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Lawman Gone Bad

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Not always this obvious.

"20 years I've been on the streets. You know what Mega City One is, Dredd? It's a fucking meat grinder. People go in one end, and meat comes out the other. All we do is turn the handle."

At first glance, he is the Reasonable Authority Figure or maybe even a Gentleman Detective. However, if you push them too far in just the right place (may or may not be their Berserk Button), he will have a good reason to become an outcast from the police force and perform a Face–Heel Turn. What causes them to turn from the law they upheld varies, though disillusionment, disgruntlement or greed will usually be at the root of it.

Due to the nature of the trope, it's often used as part of the character's backstory, or as the surprise twist at the end.

If the lawman is not the hero of the story, then he might do a full Face–Heel Turn. After helping the hero defeat the villains, he turns on the hero and tries to kill him so he can have the money for himself.

To put it bluntly, this character is what's known as a Lawman Gone Bad. This is a character who takes pride in working for the law before an incident that makes him snap causes him to distance himself from those that he used to work for.

The character may also be a Big Bad Friend.

Related to Dirty Cop and Cowboy Cop. Compare Fallen Hero. The companion trope where someone who was once in the military and has turned to crime is From Camouflage to Criminal.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Black Lagoon: former police officer Mr. Chang didn't just go bad, he went all in and became a Triad boss.
  • Moriarty the Patriot: Chief of Police Zachary Patterson became a cop in order to serve justice to the people of the British Empire, but quickly found that Scotland Yard was not the place he thought it was. Disillusioned, he joined up with criminal mastermind William's crew before the series even began.
  • One Piece: Shiryu of the Rain was once the head jailer of the most dangerous prison in the world, Impel Down, but prison warden Magellan locked him up for sadistically killing prisoners for fun. During a riot, Magellan releases him to help him quell the riot and makes it clear that he won't be released from his sentence and is only postponing his execution. This leaves Shiryu no other choice but to join the Blackbeard Pirates as one of their commanders.

