Police Corruption Essay

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Historically, police corruption has been a persisting, serious, and in some cases pervasive feature of police services. Corruption can be seen as a kind of occupational hazard for police, with the nature of police work offering an unusually large number of opportunities for corrupt behavior. Moreover, features of police organization have acted to undermine the disposition to decline such opportunities. Reducing police corruption requires the development of integrity systems for police services, which function to minimize the attractiveness of corrupt behavior and reinforce and develop the disposition to act in a morally upright manner.

Defining Police Corruption

Corruption is a process of subversion or corrosion of a noncorrupt, pure, or ideal state of affairs. “Police corruption,” then, refers in the first instance to acts which undermine the proper functioning of a police service (and perhaps more broadly of the criminal justice system) and, derivatively, of the moral character of the police who engage in it.

While there are broadly accepted paradigm cases of police corruption, such as accepting bribes for overlooking criminal behavior, or even engaging in such behavior, there is less consensus about how to define police corruption. Accounts of police corruption tend to splinter along two lines. First, there are differences about the role of police, and hence of the ideal that provides the contrast against which police corruption is identified. Those differences stem from the wide range of activities that police engage in—from collecting fees on behalf of government departments, and informing people of the death of a family member in an accident, to arresting suspected criminals and testifying in court—and the variety of purposes they appear to have in doing so—including enforcing the law, saving lives, maintaining social calm, and protecting people’s rights. Some theories of policing argue that the primary function of police is to enforce the law; others that it is to protect rights; others again that it is to use force, or the threat of force, to deal with emergencies that no one else can handle. Since different theories of policing give different accounts of what an ideal police service looks like, they will also differ, at least to some extent, about what counts as police corruption. Nevertheless, while not all theories hold that the defining purpose of policing is the enforcement of law, there is general agreement that police, at least in legitimate states, are servants of the law, and that behavior that conflicts with that role is, at least potentially, corrupt.

Second, there are disagreements about what might be called the scope of police corruption. Not every act that detracts from the effective functioning of a police service counts as police corruption. For example, an ill-advised decision by police management to make use of the (in itself legitimate) strategy of saturation policing in a crime-ridden area exacerbates existing antagonism toward police by racial minorities, leading to riots and greater lawlessness. The decision makes the police service less effective than it should have been, but it is not an instance of corruption. It is necessary, then, to find a definition of police corruption which is not unduly broad.

In a relatively narrow construal, police corruption simply consists of misuse by police of their position to gain personal advantage. This construal still allows for differences about which behaviors are corrupt. Some who hold this view consider that unlawful or unethical behavior should only be considered corrupt if it is motivated by the desire for personal gain, whether or not a benefit is actually received; others think that corrupt activity is identified by its outcome— corrupt activity produces a private benefit for a police officer (or is a kind of activity that tends to produce such an outcome). There are also differences about what kind of benefit counts: for some, it is money or money’s worth (such as free food or liquor); for others it may also be other kinds of goods, such as career advancement.

Clearly, many egregious instances of police corruption do involve police acting for personal advantage, and application of the personal advantage approach will identify many, at least, of the paradigm cases of police corruption. However, this approach does not accommodate the phenomenon of “noble cause” corruption. Noble cause corruption is the use of illegal and immoral means by police, such as planting evidence, “verballing” suspects (putting incriminating words in their mouths during interrogation), or perjury, with the aim of achieving what the police involved regard as a just outcome, such as the otherwise unlikely conviction of a person who has committed a serious crime. Since noble cause corruption involves police deliberately breaking the law it surely counts as police corruption, though by definition it is not motivated by, and need not produce, personal benefit.

An alternative, broader approach understands corruption generally, and police corruption in particular, as what might be called a moralized causal concept. Police corruption is behavior that corrodes, or has the tendency to corrode, a properly functioning police service, and for which the police officer(s) responsible can properly be blamed (i.e., where they knew, or should have known, that it was likely to have this effect.) This approach, like the narrower approach, will identify police acting for personal advantage as instances of police corruption. But it can also see other kinds of behavior by police, including noble cause corruption, as forms of police corruption. An advantage of the causal approach is its flexibility in determining what counts as police corruption. In one social setting, for instance, acceptance by police of small gratuities from shopkeepers, such as food and drink, may compromise their willingness to take action when the shopkeepers break the law and so will count as corrupt. In another setting, where there are different norms governing such interactions, and a more morally robust police service, acceptance of gratuities may have no such compromising effect and so will not count as corrupt.

