Police Corruption and Criminality

To insure our safety, we give police officers special power to serve and protect our communities.  Unfortunately, these officers sometimes abuse our trust for their own personal gain.  Anthony V. Bouza, Audrey Farrell, and Gregg Barak examine these instances in their scholarly works, Police Unbound: Corruption, Abuse, and Heroism By the Boys in Blue, Crime, Class, and Corruption: The Politics of the Police, and Crimes By the Capitalist State: An Introduction to State Criminality, respectively.  Yet, corrupt police officers interest artists as well as scholars.  “The Sign of Four” by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, and Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman all feature inept, heavy-handed, or blatantly corrupt law enforcement officials.  The actions of a few individuals do not invalidate the authority of the entire group; policing is a great profession, and most officers are clean (Bouza 14).  Unfortunately, it is often difficult for us to tell the difference between policemen who seek to help the community and policemen who seek to help themselves, and when we encounter the latter, our faith in the government’s ability to deliver justice – or anything else – is shaken.  The scholarly works of Farrell, Bouza, and Barak and the fiction works of Doyle, Hammett, and Wideman show that when a policeman breaks or manipulates the law, he is more dangerous than the common criminal because no higher authority can stop him, and his actions erode faith in all public institutions; to avert these disastrous effects, we must break the culture of silence among police officers, have more frequent investigations of our law enforcement officials, and emphasize quality of convictions over quantity of convictions.  The phenomenon of police corruption demonstrates that crime does not stem the desire to rebel against authority or to harm others; rather, it occurs when a person puts his individual needs above the law.

I will now detail the questionable tactics, both illegal and quasi-legal, which some police officers have used.  Among the illegal actions are seizing and then selling prohibited narcotics, taking bribes from illegal syndicates, and torturing inmates to extract confessions (Barak 67-71; Bouza 91-92, 103-104; Farrell 9, 29, 38-41, 46-47, 166; Wideman 81, 112-113, 128).  Manipulations of the law include arresting and convicting people on shaky evidence, discriminating against some groups while ignoring others in arrests and convictions, and distorting statistics to make the department or another targeted group look better or worse than it actually is (Farrell 29-30, Bouza 34, 36, 116, 128).  Because the police are our premier law enforcement agency, and because silence about fellow officers’ crimes and obedience to authority are intrinsic to police culture, corruption can go largely unnoticed by the public, with some wrongdoing going uncorrected for decades at a time (Bouza 17-18).  When miscarriages of justice are discovered, however, they are seared into our collective memories, like the wrongful convictions of Joan of Arc (heresy), Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (triple murder), and Sam Sheppard (murder of his wife).

I also need to define my terms.  For the purposes of this paper, “justice” is law enforcement which follows both the letter of the law and the intention of the law.  A “quality arrest” is one in which the police have enough non-circumstantial evidence to believe a person has committed a crime.  A “quality case” is one in which the prosecution presents a clear and logical argument which is not based on circumstantial evidence.  A “quality conviction” is one in which guilt is proved beyond reasonable doubt.  Also, an arrest or conviction for a more serious crime has more quality than an arrest or conviction for a less serious crime.

According to Anthony V. Bouza, the biggest obstacle to police reform is the “Blue Code of Silence” (18).  When a police school graduate joins a department, the older officers teach him that he has now entered a different, more “real” world with a unique and superior code of ethics (17).  In the police world, officers who keep quiet and support their teammates are accepted and appreciated; anyone who seeks to threaten authority, especially by reforming the department, is a “rat” who is shunned.  The police chiefs and the unions wholeheartedly support this practice (17, 189).  If any higher-ranking officer seeks to break the Wall of Silence or to end corruption, the police unions will throw all their energy into stopping the reform and ending the reformer’s career (115, 189-191).  Thus, all officers, good and bad, take the vow of silence (23-24).  The Code enables a corrupt police officer to act with impunity.  He already has more power than civilians, and if the press or the reformers catch wind of his unethical activities, he can be confident in the support of his peers.  This policy is more oppressive than the Mafia’s policy of “omerta” (silence), and it is the main reason that practices like brutality and bribery continue (18).  Bouza says the Rodney King case is a prime example of the Blue Code of Silence in action: scores of Los Angeles police officers watched a half-dozen of their brethren mercilessly beat the young black motorist, but none came forward to stop it or to testify against the corrupt police officers.  This incident eroded blacks’ and Hispanics’ faith in government so much that they rioted in the streets for four days, causing almost one billion dollars of property damage.

