Essay Example: Social Learning Theory and Police Misconduct

Published: 2022-04-08
Essay Example: Social Learning Theory and Police Misconduct
Type of paper:  Critical thinking
Categories:  Police brutality
Pages: 6
Wordcount: 1414 words
12 min read

The issue of police misconduct is no news to most Americans. People have had their experiences with the police at one point in life. Either in the form of harassment, arbitrary search, or maybe a questioning session. However, the most serious misconduct by the police is that involving the use of lethal or brutal force. Today, the issue of police brutality is ranked among some of the most severe cases of violation of human dignity. However, even though the problem of police misconduct has been prevalent in the United States, there is no compelling data in the form of scholarly and literary works concerning the matter. Also, no reliable government records giving statistics on the degree of the police misconduct exists. It is either that the issue is being deliberately ignored by the state and the groups related to the human rights watch, or the police department is under the leadership of corrupt officials.

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Nevertheless, there have been prior attempts to study the extent of police misconduct by researchers such as Lawton, Lersch, and Mieczkowski. Their findings and results were based on analyzing the reports and complaints by civilians. Still, this was not sufficient to produce accurate results and concrete conclusions. Come to that; it is this inefficiency that prompted Akers to develop the social learning theory to help explain and shed light on the unethical acts in the society. The approach depends on a critical dynamic of Sutherland's differential association theory, that is, the differential association based on the idea of shared or influenced behaviors. That being said, the primary objective of this paper is to give a brief explanation of Aker's Social Learning Theory, considering the key points. Also, this study attempts to highlight the research design of the study as well my opinion regarding its viability and effectiveness.

Aker's Social Learning Theory

Aker's social learning theory is part of the general concepts of criminology theory. Aker incorporates the critical paradigms related to Sutherland's differential association theory in his technique. The primary supposition based on this theory is that same learning procedure is likely to generate both compliant and aberrant or criminal behavior. According to Aker, the variations in individual character traits is as a result of four central dynamics- differential association, definitions, reinforcement, and modeling. How the subject responds to these variables will determine his behavior. Nevertheless, the most crucial of them all is the differential association. This variable dictates that an individual's behavior is likely to conform to those of the people he associates with frequently. The theory also argues that our peers have a significant impact on how our ethical conducts, to mean, we can either acquire positive or negative behaviors from them. Additionally, the outcome is further solidified by the booties or the retributions associated with the shared trait. Similarly, peers are essential in studying patterns of behavior and how another person responds to them.

Over the years, social learning theory has received much attention from experts in criminology and researchers from other related fields. Still, this theory is mostly applicable in explaining crime and misbehavior but not police misconduct. In that case, the next section will provide a theoretical explanation on how this method is relevant in interpreting police misdemeanors. The fundamentals of this theoretical analysis rely on the technique of differential association and differential reinforcement.

Differential Association

In the case of policing, we will take the police department as the primary subculture. When we differentiate the subculture within the constructs of the social learning theory, the police department then becomes the peer group. Studies indicate that the aspect of peer pressure influences the general behavior of most police officers in a particular department. The fundamental feature of this subculture is that it is can readily diffuse within the system. Thus, the recruits are susceptible to this influence. At times, the new officers may acquire traits that do not adhere to the customary laws of the justice system. Professionals in criminology or even the police departments acknowledge the existence of this subculture within the system. The reason why this fragility exists is that peer influence is easy to rationalize leading to the quick adoption of new behaviors.

Apart from that, the paradigm of differential association entails that the more an individual spends time isolated within a specific social construct, the easier it is to immerse oneself in the subgroup. For instance, the police spend most of their time in the company of their partners. They go for lunch together, attend emergencies and workshops together, and of course, respond to situations together. During the routine operations, new cops learn from the veterans. They see how their experienced counterparts handle criminals or act on the circumstances and mimic the same tactics. Consequently, in a department, the police view themselves not just as individual officers but as a family. They always have each other's back regardless of anything that may happen while on duty. Hence, this feeling of belonging imparts to the officers the character of being faithful to one another. As a result, the police tend to conceal information on the acts that violate human dignity by fellow officers. Some officers also fear to betray their fellows lest they are labeled as traitors. Thus, they fear the mental torture that arises from that.

Differential Reinforcement

The whole logic behind differential reinforcement relies on the idea that an individual develops a new behavior according to the response of others. They want to maintain a good rapport in a favorable working environment. For instance, officers can learn the basics of corruption through reinforcements acquired from the subgroup. The process of corruption is procedural, in that, an officer adopts the behavior after studying the response of his or her comrade(s). If the fellow officer(s) act(s) like corruption is normal, the officer is likely to adopt the behavior. Still, we cannot base our argument entirely on the concept of peer pressure. Studies have shown that other determinants of police behavior in the system arise from the access to incentives such as free lunch, free ride, as well as discounts on items bought.

Research Design

The degree of police misconduct was accounted for through statistics regarding complaints by citizens. The researcher wanted to know if any police have ever been accused of any act of misconduct by a civilian. Civilian claims are taken as the dependent variable as the outcome of the study depends on it. After the results, a comparison is drawn concerning officers who had no complaints against those who had one or more claims. The researcher then employed the technique of logistic regression to achieve the final result.

Apart from utilizing the idea of a dependent variable, the study also incorporated independent variables. These variables were taken regarding the responses given by each officer. The officers were subjected to a series of hypothetical scenarios which they were required to respond to in the third person. This technique had earlier been employed in studying police behavior and delinquency. For example, in attempting to examine police integrity, a researcher called Klockers subjected officers to various hypothetical vignettes including bribery, theft, and accepting gifts. He then asked them to rate the seriousness of each crime on a 5-point Likert scale. They were to respond according to how they perceived the crimes as well as their thought on how their fellows may regard the acts. Similarly, this study also employed the use of the 5-point Likert scale (Chappell, & Piquero, 2004). Besides, the questions that accompanied the scenarios were applied to gauge the impacts of the social learning concepts.


In my viewpoint, I would recommend the use of Aker's social learning theory to study the extent of police misconduct. The central variable of the theory, that is, the differential association, is a workable method. The idea that peer pressure can influence one's behavior is right to some extent, more so, in a police culture where the officers spend most of their time confined together. Also, the concept of differential reinforcement is applicable in real life. For instance, footballers will tend to defend one of their own in case of a brawl even if he was the one on the wrong side. In that sense, the police subculture also works in the same way. Therefore, I think the authors did an outstanding job in compiling the study.


Chappell, A. T., & Piquero, A. R. (2004). Applying social learning theory to police misconduct. Deviant Behavior.

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