An Examination of Policing in America
In 1631, the first American police force was organized in Boston, Massachusetts, and was called the Watchmen (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2012). They served much the same role as they do today: that is, to keep the peace and to deliver those who breach the peace to proper authorities.
Today, police in the United States are looked on as hero and villain, public servant and public menace, defender of the peace and invader of privacy. These various roles, positive and negative, serve to formulate the public image of the police, and thus, play a key influential role in how the police interact with the public to do their job.
Often, John Q. Public has a skewed idea of the actual function of law enforcement due to misrepresentation by popular media, leading to a fundamental break in the interaction between law enforcement and the public. In order to traverse this break safely and carry out the duties and responsibilities of law enforcement, mutual understanding must be reached.
In theory, all American police forces on any level are civilian organizations whose power is derived from the consent of the public it serves; that is, the police force for Dallas, TX derives it’s power solely from the citizenry of Dallas. However, police often serve a paramilitary role through operations designed to combat local crime that mirror the conflict of a real war, police versus criminal.
The actual role of police has been disputed since their inception. What is the reason for police in America? Some have argued that the police exist solely to enforce the law, and still others have said that they are primarily servants of the public who has empowered them. Upon careful examination, police cannot be placed into any clear and concise role, as they continue to fulfill a variety of duties that the public demands of them.
Human interaction largely depends upon positive or negative social identification, and this does not change when examining the role of police. Diversity in local culture may cause tension if there is too large of a gap between the cultural background of the police and that of the public. For example, white police officers involved in the Los Angeles race riots were much more likely to be harmed than those officers who were black.
Not all interactions between the various offices of law enforcement are necessarily scrupulous. Internal dealings, abuses of power, and bribery are just a few of several issues of corruption facing American law enforcement today. Police corruption is a large part of a local citizenry’s political agenda, and as such, various measures have been taken to prevent or stop it. However, not all are successful.
Overall, the American system of law enforcement is a diverse and varied field that comprises many different duties and responsibilities that frequently overlap with other entities, making a concrete position on policing unclear.
The Reality of Law Enforcement vs. Dramatization and the "CSI Effect"
It is not uncommon for the public’s idea of what law enforcement consists of to be skewed from reality in a position that affords either too much or too little credence to the police. However, neither position is concrete; those who view the police as being more powerful than is realistic can justify the position of feeling safe and secure, but just as well may oppose “overbearing” police action. Similarly, those who view the police as less powerful than is realistic may urge for more power to be given to the police in the name of public safety, or may accuse them of being totally ineffective.
These images are heavily influenced by the dramatization of police work in popular media, such as the hit television series’ CSI, Law and Order, and others.
Policing: Theory, Implementation, Reality, and Perception
American policing may be viewed from four primary aspects. The theory of policing allows us to examine how we intend for the police to interact with our society. The implementation of such theory leads to a disconnect between theory and it’s application, leading to the realistic view of policing. Society’s perception is influenced by but independent of the other three views.
Theory of Policing
American Police forces arose a means of controlling crime in urban areas during the late Industrial Revolution, as crime became an everyday aspect of life. Of course, criminal activity had existed prior to the Industrial Revolution; however, the lack of true urbanization kept crime rates relatively low. In a township where everyone knew each other, it was difficult to get away with crime; in a city, however, where one can blend in and remain part of an anonymous crowd, the potential criminal has a decided advantage.
This was a new phenomenon, as the centers of urbanization prior to the Industrial Revolution were still very agriculturally based. Some theorists, such as those from Marxist schools of thought, consider the rise of the police to be a direct cause of the Industrial revolution, a symptom of Industrial capitalism. Others see them as a solution to a problem inherent in humanity, or a necessary evil as the evolution of humanity progresses to a point where police agencies are rendered unnecessary.
The view of the police as servants of the public did not arise until much later, when police forces became ubiquitous. In fact, many of the first police agencies were viewed as villainous organizations of the government intent on impressing Federal will upon the local populace. For this reason, the idea of the police as a civilian and not a military institution arose as a means to reconcile the necessity of police forces with the concerns of the public. Thus, the theoretical basis of any policing agency can be understood as deriving power from the consent of those who are being policed, very much in line with the Enlightenment ideology of the American public, seeing themselves as the true holders of power.
