in the majority ofthe cases (6 of 11) there were no substantive differences
(see Table 4). The only case that the Croatian police officers perceived as
substantially more serious is Case 1 (off-duty security system business), which is
by no means surprising inasmuch as the case describes a behavior that is against the
official rules in Croatia and, according to two thirds of our respondents from the
V.S., is not a violation of official rules in their agencies. In the remaining four
cases with substantive differences (Case 4-holiday gifts from merchants; Case
6-auto repair shop 5% kickback; Case 9-drinks to ignore late bar closing; Case
1D--excessive force on car thief), the V.S. police officers evaluated these cases as
more serious than their Croatian counterparts. A particularly interesting case is
Case 10 (excessive force on car thief). The infamous Rodney King case, which was
extensively televised and was undoubtedly closely followed by the police across the
V.S., probably had a long-term effect on how police officers in the U.S. view the
use of excessive force. On the other hand, the lack of such highly visible cases in
Croatia and the war in the early 1990s (in which the police played one of the key
defensive roles) likely shaped the way Croatian police officers view cases involving
the use of excessive force.
Second, absolute evaluations of seriousness by college students from the two
countries were even more similar than those reported by police officers (see Table
5). The means were substantially different in only two cases (the differences were
statistically significant in 8 out of 11 cases). Differences in the extent to which off-
duty behavior (Case l--off-duty security system business) is prohibited in the two
countries, which are also visible in the police officer results, are reflected in the
student evaluations of seriousness as well. Not surprisingly, the Croatian college
students evaluated Case 1 as substantially more serious than their V.S. counterparts.
The second case that the Croatian students regarded as substantially more serious
than the U.S. students is the only case describing misconduct by a supervisor (Case
7-supervisor: holiday for tune-up).
Finally, comparing relative seriousness of cases across the samples of police
officers and college students from the two countries (Table 2) yields very high rank-
order correlations. A comparison of rank-ordered means for the Croatian and V.S.
students suggests that there was a great degree of similarity in the rankings
produced by these representatives of the middle class in both societies (the
correlation coefficient is .91). Similarly, a comparison of the rank-ordered means
for police officers from these two countries clearly suggests that the police officers
shared an understanding ofthe hierarchy of seriousness (the correlation coefficient
is .91).
Table 4

Reports of Their Own Perceptions of Offense Seriousness by Croatian and U.S. Police Officers

Croatian police officers U.S. police officers

Mean
Case number and description Mean Rank Mean Rank t-test
difference

Case l-off-duty security system business 2.57 2 1.46 I +1.11 25.04***

Case 2-Free meals, discounts on beat 3.01 4 2.60 2 +.41 8.77***

Case 3-Bribe from speeding motorist 4.47 9 4.92 10 -.45 -15.53***

Case 4--Holiday gifts from merchants 2.13 1 2.84 3 -.72 -16.16***

Case 5-Crime scene theft of watch 4.72 11 4.96 11 -.24 -10.23***

Case 6-Auto repair shop 5% kickback 3.86 7 4.50 7 -.64 -15.88*** ~


~
Case 7-Supervisor: holiday for tune-up 4.09 8 4.18 6 -.09 -2.33* :4
a0'
Case 8-Cover-up of police DUI accident

Case 9-Drinks to ignore late bar closing


2.79

3.85
3

6
3.03

4.54
4

8
-.24

-.69
-5.04***

-18.27*** -
::I
I:l

Q
.
Case 1D-Excessive force on car thief 3.03 5 4.05 5 -1.02 -21.63*** S
~
Case II-Theft from found wallet 4.55 10 4.85 9 -.31 -11.01*** ?
~
r;'
<I>
p < .05. p < .01. p < .001. - ::tl
~
~.

~
~
N

~
Table 5 ~
I:l'

~
Reports of Their Own Perceptions of Offense Seriousness by Croatian and U.S. College Students .g
~
Croatian college students U.S. college students ~
~
'<:
Mean ():
Case number and description Mean Rank Mean Rank r-test
difference