Thus, to solve the problem of corruption, we must change the internal culture of the police (114-115). They must learn to apply the label of “rat” to corrupt officers who betray their trust, not to reformers, and police must regain the moral courage to stand up to wrongdoing, wherever it is (22).  The police should also open up its relations with the public so that it will come to view regular citizens as allies in the fight against crime rather than allies from whom the truth must be hidden (170).  This is a Herculean task; to achieve it, we need to find and install tough-minded, reformist police chiefs who will punish officers severely and who will not fear the public.

That all police officers, clean and unclean, are party to the Blue Code of Silence says much about criminality.  The officers are not silent because they feel hostility towards the justice system; police and judges are closely linked, after all.  They are not silent because they want to fool the public and to harm the public; they are otherwise proud to protect and to serve their communities (17).  They are silent because they know they will lose their jobs and their friendships if they do otherwise.  They are silent because they want to feed their families and to continue serving others, and they consider these more important than strictly following the law and allowing token police crimes to continue.  Crime, thus, occurs when a person puts himself above the rest of the community.

Legislators cannot change the culture of the police, but they still have an important role to play in ending police crime: installing tough penalties for police corruption and conducting periodical investigations of the police force.  Gregg Barak notes that state crimes are often ignored totally or defended totally because the victims of these crimes do not usually have legal means to exact justice (4).  Legislators should give civilians that option.  Bouza says that federal courts are important to executing justice, and costly litigation can have a chastening effect on a department like the police which is on the public weal (261-262).  Governmental investigations of the police can inject the layer of authority which is so often lacking.  Barak notes that the 1986 House of Representatives report on “The Marielitos” was a landmark for prisoners’ and immigrants’ rights (160-161).  In this case, Cuban immigrants were imprisoned without trial in Atlanta for years (158-160).  They were incarcerated so long that they lost all faith in the American government, starting riots and crying, “We are the abandoned ones” (160).  The House realized that the treatment of the Marielitos was unsanitary, inhumane, and also illegal, prompting reforms in the prison and in policy (160-162).

When a person commits a crime, he is calculating that the benefits of this action are worth the possible costs of arrest and incarceration.  Robbie Wideman becomes an illegal drug dealer because he wants to fulfill his individual needs for recognition, for fame, and for his family’s security, and he considers the possibility of an arrest derailing his career so remote that he is completely shocked when he does get in trouble (Wideman 89, 130-131).  The government can deter crimes, including police crimes, by altering the potential criminal’s cost-benefit analysis.  A legislature which increases the costs of corruption by introducing more avenues of litigation and harsher penalties and which increases the possibility of capture by investigating the police department more frequently will more effectively govern men.

In the American criminal justice system, guilt must be proved “beyond reasonable doubt.”  In his scholarly work, Audrey Farrell says that police sometimes use a much lower standard (29-30).  Police are under heavy pressure to deliver a large quantity of convictions, so they sometimes cut corners so they will look like they’re doing their job.  This can lead the police to build dishonest, flimsy, and frightening cases.  The job of a detective is not to identify criminals but to build a case against the suspect which the police arrests, so detectives sometimes build alibis instead of looking for the truth (29).  Sometimes, police use torture to extract confessions from innocent people, as they did in the cases of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, Northern Irish people who served about fifteen years on wrongful convictions of pub bombing until they were set free (Farrell 9, 29, 166).

The British police’s policy toward tax evasion is a great example of the police emphasizing a large volume of arrests over a high quality of arrests.  In 1975, there were about 150 British police officers pursuing white collar crime, including high-profile and high-stakes tax evasion, compared with 2,488 teams prosecuting social security offenses in 1984 (Farrell 34).  According to Farrell, ₤477 million was involved in fraud and attempted fraud in the first half of the year of 1989, but police prosecuted less than ten percent of substantiated fraud reports (35-36).  If the British police shifted its focus from social security fraud to tax fraud, they would get fewer convictions, but the convictions would be much more valuable.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett and “The Sign of Four” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle both feature inept law enforcement officials who emphasize quantity over quality.  In Hammett’s novel, Lieutenant Dundy and Tom Polhaus spend most of their time trying to pin either Miles Archer’s and Floyd Thursby’s murders on the innocent Sam Spade (Hammett 13-23, 70-72).  Spade has much more skill than these detectives, but he still has to work around them because they could throw him in jail if he “overplays his hand” by giving them too much evidence which they could misinterpret (73-81, 141-144).  The District Attorney, Bryan, cares more about getting convictions than about getting justice (145-150).  He constructs a complex but false story connecting Floyd Thursby’s murder to San Francisco gamblers; when Spade dispels that notion, Bryan considers arresting Spade, instead.  Eventually, Spade sacrifices all four unsuccessful thieves, Gutman, Brigid, Joel, and Wilmer, in order to save his own skin (172-186, 205-216).  Even after the police gather all these suspects, Spade jokes that the force is disappointed because he slipped through their fingers.  They lamely say that that is not true at all.