Any police agency instituted without the consent of the public, even when a civilian organization, is viewed as villainous by the general public. Recently, this attitude was demonstrated through the outcry against House Bill 3261, better known as Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and it’s Senate equivalent, the Protect Internet Protocol Act (PIPA). The passage of the bills would have allowed for the free policing of the “American internet” (that is, those parts of the internet who’s basis in the United States) without the consent of those using the network.
In the United States, the influence of American Federalism is seen in the split authority levels of police. Policing authority is divided between Federal, State, and local jurisdictions. Federal police agencies are responsible for the enforcement of Federal law. The FBI and Secret Service are two such examples. State police are responsible for the enforcing of state law, and may include such departments as State troopers who patrol highways. Local police departments are what most often come to mind when the police come to mind.
This division of power allows for overlapping jurisdictions that handle offenses based upon severity of crime. A crime committed in a local jurisdiction, for example, may be handed off to Federal authorities if the situation is deemed serious enough, such as the mass counterfeit of money or acts of terrorism. In addition, this Federal approach allows for each agency to have a relatively large amount of independent regulatory power; that is, each jurisdiction is free to set it’s own policies and enforce them consensually as seen fit by the public.
Implementation of Police Theory
A number of approaches have been taken to attempt to implement this theory in a realistic fashion. Thus, there exist various schools of thought on how exactly the responsibilities and duties of the police should be carried out.
A basic truth of policing: crime is curbed by police action only when police have the authority to enforce policy. If agencies do not have the proper authority, they are relatively powerless to prevent crime. It is at this point that theory breaks with reality; in order to be effective, an agency must have a level of discretionary authority apart from that which the public gives them. While the public empowers the police to their positions, it the agency that determines how policy is ultimately enforced.
Some have, of course, argued that discretionary authority leads to police excesses and a violation of the basic rights of citizens, thus nullifying the point of the police entirely. This argument was one had since the foundation of the nation, when the Founding Fathers decided to construct a Constitution to limit the power of any governing entity in order to protect the rights of American citizens.
In reference to the modern conception of police authority, the Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution provide a basis with which to decide how the police interact with citizens in way that both properly implements theory as well as protect the right of the people.
The Second Amendment has been argued as a means to prevent excessive policing, as an armed populace has the ability to retake it’s authority should it no longer consent to the existence of a particular agency.
The Fourth Amendment protects the personal property rights of each citizen from the authority of the police without due cause. In a way, this could be seen as an extension of the consent of the populace; the public will consent to a search only when there is proper justification.
The Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments clearly outline the rights of the accused after police action has occurred. The right to trial specifically outlined is a reserved power of the public not given to the police; that is, if the public feels that the police acted unjustly and without proper public consent, the action can be overturned in a fair and equitable court of law.
The implementation of the consent of the public in practicality means handing off authority to the head of an agency, who then distributes power from the top down to officers until authority is properly saturated.
No clear boundary between public service and intrusion into privacy when viewed pragmatically. In theory, the boundary is set at the limit to which the public consents. However, it is often seen that the public has conflicting interests, and even contradictory views. For example, some applaud police for routinely patrolling neighborhoods, while others view it as an unnecessary intrusion into privacy.
As with any Federally organized institution, the overlapping spheres of influence of various agencies can sometimes lead to conflict. For example, a counterfeiter crimes will be handled on a Federal level even though the initial police work may be done by local police forces. In addition, the impact to the local economy is much greater than on the national economy as a whole. It could be argued, then, that the Federal agencies should have no interest in counterfeiting, yet it remains a matter of Federal crime.
Due to independent regulatory power, the understanding of police work varies from state to state, and even from township to township. The processing of criminals across state lines is difficult due to differing statutes which may lead to miscommunication. A citizen suspected of assault in Florida is defined as being charged with verbally hurting someone; if the man flees to Georgia and Florida police attempt to communicate the charge, Georgia police may understand it as being physical harm.
These various factors also lead to highly blurred lines when considering how suspects should, if at all, be transferred to differing levels of authority.
