The recent news story about California police officer Christopher Dorner who went on a killing rampage has resulted in my being interviewed about police officers who, as it turns out, are also criminals. The following is what I have learned over many years.
First, it is essential to underscore that most police officers are honorable and conscientious in their valiant service to the community. However, decades ago, when the late Dr. Yochelson and I were interviewing career criminals in our study at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., we discovered that a significant number of them, when they were youngsters, aspired to careers in law enforcement. They reported being attracted by the uniform, the badge, the gun, the fast police cruiser and, most of all, the thrill of pursuing and catching the “bad guys.” It was the excitement and the ability to wield absolute power over other human beings that attracted them as well as the prospect of being cited as heroes for doing so. None of these individuals whom we studied in our research program actually became policemen because they lacked the self-discipline to obtain the requisite education and training.
However, in every occupational group, there are a few “bad eggs.” A clergyman may steal from the collection plate. A therapist may have sex with his patients. A lawyer may embezzle from a client’s escrow fund. And so forth.
When a person with a criminal personality becomes a law enforcement officer, problems invariably result. Stories of “police corruption” appear in the media from time to time. You have the cop who uses excessive force and who may ultimately be sanctioned for “police brutality.” Or there may be the officer who pulls a motorist over and offers to forego issuing a citation if she “agrees” to have sex with him. Or there may be the policeman who confiscates drugs but uses some of them himself. Then there is the cop who accepts a bribe in exchange for turning a blind eye and not reporting a crime.
Invariably, officers with a criminal personality do not get along with fellow officers and have interpersonal clashes with colleagues and supervisors. If they are caught for a crime or infraction of department policy, these individuals know the system and are able to maneuver their way out of a jam. Drew Peterson is a case in point. According to press reports, he was fired from the Bollingbrook (Illinois) police department after being found guilty of failing to report a bribe and official misconduct. The charges were later dropped, and he won reinstatement. He was subsequently accused of using excessive force. Recently, he was in the news because he was charged in the 2004 death of his third wife after his fourth wife disappeared in 2007. It took years to bring him to justice.
The point is that some criminals are attracted to what they perceive as “high voltage” occupations. Serving as police officers provides a cover to do as they choose, misusing their positions of authority. They become overly confident and eventually slip up. In extreme cases such as those of Mr. Dorner and Mr. Peterson, there are horrendous casualties.