Police Deviance and Accountability in Popular Culture

Posted: April 28, 2015 by jasprit12 in Uncategorized

Fictional representations of policing usually are the opposite of what policing is actually like in reality. Popular culture tends to focus on police deviance instead of showcasing the core values of policing. It does not only illustrate it, but it also depicts the practice of police deviance as something which is normal. An example of a fictional representation of policing which features police deviance as a major theme is, the 2006 American Hollywood film, “The Departed.”

In this film, two of the main characters, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) play a role as police officers. Sullivan is recruited at a young age by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), an Irish-American mobster. When he grows older, he gets a job as a police officer with the state police force, and works with the Special Investigations Unit which focuses on organized crime. However, his purpose behind getting this job was so that he could get information from the inside and keep Costello informed. On the other hand, Costigan, who comes from a background of extended family ties to organized crime, also wants to become a police officer. However, before he is able to graduate from the police academy, the state police force’s captain and staff sergeant approach him. After meeting him they decide to offer him a position as a police officer only on one condition, which is that he quit the police academy, be charged and sentenced to serve some time in prison for a fake assault charge, so that he can gain credibility to infiltrate Costello’s organization. They believe that due to his ties with people involved with organized crime, he fits the perfect role to work with the criminal organization, as an undercover police officer. Both Sullivan and Costigan are successful in gaining entry and are accepted into the organizations in which they will act as a mole.

Sullivan portrays a corrupt police officer by maintaining ties with a criminal organization. He is involved by working for the criminal organization run by Costello, as well as protecting them. He would be classified as a uniform carrier because his motive is not that of a typical police officer (Punch, 2009). According to Roebuck and Barker (1974), Sullivan’s corruption is motivated by the pursuit of gain, specifically that which is known as the “protection of illegal activities.” For example, he releases information to Costello, to help him escape and prevent getting caught. Sullivan is aware of all police operations and warns Costello of them. Without the information that he has access to, it would be difficult for Costello to easily get away undetected. This explains why Costello had prepared for boats to be waiting outside at the back of the warehouse location where he was meeting to make a deal to sell stolen missile guidance microchips to Chinese government agents. Sullivan misuses his police authority because he has a criminal collusion with organized crime. He abuses the office, power, and trust and also violates the norms of policing therefore he is seen as being corrupt and deviant (Punch, 2009). Gilmartin (2006) explains that police officers are known to become corrupt as a result of entitlement, which is when they believe that the rules do not apply to them.

Costigan is a police officer who is using police deviance to handle things. Specifically, he is involved in using police misconduct, which is known as the act of violating the rules, policies, and procedures of the police force (Larsen, 2015). For example, he uses violent tactics to deal with people, and is seen to assault people on a number of occasions. Once at a bar and another at the store. He is portrayed as a police officer who deals with things his own way, which is to fight. As Van Maanen (2005) would say, Costigan uses excessive force. However, a different approach could have been used to handle the situations. The implicatory denial technique of neutralization can also be applied to Costigan because he justified his actions since he is working undercover for the police and is only trying to help them by gathering information which may help in their investigation.

In conclusion, both Sullivan and Costigan’s behaviour is not consistent with the norms, values, or ethics of policing. They do not carry the core values of the police agency, especially honesty, since dishonesty is seen as a big issue in this film. Thus, “The Departed” depicts the role of police in a completely fictional manner. I do not think that society is affected or misguided in any way. Everyone is aware that movies are only for entertainment purposes. Our society has an interest in things which are out of the ordinary. In the movie industry, things like this sell. I think most people are able to differentiate between what is fiction and what is non-fiction. They know that films are dramatized and do not portray the real world of policing. Although, police deviance and corruption does exist in reality, it does not exist to this extent that it is considered a common practice. The core values and ethics of policing in reality are much different than those in the film industry.

The common tropes, themes, and messages which are conveyed through this media representation of police wrongdoing include that police deviance and corruption is a normal practice occurring in all police organizations, the police are able to create their own rules, they are always ready to fight, and they are never punished for doing such things, but rather are praised and rewarded for doing so. Instead of letting the courts handle things, police are usually seen taking things into their own hands by beating people up, leaving them to die, or killing them. Another thing which many fiction pieces show include police officers have sexual encounters with people they should only have a professional relationship with. In conclusion, to simplify things, many of the acts, values, and behaviours which would be deemed as unacceptable, deviant, or unethical in reality, are shown as a normal form of policing which is acceptable.


Gilmartin, K. M. (2006). Ethics-based policing… undoing entitlement. Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families. Retrieved from http://emotionalsurvival.com/ethics_based_policing.htm

Larsen, M. (Spring 2015). Criminology 2355: Police deviance and accountability. Lecture notes. Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Punch, M. (2009). What is corruption? In Police Corruption: Deviance, Accountability and Reform in Policing (pp. 18-52). Portland: Willan Pub.

Roebuck, J. B. & Barker, T. (1974). A typology of police corruption. Social Problems, 21(3), 423-437.

Van Maanen, J. (2005). The Asshole. In T. Newburn (Ed.), Policing: Key Readings (pp. 280-296). Portland: Willan Pub

  1. Mike Larsen says:

    You note that “popular culture tends to focus on police deviance instead of showcasing the core values of policing”. This is true, but incomplete; popular culture also celebrates a distorted or exaggerated image of policing that amplifies themes of action, power, and heroism.

    You provide a good overview of the film plot and central characters, and a detailed and effective analysis of representations of police wrongdoing in The Departed. I think that you should reconsider your application of Punch’s (2009) discussion of the ‘uniform carrier’ in the case of Sullivan. This term is generally used to describe officers who just ‘go through the motions’ of policing, approaching it in a ritualistic fashion. It is not a good term to use to describe the forms of corruption that characterize Sullivan’s role as a police officer.

    You provide an effective analysis of Costigan. I am glad to see that you have engaged with Cohen’s (2001) work on implicatory denial. Your concluding commentary is also interesting and effective. Generally, this is a very good post.

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