The public expects their police department to enforce the rules, not break them. When they do, it breaks down the trust of the public as well as tearing down the very fabric of society. The following paper presents evidence that corruption within the nation’s police forces does exist, especially where illegal drugs are concerned. The reasons for this apparent trend are discussed from a sociological, biological, behavioral, and material point of view. With this understanding, it is concluded that police officers with even high levels of moral and ethical codes become involved in drug crime for a wide variety of reasons, not least of which is fatigue, opportunity, and proximity.
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The drug laws on both state and federal levels have contributed to the abuse of power and corruption among law enforcement officials across the U.S. A comparison can be made to similar circumstances that occurred during the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. It is well-known that alcohol prohibition encouraged the proliferation of criminal gangs and the associated violent activities. It also made criminals out of policemen who took bribes to ‘look the other way’ while illegal booze was delivered to and consumed at ‘speak easies.’ Drug prohibition has caused much more violence due to the growth of gang-related activities in addition to more instances as well as types of corruption among the police ranks than did alcohol prohibition. According to a 1998 report by the General Accounting Office, “…several studies and investigations of drug-related police corruption found on-duty police officers engaged in serious criminal activities, such as conducting unconstitutional searches and seizures; stealing money and/or drugs from drug dealers; selling stolen drugs; protecting drug operations; providing false testimony; and submitting false crime reports” (General Accounting Office, 1998: 8).
Of those law-enforcement officials convicted of various corruption offenses resulting from FBI-led investigations between 1993 and 1997, about half were for drug-related offenses. More than 100 drug-related cases involving police officers are prosecuted nationwide every year. Other indications of the widespread problem of corrupt cops are that all of the federal drug enforcement agencies have had at least one of their agents implicated in a drug-related offense. Officers nationwide have given in to the same temptations offered by the selling of drugs that have lured their criminal adversaries. This discussion examines the scope of the problem citing specific examples and the possible criminological reasons behind this behavior.
The growth of police corruption instances involving drug sales is relatively easy to explain. The financial rewards offered by the sales of illegal drugs about other forms of income both legal and illegal is enormous. The temptation attracts law enforcement officials who are becoming increasingly more discouraged by the growing proliferation of drug traffickers. Though police agencies of all descriptions have fought the 30-plus year ‘drug war’ by spending billions of dollars and locking up millions of people, their efforts have not only not ended drug use or sales but drugs are now more available, cheaper, and purer than ever before.
Disheartened police officers involved in stopping drug crimes put their lives in jeopardy but are underpaid and under-appreciated by an indifferent public. Many officers joined the force to protect and serve but find themselves regulating an illegal drug market that they know they will never suppress. As long as the U.S. government continues its disastrous ‘war,’ formerly well-intentioned cops will continue to be lured by the money to be had by engaging in the drug trade they are expected to prevent. They risk their lives for a war that has no end and they know this fact better than anyone. Fighting a losing battle discourages even the most loyal and honest of law officials and some use this to justify becoming involved in a drug cartel. It’s easy money, they are being underpaid for dangerous work and their efforts are futile.
In 2002, 41 police officers in Tijuana, Mexico were arrested. These officers, who included the Chief of Police, were on the payroll of drug dealers. They protected drug shipments, took bribes, and committed murders. The allegations against these police officers are hardly an isolated incident in Mexico as most of the towns located along the border of the U.S. are controlled and ‘policed’ by drug cartels (Peet, 2004). Any country that wages a war on drugs faces corruption among its police officers, politicians, judges, etc. This includes the U.S as well.
A 1992 incident involving police corruption in New York City brought national attention to the problem when five police officers were placed under arrest accused of selling drugs. The ‘ring-leader,’ Michael Dowd, had been on the force for 10 years and has been dealing drugs much of that time (Lacayo, 1993). According to reports, Dowd was corrupt from early on in his career. He escalated from expecting and receiving free pizza when a rookie to stealing money obtained during drug arrests to blatantly stealing money and drugs from dealers then selling the drugs on the same streets he took them from. Dowd took a lesson from the street gangs and formed a gang of his own that consisted of more than a dozen other corrupt cops. Over many years, Dowd managed to buy four houses and a Corvette valued at $35,000 on his $22,000 per year salary, yet was not questioned by NYPD department officials (Lacayo, 1993). The suburb where Dowd bought the luxurious homes did notice these discrepancies and questioned his financial inconsistency. His arrest was the first of five others in his gang. This event reminded the media, public, and politicians alike of the citywide corruption in the NYPD uncovered two decades earlier by Frank Serpico whose story was the subject of the famous movie ‘Serpico’ (Lacayo, 1993).