In reality, police work is dominated by the very same bureaucracy which will affect any large organization. Various internal influences even within one agency all compete for influence over various interests, leading to internal and external conflict. In addition, the paperwork associated with the processing of suspects lead to a relatively large amount of gridlock in any policing agency, accounting for the amount of time it takes to solve a crime.
The theory of policing implies that the principles will be adhered to. Realistically, not all police officers are aware of the rights of citizens from a Constitutional basis, and thus may accidentally violate them. For example, an officer unaware of the Fourth Amendment’s influence may see the refusal of a citizen to be searched as an obstruction of justice, and may proceed with search anyway.
In light of these factors, each agency realistically functions within relatively clear parameters. That is, most agencies are clearly aware of their jurisdiction and will not violate that of another agency; California state police will not attempt to enforce Florida state law, for example.
While each agency’s jurisdiction is relatively clear, jurisdiction overlaps do occur. County police agencies have, in theory, authority over the entire county. Does this also mean that they have the ability to enforce law in cities? For example, if a County deputy is a first responder to an accident within a township, to whom does responsibility belong, the city or the county?
The public perception of the police and how they function is dramatically different from theory, implementation, or reality. Popular media programs such as CSI, COPS, and Law and Order present the police as having relatively free authority to pursue suspects regardless of circumstances, while in reality, securing any citizen accused of a crime is a bureaucratic process to ensure that no rights are violated.
Often, the public does not understand role of police. Crime Scene Investigators, for example, do not arrest suspects as they commonly do in television programs, nor do lab scientists carry side arms. Further, the police are often viewed as “problem solvers” available to settle disputes between parties at any time. In reality, the establishment of civil court and not the police exists for just that.
The technology available to police agencies is often misrepresented as being more powerful than it really is. Lab technicians are sometimes viewed as proverbial wizards that can extract every condemning detail of a suspect from simple biological evidence. In reality, any biological evidence used against a suspect is not enough to convict a suspect of a crime and can often be thrown out if contamination can be proved. Enough foreign biological material is on the bottom of anyone’s particular shoe at any given moment, waiting to simply be tracked through a potential crime scene.
The excitement associated with police work is also dramatically over represented to the point where officers of the law are viewed as living caricatures of themselves. Cases often take much longer to solve than media portrays them; murders can take years, not weeks, to solve. Officer’s jobs are often filled with tedious patrol duties and paperwork rather than gunfights, foot pursuits, and car chases.
Police as a Paramilitary Organization
The duties of the police sometimes extend past normal circumstances and require a more militaristic approach, such as combating local gang activity or when approaching a complex hostage situation. The utilization of many agencies of a SWAT team has been compared to small, city-controlled armies.
The paramilitary function of the police is found in it's operations against the crime world. While in the past policing a jurisdiction has been a matter of simply patrolling and catching criminals, the rise of organized crime in the late 19th Century and well into the Prohibition Era of the early 20th Century has caused police all over America to take proactive stance against crime.
Police work can easily be defined as either being “active” or “passive”. The proactive pursuit of the interests of society against those of criminals is often viewed as active police work, while reacting only to criminal behavior is passive.
The rise of organized crime in the 20th century and beyond has led the public at large to consent to a wide array of active police work, thus transcending their traditional, theoretical role of simply being “crime fighters”.
In any given jurisdiction, a constant war of attrition is being waged between police authorities and criminal organizations, leading to a transcendence of the civilian role of police. Attrition is defined as the constant wearing down to weaken or destroy (Collins, 2012). It is the aim of police forces to wear down criminal organizations, and the aim of those criminal organizations to exhaust the resources of the police.
Occasionally, these legal, domestic wars have been recognized and named, the most popularly known being the “War on Drugs”.
Police theorists have successfully convinced public at large that criminal organizations are a constant “enemy” that needs to be eradicated, linking various types of crime to other types of crime, such as identifying the drug trade with violent crime. Therefore, to combat organizations partaking in such activity,
various militant practices are used to accomplish attrition. Police are fully aware that they do not have the resources to fully combat each and every avenue of crime, and thus rely heavily on psychological tactics.
Drug busts and “set ups” using undercover agents are used to inspire paranoia in organization funded by and in individuals partaking in the drug trade. Those who are caught using such methods are often prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law in order to serve as a deterrent to others involved in criminal activity.
