Applying Social Exchange Theory to Police Deviance: Exploring Self-Protective Behaviors Among Police Officers

Published date01 June 2019
Date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Applying Social Exchange
Theory to Police Deviance:
Exploring Self-Protective
Behaviors Among Police Officers
Richard C. Helfers
, Paul D. Reynolds
, and Jon Maska
Social exchange theory is one of the prominent paradigms used to explain the processes linking
organizational treatment of employees to their job performance. However, the theoretical link
between perceived organizational treatment and police deviance has not been fully explored. This
research addresses this gap by analyzing the relationship between perceptions of organizational
justice and the use of police self-protective behaviors (SPBs) using organizational support and
organizational indifference as ad hoc indicators of the social exchange process. Data were collected
using an online self-report survey distributed to police officers in a southern state who are members
of a police officer association (n¼1,861). Consistent with previous social exchange research, the
findings generally support the idea that fairness is related to SPBs, but largely to the extent that it
enhances the social exchange in terms of increasing perceptions of organizational support and
reducing perceptions of organizational indifference, which both directly affect an officer’s use of
SPBs, and are a type of police deviance. Specific findings, relevant policy implications, and directions
for future research are discussed.
police culture/accountab ility, law enforcement/sec urity, police organizati on/management, police
processes, quantitative methods, other
Organizational policies and guidelines are deve loped by departmen tal leadership and h eavily
influenced by local, state, and federal laws along with occupational mores (Stojkovic, Kalinch,
& Klofas, 2015). However, given the highly discretionary nature of police work and the fact
that officers often perform their duties with minimal direct supervision, a potential obstacle
exists for police leadership to detect, correct, and adequately address police deviance among
The University of Texas at Tyler, Tyler, TX, USA
University of North Texas at Dallas, Dallas, TX, USA
The University of Texas at Dallas, Dallas, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Richard C. Helfers, The University of Texas at Tyler, 3900 University Blvd., Tyler, TX 75799, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2019, Vol. 44(2) 183-203
ª2018 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016818796547
officers (Mastrofski, 2004). This is particularly troubling, given that research suggests over
three fourths of officers’ patrol time is outside of direct supervision (Famega, Frank, & Mazer-
olle, 2005).
While increased oversight and scrutiny coupled with stricter and more severe disciplinary
practices may deter and reduce police deviance (Frydl & Skogan, 2004), it may also create
unintended consequences (Myhill & Bradford, 2013) and increase other forms of police
deviance (Bishopp, Worrall, & Piquero, 2016; Harris & Worden, 2014; Wolfe & Piquero,
2011). Specifically, punitive consequences can result in decreased performance (i.e., production
deviance) and increased usage of self-protective behaviors (SPBs; Reynolds, Fitzgerald, &
Hicks, 2017). These types of retaliatory behaviors toward the organization can hinder overall
effectiveness and efficiency of the department (Skarlicki & Folger, 1997). Of specific concern,
research suggests many officers perceive a variety of aspects of their organization as unfair and
thusmayleadtoofficersfeelingunsupportedordevalued by their organization (Reynolds &
Hicks, 2015; Reynolds et al., 2017). One way in which this phenomenon can be explained is
through the use of social exchange theory.
Social exchange theory (Blau, 1967; Homans, 1958) is predicated on the idea of reciprocation
in relationships where individual actions are based upon a cost–benefit analysis, which theoreti-
cally explains the relationship between employees and organizations (Rhoades & Eisenberg er,
2002). From a social exchange framework, employees expect to be treated in a particular way by
the organization and tailor their actions based upon this perception and act in accordance to
promote the most beneficial outcome from the employee’s perspective (Colquitt et al., 2013;
Rhoades & Eisenberger, 2002). Given that research generally supports the theoretical notions
from organizational research, the same principal likely holds true for police organizations (Rey -
nolds & Hicks, 2015).
Extending the social exchange process to a policing context, organizational mistreatment in
the form of perceived unfairness and lack of support—among subordinates from superiors—
may violate expectations of how officers feel as though they should be treated and thus fails
to fulfill their emotional needs. The implication of this failure is diminished and strained
relationships, which may ultimately lead to negative changes in work performance (Armeli,
Eisenberger, Fasolo, & Lynch, 1998; Boateng, 2014). Consiste nt with a social exchange theory
framework, Colquitt et al. (2013) perceived unfair treatment in an organization should weaken
relationships that may lead officers to engage in various types of retaliatory work behaviors,
generally captured under the umbrella term of police deviance. There remain limited studies
exploring the relationship between organizational treatment and police deviance from a theo-
retical framework. Further still, even fewer studies examine less severe forms of police
deviance, which are likely to be more common than the more egregious acts (i.e., corruption,
sexual misconduct, and abuse of power; Bishop et al., 2016; Eitle, D’Alessio, & Stolzenberg,
The purpose of this study is to explore how organizational treatment may be linked to police
deviance using the theoretical lens of social exchange. Specifically, the main objective of this study
is to gain further insight into the relationships among organizational fairness, perceived organiza-
tional support (POS), perceived organizational indifference (POI), and SPBs. Building upon previ-
ous studies linking social exchange theory to employee performance (Colquitt et al., 2013;
Masterson, Lewis, Goldman, & Taylor, 2000), this study uses a sample of 1,861 police officers
who are members of a police officer association in a southern state to examine the research question:
Do POS and POI mediate the relationship between perceived organizational fairness and SPBs in
accordance with social exchange theory?
184 Criminal Justice Review 44(2)

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