    Comic Books 
  • This may be the fate of Inspector Finch at the end of V for Vendetta when the Norsefire system is collapsing. See also under film.
  • According to Word of God, this is the backstory of Jackie Boy from Sin City. The audience only sees Jackie as an abusive drunk with an allusion to being a "hero cop" in the past. Apparently, he once earned the accolades of a hero but unknown circumstances led him down a dark path.
  • Sheriff Halliday becomes this at the end of Hitman Annual #1 when he tries to take possession of A MacGuffin Full of Money for himself.
  • Judge Dredd has several examples:
    • The most notable is Dredd's own clone brother, Rico. After graduating top of his class, Rico starts taking bribes and running his own rackets while on the job. Joe ends up arresting him and sentencing him to twenty years on Titan, which he actually survives. Rico comes back for revenge and Joe is forced to kill him.
    • Judge Fray, who works with criminals and tries to kill Dredd, insists that he hasn't "gone bad", he's gone honest. The Judge system is inherently evil, and he's just the only one who is prepared to admit that and commit to it. He's ... not exactly wrong.
  • Former Green Lantern Medphyll, after losing his ring, joined forces with Throneworld's corrupt leader to stop the legitimate ruler from returning and reclaiming his authority. Unfortunately for him, Jack Knight fought back and succeeded in destroying Medphyll.
  • Inverted in Daisy Kutter, where the sheriff of Middleton is the former train-robbing outlaw Tom McKay. Tom gave up his life of crime and settled down to become a small-town sheriff. He spends the first half of the comic trying to convince his ex-girlfriend and ex-partner-in-crime Daisy to do the same — she quit the banditry business the same time he did, but she opened a general store rather than join up with the institution they once rebelled against. By the end of the comic, Tom's injuries force him to retire and Daisy takes his place as the sheriff of Middleton.
  • Some versions of The Punisher have him be a cop rather than an ex-Vietnam soldier before a Mafia hit sets him on a permanent crusade to avenge his family.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • A prime example is Captain Culpepper (played by Spencer Tracy) from the 1963 Comedy film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. At first, he intends to confiscate the stolen money and presumably return it to its rightful owners, but after being buried under an ever-increasing mountain of bad news from his home life and regarding his police pension (or lack thereof), he devises A Simple Plan to get the dough for himself and skip on down to Mexico for his "retirement".
  • In the western There Was a Crooked Man..., a new warden (Henry Fonda) at an Arizona prison tries to institute reforms, but a Manipulative Bastard inmate (Kirk Douglas) uses this to stage a mass escape. The warden pursues the inmate, and the inmate meets a Karmic Death while retrieving the loot from one of his robberies. The warden returns with the inmate's body and the loot to the prison but realizes that a new warden has been appointed in the meantime. Disgraced and out of a job, he sends the horse with the body toward the prison while he and the money ride off to start a new life.
  • The Hurricane Heist: Sheriff Dixon's deputies are initially honest cops working to provide order during the hurricane. But once they get offered a cut of the money, they quickly and remorselessly join Connor's gang.
  • In Minority Report, the trope is subverted. For a while, it seems as if John Anderton will become a murderer since he's already abusing illegal drugs to cope with the death of his son. In fact, it's his boss, Lamar Burgess, who has been committing murders to validate the pre-crime system.
  • Unlike the more ambivalent ending of the Comic Book, the film version of V for Vendetta has Finch clearly joining "V" (actually Evey) when the rebellion against the fascist government begins.
  • Ed Kilifer in Licence to Kill. He is a DEA agent who accepts a $2 million dollar bribe to spring drug lord Sanchez from federal custody.
  • Harvey Dent / Two-Face from The Dark Knight. Originally the White Knight of Gotham, he goes ballistic and insane after some antics by The Joker. Considering said 'antics' result in, among other consequences, Harvey getting half his face burned off and his Love Interest being killed, this is perhaps a bit understandable.
  • In Hard Rain, Randy Quaid's character Sheriff Mike Collig does this. Being forced to stay behind and guard an empty flooded-out town against looters, a town whose citizens just voted you out of office was apparently the straw that broke the camel's back.
  • Speed: Howard Payne was a former member of the Atlanta PD bomb squad, who turned Mad Bomber after being forcibly retired, due to an accident which injured his right hand. He couldn't continue on the force, but wasn't disabled enough to qualify for collecting his pension. Howard did not take it well.
    Jack: [over phone] Why didn't you just come after me?
    Payne: [scoffs] You?! This isn't about you, this is about ME!! It's about my money! This is about money due to ME! Which I WILL collect!
  • The Czech cop in xXx who, after one too many humiliations, turns informant for the bad guys.
  • Mad Max:
  • In Rough Cut, Burt Reynolds (The Gentleman Thief) tries to steal a case of rough cut diamonds, being protected by a Police Chief bent on capturing him. After the gang get the case to the Bahamas, Burt reveals that the diamonds are fakes. Cue the entry of the Police Chief with the actual case, "selling" it to them for a share of the cut.
  • In The Usual Suspects, Keaton used to be a cop, but was an extremely Dirty Cop even while he was on the job, resulting in multiple indictments before he was eventually kicked off the force. He then became a career criminal who was probably responsible for multiple murders, both in normal life and behind bars during a stay in prison. His friend Verbal claims that Keaton was attempting to put his criminal past behind him and start a new life shortly before the start of the film, but police harassment ruined his chance at that, driving him back to criminal work. Whether that is true is very much up for debate.
    Agent Kujan: Keaton was under indictment a total of seven times when he was on the force. In every case, witnesses either reversed their testimony to the grand jury or died before they could testify. When they finally did nail him for fraud, he spent five years in Sing Sing. He killed three prisoners inside - one with a knife in the tailbone while he strangled him to death.
  • In S.W.A.T. (2003), when Gamble's Cowboy Cop antics get him kicked off the team, he resigns from the force and turns to a life of crime.