The restriction of travel via anti-drunk driving campaigns can be compared to military checkpoints, only in this case, ‘Show me your papers’ is replaced by ‘Show me your blood alcohol level’.
Often, these propaganda campaigns rely on the harsh punishment of a few to deter others from entering criminal enterprises, or to encourage “defections” from criminal activity to pro-social, policed activity.
SWAT teams are groups of heavily armed, militant police officers who are called upon when exigent circumstances demand it. These units are comparable to small, personal military units under the command of local police chiefs, and are often used for prolonged or dangerous engagements with armed suspects. Of particular note are the uses of SWAT teams in the War on Drugs in Border States to combat domestic and foreign cartels who are normally as armed, if not more heavily armed, than local authorities.
One of the few “direct attack” methods available to police, versus the psychological tactics previously mentioned, is the exercise of SWAT teams in hostile circumstances. Teams are frequently used for surprise forced entry into homes where a search warrant is being served. Such teams are fully prepared for combat should the circumstances demand it, and are trained not only as combat personnel but also to fulfill a variety of other roles to ensure public safety. After all, a combat in a domestic setting runs a high risk of extraneous casualties.
Additionally, not all SWAT teams operate under clear orders. Much of the time, only one part of a situation is known when police enter the scene to act, and thus, improvisation is required on the part of the teams. Many SWAT teams operate under free license to use any force when deemed necessary (Swat standards for, 2008). In a military setting, the Geneva Convention condemns the use of force on unarmed combatants, yet in a domestic setting, it is entirely possible for unarmed individuals caught up in a situation to be shot or killed as a result of either deliberate action to protect police forces or as crossfire in resulting combat.
For some time, police organizations have operated under militaristic ranking organization, with such titles as Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Chief (Commander-in-).
Some have questioned the armament practices of some police forces as being unnecessary, with such practices as having multiple weapons to one officer, and equipment of some forces with military-grade armaments such as M-16s, grenade launchers, and armored personnel carriers.
Are these truly necessary for local police forces? What challenges beset police to necessitate such armament? If the police is truly a civilian organization, why do they require a heavy arsenal of weaponry? These questions, and others, serve to further blur the line between the civilian and paramilitary roles of police forces. There is no clear answer to the limits of police armament.
Heavily armed police forces, such as those in Border States, may approach the Second Amendment use of the term “militia”. The Second Amendment has no clear definition on what a militia consists of or even is, but simply states them as being “well regulated” and armed. If police forces do indeed fulfill the expectations of the term, some have argued that police may be called upon in times of domestic dispute to serve as front-line combatants.
In some theaters, that is exactly what has happened.
The War on Drugs
The so-called War on Drugs has blurred the lines between civilian and military authority, and has asked the full exercise of the paramilitary / militia role of police forces. While many drugs are produced domestically, it is well known that criminal organizations operating out of Mexico, Latin America, and Canada smuggle drugs across the border in an attempt to make a profit.
These criminal organizations, operated by foreign nationals, have frequent run ins with American police forces and are often as well armed as police forces. One must ask, when domestic forces are combating foreigners in the name of the interests of the United States, what separates this from being a military operation?
The Role of Police - Crime Fighters vs. Public Servants
The actual role of American police forces has been disputed in some manner since they gained widespread acceptance in the urbanization of the late 19th Century Industrial Revolution. Nearly all agree that police agencies are necessary for the upkeep of an orderly society; however, many are split on what that actually means. Far-left thought introduces the police as a “Big Brother”, while far-right thought utilizes the police as a tool of the State. Moderates debate the role of the police as crime fighters versus that of public servants.
The primary roles of police agencies are seen as that of crime fighter versus public servant. While there is certainly juxtaposition between these two roles that reveal some conflict, police are often called to serve both at once, and the lines distinguishing the roles are blurry at best. In addition, the police can serve a wide variety of roles that differ from their usual or “perceived” role. Finally, the various roles of police forces across the nation are dependent upon the will of the empowering public.
Police as Crime Fighters
The role of police as fighters of crime is generally viewed as being the “original” and intended function of the police. Indeed, in theory of policing, this is the primary position of the police in society. Traditional conservatives argue for this as being the primary role of the police in the community, while many progressives urge police forces to be more actively involved in the community in roles other than crime fighting.
