Over the years, a number of scandals have shaken society with the involvement of police officers in various misconduct. Police misconduct can be characterized as inappropriate or illegal conduct by law enforcement in performance of official duties, ranging from misappropriation of force and unwarranted searches to coercion, falsification of evidence, and corruption. Police misconduct is dangerous as it creates unethical and illegal authority which commonly results to violation of rights for regular citizens and potential for wrongful convictions. Cato Institute in its MPMRP project confirms at least 1% of all police engages in misconduct, which may seem small, but can have grim consequences for those affected (California Innocence Project, n.d.). Public scandals and research have demonstrated the prevalence of misconduct in law enforcement across the United States, highlighting deep-rooted issues and challenges. This paper will explore the concept of police corruption, with a focus on criminal cops that engage in criminal behavior as active law enforcement officers.
Background and Prevalence
Law enforcement is a challenging profession, and the majority of those involved strive to demonstrate responsibility to the law and ethical behavior, even if minor errors are made during service. However, over the years, even in recent decades of police history, there have been numerous cases of police corruption that have come to light. Police corruption has significant societal implications. First, as police officers are armed, they can pose a physical threat to citizens in a manner no other state official could, which in combination with arrests and other methods of law enforcement, provides tremendous power to the police. On an individual basis, this can and has been used for coercion and abuse of power, both physical and emotional, and in some cases to achieve personal interests of the officer in question. Another implication is that police officers are both the frontline of enforcing the law but also the ‘final port of call’ in fighting crime, including those of other state officials. If there is evident corruption and misconduct present, it is a violation of public trust – leading to lower levels of compliance and even potentially undermining the legitimacy of the state, both of which have negative trickle-down effects (Holmes, 2018).
Globally, although less prevalent in the U.S., more bribes are paid to police officers than any other state official. Police corruption can start small but have deep-rooted effects. Corruption may come in various forms from benign but still improper conduct such as demands for bribes or sexual favor from citizens to most dangerous such as collaboration with organized crime. Factors driving police delinquency are complex and will be explored in later sections, but in many cases, law enforcement officers either justify or believe that they have the authority or right to engage in such misconduct (Holmes, 2018). Prevalence of corruption is difficult to identify since the behavior may not be uncovered for years at times, and many cases are not proven. Organizational culture of law enforcement contributes to this with an unspoken “blue curtain of secrecy” where fellow police officers are discouraged to report or testify against their peers facing potential ostracism or retaliation (Pollock, 2019). As a result, much misconduct and corruption are covered up, and only large public scale scandals come to light as a result of citizen or journalistic reporting.
Criminal cops is a term associated with law enforcement agents that have committed illegal crimes, some as serious as homicide or drug trafficking while on duty to drive their own corrupt interests. According to Pollock (2019), cases of criminal cops arise every few years, creating large scale scandals such as the 1980s “Miami River Rats” and the 1990s New York “Buddy Boys” of small groups of law enforcement officers engaging in organized crime of various nature. While these officers are a small percentage of the force, the scandals tend to tarnish the reputation of local police departments as well as the profession overall (Pollock, 2019). In more recent contexts, criminal cops has also been used to identify police officers with criminal background convictions. A large investigative project in California found that over 12,000 current and former police officers had convictions and criminal records, some minor such as a DUI, but others with more major crimes such as domestic abuse and homicide. This creates implications for public safety and potential for abuse of authority and criminal cop involvement, with the issue exacerbated by the police department and even state authorities attempting to strongly conceal and suppress such information (Patterson, 2020).
Abuse of Authority
Many cases of police corruption, including in cases of criminal cops, stem from abuse of the authority given to law enforcement officers, both as individuals in the profession and as a civil service organization. Abuse of authority occurs when power and authority of the office is misused. It can take on various forms but the two discussed in this paper will be the use of unauthorized or disproportionate physical force and engagement in criminal activity such as on-duty use and trafficking of substances (most associated with criminal cops). Unlawful force behaviors may include physical abuse such as the use of excessive or disproportionate force, physical harassment, and brutality, at times lethal force. In some cases, physical abuse may be of a sexual nature, resulting in sexual misconduct. There is also psychological abuse where harassment, disrespect or deception in interrogation. Furthermore, there is legal abuse which includes unlawful search or seizures (stop and frisk, broken glass policies targeted against minorities), as well as manipulation of evidence (Pollock, 2019).