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The increase of the drug trade in the U.S. due at least in part to the government’s war on drugs has supplied violent drug cartels and police officers alike with widespread opportunities to profit from criminal activity. Corruption within police departments is a nationwide epidemic that, while various, is thoroughly intertwined with the narcotics trade. The criminality of police officers focuses mainly on the dealing of heroin and cocaine but the terrorist tactics go much further than simply harassing dealers and addicts. Philadelphia police framed 54-year-old grandmother Betty Patterson who didn’t have a police record and went to church twice a week (General Accounting Office, 1998: 36). Fortunately, she was acquitted yet still traumatized. The epidemic of police corruption, just as the illegal trade of drugs, is not exclusively an east-coast, big-city problem. Examples of cities where drug-related police corruption cases have been opened for public scrutiny include “Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Savannah, and Washington, DC” (General Accounting Office, 1998: 36-37). Evidence of corruption within police forces can be found in large cities and small towns throughout the nation. While much of the corruption is drug-related, it extends to other forms of crime as well. The subsequent list is but a small sample of cops who have been caught abusing their position of authority.
Members of the New Orleans Police Department committed horrific acts of police brutality after Hurricane Katrina as was well documented on television news. This department also had a history of corruption before the hurricane. For instance, 11 New Orleans policemen were found guilty of taking almost $100,000 from federal undercover agents who told the corrupt officers that the money was being paid in exchange for them safeguarding a warehouse that contained cocaine. Following the murder of an undercover agent which resulted in orders from a policeman, the undercover segment was terminated (General Accounting Office, 1998: 36). In 1994, ten New Orleans police officers were indicted for selling guns and drugs in a department that was described, even at that time, as one of the most vicious police departments in the nation. Another officer was charged with orchestrating the killing of a woman who had filed charges of brutality against him (General Accounting Office, 1998: 36). In 1995, yet another New Orleans police officer was convicted of killing three persons while committing the robbery of a restaurant. One of the persons killed was the partner of the policeman.
Cases abound of this type of activity. In 1990, seven Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies, who were part of the area’s top narcotics unit, were convicted of stealing more than a million dollars in cash confiscated from drug busts. 30 Cleveland policemen were indicted for dealing narcotics, gambling, obstructing justice, and extortion in 1991. That same year the entire Gary, Indiana vice squad unit was indicted on similar charges in addition to murder and setting up drug busts outside the department’s knowledge. William Hart, while chief of police in Detroit along with the deputy chief Kenneth Weiner, was convicted of stealing more than two million dollars from the undercover investigations fund in 1991. Again in 1991, a Camden, New Jersey detective was arrested for robbing a couple of banks. Police officers in Jersey City were caught selling more than 100 vehicles from the impound yard in 1995. A San Diego police officer was convicted of theft after he was videotaped breaking into a software company in 1995. The entire police force of Greenpoint, New York was disbanded in 1995 because of extensive drug abuse and corruption while on duty (Parenti, 1996).
Corruption with regards to the police is generally defined as an officer acting in their official capacity while at the same time abusing their authority to realize personal wants or needs. It has been said and widely assumed that the power associated with authority over others tends to lead an individual to corruptive acts and police officers are no more or less prone to human frailties as anyone else. However, when a policeman is charged with corruption and breaking the laws they are sworn to protect, it is always a shocking revelation to the public no matter how prevalent it is known to be. “Most studies support the view that corruption is endemic, if not universal, in police departments” (Sherman, 1978: 31). It is somewhat ironic that while the public generally expects at least a small fraction of a police department to contain some forms of corruption within it, the surprise is no less severe when it happens. Police officers are held to a higher standard of conduct by the public therefore shock and outrage are acute when instances occur. In addition, corrupt police officers pose a greater danger to the public than do civilian criminals because of the authority factor (Sherman, 1978: 31). Certain, controlled powers are happily allowed by the police by the citizens to lessen their fears of crime. The revelation of corruption within the police force leads to thoughts of existing in a police state, a condition people fear more than civilian crime.
The rationale behind an individual’s deviant actions, including individuals employed on the nation’s police forces, has been and remains a complex and highly debated subject. Three areas of research which include biological, sociological, and psychological studies have attempted to resolve this issue. No one area of study has been able to explain the exact reason why people behave in a corrupt or deviant manner. Because of this, screening for predisposing conditions to deviant behavior on the police force is difficult to determine or justify as tests may or may not accurately identify those individuals more likely to engage in criminal activity as a member of the police when given the opportunity. However, “sociologists’ theories have not been disproved as often as the psychologists’ and biologists’ theories, because their experiments are too hard to define and no one definition for deviance is agreed upon by all experimenters” (Pfuhl, 1980: 40).
Among the biological and physiological explanations for crime is the Behavior Genetics Theory which postulates a biological explanation for crime. While the genetic make-up of an individual does not induce any specific actions, anti-social behavior can be facilitated by neurotransmitters in the brain and hormonal imbalances which generate tendencies to act in a particular way. Abnormal serotonin levels are an origin of criminal behaviors of all types of crime because an individual lacks the natural ability to control their impulsive thoughts thereby acting upon them. Everyone has thoughts they would never act upon. Those with this abnormality tend to act first and think later. Evidence compiled from studies has supported another link between a particular inherited mutant gene and criminal behavior.
