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Professional Reporting and Internal Affairs Investigations

In the discussion thus far I have suggested that police culture is not necessarily a pervasive and monolithic social force that is the dominant determinant of the attitudes and actions of police officers in all police organizations. Many of the classic features of police culture are principally features of police serving in large, metropolitan, bureaucratic, and hierarchical organizations. Moreover, between and within even these organizations there are significant attitudinal and behavioural differences in respect of police corruption. I have further suggested, in effect, that police culture is in large part a rationally and morally legitimate response to the operational policing environment and, as such, cannot be, and ought not to be, jettisoned in its entirety. I now suggest that police culture, not being the pervasive, monolithic and dominant force that it is often presented as being, is a malleable phenomenon; in principle, it can be changed and, in particular, its malignant features can be curtailed, even if they cannot be removed entirely.

Curtailment depends on a number of things, notably designing and implementing appropriate integrity systems. However, in the context of an appropriate overall integrity system, curtailment typically depends in part on adjusting the incentive structures in place so as to make compliance with the dictates of malignant features of police culture much less rational than it otherwise would be. (This is perhaps most obvious in the case of the deterrence mechanisms that are a necessary feature of most integrity systems.)

Unfortunately, in dysfunctional, corruption-riddled police organizations compliance on the part of any given police officer with the malignant features of police culture may be quite rational. This is not to say that the malignant features of police culture are an irresistible force. Far from it; these features of police culture are by no means the only important factors at work and compliance, though rational, is not the only choice available. However, it is to say that the particular configuration of factors in play is such that these malignant features of police culture end up being the decisive factors at work. Accordingly, the challenge facing those seeking to design an appropriate integrity system is how to bring it about that these malignant features of police culture cease to be the decisive factors at work; it is not necessarily, at least in the first instance, a matter of directly removing these features.

Here I want to narrow my focus and explore, in particular, an apparently important relationship between a reluctance on the part of police to report corrupt fellow officers, on the one hand, and the quality of internal affairs investigations, on the other. Good, though by no means decisive, empirical evidence of this relationship has been provided in the Victoria Police study (Miller et al. 2008; Miller 2010, 2014).[1] The relevant parts of the study comprise a survey of ethical attitudes, an analysis of all internal affairs corruption investigations files over a five-year period, and the conducting of some seventy focus groups of serving police officers (circa 500 police officers out of a police force of 9000). Moreover, the evidence for this relationship is further strengthened by the consideration that it has an intuitively rational structure to it.

The first point to be made here is that in well-ordered liberal democratic states, such as Australia, the majority of police officers in many, if not most, contemporary police organizations are evidently not themselves corrupt and do not engage in ongoing corrupt activities. For example, although the 1990s’ Wood Royal Commission into police corruption in the New South Wales (Australia) Police Force found systemic corruption, it was largely limited to groups of detectives functioning in the area of illicit drug investigations and specific local area commands in which there was an endemic drug problem, for example, the King’s Cross red light area in Sydney. Moreover, evidence from the Victoria Police study indicated that the majority of police officers in Victoria Police and, presumably, similar police organizations, strongly desire to rid their organization of corruption and criminality. A further finding of the Victoria Police study was that the majority of police officers believe that they morally (and not simply legally) ought to report/ provide evidence in relation to the minority of corrupt colleagues. Notwithstanding this belief that they ought to report and provide evidence in relation to their corrupt colleagues, most police officers are apparently unwilling to report their corrupt colleagues; this was a further finding of the Victoria Police study. How can this be so?

Certainly, there is nothing illogical or even atypical in this. People often have moral beliefs that they are unwilling to act on, notably when it is not in their self interest to do so or when there are other felt moral considerations in play such as feelings of loyalty. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the attitudes and, therefore, the culture of Victoria Police is a complex and differentiated phenomenon: evidently there is a strong and widespread belief that corrupt police morally ought to be reported—including because it is unlawful not to do so—but there is a contrary feeling that it is or might be disloyal to do so. This contrary feeling is an attitudinal barrier to reporting corrupt fellow officers, especially at the lower end of corruption or in relation to noble cause corruption. In the context of my attempt here at explication of the rational structure underlying police action (or, at least, inaction) this attitudinal barrier can usefully be thought of as a presumption against reporting corrupt colleagues. Considered on its own this presumption might well be overridden by the belief among police that police corruption (at least in its more serious forms) ought to be reported. However, there is a third consideration in play, namely, the irrationality of reporting corrupt colleagues. Evidently, this third consideration is the decisive one. Let me explain.

