Watching the Watchmen – Cedar Sanderson
Before solutions to police corruption can be posited, it must first be defined, categorized, and fully understood. I’m only going to touch on this in the broadest of terms, as this could literally fill a book. I’m sure the commenters will have much to add, as well. Let me begin by pointing out that I know no bad cops. I’ve known a few that were very good indeed, and I would trust a cop, were I in trouble and in need of help. But as a woman, I would also be very very cautious being pulled over late at night on a dark road. That’s where we are, as a population. On the other hand, comparing our nation to, say, one a bit further south, our cops are paragons. So take this for what it is.
Corruption can exist at both an individual level, and at the organizational level. At the individual level, the corruption may range from the seemingly innocuous of accepting free coffee from local businesses, to the level of murder, drug dealing, and utter betrayal of the power entrusted to them. At the organizational level, the corruption may be tacitly legal, or knowingly illegal. With almost 19,000 separate police departments in the US, there is a lot of latitude for good cops, bad cops, and cops stuck in bad places.
Police corruption is so disturbing because they are the organization that has been put in place to keep the laws, and when they operate outside those laws, whether explicitly or implicitly, then the Rule of Law is threatened, and tears form in the fabric of society. “Police corruption, which may take the form of soliciting, taking, or offering bribes; selling favors; accepting gifts; abusing authority; and aiding and abetting criminal behavior, is anathema to the repository of public trust in institutions that are entrusted with protecting citizens from crime and bringing criminals to justice. In a nation that regards democracy and justice as cardinal values, the investigation, prosecution, and punishment of corrupt police officers are crucial for preservation and advancement of social order, as well as efficacy of the criminal justice system itself.” (Onyeozili)
Despite public perception of what is called the thin blue line, the unwillingness of the police to report their own for misconduct, a study done by Rothwell and Baldwin shows that the police are overwhelmingly more likely to have policies in place defining misconduct, punishments for those actions, and internal affairs units than any other civilian or government agencies. Because of this, corruption at the individual level is less than popularly believed, but the converse is that corruption in other agencies, like the IRS specifically, is profoundly disturbing and far more likely to go on without any internal whistle-blowing. However, because of the gravity of the abuse of power, police corruption is likely to lead to more public outcry when it is discovered.
To deter corruption at an individual level, the police department must have those clear policies in place to define what is not acceptable for the officers. While some offenses are obviously unacceptable, as in, they are illegal, there are others that fall into gray areas, like accepting gifts. Further, the police department needs to have punishments that will actually deter wrongdoers, which administrative repercussions might not. Criminal convictions of cops who have erred in the line of duty are few and far between. It’s more likely that sweeping-under-the-rug will occur, with unpaid leave, transfer, or dismissal. Policies at a departmental level vary, are not always enforced, and for publicity reasons, are usually downplayed as much as possible. Or, as was discovered in the Rampart investigation, policies might work against themselves, allowing corrupt officers to evade murder charges through manipulation of something called a Lybarger admonition. “Obviously, then, anything an officer says during the investigation of a shooting can result in nothing more than his dismissal. Although administrative action is a serious deterrent, it is not as serious as the prospect of criminal prosecution for murder. Of course, it may appear that Lybarger admonitions would induce officers to “spill the beans” immediately so as to inoculate themselves against criminal actions. According to the RIRP, however, the actual result is usually an ineffective interview of the officer by an attorney from the police union, consisting of leading questions such as “You feared for your life, right?”
The Rampart scandal also illuminated another serious drawback in policing, through the discovery that by hiring individuals based on qualifications other than their suitability for police work, ignoring their psychological profiles, and with backgrounds glossed over in order to meet quotas. “In any case, the bottom line for the LAPD is that Rampart was caused by the misbehavior of a few individuals who should never have been hired. The implication of this frame is that the problem lies outside the LAPD organization and within the character of certain types of individuals. The policy solution is thus simply to prevent such individuals from entering the organization. This is a classically individual-level analysis.” (Kaplan, Paul J. “Looking Through The Gaps: A Critical Approach To The LAPD’s Rampart Scandal.”) It becomes clear that pre-screening before commission as a police officer is not something that can be omitted, and is an important part of corruption controls.