Instead of high serotonin levels the neurotransmitters in the brain, because of genetic abnormalities, may produce low levels of an enzyme which causes interruptions in signals within the nervous system and the brain. “Urinalysis of subjects in the Dutch study, all of whom was related and demonstrated aggressive and antisocial behavior, showed abnormal levels of metabolic products associated with the enzyme” (Vinces, 1996). These persons could not produce this enzyme. This genetic defect may be at least a contributing factor leading to deviant behaviors. Biological theories attempting to locate the factors involved in human deviance are difficult to prove but the studies corroborate somewhat with anthropological researches such as those conducted by Lange and Rosenoff et al among others. These early experiments and many that followed have endeavored to prove the biological theory by examining twins who had been convicted of criminal activities to understand the genetic connection if any. The studies do show that if one twin commits crimes, the other has a higher probability to also engage in criminal behavior than does the general public (Rosanoff et al, 1934). These studies did not take into account the fact that the twins also grew up in similar environments which sociologists argue is the root of the issue. The biological contention is that people who exhibit delinquent behaviors are genetically inferior.
Sociologists generally find disagreement with the genetics theory for explaining criminal tendencies. They argue that an individual’s deviant actions result from feelings of inferiority learned from events occurring at an early age and cannot be predicted by examining inherited characteristics. “Sociologists learn from culture’s influences, other than a biological or psychological bias” (Pfuhl, 1980: 50). Sociologists are not concerned with behavior patterns exhibited by particular persons but indicate the roots of deviant behavior can be traced to cultural experiences that share a commonality. According to the sociological explanation for deviant behavior, all persons including police officers developed their propensity towards corrupt behaviors by way of counter-productive childhood experiences.
The Differential Association Theory first postulated by Edwin Sutherland explained that behavior, whether criminal or not, is learned. He theorized that criminal behavior was not a genetic abnormality, therefore, opposing the conclusions drawn by pathological and biological theorists. According to the Differential Association Theory, criminal behavior is learned via communications and experiences acquired from personal relationships. The degree of deviant behavior varies because people absorb information differently whether on the conscious or unconscious level. This theory explains why crime is higher in the inner cities where crime is rationalized more so than in the suburbs, as well as presenting a concern regarding the dangers to police officers working in close association with or against drug cartels regularly. This rationalization can be contagious especially among impressionable youths (Cressey, 1979: 458-460).
Sociological and social structure crime theories such as the General Strain Theory, however, give insight to reasonings for multiple types of criminal behaviors. According to Robert Agnew’s research which expanded the general strain theory, police officers may seek retribution when they perceive they are being paid or otherwise treated unfairly, a possible motive for the crime (Agnew, 1985: 152). According to Agnew, people strive for three main goals in whatever field they are employed in. The first, not surprisingly, is monetary gain. Money, or the lack of it, causes strain which leads to delinquent behavior in otherwise law-abiding citizens. The second is a need for respect and a feeling of status, a factor especially present in males. Personality characteristics that are often associated with masculine traits are frequently exhibited through delinquent behavior. If an individual cannot achieve this perceived status legitimately, they may resort to criminal activities. The third goal is autonomy which refers to individual empowerment, a valued asset within any society. Police officers experience low pay and many feel a lack of respect and are frustrated that their value to society is unfulfilled because the drug war only heightens despite their best efforts.
One or all theories discussed may play a role, individually or in concert with another. Theorists continue to expand upon previous ideas as a way to further define causations of crime. It appears that all are viable explanations to a complex issue and can be utilized separately or together depending on each unique situation. The opportunity to perpetrate crime is encased within its own theory and it intersects all types of criminal behaviors. “When given a relatively easy opportunity to defraud without a reasonable likelihood of being punished for the actions could well make an otherwise law-abiding citizen to cross the line of ethical actions” (Felson & Clark, 1998: 11). Police officers have ample opportunity to commit crimes as they are surrounded by and entrusted with large amounts of drugs and money daily. Police officers may be predisposed to crime because of issues occurring in their youth or have been exposed to negative, unlawful activities among the people with whom they associate, whether by colleague or criminal. Some believe it possible the propensity to commit crime begins in the womb. “To be sure, no single cause of crime is sufficient to guarantee its occurrence; yet opportunity above all others is necessary and therefore has as much or more claim to being a root cause” (Felson & Clark, 1998: 11).
Theories describing the causes of crime whether genetic, social, or psychological are mere rationalizations. The problem of police corruption originates not in the causes of deviance common to all persons but the laws, they are trying to enforce. The drug war is a lost cause and it is tempting people of otherwise honest intent to behave like the criminals they are trying to protect from the public. Police corruption, statistically speaking, would be cut in half if the war on drugs was ended.
Agnew, Robert. “A Revised Strain Theory of Delinquency.” Social Forces. Vol. 64, N. 1. (1985). pp. 151-167.
Cressey, Donald R. “Fifty Years of Criminology: From Sociological Theory to Political Control.” Pacific Sociological Review. Vol. 22, No. 4. (October 1979). pp. 457-480.
Felson, Marcus & Clarke, Ronald V. “Opportunity Makes the Thief.” Practical Theory for Crime Prevention. Crown Publishing. (November 1998). Web.
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