Controlling Police Corruption

Stuart A. White
Poverty & Prejudice: Paradoxes of U.S. Drug Policies
June 4, 1999

“Officers in the New York City police and New York State police departments were convicted of falsifying drug evidence”  Heads of these agencies were later czar and chief of the Drug Enforcement Agency(McNamara, Joseph. “Why cops lie about drug evidence”).  Corruption in the police force is not a new topic of discussion.  It has been around since the beginning.  To look only seventy years back into the 1920s and the 1930s, one can see many incidents of police looking past prohibition violations for a payoff.  Officer Frank Serpico’s New York Department was involved in falsifying drug evidence and it went unchecked until Officer Serpico testified for the Knapp Commission.  In his last few statements, he cautioned the commission that the only way to prevent police corruption was to have an ever-present commission looking over the shoulders of local departments.  They did not heed his words and now we are in the height of police corruption.  “Reuter News Service reported in December 1994 on the latest charges of police abuse in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Nine New Orleans police officers were arrested…and charged with protecting the storage and movement of more than 130 kilograms of cocaine…In exchange for their protection they were paid in excess of $97,000 in bribes”(“Nine Cops Indicted in New Orleans,”  Reuter News Service)

            Imagine for a minute, a fifty-three-year old African-American grandmother of a suspected murderer, sitting in her house knitting.  Two police officers knock on her door to ask about her grandson.  She lets them in to tell her what she knows, like any law-abiding citizen.  Ten minutes later she is being led out to the police car in handcuffs.  She was arrested for possession of controlled substances.  Now fast forward three years when she is being released because it has been discovered that the very officers that knocked on her door planted the drugs in her home.  When asked why this woman was a target, the officers replied that they were trying to get to her son.  This happened to fifty-three-year old Betty Patterson in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  She was released in 1994.  “From 1988 to 1991, a group of four policemen in Philadelphia’s 39th district stole $100,000 from drug dealers and sent innocent people to prison”(“It was the ‘day of judgment’ for rogue cops in Philadelphia,” Associated Press).  These officers, John Baird, Thomas DeGovanni, Thomas Ryan, James Ryan, and Steven Brown violated the trust the citizens put in them.  The question to answer for the citizens is how can such behavior be prevented?  This case will be the context where I will look at corruption, possible causes, and suggestions from the Mollen Commission for curbing the activities.


Corruption Defined


            Corruption is the illegal use of legitimate authority.  Any behavior that abuses and therefore crosses the parameters of one’s power can be classified as corruption.  Corruption applied to a police force entails the robbing of drug dealers, redirecting of contraband into the personal accounts of officers, perjuring ones self to protect a corrupt officer, falsifying police reports, planting drugs to frame citizens, and a host of other misconduct that violates the oath of protecting the people.  In the 39th precinct in Philadelphia the five officers were officially convicted for lying on police reports, misappropriating drug bust funds, and framing innocent victims of drug possession.  These convictions have led to sixty overturned cases of false drug charges.  Of the victims, besides Betty Patterson, was an eighteen-year old nursing student who both plan to sue the department.  However, this sort of corruption is not exclusive to Pennsylvania, New York, and Louisiana, which suggests that there might be something inherent about police work that causes a given officer to break the law.  I submit that part of it can be attributed to officer training, and budgetary incentives.


Officer Training


            A look into the training of officers in a smaller department of an aspiring peace officer is very dark and scary.  It is my position that this type of training corrupts officers. 


            The number one rule in officer training is officer safety--period.  Whether a suspect flees, a crime is being committed, or a civilian becomes a victim; the safety of the officers at the scene is paramount.  When there is a decision between preventing one of the aforementioned situations and whether or not the officers go home safe that night, officer safety wins; every time.  That may sound harsh, but that is just the way it is(White, Z. A. Personal interview).


This training certainly has ramifications upon an officer’s thinking.  It is a statement that says police are more important than those they have sworn to protect.  While it is arguable that this statement has truth, it’s danger is articulated perfectly by New York City Officer Bernard Cawley, when asked during the Mollen Commission hearing if he beat up people he arrested.  He answered, “No, we just beat people up in general.  If they’re on the street, hanging around drug locations.  It was a show of force.  We had no interest in stopping the drug trade, but profiting from it”(Di Rienzo, Paul.  “Mollen Commission Says Cops Can’t Police Themselves”) Where do police officers learn this behavior?  Is it in the departments, the academies, or is it a small clique of officers that went to the Academy together, or personal defects?  It certainly cannot be a product of the career itself; otherwise, all officers would be corrupt.  It has been well documented that corrupt officers work in small groups, like in the Philadelphia example.  One theory is that once out of the academy, the rules change, and officers act accordingly.