As a direct result of the Rampart scandal, where police were proven to have been hired for affirmative action appeal rather than their integrity, a study was done and a solution was suggested. If an innovative solution means one that is controversial, this certainly fills the bill: “A scholarly study published in April 2000 in the professional journal Economic Inquiry found that aggressive “affirmative action” hiring raised crime rates in many parts of the U.S. In careful statistical analysis of 1987-1993 U.S. Department of Justice data from hundreds of cities, economist John Lott (then of the Yale School of Law, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute) found that quotas requiring more black and minority police officers clearly increase crime rates. When affirmative action rules take over, he reports, the standards on physical strength tests, mental aptitude tests, and other forms of screening are lowered. The result is a reduced quality of officers–both minority and non-minority recruits end up being less impressive.” (Rothwell, Gary R., and J. Norman Baldwin. “Whistle-Blowing And The Code Of Silence In Police Agencies: Policy And Structural Predictors.”)
Perhaps more troubling than individual corruption, even when it involves a gang, as in the Rampart scandal, is corruption at the organizational level. Especially as we see with the implementation of affirmative action raising serious concerns about the quality of officers, the corruption can be above the law, making it much more difficult to cope with until legislation can be raised to counter the effects. Police departments seizing monies, goods, and property without ever bringing criminal charges, for instance. “Over the last two decades, forfeitures have evolved into a booming business for police agencies across the country, from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to small-town sheriff’s offices. Although there is no single tally of all this activity — the information is buried in the budgets, court records and annual reports of thousands of individual agencies — the available data makes clear that billions of dollars in cash, cars, real estate and other assets are being confiscated nationwide every year via civil forfeitures.
One measure is the growth of a program in which federal law enforcement officials seize property on behalf of local authorities in exchange for a share of the proceeds. In 2000, officials racked up $500 million in forfeitures. By 2012, that amount rose to $4.2 billion, an eightfold increase.
Bing is among a significant number of property owners not charged with any crime who lost their home or have battled for years against forfeiture actions. Other similar cases reviewed by ProPublica include an elderly widow, two sisters who shared a house, a waitress and hospital worker caring for two children, and a mother of three whose family wound up homeless. All stemmed from drug charges brought against a family member.” (Thompson, Isaiah. “Law To Clean Up ‘Nuisances’ Costs Innocent People Their Homes.”) Increasingly, we see concerns raised over the number of civilians who seem to be targeted in order to seize monies, goods, or property. While it may be a ready source of income to some departments, it erodes public trust in the police and structures that were supposed to be in place for the protection of those very things.
Accountability and transparency are said to be the foundations of a healthy police force and many systems have been implemented in recent years to show their willingness to be held accountable. Body cameras and dash cameras on individual officers, real time crime data, and the rapid adoption of COMPSTAT-like programs are all part of this progress. The author of the paper expresses reservations, however, pointing out that just having numbers is not enough without knowing “numbers are always the end product of a series of decisions, many of which are subjective and somewhat arbitrary.” (GILSINAN, JAMES F. “The Numbers Dilemma: The Chimera Of Modern Police Accountability Systems.”) For instance, he points out that until a generation ago, domestic violence was not counted as a crime, while homosexuality was.
In both cases of individual and organizational corruption, the root cause is that the offender has made a decision to satisfy a need without proper deliberation, to weight the long-term costs of the action taken. “Neither as individuals nor as members of organization do we optimize our decision-making, picking the best of all possible alternatives. Instead, we satisfice, picking the alternative that best seems to fit, without expending a great deal of energy to review – in a systematic way – all other possible choices (Gilsinan).” Given this, then, a way of forcing individuals and organizations out of the rut of easy thinking and into a deeper contemplation of the consequences of their action must be considered.
As a parent, I well know that to teach my children proper behavior’s, I had to create a consistent system of rewards and punishments. They could not be applied capriciously, and they must reliably hold true, or if an exception was made, to have a good reason for doing something different. Although slightly more complex when applied at this level, the general principles remain the same. To keep an individual from moonlighting, stealing, or extorting, make it painfully harsh when those actions are taken, and be sure to pay the police at a level where such money-making efforts are not tempting. At the organizational level, legislation needs to be reformed to prevent departments from preying on the innocent for income, and independent commissions should decide the merits of such cases, who cannot benefit from them. In the end, the police must be held accountable for their actions, and there have to be systems in place to enforce that accountability. Otherwise, we have only to look south, just over the border, to see the fear and uncertainty which could all too easily overtake our own daily lives.