However, unlawful use of force takes on the police corruption angle in later stages when police departments lack the accountability or actively cover up officers’ actions. It leads to a perception of a lack of accountability across the United States, and all levels of police interaction with the public, especially with minorities, is seen as provocative and having potential for abuse of authority. Accountability in this regard is strongly protected by the blue wall of silence, and unethical behavior is rarely reported to higher up officials beyond the precinct (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2018). While police officers see the blue wall of silence as a code of honor, it is essentially a tool of coercion and corruption, failing to create any oversight or accountability to individuals with such significant power over citizens.
The next category of abuse of power comes from criminal cops, those that engage in heinous or violent crimes. Drug abuse or potential trafficking was commonplace, with up to 20% of officers using in a city police force. Circumstances for law enforcement create opportunities for drug use, due to exposure to criminal element, freedom from supervision, and access to contraband. Such behaviors often lead to more serious misconduct such as manipulating or stealing evidence, blackmail, and involvement with organized crime (Pollock, 2019). In recent years, police are much less likely to be arrested for abusing or possessing drugs (846 drug-related arrests nationwide), because agencies regularly conduct drug test screenings. The majority of arrest cases of police officers, of 1,019 publicly known since 2005, were as official misconduct. This includes charges of ‘official oppression’ (abuse of power) or violation of the oath (Owen & Corbo, 2017). Most databases fail to capture the full extent of police crime, both legally pursued in courts and internal investigations. Furthermore, for less serious crimes, officers enjoy the “professional courtesy” of superiors looking the “other way.”
Explanations of Deviance
The extent of police corruption is much larger than expected in many jurisdictions, and despite being a small percentage of the total force, the individuals create serial mistrust for the system. It is challenging to determine the exact causes of such misconduct in a profession requiring high responsibility and ethics. One of the most popular explanations of police corruption is the rotten-apple argument which suggests that it is the moral failing of individual or small group of officers that choose to commit crime. Such officers undergo moral change as they rationalize more serious misconduct in a systematic way after undergoing the first moral crisis. The rotten-apple argument simply places all blame on the individual officer, suggesting it was an error of judgment to hire them. However, officers often deal with criminal aspects of society, that in combination with high-stress, low-paid positions, creates mental rationalizations for unethical behavior (Pollock, 2019).
Certain features of police organizational cultural contribute to police corruption and brutality. One common element is that there is a double message, where law enforcement executives say one thing publicly but perpetuate a completely different message in internal operations. There is also a lack of collective responsibility. Misconduct is either hidden collectively through the blue wall of silence but when it becomes public, controversial actions by individual cops are defended or justified as either an example of “rotten-apple” or not an element of police wrongdoing (Armacost, 2004). Organizational climate, especially in small groups that often forms in local precincts or even partner patrols creates significant influence. Furthermore, such behavior can be explained by incentives. Law enforcement agencies are often incentivized to maintain lower crime levels or increase the number of completed investigations, but the pressure of this results in bad actors taking shortcuts such as manipulation of evidence or violation of rights that result in corruption (Pollock, 2019). Procedural justice elements also play a role, as police officers’ beliefs of organizational justice can be associated with unethical behavior. Police are often immune from punishment, both for minor as well as, in some instances, serious misconduct (high profile cases of acquitted police officers for unlawful use of force resulting in death of minorities) as authorities and juries most often side with the police. It creates a culture with a lack of accountability once again that fosters further corruptive behavior (Armacost, 2016).
It is evident that police corruption and criminal cops are a serious negative element of law enforcement with far-reaching consequences on the process of policing as well as society as whole. The majority of such misconduct stems from various forms of abuse of power that officers utilize as the benefits of authority in the position. Reasons for deviance are attributed to both individual ethical factors as well as organizational culture in agencies and police departments. Modern society and law enforcement have strongly focused on eliminating police corruption and introduce accountability. However, the most effective mechanism to reduce police misconduct is a top-down, systemic reform of police organizations themselves rather than societal or political pressures.
Armacost, B. (2004). Organizational culture and police misconduct. Web.
Armacost, B. (2016). The organizational reasons police departments don’t change. Harvard Business Review. Web.
California Innocence Project. (n.d.). Police misconduct. Web.
Holmes, L. (2018). Police corruption. Oxford Research Encyclopedias. Web.
Owen, T., & Corbo, I. M. (2017). When cops commit crimes. Vice News. Web.
Patterson, B. (2020). A massive project sheds light on California’s criminal cops. California Magazine. Web.
Pollock, J. M. (2019). Ethical dilemmas and decisions in criminal justice (10th ed.). Cengage.
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (2018). Police use of force: An examination of modern policing practices. Web.
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