Incidence and Effects

Most police corruption is covert, or at least shielded from official scrutiny. Those who are complicit in it, such as criminals bribing police, have no motive to report it, and those who are victimized by it—the targets of “shakedowns” or brutality—are often too inarticulate or intimidated to file complaints. Even when complaints are made, they are difficult to substantiate, often involving the word of the complainant against that of the police officer they are complaining about, and police complaints systems themselves are often less than ideal. For reasons such as these, it is impossible to know exactly how common police corruption actually is. Moreover, the extent of corruption clearly varies considerably across different settings. In some Indian police services, for example, corruption appears to be virtually universal, with bribery a precondition for police attention; in totalitarian states the police are part of the repressive structure that keeps the regime in power and, using a broad understanding of police corruption, much of their official activity is corrupt in nature.

Even if police corruption does not reach these levels in generally orderly liberal democracies such as the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, there is good evidence that it is nevertheless disturbingly common. Indications of its prevalence are given in the reports of important inquiries into police behavior, typically prompted by a pubic scandal, such as the Knapp (1970) and Mollen (1992) Commission inquiries into the New York City Police Department, the Christopher Commission (1991) into the Los Angeles Police Department, and the Wood Royal Commission (1995) into the New South Wales Police Service. Each report details widespread corruption, ranging from acceptance of small bribes to overlook illegal activity such as bookmaking, to active—and, in some units, widespread—involvement in serious criminal behavior such as drug dealing, assault, and theft. Other sources of information about police corruption include complaints against police, especially those that are substantiated, and surveys and interviews with police, defendants, and members of the public.

While every occupation may have corrupt practitioners, police corruption is particularly damaging. It is a significant factor in miscarriages of justice, leading to conviction of the innocent and acquittal or nonprosecution of criminals. It can directly contribute to criminal activity by enabling criminals to carry out their activities without fear of discovery or prosecution, or even by police themselves engaging in such activities. It contributes to criminal activity indirectly by subverting the trust between community and police, which is a necessary condition for effective policing, and by creating a more disorderly society in which it is harder for police to carry out their function. It imposes real financial burdens on the community through the cost of increased crime and crime prevention measures, as well as litigation and public inquiries. And, of course, corrupt police themselves, many of whom were morally upright at the start of their careers, can pay a significant price in psychological disturbance and, where their corruption is discovered, social disgrace and legal penalty.

Causes of Corruption

In order to address police corruption, it is necessary to understand its causes. At the highest level of generality, corruption results from the interaction of a disposition to act corruptly with a tempting opportunity to do so—that is, one where the perceived benefits consequent on a corrupt action are much greater than the perceived potential costs.

Most people are neither moral saints, who will do right come what may, nor moral monsters, who will do wrong whenever they judge it is in their interests to do so. Individuals are, at least up to a point, motivated to follow the dictates of morality but subject to temptations that, if strong enough, can lead them astray. Presumably, police as a group are not radically different in this respect than the rest of people. Indeed, many recruits are motivated to join the service at least in part by a morally admirable desire to serve their community. The prevalence of police corruption reflects the fact that police are both likely to have many tempting opportunities to act corruptly and subject to a range of factors that undermine their capacity to recognize and resist corrupting temptations.

There are a number of reasons why police are likely to face opportunities to act corruptly. Much police work involves a high level of operational autonomy, with a good deal of discretion as to how it is to be carried out, and little direct oversight. This lack of oversight allows police to avoid what people could think of as the costs of police work. After all, a lot of conscientious police work is unpleasant—dangerous, or tedious, or time-consuming. The temptation to take shortcuts to avoid these costs, or to seek benefits to offset them, is considerable. Moreover, police are equipped with legal powers, such as powers of arrest on suspicion, surveillance, and so on, and equipment, such as guns and batons, which can be used as means to pursue corrupt ends, such as extortion. A good deal of police work involves contact with people who have interests in inducing police to act corruptly—ranging from speeding drivers who are prepared to offer a bribe to avoid losing their license, to tow truck operators who pay police for information about traffic accidents, to criminals who pay for intelligence that puts them in a better position to plan their activities. Black markets in goods and services for which there is a large and persisting demand, such as recreational drugs, sex, and alcohol, generate ample opportunities for corrupt behavior, such as stealing the proceeds of crime, or receiving bribes from merchants in such markets.