Public service can be viewed as a function of crime fighting in a round-about sort of way. Programs such as D.A.R.E. actively seek to deter and prevent crime by working closely with the community to foster a sense of cooperation between the public and law enforcement.
To what extent is the term “crime fighters” understood? On one end of the spectrum, legal literalists argue that the police have the right to enforce only what the law says and nothing else, while on another end, loose constructionists argue that the police have the authority to enforce any law upon anyone in their jurisdiction.
Generally, the literal interpretation is the one most accepted by the public, as John Q. Public is still very uncomfortable with the idea of an overpowered police force. Such sentiments can be seen in the foundation of our nation (Bill of Rights as a preventive measure). Should a loose constructionist view be adopted by society, the interaction of police with collectives, such as companies and local businesses, would significantly change as police take on a regulatory role.
Police regulation as an answer to the question of what crime fighting actually means is not a view widely accepted by any strata of society.
Is crime fighting understood as a reactionary or proactive process? Reactionary police forces are often left to the mercy of local criminals to act as they will, until an action is exposed that allows the police to react. Proactive police forces are sometimes accused of being too involved in the lives of the citizenry.
Overall, the definition of the police as crime fighters varies depending entirely upon domestic geopolitical perspective, though most all agree that “crime fighters” means having the ability to seek out and detain citizens reasonably suspected of breaking the law.
Police as Public Servants
The role of the police as public servants is derived from Enlightenment-era thought about the function of state authority. Proto-police authorities prior to the Industrial Revolution were almost never involved in community service.
If police authority is derived from the consent of the governed, that consent demands that the police use it as the public wills. Thus, if the public wills for the police to be involved in the local community, it is the responsibility of the police to respond appropriately. In theory, the public have the power to reclaim the police's authority at any time, and could do so if police fail to act as the public wills.
Crime fighting can be seen as a function of public service, as the safe keeping of the consenting public is the ultimate expression of service to the public, and thus many argue that the “primary” crime fighting role of police forces is actually derived from their role as public servants.
Police take part in non-criminally related activities, such as the direction of traffic, working security details at public events, serving as School Resource Officers (SRO), and partaking in community events that return to benefit the community such as local parades.
Are these public service roles justified in light of the fact that police officers are still heavily armed? The presence of police at community events is easily viewable as radical involvement on the part of the government in the lives of ordinary citizens.
Discerning Public Will
It is not always easy to discern the will of the public in relation to police forces. In fact, it is often very difficult, if not impossible to understand the general public will using non-democratic methods.
Communication between traditional political entities and their constituency occurs through the media and the expression of will to representatives. This complimentary process allows the voices of both sides to be heard. Additionally, universal suffrage voting allows for a relatively democratic discernment process.
By contrast, police organizations deal directly with the public they serve who often have no way to democratically express their will. To attempt to rectify this situation, several approaches have been used. Many concerned citizens may send letters, emails, and telephone calls to the Chief of Police as an expression of will. However, this approach merely expresses the will of an individual, and not that of the public in a collective sense.
The local election of a county Sheriff is one approach to solving this public relations problem. Direct election methods allow for the unambiguous transference of power from the public to the police. It is arguable, then, that all police forces should derive their authority from direct election. Problems with this approach include, but certainly are not limited to, the over politicization of the police.
Other Roles of the Police
The police are also called upon as enforcers of peace in a general sense. That is, when a citizen is being unnecessarily destructive or obstructive to others in a non-violent sense, such as a loud house party, local police are expected to quell the disturbance and restore peace.
In addition, many perceive the police on all levels as being civil problem solvers, intermediaries in a conflict between two parties.
Cultural Diversity and Law Enforcement
Law enforcement is subject to the very same prejudices and human tendencies as other aspects of society. Therefore, in order to fully understand the role of the police in relation to it's citizenry, one must be able to understand cross cultural interactions between the police and the public, and any conflicts that may arise thereof. The three primary aspects of culture that affect police interactions are race / ethnicity, religion, and socio-economics.
Cross Cultural Experiences and Policing
Three primary influencing factors exist in the interaction of local cultures in relation to a police environment: race / ethnicity, religion, and socio-economic status. Depending upon the relative positions of the section of the public being served and that of the police, these factors either enable or disable the police's ability to fight crime, serve the public, and execute it's various other roles.
