A Culture of Corruption


images (2)When I started studying the sociology of police, I came to understand the subtle nature of corruption and the police. Lest you think what I found out was somehow unique to me and my experience, you need only to read Sgt. Michael Quinn’s book, Walking With the Devil: The Police Code of Silence, and also Chief Scott Silveri’s, A Darker Shade of Blue: From Public Servant to Professional Deviant; Policing’s Special Operations Culture to understand what I am talking about.

Both of these men come from the generation after me. In fact, I worked with Michael’s father when I was a Minneapolis cop in the 60s.. I remember him as one of the “good guys.”

These two officers have answered the question I have about the pervasive nature of police corruption. Not that policing in my day was a pure and selfless act, but rather what were the influences during my time in blue that tended to continue a “culture of corruption?”

Two come to mind: the War on Drugs and highly-specialized tactical policing (dual influences of SWAT teams and the police-military collaboration since 9/11).

When I was a young street cop there was little (if any) specialization. The tactical squad to which I was a member carried no specialized equipment. The only effect we had on a tactical problem was our numbers (normally four to five two-man units during the evening hours). This also was the time before the “War on Drugs.” The biggest problem before the “war” was what the vice squad was going to do about street prostitution.

Let me suggest that the culture of corruption had a great opportunity to grow with undercover officers, decoy units, SWAT teams and a growing focus on the “bad guys” without regard to the community served.

I use the term “corruption” broadly to include acts such as: stealing things, receiving regular payoffs for enforcing or not enforcing the law, accepting gifts and favors not afforded the general public, disregarding departmental rules and orders; lying, issuing false reports, making false testimony or committing other acts a person knows is dishonest or morally wrong.

For an urban police officer, doing the right thing can be very difficult, especially when one’s peers support doing the wrong thing.  Corruption exists when police break the law, whether in pursuit of enforcing it or to enhance their own lives by accepting special favors, gifts like free food, liquor, or money or other items of value — or protecting a fellow officer which they know has done wrong, but to give him or her up would be tantamount to career suicide.

I have read studies about honest cops who were on the take. Usually, the unit or precinct in which they worked had been historically crooked, and police who wanted to work in there found that to be accepted, they had to accept their part of the take. Within the culture of corruption, taking money means that the person receiving it is just as guilty as the others. Some cops took the money, but gave their share to their church or a charity as a way to stay “clean” and still be accepted by their peers. While this might have been a good compromise for their consciences, they were still thieves.

What I have just wrote may be quite foreign to most people who do not carefully read the daily news and regularly scan the Internet looking for police misbehavior. If you do, however, you will see a stream of reports (and many, many YouTube videos) about police corruption, abuse of force, false reports and testimony, and other illegal police actions. Many reports highlight plaintiffs receiving large cash settlements from municipal coffers or police officers getting fired or going to jail.

Corruption is not something that happened in the 1930’s—it goes on today in many of our nation’s cities and police departments.

But, let’s remember this: when police officers have to depend on their fellow officers to save their lives when they find themselves in danger, taking their share of the take, going along with petty thievery, graft, writing “creative reports” on probable cause and overlooking police protection schemes often becomes an acceptable trade-off for a new officer’s personal safety and job tenure.

The question I put to my police colleagues is perhaps quite different from what they have heard before about being honest. The question is this: What does it do to us/you to be put in such a situation? To be considered such a low-caste member of the community that we/you are considered too poor to pay for our own food or drinks? Do you think those people respect us for this? Don’t they simply think of us as low-life moochers? So, what’s the answer?

Developing A Culture of Candor

The answer must be different than it has been in the past. In the past, new police officers were taught how to survive in a corrupt system. Instead, new officers should be enlisted to eliminate the problem through the teaching, introduction, and active maintenance of professional police ethics.  This will not be easy. But to begin this would be calling for an “enough is enough” position and then take steps to eliminate the problem once and for all.

