Police corruption is a problem that can be traced back to the early days of policing. It is a serious problem within most police forces today, as it is widely know that is it something that is not only hard to calculate, but also hard to reduce and near impossible to eradicate. The following will explore what corruption is defined as and reasons for why police corruption occurs. Reasons that will be covered that can be deemed as the cause of corruption are, the police cultures’ solidarity and loyalty, that a high level of discretion is used, which cannot be monitored, and that there is a corrupt hierarchy within the police force that is difficult to control. Methods to prevent corruption will then be explored, such as more rigorous recruitment procedures and the reinforcement of the motivation to do what is right. Lastly, it will be explored why in fact it is so hard to reduce corruption in the police force and subsequently why it will never go away.
Before it can be examined why police corruption occurs, it must first be defined, what police corruption means, as there are many widely accepted definitions. Punch as cited in Palmer (1992: 103) defines corruption as, “When an officer receives or is promised significant advantage or reward…for doing something that he is under a duty to do anyway, that he is under a duty not to do, for exercising legitimate discretion for improper reasons and for employing illegal means to achieve approved goals.” Barker and Wells as cited in Palmer (1992:104) offer a similar definition, “Police corruption is any prescribed act which involves the misuse of the officer’s official position for actual or expected material reward or gain.” (For a more detailed explanation of corruption, see Ivkovic 2003:595).
As a part of their job, police are given a number of rights and powers, such as the ability to exercise discretion. This discretion is used when dealing with certain situations, such as the right to use coercive force and deciding what punishments to enforce. Because a lot of police decision-making goes unsupervised, police, if desired, also have many opportunities to abuse these powers. (Miller, Blackler & Alexandra 1997:103). As this decision-making can be regarded as routine, police are confronted by the chance to abuse their power quite regularly during the course of their careers and thus are faced with moral challenges often. (White & Perrone 2005:64). Because of the large scope of power given to the police and the frequent and unsupervised need to use this power police are often confronted by situations where an abuse of power is extremely possible. As a result, in many cases when the police officer is personally susceptible to corruption, corruption may be inevitable and in some cases unavoidable. It is this unsupervised decision making that can be a root cause of why police corruption exists.
Edwin J. Delattre (1996:75) states, “Police corruption is best understood not as the exclusive deviance of individuals but as group behavior guided by contradictory sets of norms linked to the organisation to which the erring individuals belong”. A norm linked to the organisation that can explain police corruption is the norm of solidarity and loyalty present in the police force. A strong part of the police culture is that of solidarity and loyalty to the force. The police display a high degree of group identification, which is a good thing as without it effective policing would be impossible. However, it can also contribute to police corruption. Police who refrain from acting against their corrupt colleagues out of a sense of loyalty are often compromised by this failure, which in turn can lead them to a more active involvement in corruption (Miller, Blackler, & Alexandra 1997:105). The loyalty and strong solidarity of the police force is a strong contributor to police corruption, as officers feel free to do how they please under the security that if a colleague caught them out they would not “whistle-blow” on them. This can cause a great deal of good and harm, as the type of work police are expected to do is harsh and uninviting many police band together as a coping mechanism of the job. This has been seen however to lead to corruption from those who abuse the system of loyalty and solidarity and thus, it is seen that, that element of police culture can be attributed to the cause of why corruption occurs.
A mechanism present in the police force, which can result in corruption, is the presence of a corrupt hierarchy. Corruption emerges among police because deviant behavior is regarded as appropriate within some police departments. Studies confirm that young police are socialized by their senior colleagues in traditions of corruption within the department and very few police expect repercussions from their involvement in corrupt exchanges. They are not deterred by the law of which they are a part of or scared of being prosecuted for illegal behavior (Delattre 1996:75). This state of affairs creates an impossible situation for young police because of the bad example it sets, the cynicism and loss of trust it fosters and the absence of a clear message as to the way young officers should behave (Wood 4:2000). Young officers are recruited into the force and from day one are taught how not to behave by senior ranking officials in whom corruption has already sunk in. It is a vicious cycle of corruption that cannot be broken or avoided by even some of the most honest police officers as it can be deemed as a departmental norm which to go against could mean being ostracized from the group and even the loss of a job.