At the same time they face such opportunities to act corruptly, police are also subject to a range of factors that undermine their capacity to resist these opportunities, or even to realize that, in taking them, they are acting corruptly. One such factor (or set of factors) stems from the collective nature of police work. Police rely on each other to an unusually large extent to achieve their professional goals. This, together with the socially distinctive nature of police work, tends to generate a high degree of group identification and solidarity. That solidarity is displayed both at the level of the unit, with perceived conflict between the interests of the rank and file, on the one hand, and police management on the other, and at the level of the service as a whole. In either case, it helps generate an “us and them” mentality and a strong emphasis on group loyalty.

In many ways such solidarity and loyalty is a good thing; without it effective policing would be impossible. But it can also contribute to police corruption. First, as survey research has indicated, it means that that even morally well motivated new recruits can be corrupted by their induction into a group that is itself partially or wholly corrupt, either by joining in corrupt practices or by tolerating them. Second, solidarity expresses itself in the notorious “blue wall” of silence. The blue wall exists when even the many police who disapprove of the corrupt practices of colleagues will not make complaints against them, when members close ranks against outside investigation of wrongdoing, and when those who do complain are ostracized or worse. That silence, of course, has the effect of protecting corrupt police from effective action. Moreover, 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.

The moral character of police can also come under pressure when they are called on to enforce the law in what might be called morally confusing environments, where laws, or their modes of enforcement, conflict with broadly held social norms. This is a problem particularly with laws against vice—drugs, prostitution, gambling— which are often introduced or retained as a result of pressure from well-organized lobby groups. As noted above, the black markets that arise as a consequence are fertile sources of corruption. Such laws are also often seen by those who are charged with enforcing them as morally unjustified. Consider laws against recreational drugs such as marijuana and amphetamines. Young police in particular are often members of subcultures where the use of such drugs is common and seen as unproblematic—attitudes that may be widespread in the broader community. Moreover, there is often a de facto toleration of markets in vice by the powers-that-be, provided that they are sufficiently removed from the attention of those who find them offensive. Occasional token “crackdowns” might be required in the face of outrage or scandal, but there is no serious desire to closedown such activities entirely. Understandably, police can come to feel that tolerating, or even participating in, illegal behavior is not always wrong and that they are justified in picking and choosing which laws they will respect and enforce, and how.

Addressing Police Corruption

Given the nature of police work it is utopian to believe that police corruption will ever be completely exterminated. However, it is not utopian to believe that it can be much reduced. Legislative and other policies directed at offenses and offenders, rather than at police, can play a major role here. For example, where decriminalization of abortion and of homosexuality has occurred, it has significantly reduced the opportunities for police corruption. But policies directed at police, from within and without the service, can also play a significant role. Broadly speaking, such policies should aim to reinforce the desire to act well and reduce temptations to act badly, either by removing the opportunity to do so or increasing the likely costs. There is now a significant body of research, looking both at organizations generally and police services more specifically, which indicates how both of these things can be done through the development of what is often referred to as an integrity system.

An integrity system for police, aiming to promote good behavior and reduce bad, can be seen as having four interacting parts: first, an organization-wide, intelligence-based, ethics risk-assessment audit; second, measures to reduce those risks; third, ways of detecting and deterring corruption; and finally, means to increase ethical awareness.

Some of the most salient ethical risks facing police have already been identified, such as the temptations of noble cause corruption, the possibility of excessive use of force and other kinds of abuse of members of the public, and the potential for bribery, or even active involvement in criminality. Other important risks include the compromising of data security, especially electronic data; difficulties in managing informants, given that most informants are themselves criminals; infiltration by organized crime; and pressure by political leaders, or sections of the media, or the police hierarchy to “get results,” compromising the investigative process and, potentially, its outcome.

