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Causes of Police Corruption

As noted in the Introduction, over the years many commissions of inquiry into police corruption, such as the Mollen Commission into the New York Police Department and the Wood Royal Commission into the NSW Police Service, have uncovered corruption of a profoundly disturbing kind (Mollen 1994; Wood 1996).[1] Police officers have been involved in perjury, fabricating evidence, protecting pederast rings, taking drug money and selling drugs. Moreover, these commissions and numerous other studies have identified a number of causes of police corruption. Further, as also mentioned in the Introduction, in order to do their job effectively, police have been given a number of legal rights and de facto powers and wide discretion in the exercise of these rights and powers; and police have many opportunities to abuse these rights and powers. Police officers also face considerable temptations to avail themselves of these opportunities. They may be offered material inducements, such as the offer of money or favours in return for protection, or dropping of charges, for example.

A further contributing factor to police corruption is the inescapable use by police officers of what in normal circumstances would be regarded as morally unacceptable activity. The use of coercive force, including in the last analysis deadly force, is in itself harmful. Accordingly, in normal circumstances it is morally unacceptable. So it would be morally wrong, for example, for a private citizen to forcibly take someone to his house for questioning. Similarly, locking someone up deprives them of their liberty, and is therefore considered in itself morally wrong. Again, deception, including telling lies, is under normal circumstances morally wrong. Intrusive surveillance is in itself morally wrong—it is an infringement of privacy. And the same can be said of various other methods used in policing.

Coercion, depriving someone of their liberty, deception and so on are harmful methods; they are activities which considered in themselves and under normal circumstances are morally wrong. Therefore they stand in need of special justification. In relation to policing there is a special justification. These harmful and normally immoral methods are on occasion necessary in order to realise the fundamental end of policing, namely the protection of moral rights. However, the fundamental point that needs to be made here is that the use of these harmful methods by police officers—albeit methods which in the right circumstances are morally justifiable—can have a corrupting influence on police officers. A police officer can begin by engaging in the morally justifiable activity of telling lies to criminals, and engaging in elaborate schemes of deception as an undercover agent, and end up engaging in the morally unjustifiable activity of telling lies and deceiving innocent members of the public or his fellow officers. A police officer can begin by engaging in the morally justifiable activity of deploying coercive force to arrest violent offenders resisting arrest, and end up engaging in the morally unjustified activity of beating up suspects to secure a conviction.

It might be suggested that such methods could be wholly abandoned in favour of the morally unproblematic methods already heavily relied upon, such as rational discourse, appeal to moral sentiment, reliance on upright citizens for information, and so on. Doubtless in many instances morally problematic methods could be replaced. And certainly overuse of these methods is a sign of bad police work, and perhaps of the partial breakdown of police-community trust so necessary to police work. However, the point is that the morally problematic methods could not be replaced in all instances. For one thing, the violations of moral rights which the police exist to protect are sometimes violations perpetrated by persons who are unmoved by rationality, appeal to moral sentiment, and so on. Indeed, such persons, far from being moved by well-intentioned police overtures, may seek to influence or corrupt police officers for the purpose of preventing them from doing their moral and lawful duty. For another thing, the relevant members of the community may for one reason or another be unwilling, or unable, to provide the necessary information or evidence, and police may need to rely on persons of bad character, or methods such as intrusive surveillance. So unfortunately, harmful methods which are in normal circumstances considered to be immoral are on occasion necessary in order to realise the fundamental end of policing, namely the protection of moral rights.

The paradox whereby police necessarily use methods which are normally morally wrong to secure morally worthy ends sets up a dangerous moral dynamic. The danger is that police will come to think that the ends always justify the means; to come to accept the inevitability and the desirability of so-called “noble cause corruption” (discussed in Chap. 3) (Delattre 1994; Miller 1999). From noble cause corruption, they can in turn graduate to straightforward corruption; corruption motivated by greed and personal gain (Sherman 1985). Further, as a matter of sociological fact, police display a high degree of group identification and solidarity. In many ways, such solidarity is a good thing: without it, effective policing would be impossible. But it can also contribute to police corruption. Police who refrain from acting against their corrupt colleagues out of a sense of loyalty are often compromised by this failure, and ripe for more active involvement in corrupt schemes.

