Analysis of Police Corruption
Police corruption is a complex phenomenon, which does not readily submit to simple analysis. It is a problem that has and will continue to affect us all, whether we are civilians or law enforcement officers. Since its beginnings, may aspects of policing have changed; however, one aspect that has remained relatively unchanged is the existence of corruption. An examination of a local newspaper or any police-related publication on any given day will have an article about a police officer that got busted committing some kind of corrupt act. Police corruption has increased dramatically with the illegal cocaine trade, with officers acting alone or in-groups to steal money from dealers or distribute cocaine themselves. Large groups of corrupt police have been caught in New York, New Orleans, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles.
Methodology: Corruption within police departments falls into 2 basic categories, which are external corruption and internal corruption. In this report I will concentrate only on external corruption because it has been the larger center of attention recently. I have decided to include the fairly recent accounts of corruption from a few major cities, mainly New York, because that is where I have lived for the past 22 years. I compiled my information from numerous articles written in the New York Times over the last 5 years. My definitional information and background data came from various books cited that have been written on the issue of police corruption. Those books helped me create a basis of just what the different types of corruption and deviancies are, as well as how and why corruption happens. The books were filled with useful insight but were not update enough, so I relied on the newspaper articles to provide me with the current, and regional information that was needed to complete this report. In simple terms, corruption in policing is usually viewed as the misuse of authority by a police officer acting officially to fulfill personal needs or wants. For a corrupt act to occur, three distinct elements of police corruption must be present simultaneously: 1) misuse of authority, 2) misuse of official capacity, and 3) misuse of personal attainment. (Dantzker, 1995: p 157) It can be said that power inevitably tends to corrupt, and it is yet to be recognized that, while there is no reason to suppose that policemen as individuals are any less fallible than other members of society, people are often shocked and outraged when policemen are exposed violating the law. The reason is simple. There deviance elicits a special feeling of betrayal. “Most studies support the view that corruption is endemic, if not universal, in police departments. The danger of corruption for police, and this is that it may invert the formal goals of the organization and may lead to “the use of organizational power to encourage and create crime rather than to deter it” (Sherman 1978: p 31) General police deviance can include brutality, discrimination, sexual harassment, intimidation, and illicit use of weapons. However it is not particularly obvious where brutality, discrimination, and misconduct end and corruption begin. Essentially, police corruption falls into two major categories– external corruption which concerns police contacts with the public, and internal corruption, which involves the relationships among policemen within the works of the police department. The external corruption generally consists of one ore more of the following activities: 1) Payoffs to police by essentially non-criminal elements who fail to comply with stringent statutes or city ordinances; (for example, individuals who repeatedly violate traffic laws). 2) Payoffs to police by individuals who continually violate the law as a method of making money (for example, prostitutes, narcotics addicts and pushers, & professional burglars). 3) “Clean Graft” where money is paid to police for services, or where courtesy discounts are given as a matter of course to the police. “Police officers have been involved in activities such as extortion of money and/or narcotics from narcotics violators in order to avoid arrest; they have accepted bribes; they have sold narcotics. They have known of narcotics violations and have failed to take proper enforcement action. They have entered into personal associations with narcotics criminals and in some cases have used narcotics. They have given false testimony in court in order to obtain dismissal of the charges against a defendant.” (Sherman 1978: p 129) A scandal is perceived both as a socially constructed phenomenon and as an agent of change that can lead to realignments in the structure of power within organizations. New York, for instance, has had more than a half dozen major scandals concerning its police department within a century. It was the Knapp Commission in 1972 that first brought attention to the NYPD when they released the results of over 2 years of investigations of alleged corruption. The findings were that bribery, especially among narcotics officers, was extremely high. As a result many officers were prosecuted and many more lost their jobs. A massive re-structuring took place afterwards with strict rules and regulations to make sure that the problem would never happen again. Be that as it may, the problem did arise once gain… Some of the most recent events to shake New York City and bring attention to the national problem of police corruption was brought up beginning in 1992 when five officers were arrested on drug-trafficking charges.