Measures to reduce these risks begin at the point of recruitment. Strategies here will aim both to exclude unsuitable applicants and to attract suitable ones. Given the tendency toward 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. The incompetent find it difficult to identify strongly with the ends of the profession, and can easily become disaffected and cynical and therefore susceptible to corruption. Vetting for potential recruits can make use of psychological tests, personal interviews, and background checks of financial records and personal connections to exclude those who have criminal connections, moral or psychological weaknesses, or who lack the capacity to become competent officers. Adequate pay and conditions are obviously important factors in attracting competent recruits, as well as making some of the possible sources of corruption less tempting. Research also seems to indicate that recruits with higher educational backgrounds are more competent and act with greater integrity.

Specific measures to reduce the risks identified above include the following:

  • Data security: Segregation of and controlled access to internal affairs databases; audits of database access
  • Drug investigations: Early warning systems, for example, profiles of at-risk officers/locations/high-risk areas; intelligence-driven targeted integrity testing of individuals/locations; audits of drug squads and forensic laboratories
  • Excessive use of force investigations: Complaints-driven investigations informed by intelligence, for example, a high number of complaints of excessive use of force
  • Informant management: Accountability mechanisms such as documentation naming the informant; ensuring that a police officer with an informant has a supervisor who meets with the officer and the informant; having a supervisor who monitors the police officer’s dealings with the informant; and recording all payments (including electronic transfers, to prevent theft)
  • Prevention of infiltration by organized crime: Stringent and constantly updated vetting procedures (especially for officers in sensitive areas), ensuring adequate supervision of all officers, and monitoring and utilization of intelligence databases (including criminal associations)

An effective complaints and discipline system is central to a well-functioning integrity system. As its name implies there are two components to a complaints and discipline system: first, gathering and classifying complaints (the complaint element), then assessing and responding to those complaints that are prima facie grounds for sanctioning a member of the occupation (the discipline element). An effective method for gathering complaints is a necessary condition for a fair discipline system; at the same time, complaints are more likely to be forthcoming if it is perceived that they will be taken seriously and responded to appropriately.

Historically, there have tended to be major structural problems with both these components of the complaint and discipline system. Complaints can come either from members of the public or from police. As mentioned above, by their nature complaints from members of the public are often difficult to substantiate, involving the word of the complainant against that of the police officer. Moreover, police have often been able to deflect complaints by making the complaint process opaque, time-consuming, and intimidating. Ill-conceived management use of low numbers of complaints as a performance indicator can, perversely, reward units which discourage complaints and penalize those that are open to them. Aspects of police culture noted above—the blue wall of silence and the persecution of police who do nevertheless complain—mean that complaints from police are relatively rare and, when made, often difficult to substantiate, with police closing ranks to stymie investigation.

These problems with the complaint component of the complaint and discipline system reflect, at least to a degree, deficiencies in the discipline component of that system. First, police discipline policies have often been excessively punitive, with relatively minor breaches of professional standards, such as accessing databases for personal inquiries, subject to disproportionate sanctions. Colleagues of those accused reasonably, or at least understandably, do not want to be complicit in a process that in their view results in such unfair treatment. Second, there have been problems associated with the operation of specialized police units that have often had sole responsibility for investigating complaints (internal affairs or professional standards units). These problems have included consistent breaches of confidentiality, where the identity of both complainant and the subject and nature of the complaint have been “leaked”; low quality of investigations; and excessively light sanctions for substantiated serious misconduct. These shortcomings make it less likely that complaints will be upheld, and more likely that the complainant will be identified and face the negative consequences that flow from that. The overall effect is to deter police from making complaints, even against serious corruption of which they disapprove and would prefer not to happen.

An effective complaints and discipline system presupposes a rational typology of misconduct, on the basis of which complaints are classified and dealt with. A basic distinction should be made between what might be called unsatisfactory conduct, on the one hand, and ethical misconduct, on the other. Unsatisfactory conduct is conduct that falls short of the standard of competence and diligence that can reasonably be expected of a police officer, as a consequence of carelessness, haste, or rudeness, for example. It should be dealt with at the local level. Appropriate responses to substantiated complaints might be further training, supervised practice, and other forms of professional development.