The identifications presented are not to be taken as general rules, as there are always exceptions to any generalization. Further, the interactions between law enforcement and any given citizen is always a unique circumstance, and thus consequences of interaction are not easily determined using broad cultural factors.
Race / Ethnicity
Race plays a significant role in the interactions of the general public with the police. As a general tendency, humans tend to congregate with others that appear like them, as evidenced by the evolution of sub-cultural areas in urban areas characterized by voluntary segregation. For example, the stereotypical “black ghetto” contrasting with the “white suburbs”, Chinatown, Jewish neighborhoods, Little Italy, etc...
Some citizens take this tendency a step further and positively identify with their race. Racially or ethnically aligned citizens may be unwilling to cooperate with police officers of a different race or ethnicity. As an example: A Bosnian citizen interacting with a Serbian officer would almost certainly lead to conflict. One of the leading examples of police tension due to racial differences would be the Rodney King race riots in Los Angeles, where white police officers were targeted by positively identifying members of the black community. In addition, intra-racial pressure to be uncooperative with police exists in some schools of thought.
The role of race in police interaction plays a similar role to that of gender. Some female rape victims’ unwillingness to speak to male officers is similar to the unwillingness of racially identifying individuals to speak to those of a different race. This is due in part to the citizens’ fear that the racially different officer may not understand the position of the citizen.
Some argue that police forces should maintain a racially diverse department in order to effectively serve the community at large as a proportion of the racial distribution of citizens in police jurisdiction, similar to the Affirmative Action programs in mainstream business. In this school of thought, having a Boulder, Colorado police department consisting of 50% or more black officers would cause the primarily white citizenry to negatively identify with police, and as such, should aim to have a primarily white police force.
In addition to race, religious preference may dictate how an individual interacts with police. A strict Muslim man may not allow his wife to interact with the police, and may instead speak for her. However, enabling factors of religion do exist.
Traditionally, citizens that identify themselves as “conservative” religious citizens (such as those belonging to any one of a number of mainstream Christian denominations) are normally willing to cooperate with police as a function of religious service.
Disabling factors exist in religious preference as well: adherents of religions such as the Jehovah's Witnesses may be unwilling to cooperate with authorities as a matter of belief. Both the enabling and disabling position are perfectly legal, as any citizen is not required to speak to the police (US Const., Amend. 5)
Aside from the specific instances where religious preference dictates interaction, strongly religious individuals and entities may be unwilling to work with police officers who have a different religious preference. This response is similar to the fear-based response of some racially identifying citizens. Some may identify as being subject to a “higher law” than that enforced by police agencies, and thus will be completely uncooperative.
However, it is certainly less of an issue than race, as discovering the religious preference of law enforcement officers is normally much more difficult, due to the discouragement of the exercise of faith on the job.
The levels of income of citizens is also certainly a prime determining factor when considering police interaction. Citizens of lower income levels may view police interaction as being unnecessary and intrusive, or even destructive to their way of life, due to reliance on a local criminal economy in lieu of legal employment. Often, these small-time criminal economies rely on the sale of drugs and stolen merchandise.
As a general statement, those of higher income levels tend to be more willing to work with police than those of lower income levels. Consider this juxtaposition: those of lower income levels tend to rely more on police officers for problem solving than those of higher income levels.
Additionally, the perception of police agencies may differ depending upon socio-economic status. On the one hand, lower income levels may identify with policing as being a readily available career, while those of a higher income level with an interest in law usually seek to pursue university studies of law and being involved with the courtroom process. On the other, higher income levels may view the actions of police as being satisfactory, while lower levels argue that such interference prevents them from living a successful life.
Police agencies have been accused of corruption on numerous occasions, and not without reason. Some officers may choose to abuse and exploit the system for their own gain, while others may allow themselves to be corrupted by acts of the citizenry, such as bribery for the dismissal of unwanted police attention.
Corruption appears among police agencies in two primary ways: individually and legally. Individual corruption refers to the ability of each, individual member of a police agency to exploit the system, whereas legal corruption refers to the manipulation or ignorance of the law on the part of the police for personal gain.