Case l-Qff-duty security system business 2.12 2 1.37 +.75 10.84

Case 2-Free meals, discounts on beat 2.50 3 2.05 3 +.45 5.88

Case 3-Bribe from speeding motorist 3.89 9 4.12 9 -.23 -3.30

Case 4--Holiday gifts from merchants 1.83 1 1.81 2 +.02 0.28

Case 5---Crime scene theft of watch 4.57 11 4.69 11 -.12 -2.40

Case 6-Auto repair shop 5% kickback 3.41 5 3.34 5 +.06 0.80

Case 7-Supervisor: holiday for tune-up 3.71 7 3.10 4 +.60 7.73

Case 8---Cover-up of police DUI accident 3.45 6 3.43 6 +.02 0.17

Case 9-Drinks to ignore late bar closing 3.38 4 3.73 7 -.35 -4.32

Case 1Q.-Excessive force on car thief 3.82 8 3.99 8 -.17 -2.07

Case II-Theft from found wallet 4.31 10 4.15 10 +.16 2.43

p < .05. p < .01. p < .001.


International Criminal Justice Review 43

CONCLUSION

Classic studies of crime severity, such as Sellin and Wolfgang (1964) and
Wolfgang et al. (1985), typically examined the seriousness of offenses in general
and rarely targeted offenses committed by police officers. This article fills the void
in the literature by examining perceptions ofthe seriousness of police misconduct.
The results show that the respondents' characteristics were related to their
judgment. Indeed, a comparison of the absolute scores of seriousness for police
officers and college students within a country suggests that the police officers
tended to evaluate the described cases ofpolice misconduct as more serious than the
college students evaluated them. This result holds across the two cultures and is
consistent with the results of Sellin and Wolfgang's seminal research (1964).
Furthermore, a comparison of the seriousness rankings of police misconduct
cases across the two countries is also consistent with the general conclusion from
Sellin and Wolfgang (1964): Crime seriousness should be viewed as a shared
understanding or hierarchy. Despite the inherent limitations ofnonrandom samples,
the results of this article clearly indicate that police officers and citizens from two
countries as diverse in terms of their legal, economic, social, and political
environments as the U.S. and Croatia share the understanding ofthe seriousness of
misconduct committed by police officers. For example, accepting free meals and
drinks and occasional holiday gifts without an explicit quid pro quo arrangement
was consistently evaluated as substantially less serious than covering up a police
Dill accident or accepting drinks to ignore a late bar closing, which, in turn, were
evaluated as less serious than stealing money from a found wallet or stealing a
watch from a crime scene. In fact, relative rankings of seriousness of the 11 cases
were remarkably similar across all groups ofrespondents surveyed in this research.
In sum, the results of this article expand upon the previous findings of shared
hierarchy of crime seriousness by showing that the perceptions of the severity of
police misconduct are also shared across cultures and thus transcend national
boundaries.
Learning about police officers' perceptions of seriousness is crucial for
researchers, policy makers, and police administrators alike. First, data collection
about perceptions ofseriousness shared by both police officers and the public could
be very helpful in measuring police misconduct. Periodic collection and analysis
of data can help to assess not only the dynamic of the overall prevalence of police
misconduct but also the dynamic ofrelative growth of police misconduct stratified
by its seriousness. For example, a police chief or administrator should probably be
much less concerned about a moderate growth in relatively benign forms of police
misconduct (e.g., accepting gratuities or free drinks) than about even the slightest
growth in serious forms of police misconduct (e.g., accepting bribes from speeding
motorists, opportunistic thefts).
44 Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovic

Second, a comparison of police officers' and administrators' perceptions of


seriousness can yield relevant guidelines for police administrators. For example,
knowing where the discrepancies lie between police administrators' expectations
of seriousness and police officers' views of seriousness can lead toward targeted
efforts to change the police officers' views regarding the cases in which they
underestimate the seriousness of the misconduct.
Third, learning about police officers' views ofseriousness can be very beneficial
from the perspective of police misconduct control. Research studies indicate that
perceptions of seriousness are strongly related to police officers' willingness to
report misconduct (see Klockars, Kutnjak Ivkovich, & Haberfeld, 2003; Klockars,
Kutnjak Ivkovich, Harver, & Haberfeld, 2000). The more serious police officers
perceive a behavior to be, the less willing they are to say that they would not report
it. Breaking the code of silence-the informal prohibition of reporting fellow
police officers' misconduct-is the easiest where it is the weakest, and research can
provide such guidelines.
Following this exploratory study, future research could engage in a detailed
examination of various forms of police misconduct, test the degree to which
evaluations of police seriousness are culturally dependent, and detect factors that
may have an impact on police officers' and citizens' perceptions of seriousness.
Factors that may be relevant include the size of the gain, the severity of the
consequences, the frequency with which such behavior occurs, the respectability
and characteristics ofthe citizens involved (e.g., prior criminal record, gender, race,
age), the characteristics of the police officers involved (e.g., assignment, rank,
length of service, gender, age, race), and the existence of prior, widely publicized
cases of police misconduct (e.g., the Rodney King effect). As argued earlier, such
information should be very useful not only to researchers but also to policy makers
and police administrators alike.