            Officers coming out of the Academy learn quickly that the principles learned in the Academy, are just that, and each department has its own policies and procedures that officers must adjust to.  Most understand that these principles are universal though, and the bottom line is that they trump departmental procedures and custom every time.  The delicate idea behind this is that the bottom line sometimes is not reached until an Internal Affairs investigation, so it is the behavior before that is crucial.  “Field Training Officers tell the newcomers that what they learned in the Academy, ‘has nothing to do with reality, and they (the Academy teachers) don’t know who it is on the streets and how we do the job”(DeLattre, Edwin J., “The New Police Officer: Integrity and Temptation”). This type of field training is unfair to the new officers and perhaps presents explanation for why police officers become corrupt.  Why some officers resist this temptation and the majority does not, must come down to personal integrity and character.


Rationalizing Corruption



            It happened in Officer Serpico’s department, it happened in the 39th Precinct, it happens in Ohio, New Orleans, Los Angeles, all across the United States.  Police take money from the drug bust and line their pockets with it.  The number of known federal, state and local law enforcement officers in prison has increased five fold from 1994 to 1998; 107 imprisoned in 1994 to a high of 548 in 1998(Nelson, Jack and Ronald J. Ostrow,  “Illegal Drug Scene Spurs Rise in Police Corruption”).  It appears that officers cannot resist the temptation to increase their pay.  They look at the dealers, they look at themselves, and then they look at the money; it becomes rational for them to have a piece of the pie.  When the U.S. President declares a war on drugs and the police are on the side of the righteous, it does not take a big leap to understand that they think it unfair for the enemy to keep all the spoils.  It is this type of thinking that police succumb to everyday.  Though they cannot be blamed for being tempted, they should be blamed for acting on those temptations.  Yet there is another rationalization that the rank-and-file officers use, budgetary incentives created by the chief.

            Certain incentives exist for police officers to arrest more drug dealers and to plant evidence on those suspected of knowing were drug deals occur.  These incentives exist in the form of supplementing the annual budget, which translates into better equipment, higher success rates in convictions, and possibly higher wages.  When the equipment manager approaches the chief about the meager amount of funding in the budget allotted for equipment, and the chief retorts that he expects it to be made through drug busts; there exists a tremendous incentive to seize drugs contraband, legally or not.  Consider a simple analogy.  In high schools, teachers hand out detention assignments to students that misbehave.  Teachers use their discretion in deciding who gets detention and for what rule breach.  This discretion is at times based on the teacher’s mood.  Now imagine that there existed a monetary incentive for assigning detentions.  The number and rate of students receiving detentions would increase dramatically.  At first, based on real rule violations, no matter how miniscule, and then, on to fabricated rule violations.  Essentially, this abuse of power mirrors abuse of police power.

            Now, officers see themselves behaving like this for the department, and they ask themselves why the department, and thus all its employees should be the only beneficiary when it is individuals that are in the trenches.  They do not disagree that the department should benefit from confiscated contraband, they just think that they should directly benefit also.  Policies like this can change perfectly honest, but insecure officers into average crooks.  The challenge is to avoid such pitfalls.


Counteracting and Preventing Corruption



            Preventing corruption completely is a tall order.  However, steps can be taken to reduce it significantly.  There are a few fundamental ideas that can be implemented that can, by their very nature, curb corruption.  The three areas that need attention are the officer training, personal characters, and the incentives program.  It is my theory that following all or some of these ideas would have changed the situation in Philadelphia.

            The first step is to hire police officers of good character, which is difficult for a number of reasons.  Officers are human.  Giving a person the kind of power a policeman has can overwhelm one.  It is predictable what can happen, as history illustrates so well.  What is unpredictable with any kind of reliability is what will happen to a given individual.  That is the problem, because that is ideal information to know.  It is predictable that some officers will be corrupt.  It is also predictable that a large majority will do the job they were hired to do, and do it honestly. 

