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Combating Police Corruption: A General Strategy

In this final section, I turn to the question of combating police corruption (Giuliani and Bratton 1995; Prenzler 2007). I do so in the context of: (a) my assumption that policing ought to be conceived as having the (teleologically understood) moral foundations outlined in Chap. 1, and; (b) the proposition that moral vulnerability is a fundamental defining feature of police work, and that in the case of the profession of policing, the tendency to corruption ought to be regarded as a basic occupational hazard and treated accordingly (Miller 1995; Miller et al. 2005).[1] The general strategy for combating police corruption needs to attend to four basic areas, namely recruitment, reduction of opportunities for corruption, detection and deterrence of corruption, and reinforcing the motivation to do what is morally right.

It is obvious that if there is a tendency to corruption in policing, it is crucial that those who are recruited have the highest moral character. If there is a good chance that even those of good character can be corrupted, there is obviously no chance of those of bad character being reformed by undertaking police work. It is also important to recruit those who are capable of becoming competent. For the incompetent will find it difficult to identify strongly with the collective ends of the profession, and they can easily become disaffected and cynical. They are therefore susceptible to corruption. Consider, in this connection, the recruitment of South African Kitskonstabels in the 1980s, and the attendant corruption, indeed mayhem, that followed.

An important institutional device which ought to go hand-in-glove with recruitment based on general suitability is a vetting process. Adequate vetting processes attend in essence to the moral character of applicants and the ethical risk which they might pose. Accordingly, vetting processes check for criminal records, criminal associations and the like. Moreover, the greater the level of sensitivity of a police officer’s role the more stringent the vetting process needs to be. A vetting process appropriate for new recruits is not necessarily sufficient for more senior positions in internal affairs, for example.

While it is important to try to reduce the opportunities for corruption the very nature of police work militates against massive reduction in the opportunities for corruption. Probably the greatest reduction in the opportunities for police corruption have occurred not as a result of policies directed at police, but rather as a result of legislative and other policies directed at offences and offenders. For example, decriminalisation, including the decriminalisation of so-called victimless crimes, such as prostitution and homosexuality, has arguably had the effect of reducing the opportunities for police corruption. On the other hand, in policing as elsewhere, opportunities for corruption can be reduced by a variety of methods such as target hardening e.g. locks, encryption, firewall etc., and segregation of duties and regular rotation of personnel in high risk areas, e.g. drug investigations.

The third area is detection and deterrence of police corruption. Detection and deterrence of police corruption is achieved in large part by institutional mechanisms of accountability, both internal and external, and by policing techniques such as complaints investigation (Landau 1994; Maguire and Corbett 1991; Prenzler and Lewis 2005), use of informants, auditing and surveillance (Miller 1998a, b). Here the above-described constitutive tendency to corruption in police work can be used to justify an extensive system of accountability mechanisms—a system more extensive than may be necessary in other professions—and used also to justify the deployment of techniques of detection and deterrence that might not be acceptable in some other professions, e.g. integrity testing (see Chap. 7).

In most police services, there is an array of accountability mechanisms, including internal accountability on the part of individual members of police services to their superiors and to departments of internal affairs. Indeed the existence of departments of internal affairs implies that police services realise that the tendency to corruption is a constitutive feature of policing. Typically, there are also mechanisms to ensure external accountability of a police service to government and the community. It is generally agreed that a well-resourced, independent, external oversight agency with intrusive powers to investigate police corruption is a key element of an effective integrity system for police organisations (see Chap. 4). However, this should not be regarded as an alternative to an internal affairs department. As mentioned in Chap. 1, it is important that police “own” the problem; hence the need to retain an internal affairs department notwithstanding the need for an external oversight body.