Officer Athelney Jones of “The Sign of Four” is ineffective as well as brash.  Jones claims that the great Sherlock Holmes’s successful work is the result of luck, not skill (Doyle 141-142).  Jones insists that his “fact-based approach” is superior to Holmes’s deductive reasoning, but Jones’s theories are all half-baked (142-143).  Jones’s real powers lay not in his mind but in his position; after arriving, he arrests everyone in the house except Holmes, Watson, and Miss Morstan, and calls it a successful day (147).  Though Jones is a useless detective, he is a police officer, and Holmes needs his help in order to solve the case (168-171).  So, Holmes allows Jones to accompany him and Watson when they catch Jonathan Small and then allows Jones to improve his reputation by making all the arrests himself.

Arresting and convicting criminals on the basis of shaky evidence, while not explicitly illegal, is unethical, and it weakens the legitimacy of all police officers, including honest ones with solid cases.  The time which an innocent person loses in prison can never be replaced, and the execution of an innocent man can haunt a society forever, as the execution of Jesus of Nazareth is remembered every Good Friday.  Police, judges and juries, in sending a man to prison and deciding the term of his sentence, completely change his life, as completely changed Robbie’s life (Wideman 187-188).  This is an awesome responsibility which should not be used in a cavalier manner.

Policemen currently emphasize quantity over quality because that is what is expected of them.  Athelney Jones has to get into the newspaper for his “work.”  Police departments know this, so they manipulate statistics in various ways to “improve” their performance (Bouza 116-117).  If the media put more pressure on police to do their work effectively, they could change the culture of policing (179, 187).  To solve the problem of poor work by the state, we must first recognize it and try to solve it, as Barak says (13, 280).  If the public ignores the police’s mistakes, the police can, as well.  By changing our values, we can help to eradicate police crime.

I will now address some objections to my argument: (1) current reforms are sufficient, and there are not enough corrupt police officers to justify further action; (2) individual police actions do not tarnish the reputation of the entire group; (3) these reforms will prevent the police from doing their work effectively; (4) an officer’s tactics, legal or illegal, are permissible as long as he is seeking justice.

My response to (1) is that the police have cleaned up significantly since the 1950s, but public relations disasters such as the Rodney King and Amadou Diallo incidents continue, so we still have a long way to go.  Also, there is no such thing as an “acceptable level” of police corruption or of any other vice.  Wherever it exists, we must make efforts to stamp it out.  In response to (2), if the police did not consider an individual as an integral part and a sufficient representative of a group, they would not wear uniforms.  Objection (3) is an interesting claim because we cannot often see the results of theoretical proposals until they are put into action.  Nevertheless, I reject it.  Breaking the Code of Silence destroys one aspect of the bond between policemen, but I believe this aspect is a negative one which detracts from their relationship as a whole.  Increased government oversight should not be a problem if policemen are doing their jobs adequately.  Emphasizing quality of arrests, cases, and convictions over quantity will force policemen to change their tactics, but it will be a change for the better.  I suggest a concomitant increase in police budgets to facilitate the process.  As for (4), “The end justifies the means” is a normative, utilitarian, philosophical claim which is so sweeping that I cannot sufficiently answer it here.  Nevertheless, I would like my opponent to show me a real-life example of a police officer who successfully enforced the law by breaking it.  In my personal experience, I have found that a person who uses unethical means will never achieve the ethical ends he desires; instead, his villainy pollutes him from the inside and shatters his dream.  These objections are thoughtful, but they do not overpower my argument.

“Who will guard us from the guardians?”  All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren is a masterpiece about a Southern politician named Willie Stark who desperately wants to improve the lives of his poor constituents.  Stark’s fellow politicians are all corrupt, so to achieve his objectives, he assumes their tactics.  He becomes a master of blackmail, bribery, and fraud.  Stark vastly increases welfare and health care benefits in his state, but to his dismay, every program which he builds falls apart when his corrupt actions come back to haunt him.  Power can be used to achieve great good, but with it comes the temptation of great evil, as we have seen in this investigation of police criminality.  When a person puts his individual needs above the law, crime and tragedy result.  When we are building our social institutions, we should remember this: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Works Cited

Barak, Gregg.  Crimes by the Capitalist State: An Introduction to State Criminality.  Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Bouza, Anthony V.  Police Unbound: Corruption, Abuse, and Heroism By the Boys in Blue.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2001.

Farrell, Audrey.  Crime, Class, and Corruption: The Politics of the Police.  Reading, England: Cox and Wyman Limited, 1992.

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