A particularly significant contributing factor to police corruption is the widespread use in contemporary societies of illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine and Ecstasy. Police officers, especially detectives, are called on to enforce anti-drug laws in circumstances having the following features: (a) there are large amounts of money, and a willingness on the part of drug-users, and especially drug-dealers, to bribe police; (b) there are no complainants—the “victims” are not persons who would come to the police and report that they have been the victim of a criminal act; (c) corrupt police officers can accept bribes or steal drugs or drug money with relative impunity, given (b); (d) there is a feeling in some sectors of the community that drug addiction is not so much a crime as a medical condition, and that therefore drug-taking should not be regarded as a crime; (e) young police officers typically share the attitudes of their peers outside policing, and thus may regard the use of illegal drugs as a relatively minor offence, and; (f) police officers who are especially vulnerable, such as young police officers or those working in drug investigations, may out of fear turn a blind eye to drugs, or even succumb to drug-taking themselves, and thereby enter the spiral of corruption which moves from moral vulnerability to moral compromise, and thence to corrupt activities.

Let me now list some of the general conditions which contribute to police corruption. These conditions include: (a) the necessity at times for police officers to deploy harmful methods, such as coercion and deception, which are normally regarded as immoral; (b) the high levels of discretionary authority and power exercised by police officers in circumstances in which close supervision is not possible; (c) the ongoing interaction between police officers and corrupt persons who have an interest in compromising and corrupting police; (d) the necessity for police officers to make discretionary ethical judgements in morally ambiguous situations, and; (e) the operation of police officers in an environment in which there is widespread use of illegal drugs and large amounts of drug money.

In addition to these causes of police corruption, there are some less obvious ones. Firstly, lack of competence can be a contributor to, and even a species of, corruption. Normally we do not think that incompetence is morally blameworthy, even where it contributes to a bad outcome, since someone cannot be blamed for not bringing about what they did not have the capacity to bring about. However, we can blame people for failing to act to equip themselves with necessary skills or knowledge when they have been provided with the opportunity. For example, a police officer who out of laziness or indifference fails to acquaint himself sufficiently with certain aspects of the law, and then through ignorance of the law proceeds to make unlawful arrests, is engaging in a form of corrupt activity. His actions are wrongful, and the reason that he is performing those actions is self-interest, or at least self-indulgence.

We can also blame people for continuing on in a job when they know they do not possess, and cannot acquire, the necessary skills or aptitude for the job. This kind of moral failure is illustrated by a police officer who continues on in the job knowing that he is too fearful to make arrests which he should have been making. Weakness is a moral failing, and he is weak. But weakness is not in itself corruption. What makes such a police officer corrupt is that even though he knows he is weak, and therefore lacking in the ability to adequately function as a police officer, he continues in the job for reasons of self-interest.

Secondly, police can count as corrupt even where they use their expertise for the achievement of the right ends, when they do so by making use of bad means. The officer who “verbals” someone he knows to be guilty of violent crime, in order to secure the conviction which would otherwise not happen, achieves such good ends as the punishment of the guilty, as well as the protection and reassurance of the public. These are ends which police should try to achieve, indeed ends which are partially constitutive of their role. As we have already said, this kind of corruption is known as “noble cause” corruption.

Having discussed the causes of police corruption we now turn to a discussion of the general strategy for combating police corruption. More specific aspects of this strategy, e.g. internal affairs investigations, use of integrity tests, and, indeed, the primary institutional vehicle by means of which this strategy might be realised, namely, an integrity system for police organisations, will be discussed in later chapters.

  • [1] Earlier versions of the material in this section and the following one appeared in Miller (1998a, b,2010a, b, 2014).
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