Sometimes mechanisms of accountability are less successful than they might be, due in part to the tendency for such mechanisms of accountability to come to embody and to reinforce the “us-them” mentality that sometimes exists between lower-echelon police officers and the police hierarchy on the one hand, and between police officers and departments of internal affairs on the other (see Chap. 5). Part of the solution to this problem may lie in the introduction of mechanisms of peer accountability to supplement existing mechanisms. Accountability mechanisms whose members include lower-echelon police officers may be more successful because peers may have a more precise knowledge of what is actually going on at street-level in a particular place at a particular time, but, more generally, because such mechanisms may be more acceptable to lower-echelon officers due to the fact that they are “owned” by them. This is especially the case in the context of the assumption that policing ought to be conceived as an emerging profession functioning in terms of collegial systems of accountability, rather than in terms of top-down hierarchical systems.

Mechanisms of accountability ought to include joint police/community institutional structures. Such structures allow communities to make known problems and to hold police to account—say, via ministers of police—in relation to police responsiveness to these problems. More generally, it is widely accepted among scholars that cooperation between that police and the community being policed is necessary for successful policing in many, if not most, areas of criminal activity. An ambivalent community will shield law-breakers and contribute to an us-them mentality between police and the policed. Moreover, an ambivalent community may well lead to a hostile, inward-looking and secretive police force in which police corruption is more likely to flourish.

Techniques of detection and deterrence that may be appropriate for an occupation with a constitutive tendency for corruption include not only routine procedures such as complaints investigation, but also techniques such as granting indemnity to corrupt officers in order to get them to implicate others, testing for drug use, and elaborate testing for corruption (Chap. 7). If corruption is an occupational hazard in policing, then extraordinary methods may have to be used to combat it. Some of these methods raise important ethical and other problems. For example, it is not unknown for criminals who have been granted indemnity to provide evidence which turns out to be false.

The final area that can be looked at in relation to reducing corruption is that of the motivation to do what is morally right. Obviously it is important to reduce where possible the opportunities for corrupt practices. Equally obviously, there will always be police officers who desire to do what is illegal or otherwise immoral, and so there will always be a need for mechanisms and techniques of detection and deterrence.

However, it is not enough to try to reduce opportunities for corruption, and to introduce an elaborate system of detection and deterrence. For one thing, systems of detection and deterrence have significant costs, and not only in terms of resources, but also in terms of the autonomy of individual police officers and the institutional independence of the police service. For while accountability is not the same thing as commandability, the logical endpoint of increasing accountability is a huge corpus of regulations, and ongoing and intrusive investigative and regulatory activity, all of which stands in some tension with individual professional autonomy and institutional independence.

Most important, reliance on detection and deterrence alone bypasses the issue of moral responsibility which lies at the heart of corruption. In the last analysis, the only force strong enough to resist corruption is the moral sense—the desire to do what is right and avoid doing what is wrong. In what remains of this chapter, I want to briefly explore this notion of moral responsibility in policing.

If most police officers, including members of departments of internal affairs and of the police hierarchy—the ones who investigate corruption—do not for the most part know what is right and what is wrong, and do not have a desire to do what is right, then no system of detection and deterrence, no matter how extensive and elaborate, can possibly suffice to control corruption.

Knowledge of right and wrong, and the desire amongst police officers to do what is right, is importantly connected to issues of professionalisation in policing. I have argued elsewhere that professions typically exist to secure some fundamental end which is a human good or goods (Alexandra and Miller 1996). For doctors the end or goal is health, for lawyers justice, for academics knowledge, and for police—as argued above—protecting the moral rights of citizens. The achievement of this fundamental end (or ends) requires specialised skills, knowledge and individual— and especially discretionary ethical—judgement. Ideally, members of professions internalise the fundamental ends which define their particular profession.

The paradigm of a corrupt professional is one who not only abandons the fundamental end or goal of his or her profession, but also uses this professional position—or the skills and knowledge associated with it—for self-interested or immoral ends. The corrupt professional thereby undermines the ends of the profession. For example, the academic Cyril Burtt fabricated evidence to support his psychological theories and thereby achieve academic fame.