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40 ",
1 . .{ .,... ~.'
...... :' .. '
46 Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovic

Appendix A

Police Corruption Case Scenarios

Case 1 A police officer runs his own private business in which he sells and
installs security devices, such as alarms, special locks, etc. He does this
work during his off-duty hours.
Case 2 A police officer routinely accepts free meals, cigarettes, and other items
of small value from merchants on his beat. He does not solicit these gifts
and is careful not to abuse the generosity of those who give gifts to him.
Case 3 A police officer stops a motorist for speeding. The officer agrees to
accept a personal gift ofhalfofthe amount ofthe fine in exchange for not
issuing a citation.
Case 4 A police officer is widely liked in the community, and on holidays local
merchants and restaurant and bar owners show their appreciation for his
attention by giving him gifts of food and liquor.
Case 5 A police officer discovers a burglary ofa jewelry shop. The display cases
are smashed and it is obvious that many items have been taken. While
searching the shop, he takes a watch, worth about two days pay for that
officer. He reports that the watch had been stolen during the burglary.
Case 6 A police officer has a private arrangement with a local auto body shop to
refer the owners of cars damaged in accidents to the shop. In exchange
for each referral, he receives a payment of 5% of the repair bill from the
shop owner.
Case 7 A police officer, who happens to be a very good auto mechanic, is
scheduled to work during coming holidays. A supervisor offers to give
him these days off, ifhe agrees to tune-up his supervisor's personal car.
Evaluate the SUPERVISOR'S behavior.
Case 8 At 2 a.m. a police officer, who is on duty, is driving his patrol car on a
deserted road. He sees a vehicle that has been driven off the road and is
stuck in a ditch. He approaches the vehicle and observes that the driver
is not hurt but is obviously intoxicated. He also finds that the driver is a
police officer. Instead ofreporting this accident and offense he transports
the driver to his home.
Case 9 A police officer finds a bar on his beat that is still serving drinks a half
hour past its legal closing time. Instead of reporting this violation, the
police officer agrees to accept a couple of free drinks from the owner.
Case 10 Two police officers on foot patrol surprise a man who is attempting to
.
,.
.
l.

'.,- ..
,"III;
break into an automobile. The man flees. They chase him for about two
blocks before apprehending him by tackling him and wrestling him to the
International Criminal Justice Review 47

ground. After he is under control both officers punch him a couple of


times in the stomach as punishment for fleeing and resisting.
Case 11 A police officer finds a wallet in a parking lot. It contains the amount of
money equivalent to a full day's pay for that officer. He reports the
wallet as lost property but keeps the money for himself.
48 Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovic

Appendix B

Police Corruption Case Scenario Assessment Options

1. How serious do YOU consider this behavior to be?


Not at all serious Very serious
1 2 3 4 5

2. How serious do MOST POLICE OFFICERS IN YOUR AGENCY consider


this behavior to be?
Not at all serious Very serious
12345

3. Would this behavior be regarded as a violation of official policy in your


agency?
Definitely not Definitely yes
2 3 4 5

4. If an officer in your agency engaged in this behavior and was discovered doing
so, what if any discipline do YOU think SHOULD follow?
1. NONE 4. PERIOD OF SUSPENSION
WITHOUT PAY
2. VERBAL REPRIMAND 5. DEMOTION IN RANK
3. WRITTEN REPRIMAND 6. DISMISSAL

5. Ifan officer in your agency engaged in this behavior and was discovered doing
so, what if any discipline do YOU think WOULD follow?
1. NONE 4. PERIOD OF SUSPENSION
WITHOUT PAY
2. VERBAL REPRIMAND 5. DEMOTION IN RANK
3. WRITTEN REPRIMAND 6. DISMISSAL

6. Do you think YOU would report a fellow police officer who engaged in this
behavior?
Definitely not Definitely yes
12345

7. Do you think MOST POLICE OFFICERS IN YOUR AGENCY would report


a fellow police officer who engaged in this behavior?
Definitely not Definitely yes
12345