Police Misconduct and Corruption
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For as long as policing has existed in America, there has been misconduct and corruption associated with any given policing agency. Police officer malfeasance can range from minor cases of misconduct to the downright criminal acts that are considered to be corruption. It is important to state here that not all police officers are guilty of misconduct and/or corruption, but like everything in our media-based society, the bad cops are of much more interest and therefore are what this paper will focus on.
Merriam-Webster online (2005) defines misconduct as 1: mismanagement especially of governmental or military responsibilities; 2: intentional wrongdoing; specifically: deliberate violation of a law or standard especially by a government official: Malfeasance; or 3: improper behavior. Corruption, as defined by Merriam-Webster online (2005), is 1 a: impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle: Depravity; b: Decay, Decomposition; c: inducement to wrong by improper or unlawful means (as bribery) d: a departure from the original or from what is pure or correct; or 2: an agency or influence that corrupts. Police corruption encompasses police misconduct. While police misconduct is usually easily identified, police corruption is a gray area because people disagree on what is classified as corruption. This paper will discuss the different types of police misconduct and police corruption. It will also theorize about why police misconduct and corruption occur and the different ways to stop them.
TYPES OF MISCONDUCT AND CORRUPTION
There are two types of corruption that most police malfeasances fall under: grass-eating and meat-eating. Defined by the Knapp Commission in the early 1970s, grass-eating is misconduct that occasionally occurs in normal every day scope of police work. (Schmalleger, 2005). Meat-eating is when police officers actively seek out illicit ways to make money, usually through bribes, threats, or intimidation (Schmalleger, 2005).
Grass-eating is usually viewed as the least serious type of corruption. Some forms of grass-eating are relatively harmless, such as mooching (police officers accepting free items from donors) and favoritism (issuing license tabs, window stickers, or courtesy cards that exempt users from arrest or citation from traffic offenses). Aside from these examples of grass-eating, there are still some types that are undeniably corrupt. These types of grass-eating include bribery (receiving cash or a gift in exchange for past or future help in avoiding prosecution), extortion (holding a ?street court? in which minor traffic tickets can be avoided by the payment of cash ?bail? to the arresting officer, with no receipt given), and shopping (picking up small items such as candy bars, gum, and cigarettes at a store where the door has been unlocked at the close of business hours). This type of grass-eating often leads to meat-eating corruption.
Meat-eating is the more serious type of police corruption. When a police officer is meat-eating, if he or she gets caught they are almost certain to be fired from their job as well as possibly arrested if their meat-eating is serious enough. Some examples of meat-eating include premeditated theft (using tools, keys, or other devices to force entry and steal property), shakedown (taking expensive items for personal use during an investigation of a break-in or burglary), and perjury (lying to provide an alibi for fellow officers engaged in unlawful activity or otherwise failing to tell the truth so as to avoid sanctions). Planting evidence, nonjustifiable homicide, and dealing drugs and/or aiding drug dealers in any way are also very serious meat-eating corruption offenses.
While by definition, the use of excessive force and accepting free offers of coffee and other such goods are considered to be corrupt police practices, many (particularly police officers) dont consider them or others to be such (Schmalleger, 2005). What makes some behaviors corrupt while other behaviors are viewed as a part of the job? Maybe it is because police feel that it is okay to accept something as long as it is given to them with no strings attached. Maybe it is because police feel the need to protect themselves when being threatened by a person that they view is capable of causing them major bodily harm. Maybe it is because police band together even if they are in the wrong against people that they view as outsiders that are trying to tell them how to do their job.
There are numerous reasons why police misconduct and police corruption aren?t easily defined, but probably the most important one is that not everyone has the same moral standards and a lot of people would define that which is ethical differently. Many justify their behavior by telling themselves that as long as no one else is getting hurt by their actions and as long as no one else finds out about their behavior then what they are doing is okay. Many others still justify their behavior by telling themselves that everyone else only looks out for himself or herself and that they are going to do the same even if it means having to break a few laws and hurt people along the way.
WHY MISCONDUCT AND CORRUPTION OCCUR There are several theories as to why police misconduct and corruption occur. One theory centers on the police working personality. According to Schmalleger (2005) police officers share certain characteristics that are part of the police working personality. Insecurity, secrecy, hostility, cynicism, and being individualistic are a few of the characteristics common to most police officers that might cause some officers to commit corrupt acts. These few officers might believe that they are owed something because they are the police and therefore will take what is offered to them and even seek out ways to obtain money illegally.