  • Garret "Uncle Bud" Stoker, the main antagonist of After Dark, My Sweet, is a former cop who masterminds a plan to hold a wealthy man's son for ransom.
  • The Alloy of Law has Miles Hundredlives, who was once a good if Knight Templar-ish lawman, but turned to evil when he decided that the political figures he worked for were the real criminals.
  • Jiggs Scully from Cat Chaser was an NYPD officer before becoming an enforcer for the mob.
  • Tomas Sergar from The Children of Man is a secret member of the Brethren, the order of black-aligned mages seeking to take over the world. He is also the head of the Daniyelan Order, this world's international police force.
  • Two of Stuart Gibbs Fun Jungle novels feature this. The first is Chief of Security Buck, who upon stumbling across a smuggling ring, blackmails his way into it and is willing to kill to cover it up. The second is Athmani, a South African game warden brought in to the park as a consultant, who after years of combatting murderous Rhino poachers for a pittance, cracks when offered an opportunity to steal rhino horns worth hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars without killing any of them, even though just the act of putting those horns on the market would feed the demand for more poaching.
  • Albert Neri in The Godfather was fired from the police force for killing an unarmed suspect due to his overzealous nature, causing him to fall in with organized crime.
  • Sargent Haig of The Mental State starts out as a Jerkass who looks down on the prisoners he is guarding and regards them as scum. Then, when the prison starts to adopt more liberal policies and the inmates are granted more freedom, he becomes even more sadistic and retaliates by beating one of the frailer prisoners up for no good reason. He gets worse after he is falsely accused of dealing drugs and incarcerated in the same prison. He even joins up with a criminal gang just so that he can get revenge on the one responsible for framing him.
  • Commissioner Gauche in Murder on the Leviathan spends about 9/10ths of the novel dedicated to capturing a genuinely dangerous and nasty killer (albeit without that much competence). Then, when it transpires that the motive for the murder involved a treasure map which would lead to more money than Gauche would make on a policeman's salary in ten lifetimes, he promptly beats the captured murderer to death trying to find out where the map was. Unfortunately for him, the man he killed was only an accomplice, and the actual killer makes Guache the next victim.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad and its prequel Better Call Saul. Originally a cop from Philadelphia, Mike becomes a Dirty Cop to survive in the corrupt precinct and then tries to bring his son into the fold as well. It fails miserably, as his son is then killed by Mike's colleagues. Then Mike resigns from the force, and enacts vengeance upon the said cops, and then joins both Gus and Saul as the former's hitman.
  • In an episode of CSI, the team investigates a series of killings related to the murder of a mob boss many years before. It's mentioned that a patrol officer called in the car crash/body but mysteriously vanished along with the ill-gotten gains and the possibility of this trope is discussed. It turns out that the corpse that was thought to be the mob boss's was actually his, killed in order to serve as a decoy.
  • In CSI: NY, Mac discovers that his first partner became one of these, having stolen a large amount of money from a crime scene (he was nearing retirement and didn't think he was being paid enough) and murdered the girlfriend of the guy who has a vendetta against him and Mac (he doesn't know, then doesn't care, that Mac wasn't responsible).
  • Inverted in the canceled TV Series Shark where the protagonist, lawyer Sebastian Stark, turns from defending criminals to being a prosecutor.
  • In its first and second seasons, White Collar had Agent Fowler, a seemingly corrupt OPR agent who was after Neal, but who turns out to be a case of this: his wife was killed and then he killed her assassin, leaving himself open to blackmail by the Big Bad.
  • Elementary:
    • In "One Way to Get Off", we learn that Gregson's former partner D'Amico planted evidence on Wade Crewes because the police couldn't prove his guilt legitimately. When By-the-Book Cop Gregson calls her out on this, she's more concerned with the potential impact on her career than the miscarriage of justice.
    • The villain in "A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs" is an undercover DEA agent who tries to make some money on the side by kidnapping the daughter of Holmes' old drug dealer.
    • The culprit of "Details" is an ex-girlfriend of Detective Bell's, who was also a beat cop. She had been trying to get promoted into Vice, but after learning that Bell went to Internal Affairs with evidence that her late superior was a Dirty Cop on a major drug case they were all working on, her chances were next to nothing, so she took it out on Bell.
  • Forever: A former cop who now works as a P. I. illegally bugs Iona Payne's therapy office in "The Ecstasy of Agony," using a bug he stole from the police department in the first place.
  • The villain in the It Takes a Thief (1968) episode "The Artist Is for Framing" is a police inspector with a perfect record who's about to retire. He's obsessed with capturing Al as a final triumph, so he commits robberies using Al's techniques and frames him for the crimes.
  • Daredevil (2015):
    • Benjamin "Dex" Poindexter spends season 3 progressing from an FBI Agent who's overcome some childhood sociopathic tendencies to being Wilson Fisk's most formidable assassin.
    • Tammy Hattley, SAC in charge of the FBI protection detail. A seemingly tough but fair boss, who turns out to have spent years being blackmailed by Fisk.
    • Ray Nadeem is a downplayed example in that his "going bad" part is because of long-term manipulations by Fisk, and though he tries to fix things, it ultimately proves too late for him and he ends up being killed by Dex.

