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What is Good Cop, Bad Cop?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Good cop, bad cop refers to a law enforcement investigatory technique, which might lead to a confession or the arrest of a suspect. The term may also be used to describe a rhetorical technique where two people cooperate, or not, in order to deliver unpopular opinions or news, and gain public support.

In law enforcement, people with multiple arrests may be familiar with the good cop, bad cop routine, so it may be ineffective with people who have been arrested multiple times. It tends to be most effective on younger and more vulnerable suspects who have never been arrested. The goal is to force a confession, which makes convicting a suspect far easier in the courts.

In this technique, one cop will purposefully play the “bad cop.” He will have a first attempt at questioning a suspect, and he will be aggressive, negative, and attempt to evoke fear in the suspect. He will deny the suspect any favors, like going to the bathroom, or having a drink of water. Legally, he cannot deny the suspect access to a lawyer, so the routine must be fine-tuned to provoke fear in the suspect without him or her immediately requesting an attorney.

Once the bad cop has intimidated the suspect, the good cop gets a chance to interrogate. He or she will interrogate the suspect in a kind way, expressing empathy. The cop may bring food or a soda to the suspect. He or she also may convey that he is sorry for the other cop’s actions, or that he needs the suspect’s cooperation so the bad cop will not return.

If a suspect is sufficiently terrorized by the bad cop, he or she may respond to the “friendly” overtures of the good cop. Most people are fairly familiar with this technique, however, and request a lawyer. At this request, a suspect cannot legally be interrogated further. As well, any statements made after the request for a lawyer may not be admissible in court.

Good cop, bad cop is frequently represented in TV crime shows, and there are also many film examples. It should be noted that many of the examples in these shows are strictly against the law. Coercing a suspect to confession by threatening violence, pulling a gun on the suspect, or actually being violent is illegal. When such coercion is found to exist, testimony by the suspect is usually not allowed in any trial.

As a rhetorical technique, this term may refer to the joint effort to gain compliance from a community over an issue that is unpopular. The bad cop, who may be a politician, first may make statements regarding an issue that are considered extremely unpopular. The good cop then poses a moderate, compromising solution that seems preferable.

A politician might also use the statements of someone from an opposite party to inflame an audience prior to proposing a more modest solution. The “bad” statements in this scenario are often a few quick quotes that are used to represent a total point of view. As a result, the "good" politician's elucidation of an issue, and mild manner in solving it, seem to make him or her the best choice, or his or her interpretation of an issue as the smart way to vote.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon183608 — On Jun 05, 2011

It's being used online every day, pushing the Iraqi dinar. And both D&T know exactly what they are doing! Shame on them both. People are so gullible these days.

By anon19956 — On Oct 22, 2008

black man get 30 years to life. testimony and evidence that the judge read at sentencing not in trial transcripts.

By catapult43 — On May 14, 2008

I've found that good cop, bad cop works in a variety of circumstances in daily life. When buying a car or house it's often an effective technique to use against the seller.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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