The paradigm of a corrupt professional organisation, or section of an organisation, is not simply one in which individual practitioners exploit their position or skills for self-interested or immoral ends and ultimately suffer no loss of selfesteem. It is not simply one in which, on an individual basis, the ends of the institution have been abandoned in favour of the attractions of the corrupt life. Rather, in such institutions, or sections of such institutions, corrupt individuals engage in interdependent corrupt activity—and do so quite often at senior levels. Moreover, in a corrupt institution, or section of an institution, the fact that corrupt individuals cooperate enables them to powerfully influence those who are not corrupt; the corrupt compromise and intimidate those who desire to avoid becoming corrupt themselves, and especially those who seek to expose corruption. Corruption has become an institutional phenomenon; there is systemic corruption.

There is an important relationship between systemic corruption and social norms, in the sense of regularities in action which embody moral attitudes and principles (Miller 1997). Corruption is a species of moral wrongdoing, and therefore typically infringes social norms. So all corruption is moral wrongdoing, but not all moral wrongdoing is corruption (as noted above). For example, murdering one’s spouse out of revenge is a morally wrongful action, but it is not necessarily corrupt. One feature of corrupt actions that distinguishes them from many other species of immorality is that corrupt actions are typically motivated by felt self-interest. Another feature is that corrupt actions are not one-off actions, as is the above- mentioned act of murder. Rather, a corrupt action typically results from a disposition to perform that kind of action; corrupt actions are typically habitual actions.

Systemic corruption involves a large number of (typically institutional) actors engaging in cooperative corruption. So systemic corruption typically consists of a large number of individuals cooperatively and habitually engaging in wrongful actions that infringe social norms, and doing so out of believed collective self-interest. Given this relationship between corruption and social norms, it is not surprising that systemic corruption flourishes in contexts in which social norms are not robust; and systemic corruption is corrosive of social norms. Systemic corruption also undermines mechanisms of detection and deterrence. Effective systems of detection and deterrence rely in part on transparency. But transparency works as an anti-corruption measure only if those to whom corruption is made transparent are themselves committed to morally upright conduct, and have a clear grasp of what morally upright conduct consists in. Ultimately then, control of corruption relies on robust social norms. Since systemic corruption undermines social norms, it undermines the possibility of controlling corruption.

Given the importance of the desire to do what is morally right, and given this connection between corruption and social norms, what impact, if any, can profes- sionalisation have on police corruption? Arguably—other things being equal— members of the professions are potentially less open to corruption than some other occupational groups, by virtue of the (well-founded) self-image many of the professions have that the fundamental collective end of professional work is a human good realised by the exercise of creative expertise, and that true professionals possess creative expertise and internalise this good. On the other hand, the elitism, and strong and closed cultures of many professions, in conjunction with the need to develop specific virtues and apply moral principles in specific professional settings, is fertile ground for corruption. Lawyers can end up with an addiction to legalistic procedures and winning in the adversarial system at the expense of substantive justice, police can end up routinely breaking the law in the service of noble ends, and doctors clubbing together to avoid one of their number from being successfully sued for malpractice. And minor corrupt actions can, over time, turn into major corruptions of character.

Professional expertise, individual autonomy, and internalisation of the moral ends of policing are important in terms of developing and sustaining the desire on the part of police to do what is right. However, focusing on police officers as individuals is not enough. The desire to do what is right needs to be reinforced by utilising the intrinsically collective nature of policing, and in particular, by stressing that police officers are collectively responsible for controlling corruption. It is a mistake to simply undermine police solidarity and loyalty, leaving only isolated individuals who are responsible only for their own actions and who do what is right only because they fear to do what is wrong. It is equally a mistake to rely wholly on the individual heroism of the likes of Frank Serpico, Philip Arantz and Michael Drury. Serpico was a New York police officer who refused to be corrupted in 1966 and indeed reported corruption to reluctant superiors. He finally went to the New York Times. Subsequently, the Knapp Commission into corruption into the NYPD was established. Arantz and Drury were New South Wales police officers who blew the whistle on corruption. In the case of Arantz, in 1971 he disclosed NSW crime figures to the press—they contrasted sharply with the official ones. An attempt was then made to discredit him; the Police Commissioner ordered he be taken to a psychiatric ward. In the case of Drury, in 1982 he was approached by a corrupt detective to change his evidence in a forthcoming trial. When he refused to do so, he was seriously wounded by a “hitman”.

