Police Corruption in America
The Historical Evolution of Police Corruption
Police corruption became widespread shortly after the formation of the first American police departments in the mid 1800’s. During this time, political parties ran the municipal government and agencies. Employment could be assured if you followed the directives of the political parties which often required protecting illicit activities conducted by members of the political elite. This environment of accepted corruption further led to practices that monetarily benefited individual officers or their departments. Officers accepted bribes to ignore criminal activity, such as prostitution and demanded money to not report criminals such as pickpockets and con men. Reform efforts began towards the end of the 19th century. The Progressives, upper-middle class educated Protestants who opposed the political control of police agencies instigated the establishment of police commissions, the use of civil service exams and legislative reforms. Though wide-spread corruption declined, it was still a large problem.
Prohibition in the 1920’s greatly increased the potential for corruption. Massive amounts of money were being made by bootleggers who in turn paid off police officers to allow their illegal activities to continue. The Wickersham Commission, organized by President Hoover in 1929, studied the problems associated with Prohibition and found it had caused a number of social and political problems and recognized Prohibition was unenforceable and carried a great potential for police corruption. The Wickersham Commission also provided analysis of police misconduct which led to systems being formed to protect against this.
The civil rights movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s were also marred by police misconduct. Though there was no monetary gain from the actions of some police officers, widespread violations of the constitutional rights of individuals occurred and racial injustices committed. The Kerner Commission suggested many reforms in 1965, but despite the implementation of many of the reforms there was no long-term reduction of corruption.
The Knapp Commission in 1972 highlighted many corrupt practices of the NYPD including bribery and participation in gambling and prostitution. Their recommendations, including prosecution for police misconduct, were implemented but were ineffective. The Mollen Commission revealed another opportunity for police corruption. Misconduct was still widespread and becoming more serious. Officers in the NYPD were involved in drug related crimes. These included protecting traffickers, conducting illegal searches and seizures, falsifying records and trafficking in drugs. Recommendations included an external oversight committee, but acts of corruption have continued.
Corruption at the State and Local Levels versus the Federal Level
Local and state agencies are more susceptible to corruption than federal agencies. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is held in high regard and is thought to be an example of what a law enforcement organization should be and its agents are considered exemplary police officers. Webster, former director of the FBI, stated that the agency uses the most modern forms of management and technology and hires only people who have great strength of character and have displayed a great degree of professionalism and integrity. State and local agencies employ about five times as many people as do federal agencies. The federal pay scales are greater and the educational standards are higher, as well. In other words, the federal agencies have the “cream of the crop” of law enforcement officers. Lower pay and less integrity are identified as two major reasons for corruption and these conditions exist far more often in local and state agencies. The daily contact with individuals in crime control settings is much more prevalent for local and state officers. This places demands upon the police which may result in conflicts of values. The expectation of the police to regulate morality while respecting civil liberties, cracking down on clandestine activities while obeying regulations on how information is obtained and evidence gathered, enforcing regulations dealing with economic enterprise while remaining immune to the temptations create tension and contradiction. One result of this is corruption.
Dealing with Corruption
There are several technological advances in policing and law enforcement that could impact the amount of corruption that is either deterred or detected. These include early intervention systems, Compstat, advanced record keeping, crime analysis tools, and in car cameras. With increased technology comes more transparency. This transparency has led to increased accountability and greater oversight. Early intervention systems are a perfect technological advancement that can be examined to understand how corruption can be effected. These systems increase police accountability by reviewing an individual officer’s actions, arrest patterns, performance problems, accumulated complaints, and various other factors. This system relies on data to manage and identify officers whose performance exhibits problems. Interventions, usually counseling or training, to correct those performance problems can then be initiated. It is supposed to operate on the idea that positive, constructive criticism will be more beneficial than an external review board.
It is interesting to note that a paradox of accountability exists. This term was coined to describe the results of formal regulations and the uncertainty of police work coupled with the struggle of departmental accountability and officer autonomy. As departments and legislative bodies create more laws to attempt to control police conduct, the officers themselves feel resentful due to the dynamic and uncertain nature of their work. This leads to the officers distancing themselves from departmental accountability in an attempt to develop self-protection.
External changes in society can also impact law enforcement corruption. Corruption can change to reflect the area of opportunity. From extorting pickpockets to engaging in drug trafficking, opportunities exist to benefit one’s self. The opportunities for corruption are greatest when there is a large degree of discretionary authority given to a police officer. Prohibition and the war on drugs are just two examples of how corruption can change to fit the problems of society. The changes that are a part of society impact law enforcement which then in turn impacts the training that these officers must undertake. The idea is that these various shifts will lead to better policing which will then be better able to serve society. To that end, police training recognizes the need for its courses to provide recruits with real life scenarios. There are four elements to a successful training program. They are: (1) contextualize the learning, (2) integrate key topics throughout the curriculum, (3) build the scenario, and (4) conduct a thorough debriefing after the scenario. Additionally, ethics training should teach officers to ask themselves three questions when faced with an ethical dilemma. These include: Is it against the law?, Is it against policy?, and Is it against my own personal code of ethics?. Other ways to help deal with misconduct include altering management practices, discipline practices, close supervision, role modeling, strict supervision, openness, and better selection. Other areas that will help to lessen the impact of corruption include community involvement, problem solving, and organizational decentralization. Furthermore, better education and training of officers leads to more positive attitudes toward their job. The more educated an officer is, generally, correlates to a higher level of problem solving, a greater appreciation of cultural diversity, and more skill in dealing with and fostering relations with the community. There is also more ethical decision making and less corruption in officers who are more educated, along with fewer citizen complaints and overall better performance. Enhanced training and advanced study has lead to a higher degree of prestige and respect for law enforcement officers, which in turn may lessen corruption.
Given the increase in public interaction with community policing, police and law enforcement organizations are better equipped to deal with potential exposure to corruption than they were 10 years ago. Community policing which seeks to forge a partnership between police officers and members of the community to solve the problems of crime, reduce the fear of crime and social disorder through problem solving techniques requires officers to be close to the community. The close ties to community members in the capacity of serving their needs and addressing their problems and concerns provides citizens a say in the evaluation of the officers’ performances through the early warning system (EW). The early warning system relies partly on citizen complaints registered against an officer. Even though the EW system has been in place for over 10 years, the increase in community policing has increased the exposure of community members to police and the witnessing of their behavior. Citizen complaints provide police and law enforcement organizations information as to potential police officer problems including corruption. Intervention is provided through counseling and/or training followed by post intervention monitoring. Citizen satisfaction regarding a police officer’s behavior provides the organization with a measure of accountability. To further deal with potential exposure to corruption, police and law enforcement agencies could improve by adopting more formal ethics training. Administrators, in addition, must model the behavior they expect from their officers which requires them to emphasize and act with the highest ethical standards. Increasing educational requirements of recruits is also suggested to ensure greater ethical standards. Another way to manage misconduct is by changing measures of police performance. Instead of relying on output measures, for example the number of crimes cleared, which may include incentives for unethical behavior, more emphasis on measuring citizen satisfaction is needed.