As well as helping create a more competent workforce, treating unsatisfactory conduct in this way reduces the likelihood 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 impugn their integrity and prevent them from reporting the serious ethical misconduct of their corrupt colleagues. It also makes it more likely that colleagues will genuinely participate in investigation of complaints of unsatisfactory conduct, or even make them themselves. Ethical misconduct, on the other hand, involves seriously corrupt, including criminal, behavior. It is only misconduct of this kind that should be dealt with by professional standards units, or external investigators. Responses to substantiated complaints should include serious sanctions, such as demotion, dismissal, and referral for criminal charges.

An effective complaints and discipline system will also ensure that complaints can easily be made and are assured of confidentiality, that detailed records of complaints and investigations are kept, and that professional standards units are properly resourced and staffed. Even where such units exist, there are obvious reasons to be chary of police investigating police, such as the inevitable perception of bias. At the very least, it is desirable that there be external oversight agencies, to which police are accountable for their handling of complaints.

Given the difficulties in proving serious police corruption, and its grave consequences, active investigation of suspected corruption (rather than simply reacting to complaints) may be desirable in some cases. One of the most important tools available for such investigation is integrity testing—offering police simulated opportunities to engage in corrupt behavior, such as offering bribes to overlook a supposed drug deal. Such testing can be targeted where specific officers are tested in response to plausible intelligence indicating their involvement in corruption, or random. Even so-called random testing may in fact target subsets of police, in particular those working in high-risk areas, but it does not involve singling out particular individuals. While it appears that there is support among police for targeted integrity testing, random testing is less popular. Potential problems with such testing include the exacerbation of mistrust between management and “the troops,” and a chilling effect on the appropriate exercise of discretion, with police worried that overlooking minor infractions of law may lead to disciplinary proceedings. In any case, it is clear that effective integrity testing acts both to uncover and deter corruption, and is now an important weapon in the armory of professional standards units.

Causal Role of Police Culture in Corruption

Much of the discussion of police corruption has pointed to the causal role of police culture. However, police culture is not necessarily a pervasive and monolithic social force that works in the same way in all settings. Research in both police services, and in the other organizations, has shown the importance of rational administrative structures and processes and ethical leadership in creating a morally healthy environment. Perceptions of unfairness in areas such as promotion or allocation of work fosters disillusionment and cynicism, with consequent potential for corruption. Ethical leadership involves demonstrating a commitment to ethical behavior (role modeling), including intolerance of bad behavior, and engagement with subordinates.

Ultimately, resistance to corruption depends on the moral sense of the members of a police service. Police are constantly making decisions in situations of moral and practical complexity. Only police who have the capacity to make independent, ethically informed decisions can both operate effectively without close supervision and reliably resist the temptations inherent in their work. Developing and reinforcing the habits of ethical reflection and judgment, through such means as initial training, professional education, supervision, and involvement in development and discussion of codes of ethics, should be seen as an essential part of police practice.

Ethical reflection on their role will help police understand that they are collectively responsible for resisting corruption. Law enforcement, maintenance of order, and so on cannot 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 fellow officers. It follows that loyalty to corrupt officers is not only misplaced, but also 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. Collective responsibility also entails such actions as whistle-blowing and support for, rather than opposition to, well-intentioned whistle-blowers.


  1. Barker, Tom. Police Ethics: Crisis in Law Enforcement. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 2006.
  2. Kleinig, John. The Ethics of Policing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  3. Miller, Seumas. “Integrity Systems and Professional Reporting in Police Organisations.” Criminal Justice Ethics, v.29/3 (2010).
  4. Miller, Seumas and John Blackler. Ethical Issues in Policing. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005.
  5. Miller, Seumas, Peter Roberts, and Edward Spence. Corruption and Anti-Corruption: An Applied Philosophical Approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2005.
  6. Mollen, Milton, et al. Commission Report. City of New York Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Procedures of the Police Department, 1994.
  7. Prenzler, Tim. Police Corruption: Preventing Misconduct and Maintaining Integrity Abingdon, UK: CRC Press, 2009.

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