There are certain methods available to minimize the corruption current in today’s police force such as an overhaul or recruitment procedures. High quality background investigations are an important element of the police forces’ hiring process as the best predictor of future behavior is past performance. (Trautman 2000:19) It is obvious that there is a tendency towards corruption in policing and 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 then there is obviously no chance of those of bad character being reformed by undertaking police work. (Miller, Blackler, & Alexandra 1997:106)
Complete and accurate background investigations can contribute to improved police integrity by identifying individuals who have committed immoral acts prior to entering the police service. If police officers are permitted to enter the police force, when their background investigation is questionable, there is a strong chance they will violate the law and become involved in police corruption. This method of minimizing and possibly eradicating police corruption can be seen as difficult as it is not always possible to predict what a new police officer will be like straight of the street. Many new police recruits do not have an extensive past and thus cannot be judged upon it. In these cases, it must be relied solely on a judge of character, which is in most circumstances very hard to perceive. Because of this when recruiting police new and old it can never really be known what sort of a person they are and If they are prone to corrupt practices until the occur and thus it may never be possible to recruit the “perfect moral” police officer and in turn eradicate corruption.
Probably the most effective but most difficult way of minimizing police corruption is the attempt to change the current attitudes deep within the police force. While this is considered by academics as one of the most effective ways of combating police corruption, because of its sheer difficulty, it is probably a large contributing factor as to why police corruption will never go away. According to Mick Palmer (1992:112), the only real way to ensure high ethical standards and as a result limit the ability for police officers to be corrupt is through the development of a professional police culture that promotes and embraces integrity and rejects corruption and all of its manifestations. Palmer (1992:116) describes the ideal environment for a police culture void of corruption, as based on pride, professionalism, trust, autonomy and open accountability, which will capitalize on the more positive aspects of police culture. He states that the police culture, the ‘esprit de corps’ of policing is one of the strongest and probably most underutilized positives of police organisations. If the protectionism, peer pressure and ‘closed shop’ aspects of police culture can be minimized and the police cultures supportive nurturing qualities can be drawn on then significant progress will be made in eradicating police corruption. In other words, self-regulation must be the ultimate goal, not increased external supervision and the set up of further watchdog bodies. As Palmer and others have admitted this mechanism would be most successful in minimizing and possibly eradicating police corruption but as mentioned is extremely difficult to do. This is because the police culture present in today’s society is one that has been shown to be very reluctant to change as corruption is denied and the status quo is kept.
Certain mechanisms can be put in place to minimize police corruption but there is strong evidence to suggest that police corruption may never go away. This is because policing itself is structurally conductive to illegality and breaches of rules and anyone placed in the position of a police officer is tempted nearly every day.(Waddington 1999:125). It is in this situation where corruption becomes almost impossible to control as not every individual officer can be accounted for and controlled in such a large and diverse organisation. Manning and Redlinger in Waddington (1999:127) state “policing invites deviancy and that the invitation is extended by those with a stake in threatening the enforcement of the law – namely the participants in the illicit activity”. The difficulty in preventing corruption lies in the fact that when distrustful persons on both sides of the law profit from an alliance and when the ability of police command to force the issue is constrained, those persons will use any means to preserve the status quo and to prevent reform from outside. (1996:76 Delattre) This means that officers who are corrupt and criminals who benefit from this corruption do not want the situation to change and as a result, it is never clear exactly what corruption is occurring and how much it is occurring, as no one will stand up and “whistle-blow” as it is so affectionately called. Without this knowledge, police corruption is difficult to minimize and near impossible to prevent.
This does not confirm that police are universally cynical clearly a great many are not. Nor so they show that disappointed expectation is sufficient to make anyone corrupt. Many patrol and command personal who expectations of people have been lowered by years of experience would never take a dime that did not belong to them. Not even great disappointment in the citizenry itself can make police corrupt to become corrupt police officers must give up on themselves not just on others.
Police are put in situations every day where corruption can or can not ensue and it is ultimately up to their personal character and decision making skills that will decide whether or not they will succumb to corruption. The powers given to the police and the discretion to use these powers unsupervised can lead to corruption as the police are presented with situations quite frequently upon which if they desire they can exploit without much threat of being caught. The police culture entailing loyalty and solidarity can also lead to corruption as corrupt police officers abuse the system with the full knowledge that they will be protected by their fellow officer if they were to ever be caught out. The presence of a corrupt hierarchy in the police force is also a contributing factor to police corruption as new recruits are taught from senior corrupt officers and thus a circle of corruption becomes unavoidable. There are methods that can be implemented to minimize police corruption such as a more scrutinized police recruitment process but this can be difficult as it is not always possible to judge a new recruit and more often than not they do not have a substantial background to base any decisions off. The method of changing the police culture to include professional attitudes and the do right mentality is one of the most effective but most difficult methods of preventing police corruption as police culture is set long before and quite reluctant to change. Lastly, corruption is difficult to minimize and near impossible to eradicate because the people involved enjoy the status quo and are reluctant to change how things are and thus there is little cooperation from the police and others to help change the system and get rid of corruption for good.
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