According to the empirical evidence provided in the Victoria Police study, one important aspect (I do not say it is the only important aspect) of the rational structure of the situation is as follows:

Conclusion (c): Police officers (junior and senior) are reluctant to provide evidence in relation to corrupt officers because (for the reason that):

Premise (a): Police believe that internal investigations are unlikely to result in convictions and/or termination and that they are, in any case, often management- driven witch-hunts of innocent police or of police who have, at most, engaged in minor ethical misconduct;

Premise (b): If honest police officers report/provide evidence in relation to corrupt officers and those officers are exonerated and remain in the force, then the police culture is such that their own careers will suffer from the stigma of having sided with a punitive management/internal affairs department and “ratted on” their colleagues (who are widely believed to have been innocent or at least only guilty of a minor infraction).

Of course, the fact that their exonerated colleagues are widely believed to be innocent, or at most guilty of only a minor infraction, is a function in large part of police culture. The loyalty of fellow police officers (“one’s brothers”) surely demands a strong presumption in favor of one’s innocence or, at the very least, a presumption in favor of the offense in question being an understandable breach of a legal or ethical principle. (The breach may be regarded as understandable because the principle in question is a minor one or because the circumstances were such that compliance was not unproblematic or some-such.)

Notice, however—to return to the rational structure of (a) and (b) therefore (c) above—that police culture (the “blue wall of silence”) gets traction here only on the assumption that police believe that internal investigations are unlikely to result in convictions and/or termination of corrupt officers, and that there will be, as a consequence, a widespread view that the officers investigated were not guilty of any serious offense, but merely the victims of a punitive management/internal affairs department.

The widespread belief of police in many police organizations that internal investigations are unlikely to result in convictions and/or termination of corrupt officers is not without rational foundation. Historically, internal investigations in many, if not most, large metropolitan police organizations—including, until recently, Victoria Police—have as a matter of fact (and not simply of officers’ beliefs) had relatively little success; certainly, they have typically resulted in low rates of conviction and/or termination of officers under investigation. Moreover, again historically, in many, if not most, large metropolitan police organizations, police who inform on other police are as a matter of fact “sent to Coventry”, if not subjected to harassment, by their colleagues, and in many cases their careers have been ruined. So police officers’ beliefs in this respect are well founded.

The lack of success of internal police investigations is, of course, in part dependent on the reluctance of police officers to provide evidence regarding their corrupt colleagues. There is also a reluctance on the part of police to become internal investigators; solidarity dictates that investigating allegations of corruption against one’s fellow officers is unlikely to be an attractive role, and highly unlikely to be preferred to the role of investigating alleged offenders who are not police officers. At any rate, for this and other reasons internal investigators are unlikely to be high quality investigators and, even if they are, their investigations of fellow police officers may well manifest a lack of commitment or be otherwise flawed. Yet internal investigations need to be of the highest quality, given that the people under investigation are themselves police and, therefore, familiar with police investigative methods.

One of the flaws to be found in many internal investigations is a breach of confidentiality that has compromised the investigation. Such breaches of confidentiality are themselves acts of corruption and yet they have often taken place with impunity. But again this is reflective of the malignant features of police culture; a culture of being reluctant to ensure that suspected corrupt police are brought to book, whether those police are the ones who engaged in the original act of corruption or those who sort to protect them by engaging in the secondary act of corruption, for example, a breach of confidentiality.

So there is a vicious circle in operation: the ‘blue wall of silence’ undercuts the efficacy of internal investigations which in turn reinforces the ‘blue wall of silence’. However, the point I want to stress here is that—in the current circumstances—it would be irrational of police officers to report, or provide evidence in relation to, their corrupt colleagues. For, on the one hand, they reasonably believe that this will not result in the conviction/termination of these corrupt officers and, on the other hand, they reasonably believe that it will ruin their own careers. Moreover, the irrationality of reporting corrupt colleagues is, I suggest, the decisive factor in determining their action (or at least inaction). They believe it is morally wrong not to report their corrupt colleagues (at least in serious cases), feelings of loyalty notwithstanding; however they believe that no good will come of it but only harm to themselves.

