Although there is still some debate over the meaning of the term police corruption, the primary controversy has to do with how police corruption stemming from the abuse of police power or authority can be reduced. Since the beginning of formal policing in the 1800s, various groups have demanded more measures to identify and control police corruption and increase police accountability to members of the public. But, what exactly does police corruption refer to?
III. Key Events
Some acts of police behavior are universally condemned. Others generate disagreement and debate and some police actions clearly violate laws, while yet others violate internal departmental policies. Herman Goldstein defines police corruption as “the misuse of authority by a police officer in a manner designed to produce personal gain for the officer or others” (1997). Similarly, Lawrence Sherman defines police corruption as “an illegal use of organizational power for personal gain” (Sherman 1974, 30).
By contrast, Robert H. Langworthy and Lawrence H. Travis III define police corruption as “the intentional misuse of police power. In practice, this definition means that before something can be called police corruption, two things must be established. First, it must be shown that police powers were misused. Second, it must also be shown that the officer(s) misusing police power intended to misuse it. Whether the motive is money, personal gain, or gain for self or others is not important except insofar as it helps to show intentional misuse of power” (Langworthy and Travis 2003, 414).
It is difficult if not impossible to know the extent of police corruption beyond the reported cases. The victims of police corruption typically report these cases to police authorities. Police officers who participate in acts of corruption have no incentives to report their own corrupt activities and risk losing their jobs and/or facing prosecution in criminal courts. Also, officers who witness acts of police corruption usually have no incentive to come forward and report the misconduct by their fellow officers. As accepted members of the police culture, they are expected to respect the police occupational culture and code of silence.
Moreover, citizens who willingly engaged in acts of corruption with the police have no motive to report their own involvement or that of the officer. In addition, citizens who were less willing participants in the corruption (e.g., citizens who accept an officer’s proposal to pay him or her a fee in exchange for not receiving a citation), or citizens who observe a corrupt transaction may decide not to report these incidents because they are either fearful of retribution or believe that the police will not bother with an investigation. Furthermore, only a handful of sociological or criminological studies have been done on police corruption, and they are typically case studies that look at one or a few police agencies.
Findings from case studies often present difficulties in making generalizations from one police department to the next. For obvious reasons, many academics encounter difficulties in gaining access to police agencies and finding a sample of officers willing to participate in a study of police corruption. Researchers who have been successful in conducting such studies have often spent significant time with particular officers, establishing themselves as trustworthy researchers.
Evidence of police corruption in the United States can be traced back to the beginnings of formal police organizations in the 1800s. From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, the police were appointed by elected political officials who expected police to respond to a variety of neighborhood demands in order to ensure votes during the next election. In addition, officers were selected from the neighborhoods they would serve in order to reflect the interests of the neighborhood residents (Walker 1977). Police officers had to answer to political leaders and to the individual neighborhoods they served (Kelling and Moore 1988). This meant that they operated differently throughout the different neighborhoods, which led to a great deal of controversy regarding police accountability and police roles (Conley 1995).
Police discretion was not monitored. The police had the power to arrest on suspicion and could apply physical force to members of the public (Miller 1977). Evidence suggests that during elections, some officers prevented supporters of opposing parties from casting their ballots using intimidation, arrest, and/or physical force. Police officers also protected the illegal operations of political leaders and/or accepted bribes by owners of illegal operations (Fogelson 1977). Police corruption was commonplace, given the lack of controls on police and their close relationship to politicians and neighborhoods.
By the early 1900s, citizens began to demand reform and accountability. People demanded that the police become a legitimate profession by separating the police from politics, create rules to guide police behavior, distance the police from the communities they were expected to serve, hire police based on qualifications and not political connections, and require special training and skills to fulfill police roles. But despite these accomplishments, along with more recent changes in community policing/community problem solving initiatives, police corruption has not been eliminated.
Different levels of police corruption may be found within police organizations today. They include police agencies where only a few officers participate in corrupt practices as well as agencies with departments where the majority of officers engage in corruption but do so independently, and agencies where corruption is organized and shared among most of the members of the department (Sherman 1974).
Moreover, scholars have identified different types of police corruption (Inciardi 1987). Examples of police corruption vary depending on the definition of police corruption used (Stoddard 1979). For instance, some scholars identify the acceptance of free or discount merchandise or services by officers as a form of police corruption. However, if merchants offer the discounts without any police influence or abuse of power, this particular act is not necessarily a corrupt practice.