It is obvious that police officers are collectively responsible for ensuring that the moral ends of policing are realised. Law enforcement, maintenance of order and so on, cannot possibly be achieved by individual police officers acting on their own. Policing is a cooperative enterprise. However, police corruption undermines the proper ends of policing. Moreover, police corruption depends in part on the complicity or tacit consent of the fellow officers of the corrupt. So controlling police corruption is a collective moral responsibility. Accordingly, the notion of collective moral responsibility is fundamental to the design of an integrity system for police organisations (see Chap. 4). It also follows that not only is loyalty to corrupt officers misplaced, it is an abrogation of duty. Collective responsibility entails selective loyalty—loyalty to police officers who do what is right, but not to those who do what is wrong. The loyalty of police officers is only warranted by those who embody the ideals of policing, and in particular by those who are not corrupt. Indeed, collective responsibility also entails such actions as professional reporting, and support for, rather than opposition to, well-intentioned professional reporting (see Chap. 5).

The collective effort to ensure that the fundamental ends of policing are pursued will contribute to the internalisation by police officers of those ends, and of the morally appropriate means for their realisation. More importantly, such a collective effort will ensure that police officers identify with those ends, so that self-respect, as well as the respect of others, depends on the pursuit of those ends in accordance with acceptable shared moral principles, and on the collective opposition to corruption. In short, successful combating of corruption in policing crucially depends on the establishment and maintenance of an objectively morally-desirable structure of robust social norms. Such a structure includes norms prescribing the pursuit of the moral ends of policing, as well as norms prescribing the methods of policing. What specific policies could contribute to a robust structure of social norms in policing that resists, and indeed combats, corruption?

A structure of objectively morally-desirable social norms can be reinforced by ensuring a just system of rewards and penalties within the police organisation. Unjust systems of promotion, unreasonably harsh disciplinary procedures for minor errors, unfair workloads and so on, are all deeply corrosive of the desire to do one’s job well and to resist inducements to do what is illegal or otherwise immoral.

Morally-desirable social norms can further be reinforced by ensuring an appropriate system of command and control, including for the purposes of accountability; appropriate, that is, to the kinds of responsibilities that attach to the role of police officer. It may be that very hierarchical militaristic/bureaucratic systems of command and control are inappropriate in most areas of modern policing, albeit not in all (e.g. not in policing riots), given the nature of the role of police officer. Police officers have considerable powers—including the power to take away people’s liberty—and they exercise those powers in situations of moral complexity. It is inconsistent to give someone a position of substantial responsibility involving a high level of discretionary ethical judgement, and then expect them to mechanically and unthinkingly do what they are told. Moreover, mechanisms of peer accountability are more appropriate to autonomous professional practitioners than top-down hierarchical mechanisms.

The desire and ability to do what is right do not exist independently of the habit of reflection and judgement on particular pressing ethical issues. This is so not only for individual reflective practitioners, but also when it comes to developing reflective organisations or groups. Moreover, the nexus between the desire and ability to do what is right, and the habit of ethical reflection, is especially important in policing. This is because of the moral vulnerability of police. Police confront a variety of temptations, they typically operate in unsupervised settings, they deploy harmful and normally immoral methods in the service of morally worthy ends, and they necessarily confront morally charged situations requiring the exercise of discretionary ethical judgement. Accordingly, the desire and ability to do what is right needs to be continuously reinforced by ensuring that ethical issues in police work, including the ethical ends of policing itself, are matters of ongoing discussion and reflection in initial training programs, further education programs, supervision, ethics committees and in relation to ethical codes. Since a desire to do what is morally right, and the attendant capacity for ethical reflection and judgement, are in fact important in policing—far more important than in many other professions— ethical discussion and deliberation ought to have a central place in policing.

  • [1] Earlier versions of the material in this section appeared in Miller (1995) and Miller and Blackler(2005, Chap. 5).
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