Individual corruption refers to the corruption of law enforcement personnel on an individual, rather than a collective, basis. It is entirely possible for a legitimate agency to contain a few corrupt officers, and just as well, for a corrupt agency to contain several legitimate officers of the law.
Corruption is not always easy to identify in officers, as individual police officers may take it upon themselves to become corrupt, with personal gain almost always being the primary motivation.
One of the most common practices of corruption is the confiscation of contraband from citizens, only to keep it for themselves, such as when an officer finds illegal drugs in the possession of a citizen. Rather than declaring the drugs, the officer takes and keeps them either to use for himself or sell.
The theft of evidence room materials is also a relatively common practice among corrupt officers. In practicality, it is very difficult to properly track each and every item taken into the custody of the police. Additionally, “skimming” of materials may occur where large amounts of contraband are seized and a small, relatively unnoticeable amount is taken.
While stereotypical, the planting of contraband in order to frame citizens does occur. Such plantings are motivated by the personal objective will of the officer.
Many corrupt law enforcement officials rely on the ignorance of citizens for personal gain. Some may offer to receive immediate payment for a citation as a result of a routine traffic stop. In reality, this has never been a legal practice, as all citations are matters of the court. The practice is used to scalp money from citizens by assigning them fake, unreported tickets. The actual ticket given to the citizen is legitimate, but is never filed as such.
Corrupt individuals are not free of outside influence towards corruption as well. Some citizens may offer bribes towards “beat cops” as motivation to ignore certain business transactions that may be of questionable legal status. Similar practices may occur with business inspectors. In addition, the paying off of agency heads to overlook activities that may be deemed disruptive or potentially illegal exists.
Inter-agency corruption may take place when legal entities offer substantial rewards for enacting a certain policy within the department, and are usually financially motivated. Federal grant money may be denied by the organization performing the grant unless certain steps are taken to bring an agency in line with the intentions of that organization.
Further, intra-agency corruption occurs and is often referred to as “office politics”. The “dog-eat-dog” mentality dominates some police scapes, as officers attempt to gain influence over fellow officers and administrators of the law. Some law enforcement officials may view the “rewards of an office” as being more highly valued than the execution of the office itself, and may seek positions of power in law enforcement for this reason.
Legalistic corruption refers to the manipulation or willful ignorance of the law in the name of personal gain. This is normally not a problem in reference to the law governing the jurisdiction of the particular law enforcement agency, but is most commonly used in reference to the ignorance of the Constitution on the part of some officers.
Some are genuinely ignorant of Constitutional rights and their possible violations, while others willfully ignore the rights of the citizens in order to illegally confiscate goods, search, or detain. A common example of the practice is the breach of the Fourth Amendment right to be free from warrantless search.
This particular type of corruption is dominated by a large, legal gray area. While violations of Constitutional rights are fully reparable in a court of law, some legal precedents have been set that encourages gray area. Kentucky v. King, for example, allows for relative leeway in authority of law enforcement agencies to gain access to and search a premises. There is no objective way for officers to prove that they knew that evidence was being destroyed; if evidence is destroyed, it is destroyed!
Some corrupt officers may deliberately misinform citizens of their rights, such as the right to not talk to the police (US Const., Amend. 5) in order to coerce citizens into cooperation. Such attempts at coercion are always misguided, and when presented before a judge in court, the rights of citizens are always upheld, normally resulting in the loss of job for the officer.
Consider: do previously mentioned dividing factors, such as those mentioned in the cross-cultural chapter, have any influence on why officers may become corrupt? It is entirely possible for a racially identifying officer of a victimized mindset to take out their feelings on negatively identified citizens.
Dr. Kimberley Blackmon
Dr. Blackmon is our chairperson for the Department of Justice. She began her law enforcement career in 1998, working as an investigative intern with the Florida State Fire Marshal’s Office. A Florida native, she earned her undergraduate degree in Criminology at Florida State University. Having developed a deep passion for the criminal justice process, she went on to complete the police academy and joined the Clermont Police Department in Central Florida in 1999. While gaining experience in patrol, investigations, community relations and administration, she continued her studies and completed her master’s degree in criminal justice in 2006 from Nova Southeastern University.