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Police Corruption

Abstract Institutional corruption, including police corruption, consist in actions which undermine institutional processes, purposes and persons (qua institutional actors). Moreover, corruptors and the corrupted could have done otherwise and are, therefore, typically (but not necessarily) morally responsible for their acts of corruption.

In this chapter I analyse the phenomenon of police corruption (Newburn 1999; Skolnick 1967; Klockars et al. 2004; Ivkovic and Haberfeld 2015). I begin with an analysis of the concept of corruption (Sect. 2.1) before moving on in the second section to discuss the causes of police corruption, in particular (Wilson 1968; Kappeler et al. 1994; Sarre 2005; Ivkovic and Haberfeld 2015). The third and final section is concerned with the general strategy for combating police corruption (Giuliani and Bratton 1995; Prenzler 2009).


Providing an acceptable definition of corruption has proved to be an elusive goal.[1] Many of the available definitions are in terms of the abuse of power on the part of public officials e.g. ‘Corruption is the abuse of power by a public official for private gain’. Doubtless the abuse of public offices for private gain is corruption. But what of so-called noble cause corruption; corruption undertaken for the public good rather than private gain? Consider the police officer who fabricates evidence to secure the conviction of a known drug dealer. Noble cause corruption is particularly prevalent in policing (see Chap. 3). And what of private citizens—as opposed to public officials— who lie when they give testimony in court and, thereby, corrupt the judicial process?

Failure to provide a theoretical account of the concept of corruption might lead one to simply identify corruption with specific legal and/or moral offences, such as (say) bribery.

However, paradigmatic cases of corruption include police fabrication of evidence, perjury, abuse of authority, fraudulent use of travel funds by politicians, stuffing ballot boxes with false voting papers to win an election, falsifying experimental results to enhance one’s academic status, and so on and so forth. So the list of legal and/or moral offences is going to be a very long one, indeed, indeterminately lengthy. In any case, naming a set of offences that might be regarded as instances of corruption does not obviate the need for a theoretical, or quasitheoretical, account of the concept of corruption.

Corruption is fundamentally a moral, as opposed to a legal, phenomenon. While many corrupt acts are unlawful—or ought to be unlawful—this is not necessarily the case. Thus, historically in many jurisdictions bribery has not been unlawful. For example, prior to the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act it was not unlawful for US companies to pay bribes when engaging in business overseas. Moreover, evidently not all acts of immorality are acts of corruption; corruption, it seems, is only one species of immorality. Consider a suicide bomber who murders innocent children. Surely this is not an act of corruption since neither the victim nor the perpetrator remains alive, let alone in a state of corruption. Rather it is a human rights violation and, as such, serves to illustrate the distinction between human rights violations and corruption. This is, of course, not to say that human rights violations might not on occasion also be acts of corruption, e.g. a leader who unjustly and unlawfully incarcerates his or her political opponent (a human rights violation) might also be corrupting the political process.

I conclude that corrupt actions are merely one species of immoral actions, albeit an important species. What further features do corrupt actions possess, bearing in mind that I am restricting myself to cases of institutional corruption. More specifically, what further features do corrupt actions possess which warrant, at least in some cases, their being criminalised?

If a serviceable definition of the concept of a corrupt action is to be found—one that does not collapse into the more general notion of an immoral action—then attention needs to be focussed on the moral effects that some actions have on persons and institutions. An action is corrupt only if it corrupts something or someone—so corruption is not only a moral concept, but also a causal or quasi-causal concept (Hindess 2001).[2] That is, an action is corrupt by virtue of having a corrupting effect on a person’s moral character or on an institutional process or purpose. If an action has a corrupting effect on an institution, undermining institutional processes or purposes, then typically—but not necessarily—it has a corrupting effect also on persons qua role occupants in the affected institutions. So an action is an act of institutional corruption only if it has the effect of undermining an institutional process or of subverting an institutional purpose or of despoiling the character of some role occupant qua role occupant. Let us refer to this as the causal character of corruption.

In this regard, note that an infringement of a specific law or institutional rule does not in and of itself constitute an act of institutional corruption. In order to do so, any such infringement needs to have an institutional effect, e.g., to defeat the institutional purpose of the rule, to subvert the institutional process governed by the rule, or to contribute to the despoiling of the moral character of a role occupant qua role occupant. In short, we need to distinguish between the offence considered in itself and the institutional effect of committing that offence. Considered in itself the offence of, say, lying is an infringement of a law, rule, and/or a moral principle. However, the offence is only an act of institutional corruption if it has some effect (or, more precisely, if it is of a kind that tends to have the undermining of an institutional process or purpose), e.g., it is performed in a courtroom setting and thereby subverts the judicial process.

However, the undermining of institutional processes and/or purposes is not a sufficient condition for institutional corruption. Consider internal affairs investigators in some large jurisdiction who as a result of cutbacks in funding become less numerous and progressively less well trained in the context of a gradually increasing workload of cases. As a consequence, there may well be a diminution over the years in the quality of the investigations of these investigators, and so the police investigative processes are to an extent undermined. This is institutional corrosion, but it is not necessarily police corruption, notwithstanding the institutional damage that is being done.