What is the way out of this impasse? There is a need for the following countermeasures. First, internal affairs departments ought to investigate only criminal matters and serious disciplinary matters that warrant termination. (And perhaps the difficulty of terminating police also needs to be looked at, for example, by recourse to Loss of Commissioner Confidence provisions, although there are procedural rights issues in this area.[2]) Other ethical misconduct ought to be regarded as a management/remedial issue. The latter is important partly as a means of reducing the possibility that initial minor ethical lapses on the part of new recruits will come to be regarded, by the offending officers themselves as well as others, as fatal moral compromises that forever impugn their integrity and prevent them from ever reporting the serious ethical misconduct of their corrupt colleagues.

Second, the rate of internal investigations convictions/terminations needs to be improved to a high level of success. In the first instance (that is, in the context of a reluctance on the part of officers to inform on their corrupt colleagues), this can be partly achieved by:

  • (a) Increasing the quality of internal investigations (for example, by head-hunting high quality investigators), increasing data security measures (for example, the use of “sterile corridors”, the stringent vetting of internal Affairs (IA) personnel, including administrative staff), audits of investigations, and adequate resourcing of IA departments;
  • (b) The use of well-resourced proactive anti-corruption strategies, for example, targeted integrity tests, intrusive surveillance methods that do not rely heavily on the willingness of police to provide evidence regarding corrupt colleagues; and

(c) Recourse to well-resourced external oversight bodies with an independent investigative capacity, especially in relation to serious corruption in the upper echelons of a police organization.

Third, the stigma attached to being an internal investigator and to reporting, or providing evidence against, corrupt police needs to be reduced by:

  • (a) Normalizing the role of internal investigator, for example, by making 2 years as an internal investigator mandatory for all police investigators seeking promotion to senior investigative positions;
  • (b) Instituting measures to protect (physically and career-wise) those who provide evidence against corrupt colleagues, for example, the implementation of internal witness protection programs and transparent promotion processes; and
  • (c) Introducing ongoing tailor-made ethics education programs that sensitively but squarely address the issues of police culture, internal affairs investigations, and professional reporting.

In short, it needs to become rational, and not simply legally and ethically mandated, for police officers to report, and provide evidence in relation to, their corrupt colleagues. Given that most police officers are not themselves corrupt and believe that they morally ought to report or provide evidence in relation to their corrupt colleagues, they will do so—or at least are more likely to do so—if conditions are created under which it will be rational for them to do so; that is, if it works for them and brings rewards rather than punishment. These conditions will include the following:

A reasonable number, and a high rate, of convictions/terminations of corrupt police officers as a result of a well-resourced, high quality, internal investigations department focused only on criminal and serious disciplinary matters, and operating in the context of:

  • (i) the normalization of the role of internal investigator; and
  • (ii) the felt duty on the part of most police to report/provide intelligence/evidence regarding criminal/corrupt colleagues in knowledge that if they do:
  • (a) the persons in question are likely to be convicted/terminated; and
  • (b) they themselves will suffer no harm or adverse career consequences.

These specific conditions are consistent with, and conducive to, a functional and defensible police culture—one in which loyalty is felt to be owed to police officers who embody the ideals and legitimate ends of policing, but not to corrupt colleagues. Such a functional police culture is likely in turn to facilitate the emergence of these specific conditions.

Naturally, these recommendations in relation to internal investigations and professional reporting are only one piece in the puzzle; I am not suggesting that they constitute a panacea. Indeed, I earlier elaborated a detailed set of key elements of an integrity system for police organizations. More generally, I am suggesting that in combating police corruption more attention needs to be paid to the rational structure underlying individual police decision making and the ways in which it might be adjusted (and, in a sense, less emphasis placed on police culture as a stand-alone determining factor). However, the rational structure in question is not the familiar one of rational self-interested actors unmoved by morality or by irrational (or non-rational) social forces; police are clearly moved by a complex mix of individual self-interest, moral beliefs, and cultural factors.[3] Combating corruption in policing, as elsewhere, involves in part unearthing this rational structure and devising ways to adjust it so that self interest, moral beliefs, and cultural factors work together to promote ethical conduct and reduce corruption rather than the reverse.

  • [1] Earlier versions of the material in this section appeared in Miller (2010, 2014).
  • [2] Loss of Commissioner Confidence provisions exist in a number of Australian police services,including Victoria Police and New South Wales Police.
  • [3] I do not mean to imply that these three categories are mutually exclusive.
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