Police corruption is a complex issue. Police corruption or the abuse of authority by a police officer, acting officially to fulfill personal needs or wants, is a growing problem in the United States today. Things such as an Internal Affairs department, a strong leadership organization, and community support are just a few considerations in the prevention of police corruption. An examination of a local newspaper or any police-related publication in an urban city during any given week would most likely have an article about a police officer that got caught 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, as well as many other cities.
Corruption within police departments falls into 2 basic categories, external corruption and internal corruption. In this research project, I will concentrate on external corruption. Recently, external corruption has been given the larger center of attention. 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 in the past year. I compiled my information from a number of articles written in the New York Times over the last few years. My definitional information and background data came from books that have been written on the issues of police corruption. Those books helped me create a basis of just what the different types of corruption, as well as how and why corruption happens.
Corruption in policing is usually viewed as the mistreatment of authority by 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) mishandling of authority, 2) mishandling of official capacity, and 3) mishandling of personal attainment (Dantzker, 1995: p 157). It can be said that power, inevitably tends to corrupt. 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; their 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, 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).
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 or more of the following activities: 1) Payoffs to the police, by people who essentially violate non-criminal elements, who fail to comply with stringent statutes or city ordinances. 2) Payoffs to the police, by individuals who continually break the law, using various methods to earn illegal money. 3) “Clean Graft” where money is paid to the 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 drug violators. In order for these violators to avoid arrest, the police officers have accepted bribes, and accepted narcotics, which they turned around and sold. These police know of the violations, and fail 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 testimonies 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 New York Police Department, 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. Of course, the problem did arise again. One of the more 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 even relieving them of drugs that he would then resell. Soon he had formed “a crew” of 15 to 20 officers in his Brooklyn precinct that 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. Not one person had asked how he managed all of that on take-home pay of about $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 time for discipline among the police brass. Not only had some of their cops become corrupt, but also the crimes had to be uncovered and revealed by a suburban police force. Politicians, as well as the media, started asking what had happened to the system of rooting out police corruption established 21 years ago. “At the urging of the Knapp Commission, the investigative body heard Officer Frank Serpico and other police officers describe a citywide network of rogue cops”(New York Times, March 29, 1993: p 8). “Later, 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. Many American cities were now worried that drug money will turn their departments bad” (New York Times, April 3, 1993: p. 5).
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 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).
Gambling syndicates in the 1950’s 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 of 1993, 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 a 450-lb. safe from a retail store (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 1980’s, Philadelphia saw more than 30 officers convicted of taking part in a scheme to extort money from dealers. In Los Angeles, a FBI probe focusing on the LA 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 dollars 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 act quickly in response to public fears about crime. This can also mean an influx of younger officers, and fewer numbers of well-suited, better-trained officers. This was a major reason for the enormous corruption scandal that hit Miami in the middle 1980’s. This was when about 10% of the Miami’s police were jailed, fired, or disciplined. They were in connection with a scheme in which officers robbed and some-times 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 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. This 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, higher- ranked officers in the department blocked him. At one point, Trimboli claimed he was called to a meeting of police officials, and was told he was under suspicion as a drug trafficker. However, “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,
Raymond Kelly, announced a series of changes, including a larger staff, and better- coordinated field investigations, intending to improve internal affairs. His critics say those changes didn’t go far enough, much of that happened after Kelly’s reforms had been announced.
Getting the information about the corrupted police officers 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. “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. When you are 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 to prison on guilty plea, put it another way. “Cops don’t want to turn in other cops. Cops don’t want to have a rat. 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 policies which are intended to focus directly of factors leading to corruption.
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, and police environmental factors. Therefore, control must come from not only the police department, but it 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 anywhere 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 would 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 taught. If they fail to, it would make officers unaware of the consequences of corruption and do nothing but encourage it. Finally, many police departments especially large ones should have an Internal Affairs unit, which operates to investigate improper conduct of police departments. These units’ some-times are run within the department. They can also be a total outside agency, to insure that there is no corruption from within the Internal Affairs unit, as was alleged in the 1992 New York Police Department corruption scandal. Such a unit may be all that is needed to prevent many officers from being tempted into falling for corrupt behavior patterns.
Although the police department should be the main source of controlling its own corruption problem, it 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. 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, but also his department, the law enforcement community as a whole and society as well. Police corruption can be controlled; it just takes a little extra effort. In the end, 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 abuse 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 paper the problem of police deviance and corruption will never be completely solved, just as the police will never be able to solve all the crime problems in our society. The only thing they or anyone can do is decreasing it. 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.
The connection of police corruption and organized crime is clear and simple. Without police corruption it would be much harder for the organized crime to work their businesses. In a hypothetical city or town, where there is no corruption what so ever, an organized crime group could not work in the same pace that they are used to. On the other hand, a city with much police corruption would work in favor of the organized crime business. Usually, the problem standing in front of the organized crime businesses are the law enforcement agencies, but corruption prevents their main concern and eliminates the majority of the problems.
Beals, Gregory (Oct 21, 1993). Why Good Cops Go Bad. Newsweek, p. 18.
Carter, David L. (1986). Deviance & Police. Ohio: Anderson Publishing Co.
Castaneda, Ruben (Jan 18, 1993). Bearing the Badge of Mistrust. The Washington Post, p. 11.
Dantzker, Mark L. (1995). Understanding Today’s Police. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, inc.
James, George (March 19, 1993). Confessions of Corruption. The New York Times, p. 8.
James, George (Nov 17, 1993). Officials Say Police Corruption is Hard To Stop. The New York Times, p. 3.
Sherman, Lawrence W. (1978). Scandal and Reform. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Simpson, Scott T. (June 14, 1993). Mollen Commission Findings. New York Post, p. 28
Walker, J.T. (1992). Briefs of 100 leading cases in the law enforcement. Cincinnati: Anderson Publishing Company.
Weber, Bruce (April 3, 1993). Confessions of Corruption. The New York Times, p. 5.