Dealing with police misconduct and corruption

A police officer talking to a traffic offender.
There are many police officers of all kinds in the world. Indeed only very small percentage of them will ever become outright criminals. Many of them are very dedicated men and women. But all of them, by the nature of their profession, face a constant fight to stay honest. Why?"

Why police officers have a hard time staying clean?

Many police rookies have been disillusioned after graduation from the police academy.

Though instilled with the desire to earn an honest living while pursuing the career of law enforcement, he may soon learn that police work involves a number of “extenuating factors.”

Suppose, for example, his immediate superiors who will pass on his department during probation have come to the conclusion that one can accept gratuities and still be a good police officer.

They may rationalize that there is nothing really wrong with taking a gift that it is something smart people everywhere are doing.

Is the rookie going to stick by his resolve to be honest, or will he fall in line with the practice of taking free cigarettes, meals, coffee, turkeys and liquor?

Dare he antagonize the men who will fill out his probationary report? This is the problem that has faced rookie policemen where dishonesty has gone unchecked in a police department.

The hard life of a police officer does not help matters. To live in peril from armed criminals and trigger-happy juveniles is bad enough, but the police officer faces much more.

While he fears to be too hasty about shooting an armed opponent, he also does not want to give his associates the impression he is a coward.

There is also the matter of his home life. Can a policeman witness no end of sordid crimes and all kinds of tragedies without becoming hard-boiled, if only in self-defense?

And if he becomes tough in order to preserve his mental balance, how is he to succeed in playing the role of affectionate husband?

Even his friends will introduce him to people as “Mr. _. He’s a policeman.” All this makes him a man apart from his fellow citizens. He belongs to a fraternity of career men who suffer a high rate of ulcers, suicides and divorces.

Since his fellow officers understand him and sympathize with his fears and tensions, he must be accepted as one of them.

This compulsion to belong may force him to condone dishonesty if it happens to exist in his police department.

This is not the only source of pressure that closes in on an honest policeman. Suppose his house is mortgaged, or there are heavy doctor bills. Perhaps he wants to send his son to college.

What if his police salary just does not cover it? Regulations may forbid “moonlighting,” taking on outside work. But handouts and payoffs may seem to be the answer.

The large numbers of dedicated policemen also face a hard fight to maintain their honesty and morale.

In some cases, “too zealous” performance of duty has aroused political interference, resulting in a reprimand or even an unwanted transfer to another branch of police work.

Arresting the “wrong people” has also caused police officers to suffer loss of promotion and the pay increase that would have come with it.

Police officers are not encouraged to enforce the law when they come into court and encounter judges who are overly sympathetic with offenders.

Are there remedies to police dishonesty and corruption?

One veteran police commander believes that police dishonesty is not out of hand as long as other policemen are reporting it.

Nevertheless, the problem concerns all police departments and much thought goes into possible remedies.

In some cities defective recruiting procedures have been allowing men ill-suited and insufficiently educated to enter police work.

Better screening has been urged as well as higher moral and educational standards. Also, if there is to be an efficient police department, it must be entirely free from political interference.

However, such interference is often traditional and is not easily conquered.

Criticism has also been leveled at Civil Service procedure, judicial reversal of dismissals and police unions that can force a department to retain a man it considers unfit for the job.

Sometime back one police department organized a Chief Inspector’s Squad, which soon came to be called the “Gestapo.” It was not pleasant work.

The squad would investigate a policeman’s private life, check out a civilian complaint of police extortion or question a patrolman on his beat. But it got results.

To induce officers to speak up, a department may give promotions to police officers who expose corruption among their fellow officers.

Sometimes suspected police officers are transferred to different precincts to break up ties with lawless elements; however, this merely spreads the corruption.

Another suggestion heard recently is stiffer sentences for convicted policemen. Frequently mentioned is the matter of better police wages.

Certainly men exposed to constant danger while upholding the peace and safety of the community deserve to be amply rewarded.

In addition, in some departments there is a real need for more men to serve as Supervisors and inspectors.

It is very difficult to maintain discipline and efficiency in a semi-military organization when too many policemen come under the direct supervision of only one man.

It is suggested that gambling be legalized, thereby doing away with the need for bookmakers to pay policemen to look the other way.

But if that would solve the bookie problem (without luring many more into gambling), would similar changes in legislation correct other sources of corruption?

Is drug addiction to be legalized? Some have urged that clinics be established where addicts could get needed doses, thereby eliminating the gigantic narcotic racket. But would it invite many more people to take up the habit?

Are traffic laws to be done away with too, so there is no possibility of payoffs for traffic violations? Obviously society cannot abolish all law in order to prevent police corruption.

So inasmuch as there must be laws there are will always be opportunities for payoffs. This brings up the matter of the public’s role in the police officer’s fight to stay honest.

The public’s responsibility

For every police officer who can be bribed there are at least ten businessmen waiting in line for the privilege of bribing him or her.

If these businessmen want to stay open after legal hours, sell on Sunday where prohibited by law, or park in no parking zones, they will also be waiting to bribe the policeman on the beat.

A police officer is a representative of a cross section of the public from which he came. Fundamentally he is just as honest, or crooked, as a typical cross section of that public.

He or she has gone to the same churches, the same public or parochial schools. Or reads the same newspapers and has many similar interests, including the desire for a comfortable income and some pleasures in life.

But when there is a general moral breakdown, as exists today, and citizens everywhere are working overtime at being dishonest, what can society expect from its police?

Donning the blue uniform does not make a person honest any more than honesty comes to the shopkeeper by tying on his white apron or wearing a gray business suit.

Like the businessman, somewhere along the line each police officer has to make a decision, and that will show what he is made of.

It is a decision that faces, not only a police officer, but the doctor, the lawyer, the garage mechanic, the corner druggist, the college student, the boy and girl in high school-it faces everyone.

In the police officer’s case, since he is a symbol of law and justice, he should surely want to make the right decision for his conscience’ sake and others.