Michael Dowd, the suspected ‘ring leader’, was the kind of cop who gave new meaning to the word moonlighting. It wasn’t just any job that the 10-year veteran of the New York City force was working on the side. Dowd was a drug dealer. From scoring free pizza as a rookie he graduated to pocketing cash seized in drug raids and from there simply to robbing dealers outright, sometimes also relieving them of drugs that he would resell. Soon he had formed “a crew” of 15 to 20 officers in his Brooklyn precinct who hit up dealers regularly. Eventually one of them was paying Dowd and another officer $8,000 a week in protection money. Dowd bought four suburban homes and a $35,000 red Corvette. Nobody asked how he managed all that on take-home pay of $400 a week. In May 1992 Dowd, four other officers and one former officer were arrested for drug trafficking by police in Long Island’s Suffolk County. When the arrests hit the papers, it was forehead-slapping time among police brass. Not only had some of their cops become robbers, but the crimes had to be uncovered by a suburban police force. Politicians and the media started asking what had happened to the system for rooting out police corruption established 21 years ago at the urging of the Knapp Commission, the investigatory body that heard Officer Frank Serpico and other police describe a citywide network of rogue cops. (New York Times, March 29, 1993: p 8) To find out, at the time, New York City mayor David Dinkins established the Mollen Commission, named for its chairman, Milton Mollen, a former New York judge. Last week, in the same Manhattan hearing room where the Knapp Commission once sat, the new body heard Dowd and other officers add another lurid chapter to the old story of police corruption. And with many American cities wary that drug money will turn their departments bad, police brass around the country were lending an uneasy ear to the tales of officers sharing lines of coke from the dashboard of their squad cars and scuttling down fire escapes with sacks full of cash stolen from dealers’ apartments. (New York Times, April 3, 1993: p. 5) The Mollen Commission has not uncovered a citywide system of payoffs among the 30,000-member force. In fact, last week’s testimony focused on three precincts, all in heavy crime areas. But the tales, nevertheless, were troubling. Dowd described how virtually the entire precinct patrol force would rendezvous at times at an inlet on Jamaica Bay, where they would drink, shoot off guns in the air and plan their illegal drug raids. (New York Times, Nov. 17, 1993: p. 3) It was “victimless crimes” problem which many view was a prime cause in the growth of police abuse. Reports have shown that the large majority of corrupt acts by police involve payoffs from both the perpetrators and the “victims” of victimless crimes. The knapp commission in the New York found that although corruption among police officers was not restricted to this area, the bulk of it involved payments of money to the police from gamblers and prostitutes. (Knapp Commission Report, 1973: pp 1-3) “The cops who were engaged in corruption 20 years ago took money to cover up the criminal activity of others,” says Michael Armstrong, who was chief counsel to the Knapp Commission. “ Now it seems cops have gone into competition with street criminals.” (Newsweek, Oct 21,1992: p. 18) For cops as for anyone else, money works age for crooked police. Gambling syndicates in the 1950s were protected by a payoff system more elaborate than the Internal Revenue Service. Pervasive corruption may have lessened in recent years, as many experts believe, but individual examples seem to have grown more outrageous. In March authorities in Atlanta broke up a ring of weight-lifting officers who were charged with robbing strip clubs and private homes, and even carrying off 450-lb. safes from retail stores. (Washington Post, Jan 18, 1993: p. 11) The deluge of cash that has flowed from the drug trade has created opportunities for quick dirty money on a scale never seen before. In the 1980s Philadelphia saw more than 30 officers convicted of taking part in a scheme to extort money from dealers. In Los Angeles an FBI probe focusing on the L.A. County sheriff’s department has resulted so far in 36 indictments and 19 convictions on charges related to enormous thefts of cash during drug raids — more than $1 million in one instance. “The deputies were pursuing the money more aggressively than they were pursuing drugs,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Bauer. (Washington Post, Jan 18, 1993: p. 11) When cities enlarge their police forces quickly in response to public fears about crime, it can also mean an influx of younger and less well-suited officers. That was a major reason for the enormous corruption scandal that hit Miami in the mid-1980s, when about 10% of the city’s police were either jailed, fired or disciplined in connection with a scheme in which officers robbed and sometimes killed cocaine smugglers on the Miami River, then resold the drugs. Many of those involved had been hired when the department had beefed up quickly after the 1980 riots and the Mariel boatlift. “We didn’t get the quality of officers we should have,” says department spokesman Dave Magnusson. (Carter, 1989: pp. 78-79) When it came time to clean house, says former Miami police chief Perry Anderson, civil service board members often chose to protect corrupt cops if there was no hard evidence to convict them in the courts. “I tried to fire 25 people with tarnished badges, but it was next to impossible,” he recalls. (Carter, 1989: pp. 78-79).