The rotten barrel, rotten apple, and rotten group theories all have been used to try and explain police misconduct and corruption. The rotten barrel theory suggests that unethical and illegal behaviors have permeated police departments from the street cops right up to the top administrative officials (Byers, 2000). This theory cant be entirely correct because there are good cops who uphold very high moral standards in almost every police department. The rotten apple theory postulates that unethical and criminal behavior is isolated to a few corrupt individuals throughout any given police department (Byers, 2000). Police administrators like this explanation of corrupt behavior because it doesnt tarnish the whole departments image and it is easy to clean up simply by firing the few officers involved (Byers, 2000). According to Byers (2000) the newest theory on police misconduct and corruption, the rotten group theory, claims that there are small groups of officers who assist and protect each other in their criminal activities. This ?rotten? theory differs from the other two because it is based on a drug-related police corruption where the rotten barrel and rotten apple theories are based on traditional patterns of non-drug related police corruption (Byers, 2000).
Police work is centered on the officers having great authority and discretion with very little supervision. Also, police officers make very little money and are expected to uphold high moral and ethical standards when confronted with the opportunity to possibly make some extra money by withholding monetary evidence, taking something of monetary value from a home that has just been burglarized because the likelihood of their getting caught is slim, turning the other way when a drug deal goes down in turn for being paid to keep the information to themselves, and many other reasons. Power combined with authority and discretion often leads to police misconduct and corruption (Byers, 2000).
HOW POLICE MISCONDUCT AND CORRUPTION CAN BE STOPPED Police misconduct and corruption are a relatively common occurrence, probably more than the majority of the public even realizes. Since the problem is relatively widespread, then how is the best way to cut down on and eventually eliminate police malfeasances? To begin to deal with the problems several different issues in policing will have to be addressed simultaneously.
First, the most obvious, albeit, not so simple, solution to police crime is to raise all police officer pay to pay that is comparable to other professions who work approximately the same number of hours with similar working conditions as police. The fact that police make less than the average full time retail store assistant manager is insulting. Police put their life on the line everyday in order to protect and serve and police officer pay is so pitifully low that some officers? feel like they have to resort to crime on the side of their job in order to make ends meat.
Another potential solution to police misconduct and corruption is to encourage the public to report any questionable encounters with the police. A lot of criminal behavior done by police is more than likely never reported because citizens dont want to get involved or they feel like no matter what they say or do that it won?t make any difference. Rogue police get away with improper and immoral conduct because they use their position of authority to intimidate others. If these police fear that their bad behavior will be reported to their superiors and that they will potentially be fired because of it, then the ?bad? police are less likely to do anything that they know that their job description says that they cant.
Ongoing ethics training and more thorough hiring practices can also be used in the fight against police misconduct and corruption. If you go over something enough with police officers, then the information is bound to sink in on some level. As for the hiring practices, the background check should be improved. The potential police officer should have to go through an even more rigorous psychological examination than they do now. Also, prior to being hired, police officers should have to undergo a polygraph test to try and get the truth about their real moral character.
Since there is no easy explanation as to why police misconduct and police corruption occur, then it is relatively safe to assume that there also isn?t a simple solution to stopping corruption once it has occurred. Reform techniques focused on the malfeasance and misbehavior of individual officers have not succeeded. Better personnel screening, training, internal processes, and functional internal and external integrity units also have not fully addressed the problem. In a very real sense police ?management? has failed?(Johnson and Cox III, 2004-5, p. 68).
CONCLUSION There isnt only one way of dealing with police misconduct and corruption. All solutions alone will fail because no one solution fully addresses the problem. Raising the pay and encouraging citizens to report instances of police malfeasances won?t work on their own because they do not take into account the officer who doesnt just break the law for money, but that break the law because they are truly rogue. Ongoing ethics training and better hiring practices also dont fully address the problem. Some people know how to fool polygraph tests by controlling their breathing and heart rate, and how exactly are you supposed to teach grown men and women to be ethical Isnt having a high moral standard something that is taught to children by their parents? Children are more easily molded into what they should be. Adults, on the other hand, are older and are therefore set in their ways, whether good or bad. It would be really difficult if not impossible to teach police officers to be ethical if they already werent just that.
The only way to truly put an end to police misconduct and malfeasances is to change the police organizational structure and police personality (Johnson and Cox III, 2004-5). There needs to no longer be a negative stigma attached to the ?good? cop if he or she decides to report to their superiors any misconduct or corruptive activities that they know to be going on with some other police officers at their agency. Johnson and Cox III (2004-5) have it right when they say that ?the culture of being above the law ends only when leaders enforce rules against corrupt behavior and then recognize right behavior?.
Byers, Bryan. (2000). Ethics and Criminal Justice: Some Observations on Police Misconduct. In Annual Editions: Criminal Justice 05/06 (pp. 108-111). Iowa: McGraw Hill.
Johnson, T.A. & Cox III, R.W. (2004-5). Police Ethics: Organizational Implications. Public Integrity, 7, 67-79. Retrieved November 8, 2005, from http://p2050-library.ucok.edu.vortex2.ucok.edu:2050/login?url=http://search.epnet.com.vortex2.ucok.edu:2050/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&an=15391842&scope=site Merriam-Webster Online (2005). Retrieved November 23, 2005, from http://www.m-w.com Schmalleger, Frank (2005). Criminal Justice Today: An Introductory Text for the 21st Century. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.