Neutralization- the accountability killer

Posted: February 22, 2013 by scott0113 in Uncategorized

To assume I occupy a position of authority within the police accountability office, I would first have to determine what is meant by the terms accountability and neutralization. Reg Whitaker and Stuart Farson define accountability in three terms: Inform (another about his actions or inactions), Justify (the actions or decisions as appropriate), and Sanctions (to suffer sanctions in case of misconduct). To be accountable should mean more than just the possible punishment of someone, but more importantly having effectiveness in reducing police deviant behavior of oneself and others around you.

As per the neutralization theory, police officers that become deviant take minor steps at first. While they take the first step they begin by making an excuse or use euphemisms to excuse or minimize their deviant action. The first step down this slippery slope usually starts with grass eating (given cash for example) and/or rule bending (Punch, 2009). Whether they start down this slippery slope for money/greed or to fit in with their peers, is part of the understanding of the neutralization theory. If they continue down this path of deviance and continue to neutralizing their actions, perhaps the grass eater might become a meat eater and start looking for others means of self-gain.

Understanding neutralization would only affect my approach for any individual instances of police deviance if they confessed to the act of transgression before being caught. While I would be more lenient to those officers who confess to any wrong doing, the fact is deviance is still deviance. If they confess than that is being accountable to their actions and I would respect them for it. If it was a minor transgression I would make them take some programs about proper behavioral conduct of officers. Perhaps they might get a reprimand or demotion depending if it was a little more serious as to what they confessed to. However, if it was a very serious transgression then it still may be a criminal act that he should face up to in the criminal court system whether they confessed or not.

There would be many proactive measures that I would implement as I recognize neutralization techniques can trip up some dedicated officers to follow the wrong path. One of the first things I would arrange is for classes for all officers to attend periodically, which would stress the importance of obeying the law and what to be careful of including the concerns over neutralization. Either a live or video conference with a former police officer who was imprisoned would be preferable as a means to make the current officers contemplate their conduct and to not risk their careers. If a live or video conference was not available, I would try to arrange a video taping of a convicted former officer who was willing to tell their story and how they used neutralization techniques that led them down a corrupt path. This video would be made available and shown as part of the classes they would attend. This I think would hit home, as many officers believe only other officers can understand them and their unique challenges they face. I would also encourage any officer to ask for a transfer that is perhaps feeling pressured into taking any money (grass eating), as a means to belong to a particular group. They would not have to rat out any fellow officers, as I would want them to feel comfortable to ask for a transfer to keep their hands clean. While rotating officers and their districts periodically may not be ideal as far as police work is concerned, it would however make it more difficult for officers to be on the take of any bribes or any other potential misconduct in case they start to become too familiar with those in their territory.


Punch, M. (2009). Police corruption: Deviance, accountability and reform in policing. Cullompton, Devon: Willan Publishing.

  1. Mike Larsen says:

    Great post.
    One of the important features of the definition of accountability adopted by Whitaker and Farson is that it is relational – it deals with a relationship between two parties, with one party responsible for ensuring the accountability of the other. This is important because it invites us to approach questions of accountability by assessing the nature of the relationship between the parties involved. Is it characterized by trust, communication, a sense of obligations, respect, autonomy, etc. I find these questions to be helpful when exploring accountability practices.

    Your suggestion of regular classes to address the use of techniques of neutralization is interesting. I can see the purpose and the merits of the idea. On the other hand, members of an organization (any organization) tend to react negatively to mandatory meetings and training sessions unless they are clearly tied to opportunities for skill acquisition and career advancement. You might run the risk of generating resistance by imposing mandatory classes. However, sessions that involve the sharing of stories (about neutralization, for example) as opposed to top-down instruction, sound promising.

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