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date: 15 November 2018

Police Corruption

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Please check back later for the full article.

Police corruption is a serious problem for numerous reasons. One is that police officers are often armed, and can therefore pose a physical threat to citizens in a way that most other state officials do not. Another is that citizens typically expect the police to uphold the law and be the “final port of call” in fighting crime, including that of other state officials: if law enforcement officers cannot be trusted, most citizens have nowhere else to turn to when seeking justice. Third, if citizens do not trust the police, they are much less likely to cooperate with them, resulting in higher crime rates. Finally, and in extreme cases, low levels of citizen trust in law enforcement agencies can undermine a state’s legitimacy, with all the negative knock-on effects of this.

Yet according to Transparency International’s 2017 Global Corruption Barometer, more people pay bribes to law enforcement officers globally than to any other state officials, rendering the police the most corrupt branch of the state in many countries. Police corruption comes in various forms, from relatively benign but irritating demands for bribes from motorists to improper procurement procedures and—most dangerously—collusion with organized crime gangs in the trafficking of drugs, weapons, and humans, and sometimes even in contract killing. One other form of miscreancy was identified in the 1980s as largely peculiar to the police, viz. “noble cause corruption.” This term, also known as the “Dirty Harry syndrome,” is applied when police officers deliberately bend or break the law not for personal benefit but in the belief that this is ultimately for the good of society. Many factors drive police corruption, including inadequate salaries, frustration with the leniency of the courts, opportunity, envy (of wealthy criminals), and simple greed. Combating it is no easy task, but methods that have significantly lowered corruption rates in countries such as Singapore and Georgia include reducing discretionary decision-making, radical re-structuring, risk assessments, greater use of psychological testing, improving working conditions, lifestyle monitoring, and introducing anti-corruption agencies that are completely independent of the police.