Evidently, an act or policy might undermine an institutional process or purpose without the person who performed it intending this effect, foreseeing this effect or even being in a position such that they should have foreseen this effect. Such an act may well be an act of corrosion, but it would not necessarily be an act of corruption. Consider our internal affairs example again. Neither the government and other officials responsible for resourcing and training the investigators, nor the investigators themselves, might intend or foresee this institutional harm; indeed, perhaps no-one could reasonably have foreseen the harmful effects of their actions, or done anything about it if they had. So this is institutional corrosion, but not corruption.

Because persons who perform (avoidable) corrupt actions (corruptors) do so intentionally or knowingly—or at least such persons should have known the corrupting effect that their actions would have—these persons are blameworthy, generally speaking. This is an important respect in which corruption is different from corrosion. Moreover, those who are corrupted (the corrupted) have to some extent, or in some sense, allowed themselves to be corrupted; they are participants in the process of their corruption. Specifically, they have chosen to perform the actions which ultimately had the corrupting effect on them, and they could have chosen otherwise.[3] In this respect, the corrupted are no different from the corruptors.

Notwithstanding that those who corrupt and/or are corrupted are generally morally blameworthy, this is not necessarily the case. For one thing it might be morally justifiable all things considered for someone to perform an act of corruption. Consider the payment of a bribe to an official to save the life of the member of one’s family. For another thing, those who are corrupted and those who corrupt may be different in respect of their intentions and beliefs concerning the corrupting effect of their actions and this might make a difference to the blameworthiness of the corrupted, in particular. Specifically, it may not be true of those who allow themselves to be corrupted that they intended or foresaw or should have foreseen this outcome. This is especially likely in the case of the young and other vulnerable groups who allow themselves to be corrupted, but cannot be expected to realise that their actions, or more likely omissions, would have this consequence. Consider the case of young recruits into a corrupt police organisation who are inducted into the practice of ‘cutting corners’, are compromised and, thereafter engage in more serious forms of corruption. At least initially, perhaps these naive young recruits did not, and perhaps should not have been expected, to foresee the effect of their actions on themselves and others. If so, perhaps they are not blameworthy for becoming corrupted. Here we need to note the existence of a sub-class of corruptors who are: (a) corrupt, but not morally responsible for being so, and; (b) whose actions are an expression of their corrupted characters and also have a corrupting effect.

In this connection consider two sorts of would-be bribe-givers whose bribes are rejected. Suppose that in both cases their action has no corrupting effect on an institutional process or other person. Now suppose that in the first case the bribe-giver’s action of offering the bribe weakens his disposition not to offer bribes; so the offer has a corrupting effect on his character. However, suppose that in the case of the second bribe-giver, her failed attempt to bribe generates in her a feeling of shame and a disposition not to offer bribes. So her action has no corrupting effect, either on herself or externally on an institutional process or other person. In both cases, the action is the expression of a partially corrupt moral character. However, in the first, but not the second, case the bribe-giver’s action is corrupt by virtue of having a corrupt effect on the bribe-giver himself.

I have argued that the corrupted are not necessarily morally responsible for being corrupted. I have also argued that typically corruptors are morally responsible for performing their corrupt actions. This seems correct so far as it goes. However, some of those who are not morally responsible for having been corrupted are, nevertheless, morally responsible for not now trying to combat their corrupt characters. To that extent they might be held morally responsible for their corrupt actions, even if not for having been corrupted.

In the light of the above account of corruption let us return to our earlier question concerning the criminalisation of corruption. Some acts of corruption might not be sufficiently serious to count as crimes, e.g. minor conflicts of interest in the allocation of workloads. However, many acts of corruption, at least when taken in aggregate, constitute a serious threat to central institutions. Consider in this connection widespread vote-rigging in elections. In the area of policing, corruption by police officers often constitutes a rights-violation in addition to undermining the institution of the law and its processes. Consider fabrication of evidence which makes a mockery of the moral right to a fair trial.

So while the investigation of police corruption is not necessarily the investigation of serious moral rights violations which are also crimes; it often is. Moreover, the investigation of those acts of corruption which are not in themselves rights violations typically involves moral rights violations indirectly. For such acts being acts of serious corruption undermine central institutions and, in particular, the institution of the police. However, as was argued in Chap. 1, the institution of the police has as its fundamental purpose the protection of justifiably enforceable, legally enshrined, moral rights. Accordingly, police corruption, even when it does not directly involve the violation of moral rights, nevertheless, does so indirectly via undermining the processes and/or purposes of the institution of the police.

  • [1] Material in this section is derived from Miller (2010a, b, Chap. 4, 2011), Miller et al. (2005). © The Author(s) 2016 S. Miller, Corruption and Anti-Corruption in Policing—Philosophical and Ethical Issues, SpringerBriefs in Ethics, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-46991-1_2
  • [2] This kind of account has ancient origins, e.g., in Aristotle.
  • [3] This holds even when people are corrupted through coercion, so long as they could have chosento resist the coercion. On the other hand, if the action they performed was, for example, druginduced or otherwise not under their control, then they cannot be said to have chosen to perform itin my sense.
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