The Mollen Commission testimony could also lead to second thoughts on the growth of community policing, the back-to-the-beat philosophy that in recent years has been returning officers to neighborhood patrol in cities around the country, including New York. Getting to know the neighborhood can mean finding more occasions for bribe taking, which is one reason that in many places beat patrolling was scaled back since the 1960s in favor of more isolated squad-car teams. The real test of a department is not so much whether its officers are tempted by money but whether there is an institutional culture that discourages them from succumbing. In Los Angeles the sheriff’s department “brought us the case,” says FBI special agent Charlie Parsons. “They worked with us hand in glove throughout the investigation.” (Washington Post, Jan 18, 1993: p. 11) In the years after it was established, following the Knapp Commission disclosures, the New York City police department’s internal affairs division was considered one of the nation’s most effective in stalking corruption. But that may not be the case anymore. Police sergeant Joseph Trimboli, a department investigator, told the Mollen Commission that when he tried to root out Dowd and other corrupt cops, his efforts were blocked by higher-ups in the department. At one point, Trimboli claimed, he was called to a meeting of police officials and told he was under suspicion as a drug trafficker. “They did not want this investigation to exist,” he said. (New York Times, April 3, 1993: p. 5) It was at this time that New York City police commissioner, at the time, Raymond Kelly announced a series of organizational changes, including a larger staff and better-coordinated field investigations, intended to improve internal affairs. His critics say those changes don’t go far enough. Much of that happened after Kelly’s reforms had been announced. The Mollen Commission is recommend the establishment of an outside monitoring agency, a move that Kelly and other police brass have expressed some reservations about. “No group is good at policing itself,” says Knapp Commission counsel Armstrong. “It doesn’t hurt to have somebody looking over their shoulder.” An independent body, however, might be less effective at getting co-operation from cops prone to close ranks against outsiders. “You have to have the confidence of officers and information about what’s going on internally,” says former U.S. Attorney Thomas Puccio, who prosecuted a number of police-corruption cases. (New York Times, April 3, 1993: p. 5) Getting that information was no easier when officers were encouraged to report wrongdoing to authorities within their own department. In many cities that have them, internal affairs divisions are resented within the ranks for getting cops to turn in other cops — informers are even recruited from police-academy cadets — and for rarely targeting the brass. “One of the things that has come out in the hearings is a culture within the department which seems to permit corruption to exist,” says Walter Mack, a one time federal prosecutor who is now New York’s deputy commissioner of internal affairs. “But when you’re talking about cultural change, you’re talking about many years. It’s not something that occurs overnight.” (New York Post, June 14, 1993: p. 28) Dowd, who was sentenced prison on guilty please, put it another way. “Cops don’t want to turn in other cops,” he said. “Cops don’t want to be a rat.” And even when honest cops are willing to blow the whistle, there may not be anyone willing to listen. (New York Times, Mar. 29, 1993: p. 14) Is there a solution to the police corruption problem? Probably not because since its beginnings, many aspects of policing have changed, but one thing that has not is the existence of corruption. Police agencies, in an attempt to eliminate corruption have tried everything from increasing salaries, requiring more training and education, and developing polices which are intended to focus directly on factors leading to corruption. What have all these changes done to eliminate or even decrease the corruption problem? Little or nothing. Despite police departments’ attempts to control corruption, it still occurs. Regardless of the fact, police corruption cannot simply be over looked. Controlling corruption is the only way that we can really limit corruption, because corruption is the by-product of the individual police officer, societal views, and, police environmental factors. Therefore control must come from not only the police department, but also must require the assistance and support of the community members. Controlling corruption from the departmental level requires a strong leadership organization, because corruption can take place any where from the patrol officer to the chief. The top administrator must make it clear from the start that he and the other members of the department are against any form of corrupt activity, and that it will not be tolerated in any way, shape, or form. If a police administrator does not act strongly with disciplinary action against any corrupt activity, the message conveyed to other officers within the department will not be that of intimated nature. In addition it may even increase corruption, because officers feel no actions will be taken against them. Another way that police agencies can control its corruption problem starts originally in the academy. Ethical decisions and behavior should be promoted, because failing to do make officers aware of the consequences of corruption does nothing but encourages it. Finally, many police departments, especially large ones, have an Internal Affairs unit which operates to investigate improper conduct of police departments. These units some times are run within the department or can be a total outside agency to insure that there is not corruption from within the Internal Affairs unit, as was alleged in the 1992 NYPD corruption scandal. Such a unit may be all that is need to prevent many officers from being tempted into falling for corrupt behavior patterns. Although the police agency should be the main source of controlling its own corruption problem, there also requires some support and assistance from the local community. It is important that the public be educated to the negative affects of corruption on their police agency. They should be taught that even ‘gratitudes’ (the most basic and common form of police corruption) is only a catalyst for more and future corruption. The community may even go as far as establishing review boards, and investigative bodies to help keep a careful eye on the agency. If we do not act to try and control it, the costs can be enormous, because it affects not only the individual, his department, the law enforcement community as a whole, but society as well. Police corruption can be controlled; it just takes a little extra effort. And In the long run, that effort will be well worth it to both the agency and the community. (Walker, 1992: p. 89).
The powers given by the state to the police to use force have always caused concern. Although improvements have been made to control corruption, numerous opportunities exist for deviant and corrupt practices. The opportunity to acquire power in excess of that which is legally permitted or to misuse power is always available. The police subculture is a contributing factor to these practices, because officers who often act in a corrupt manner are often over looked, and condoned by other members of the subculture. As mentioned from the very beginning of this report the problem of police deviance and corruption will never be completely solved, just as the police will never be able to solve the crime problem in our society. One step in the right direction, however, is the monitoring and control of the police and the appropriate use of police style to enforce laws and to provide service to the public.
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