The primary fault of most reform efforts in a police department is that they usually fail to acknowledge the power of the police subculture. When dishonesty is a matter of common practice, overlooked by supervisors, and when it significantly supplements the income, status, and lifestyle of those who practice it, it is very difficult to control let alone eliminate.

Nevertheless, an article in the July, 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review gives me hope that corrupt practices can be eliminated and honest organizations be developed.[1]

The authors, James O’Toole and Warren Bennis, address the problem of corruption and lack of trust in our nation’s financial institutions. (The situation that inspired it was, of course, the meltdown of our nation’s financial system in 2008. The result of which was that we, as a nation, were plunged into the most significant period of economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. And the jury is still out as to whether or not the reforms taken will stick.)

O’Toole and Bennis note that our culture has tended to evaluate executive performance based on one criterion: the extent to which a leader created wealth for his or her investors. (Might we also say that our culture has tended to evaluate police chief performance on also the same kind of singular criterion — the reduction of the so-called “crime rate?” or whether or not a community “feels” safe?)

O’Toole and Bennis tell us because of the new forces of globalization, our financial institutions in the future will be evaluated by the extent to which they “create organizations that are economically, ethically, and socially sustainable.” A good goal for our nation’s police as well. Is your police department economically, ethically, and socially sustainable?

This standard is a radical change for both financial institutions and police.

Yet one factor can make reform like this stick and — organizational transparency—that is, developing a “culture of candor.”  It is the lack of transparency in both institutions (financial and police) which have allowed a culture of corruption to continue. Instead, O’Toole and Bennis suggest “culture of candor” be developed:

“No organization can be honest with the public if it is not honest with itself… [L]eaders need to make a conscious decision to support transparency and create a culture of candor. … Organizations that fail to achieve transparency will have it forced upon them. There’s no way to keep a lot of secrets in the age of the Internet.”[2]

Can this apply to police? Will transparency show honest light on the police who have for so long tended to dwell undercover? Like Wall Street, police organizations are bastions of secrecy and opaqueness. Some secrecy, of course, is necessary for police, such as during crime investigations. But for much of what police do, secrecy is not needed.

The use of video cameras in police cars and even personal cameras for police, will add to diminished police secrecy,  not withstanding the nearly universal use of cell phone video cameras by citizens documenting police actions — but will not alleviate the problem. Technology cannot replace the need for personal and organizational honesty.

I suggest that police would greatly benefit ethically by volunteering to open more of their practices to public review, that is, being more transparent.

And if we are serious about transparency and a developing a culture of candor within police, it has to begin from the top. Police leaders must start telling the truth and being truthful and demanding it from those whom they lead. They must desist from keeping organizational secrets long after they could be shared with the community.

Transparency includes talking about mistakes. Leaders who can admit mistakes will tend to encourage others in their organization to own up to their own mistakes. The objective is not to create some kind of organizational or personal blood-letting, but rather to acknowledge that mistakes happen and talking about them for the purpose of improving what they do so that mistakes become less frequent.

It’s not that evil, unscrupulous people get into police departments or financial organizations, and then set about to do bad things. In fact, the opposite is true. Good people with good intentions are hired to work in police departments and finance organizations that have poor leadership, who never talk about ethical dilemmas in their work, and do everything possible to cover any kind of mistake.

It is never enough to lecture new police officers about ethics or have them swear to and sign a code of ethics.[3] Rather, the kind of ethics I am talking about is a set of ethics that is practiced from top to bottom and present throughout a person’s career.

More must be done to create police organizations that encourage good people to continue to be good and have strong internal mechanisms that lift up and encourage the practice of integrity. This will eventually develop a culture of candor within an organization. And when that happens, the communities served will come to trust and support their police.

[1] James O’Toole and Warren Bennis. “What’s Needed Next: A Culture of Candor.” Harvard Business Review, July 2009.


[3] International Association of Chiefs of Police, 1957.