            Stricter screening methods need to be implemented to decrease the chance that a potential hire will become corrupt.  If he can successfully complete all the integrity obstacles, then it becomes more likely that he will be honest.  Unfortunately, because policemen are human, no department has been successful in creating test that will reliably predict officer conduct.  However, the department can reinforce ethical behavior by example, just like it can reinforce the idea that the Academy does not know what it is like on the streets.

            Once an officer is hired, the department should do all it can to promote ethics on the job.  Officer safety is extremely important.  If police are incapacitated, who will be left to protect the citizenry in the future?  Along with such indoctrination, ethical indoctrination is paramount.  The department must understand that the citizens trust the police to be ethical, and a breach of that trust is unjust.  Further, it is not practical to act unethically.  People eye the police and their behavior constantly.  Corruption in the force makes it easier for a citizen to rationalize acting unlawfully, which just creates more work for the police.  If a police officer, who is allegedly the pillar of the law, can defy it, why cannot the citizens who pay for the police services?  The credibility of the police vanishes.  A corrupt police officer cannot very well express effectively why citizens should obey the law, for he has no consistency and thus no credibility.


The Incentive Program


The Incentive Program, or the method of police chiefs using promises of contraband going to sub-departments that lack the money in the budget, gives officers more incentive to not only plant evidence to make an entire estate contraband, but it also lets them rationalize lining their own pockets.  Lining ones own pockets can be countered with ethics training, countering the act of planting evidence in order to confiscate large properties can be diffused by fractionating or stopping the percentage of contraband that goes to the police department.  A large percentage funneled into the community for community centers, drug rehabilitation hospitals, crime intervention and crime prevention programs as advised by the Mollen Commission would seem to curb the corruption(DiRienzo, Paul).  When corrupt police officers see that the incentive is zero, then there is no incentive for planting evidence

            There are several community programs that could use the money to better their programs.  Midnight Basketball, after school programs, jobs programs, and community day care programs.  At this point, many programs, like Midnight Basketball, survive on last minute grants from the city, private donors, and community businesses.  For example, the town of Beloit, Wisconsin only was able at the last minute to start up its fourth season.  “ The 1996 season is being made possible by a $20,000 block grant by the city, $10,000 from the United Way, and private donations”(Saemann, Karyn “Hoop Dreams”). The opponents will say that diverting funds into the community is mismanagement waiting to happen and will then ask what proposal is there for the now lack of police funds.  The answer, like the justification of officer safety, is harsh, but simple: since the department did not have legal rights to that money, perhaps they should relocate officers to different cities.  Police departments should do what they always do, create budget cuts and ask the city for money.  In fact, if the money from the contraband was funneled into the community, the grants that cities usually ration to eager community programs can be funneled into the police departments. 




            The situation of police corruption, specifically policemen planting evidence, stealing contraband for their own personal accounts, and falsifying police reports, is tremendous.  I have outlined a few methods to curb the problem and firmly believe if these five officers had been trained differently in the Academy and the field, screened more strictly, undergone ethics indoctrination, and were not faced with the incentive program the likelihood of them facing the situation they did, decreases tremendously.  Since corruption of this kind has existed in the police force since ad infinitum, it is conceivable that some or all of these methods have been attempted in some capacity.  Another answer, but one that I cannot construct, might be to change the entire ideology and system of policing and punishment.  That, I leave to prosperity.








































DeLattre, Edwin J., “The New Police Officer: Integrity and Temptation,” Beretta Leadership Bulletin.  December 1994.



Di Rienzo, Paul.  “Mollen Commission Says Cops Can’t Police Themselves,”



“It was the ‘day of judgment’ for rogue cops in Philadelphia,” Associated Press, April 15, 1995.



McNamara, Joseph. “Why cops lie about drug evidence”  Philadelphia Inquirer, February 13, 1996.


Nelson, Jack and Ronald J. Ostrow,  “Illegal Drug Scene Spurs Rise in Police Corruption,” Los Angeles Times, June 13, 1998, A1.



“Nine Cops Indicted in New Orleans,”  Reuter News Service, December 15, 1994.


Saemann, Karyn “Hoop Dreams,” Beloit Daily News, February 1, 1996,


White, Z. A. Community Service Officer, City of Carrollton, TX.  Personal interview, May 7, 1999.


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