Recent highly publicized cases show the public that police corruption continues to exist, and they provide citizens with information on how they occur (Corsianos 2003). The cases that often receive a lot of publicity are those that involve excessive use of force, which includes deadly force, by police officers. Deadly force by the police results in an average of 373 civilian deaths each year. The majority of those killed by the police are young and male and a disproportionate number are African American (Brown and Langan 2001). The following is a list of some key incidents of excessive use of force applied by the police as well as incidents involving other types of police corruption.
2005–2010: In New Orleans, six unarmed people were shot by police on the Danziger Bridge while riding out the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina (2005); two of them died. Another officer, Lt. Michael Lohman, arrived later at the scene and colluded with the officers present in creating a story about having been fired on by the victims. They planted a gun on the bridge to bolster their story, and Lohman altered the police reports. A state investigation was launched in 2006 but went nowhere. Federal investigators launched their own inquiry in 2009, bringing charges of a cover up in April 2010.
1999: Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant with no criminal record, was shot and killed by the police. Four New York City police officers fired 41 shots, claiming that Diallo looked suspicious, ignored their commands, and reached for a gun. Diallo, however, was unarmed and was reaching for his wallet when he was shot and killed.
1997: Abner Louima was sodomized with a plunger by a New York City police officer and then the plunger was shoved into his mouth, breaking his front teeth. This act was committed at a police precinct in the presence of several officers, but no one came forward to report the assault. Given the extent of Louima’s injuries, he was taken to a hospital where details of the assault were made public.
1997: Six former law officers from Texas were indicted on drug trafficking and corruption charges for smuggling more than 1,700 pounds of marijuana into the country.
1995: The FBI began investigating police corruption charges involving Philadelphia’s 39th District. The case concerned a cadre of officers who raided crack houses, shook down drug dealers, and generally trampled on individual rights in order to obtain convictions. By the end of the investigation in 1997, about 100 cases had been overturned.
1994: Hidalgo County Sheriff Brig Marmolejo Jr. was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for taking $151,000 in bribes to allow a drug trafficker to have special privileges in jail.
1992: Malice Green was pulled from his car by Detroit police officers and beaten to death.
1992–1999: LAPD officers working for the prestigious antigang unit CRASH, in the Rampart Division, were found to be responsible for numerous corrupt activities involving physical beatings, shootings, planting of evidence, falsifying police reports, and falsifying evidence and testimony about their actions in court.
The debate continues on how to limit police abuse of powers and more specifically police corruption. Various groups have demanded stricter measures to identify police corruption, control police behavior, and increase accountability (Walker 2005). Some suggestions include the following:
1. Create open and accessible citizen complaint procedures
Citizens should be given detailed information on how to file a complaint against a police officer. The process should be explained to the public and a time frame should be provided. Police Web sites should post information on the complaint process and citizens should be informed via community newsletters and the police working at various precincts.
2. Create external citizen oversight/complaints agencies
These agencies consist of official panels of citizens who investigate complaints of police misconduct and police corruption. Police departments should be expected to cooperate with these agencies by law and turn over all documents relating to the alleged act or acts of police corruption and should have access to locating and interviewing witnesses and the police officers.
3. Create official corruption units
Official corruption units (similar to the one created in New York City in the early 1990s) should consist of a combination of prosecutors, investigators, and paralegals. Such a unit should work in conjunction with the district attorney’s office and should be authorized to investigate the corruption of any public official including police officers and maintain a relationship with police departments’ internal affairs bureaus. Upon discovering evidence of police corruption, they should attempt to discover the extent of the corruption within particular units and/or the entire organization by turning corrupt police into undercover “spies” in order to collect evidence as to the extent of corruption and use them in courtroom prosecutions.
4. Create early intervention computerized databases
These databases should be used to collect detailed information on police behavior and practices (e.g., the number of vehicles they stop, the race and sex of the citizens they stop to question, the number of complaints made against them, the nature of the complaints, etc.). This information should be monitored and evaluated internally for any possible patterns of misconduct by police.
5. Demand more accountability on the part of elected officials who can influence police actions through their control over police budgets and the tenure of police administrators
In recent years, citizen complaints about the police practice of racial profiling has led to the passage of legislation mandating that police agencies keep statistics on the race of citizens stopped and questioned by police for traffic violations.
6. Create professionalism within the police and eliminate the “blue code of silence”
Police departments should become more selective in the hiring process and have a preference for applicants with college degrees. In addition, better training should be offered to new recruits. Focus should be given to classes on professionalism, conflict resolution, race relations, gender relations, police accountability, and integrity. Officers with better education and better training will be less likely to participate in police corruption and will be more likely to come forward and report such cases.
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