    Video Games 
  • Several examples from the Mass Effect series:
    • Garrus starts off in Mass Effect as a security officer in the Citadel (as well as a Spectre candidate) but quits due to his Cowboy Cop tendencies and eventually goes vigilante in a Wretched Hive in Mass Effect 2.
    • Shepard him-/herself is seen as this by the Alliance and the Council, due to being an ex-Spectre (elite agent of the galactic government) who now collaborates with the pro-human terrorist group Cerberus to deal with alien abductions that the Alliance refuses to acknowledge. In actuality, however, Shepard never goes over to the bad guys, the Illusive Man just did his best to make it look like s/he did.
    • Also from Mass Effect 2, the asari spectre Tela Vasir is revealed to have cooperated with the crime lord Shadow Broker after growing disillusioned with proper procedure. She still considers herself serving a greater good, which she believes to justify the questionable means, and calls Shepard out on his/her own cooperation with Cerberus.
  • Max Payne
    • Max Payne is an NYPD detective in the first two games but is forced by circumstances (both times involving him being framed for the murder of another officer) to go on a one-man crusade against the local mobs both times.
    • In a twist for the second game, he actually does kill another detective, except she's a Dirty Cop in bed (literally) with the Big Bad.
    • Supplementary material for Max Payne 3 reveals that the Cracha Preto used to be lawmen who went on Vigilante sprees against criminals the law couldn't or wouldn't touch. Then they experienced Motive Decay and descended into being plain paramilitary thugs.
  • According to Batman: Arkham Origins, this is the Riddler's backstory in the Batman: Arkham Series: Edward Naston was a member of the GCPD's cybercrimes division before going rogue.
  • This Is the Police has Jack Boyt, the protagonist who used to be a competent police chief. Until he's told he has six months until his forced retirement.
    • The sequel ramps it up to Lawman Gone Ruthless Badass.
  • GoldenEye in Goldeneye Rogue Agent. He apparently went bad after Dr. No shot his real eye out. Then again, it's hinted that he had been a problem for a long time, but this time his luck ran out.
  • Numerous examples in Mega Man X, including every single major villain in the first game. The Maverick Hunters are robot police, and one of the most common backstories in the series is 'former Hunter gone rogue.' The reasons vary — the most common one is infection by the Maverick Virus, but there are others, especially in the Maverick Hunter X version of the continuity. Sigma, depending on the version, went rogue either because of the virus, to force 'evolution' and draw out the true potential of the reploid race through constant conflict, or both; Sting Chameleon was forced into going rogue because of hostages; Chill Penguin did it out of boredom after having spent so long assigned to Antarctica, Bubble Crab to get rich; and so on.

    Western Animation 
  • Jingles Morgan in the Bravestarr episode "Fallen Idol". Originally a top-rated lawman, he started taking the idea that he never lost too seriously and murdered someone who beat him in a martial arts tournament as a result, leading to him becoming a career criminal.