The police officer: From heroe and protector of the people to police corruption and misconduct

The position of a police officer was created in order to help ensure that laws were enforced and that the general public remained safe. As a result, police officers have been historically known to serve and protect our society. Whether they are mediating a domestic disturbance, solving a murder case, or ensuring that reckless drivers are kept off the roads, officers risk their lives on a daily basis to provide public safety. Not surprisingly, police officers have long been heralded as heroes in our society.

Although officers have been traditionally regarded as up-standing citizens whose morals and values should serve as models for the rest of society, police behavior has come under increasing scrutiny in the past several years.

Profile of an officer

Criminologists and other researchers have spent years attempting to develop a bare bones profile that contains some of the most common personality traits exhibited by police officers. Although no two people are alike, a number of common features have been identified.

Prior to becoming officers, these individuals tend to be somewhat more aggressive, impulsive, and willing to take risks than other individuals. Each of these qualities is desired in law enforcement officials who must ensure public safety by risking their own lives on a daily basis. On the other hand, it is important to recognize that these same qualities can also be attributed to criminals.

In addition, police work fosters the development of certain super ordinate attitudes, creating a “police personality.” Because their jobs require them to be attuned to deceit, officers may become hypersensitive, suspicious, and defensive toward outsiders, ultimately isolating them (in many cases) from the bulk of society. This is only further propagated by the “us versus them” mentality that arises as police officers work together against criminals. Eventually, many police officers develop a sense of cynicism towards society.

Law enforcement can be a uniquely stressful and demoralizing job. There are high rates of alcoholism, suicide, divorce, and even domestic violence amongst members of the police force. No matter how ethical or moral an officer is he or she may eventually succumb to the negative consequences that frequently result from their occupations.

Another trait that researchers have linked to the police personality is a false perception of invulnerability, stemming from the power and authority vested in the badge. Many of those who wear the badge, even those who tarnish it, may feel safely insulated from allegations of corruption.

Police corruption

Unfortunately, not all police officers are inherently “good.” Some public officials, both elected and appointed have bartered their influence and have used their positions to solicit or extort bribes. Police corruption shares important structural similarities with political corruption. Like political corruption, police corruption is an illegal use of official authority for personal gain. Similar to the politicians who sell their votes, law enforcers have something valuable to sell: immunity from the law. However, individuals who “buy” from police are typically “common” (i.e. blue-collar) criminals.

Many officers become corrupt as a result of societal or institutional pressures. Police corruption occurs everywhere from big cities to rural districts and small towns. Police become corrupt for two main reasons: for personal gain and for honor.

There are four major ways that police become corrupt for the purposes of personal gain: kickbacks, extortions, fixes, and opportunistic theft.

As authoritative figures in their communities, police officers frequently receive kickbacks from legitimate and illegal institutions and individuals alike. Essentially, kickbacks are perks that officers receive, often in the form of monetary payments. Officers can receive these kickbacks by making referrals to certain ambulance companies, taxi companies, hospitals, and even funeral parlors.

Police officers can also become involved in extortions, which are also known as “shakedowns.” In these situations, officers receive payments for NOT making an arrest or issuing a ticket. Popular targets include construction sites and overcrowded venues such as nightclubs or restaurants. Although these are legitimate businesses, officers can also shakedown illegal operations such as prostitution or drug rings. Criminals such as drug dealers or prostitutes pay officers “protection money” so that the police will not harass them.

Another form of police corruption for personal gain is known as “the fix.” Some officers will tamper with evidence or give false testimony in order to receive payments. A fixer is often a detective who conducts or controls the investigation upon which the prosecution is based. The investigative officers usually agree to “sell” the case, withdrawing protection in return for some material reward. Other officers participate in fixes by either failing to request prosecution altogether.

The last way that police officers are corrupt for personal gain is through opportunistic theft. Officers are able to be in certain situations that offer them the opportunity to steal without the fear of punishment. For example, an officer who participates in a police raid against a drug dealer may confiscate money or drugs and report only a portion of these items while keeping the rest for their personal use. In other instances, officers have stolen jewelry or money from unconscious victims.

If officers are not involved in corrupt activities for personal gain, they may undertake illegal actions in a form of corruption known as “honorable corruption.” This form of corruption is termed honorable because the officers believe that they are doing it for the “right” reasons or to adhere to personal moral codes.

Unfortunately, these officers (although well-intentioned) are using illegal means to achieve their goals. In many cases, officers who have not been able to convict a criminal because of a lack of evidence that would be admissible in court, or for some other technical reasons, ultimately choose to tamper with evidence and falsify their testimonies in an attempt to ensure that the criminal is captured and appropriately punished.

Other forms of police misconduct

Aside from corruption, police officers are sometimes charged and convicted of other forms of misconduct. There have been many cases throughout history that have exposed incidents of police brutality where officers have taken advantage of their authority and physically abused criminals and even law-abiding citizens.

Many cases have also brought attention to the tendency for some officers to deny a suspect or perpetrator with his or her constitutional rights, such as reading the Miranda rights upon arrest. Even criminals have rights; and police officers who deny these rights are essentially breaking the law.

In addition, police officers often also participate in racial profiling. Undoubtedly, this form of police misconduct stems from the officers’ necessary duty to identify suspects and potential perpetrators. However, there are some cases that have uncovered some more heinous forms of racial profiling, such as pulling over a driver simply because he or she is African-American.

The code of silence

Enhancing structural opportunities for police corruption and other forms of misconduct is the so-called “Blue Wall of Silence.” This “code” is a phenomenon within the police subculture that proscribes officers from reporting corrupt colleagues.

The Blue Wall provides officers with a deeply engrained sense of loyalty to their fellow officers. This loyalty serves to provide reassurance to officers who are frequently in the line of fire on a daily basis. Although in many circumstances such intense group cohesion may be a good thing, it can also work towards hiding corruption within the police force.

In any case, the Blue Wall prevents officers from telling on one another because this betrayal is viewed as worse than the corruption or misconduct itself. In addition, many officers feel that if they were to break this Blue Wall, they will be abandoned when they are under distress, a direct result of the “us versus them” mentality. An informant is shunned from the group and seen as one of the “others.”

In conclusion, it is difficult to provide a comprehensive and concise portrayal of police behavior throughout history. While some officers have garnered considerable honor through heroic acts, others have tainted their badges with corruption and misconduct.