Police Corruption and Misconduct

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The violation of state and federal laws or the violation of individuals' constitutional rights by police officers; also when police commit crimes for personal gain.

Police misconduct and corruption are abuses of police authority. Sometimes used interchangeably, the terms refer to a wide range of procedural, criminal, and civil violations. Misconduct is the broadest category. Misconduct is "procedural" when it refers to police who violate police department rules and regulations; "criminal" when it refers to police who violate state and federal laws; "unconstitutional" when it refers to police who violate a citizen's civil rights; or any combination thereof. Common forms of misconduct are excessive use of physical or deadly force, discriminatory arrest, physical or verbal harassment, and selective enforcement of the law.

Police corruption is the abuse of police authority for personal gain. Corruption may involve profit or another type of material benefit gained illegally as a consequence of the officer's authority. Typical forms of corruption include bribery, extortion, receiving or fencing stolen goods, and selling drugs. The term also refers to patterns of misconduct within a given police department or special unit, particularly where offenses are repeated with the acquiescence of superiors or through other ongoing failure to correct them.

Safeguards against police misconduct exist throughout the law. Police departments themselves establish codes of conduct, train new recruits, and investigate and discipline officers, sometimes in cooperation with civilian complaint review boards which are intended to provide independent evaluative and remedial advice. Protections are also found in state law, which permits victims to sue police for damages in civil actions. Typically, these actions are brought for claims such as the use of excessive force ("police brutality"), false arrest and imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and wrongful death. State actions may be brought simultaneously with additional claims for constitutional violations.

Through both criminal and civil statutes, federal law specifically targets police misconduct. Federal law is applicable to all state, county, and local officers, including those who work in correctional facilities. The key federal criminal statute makes it unlawful for anyone acting with police authority to deprive or conspire to deprive another person of any right protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States (Section 18 U.S.C. § 241 [2000]). Another statute, commonly referred to as the police misconduct provision, makes it unlawful for state or local police to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of their rights (42 U.S.C.A. 14141 [2000]).

Additionally, federal law prohibits discrimination in police work. Any police department receiving federal funding is covered by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. § 2000d) and the Office of Justice Programs statute (42 U.S.C. § 3789d[c]), which prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. These laws prohibit conduct ranging from racial slurs and unjustified arrests to the refusal of departments to respond to discrimination complaints.

Because neither the federal criminal statute nor the civil police misconduct provision provides for lawsuits by individuals, only the federal government may bring suit under these laws. Enforcement is the responsibility of the justice department. Criminal convictions are punishable by fines and imprisonment. Civil convictions are remedied through injunctive relief, a type of court order that requires a change in behavior; typically, resolutions in such cases force police departments to stop abusive practices, institute types of reform, or submit to court supervision.

Private litigation against police officers or departments is difficult. Besides time and expense, a significant hurdle to success is found in the legal protections that police enjoy. Since the late twentieth century, many court decisions have expanded the powers of police to perform routine stops and searches. Plaintiffs generally must prove willful or unlawful conduct on the part of police; showing mere negligence or other failure of due care by police officers often does not suffice in court.

Most problematically of all for plaintiffs, police are protected by the defense of immunity—an exemption from penalties and burdens that the law generally places on other citizens. This immunity is limited, unlike the absolute immunity enjoyed by judges or legislators. In theory, the defense allows police to do their job without fear of reprisal. In practice, however, it has become increasingly difficult for individuals to sue law enforcement officers for damages for allegedly violating their civil rights. U.S. Supreme Court decisions have continually asserted the general rule that officers must be given the benefit of the doubt that they acted lawfully in carrying out their day-to-day duties, a position reasserted in Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 121 S. Ct. 2151, 150 L. Ed. 2d 272 (2001).


Society has grappled with misconduct and corruption issues for as long as it has had police officers. Through the mid-to-late nineteenth century, private police forces were commonplace, and agents of Pinkerton's and other forhire services became notorious as the muscle employers used to violently end strikes. Heavyhanded law enforcement as well as vigilantism by groups such as the racist ku klux klan spurred passage of the civil rights act of 1871, which criminalized acting under state law to deprive a person of constitutional or other rights under federal law. section 1983 of the act remains a critical tool in the early 2000s for enforcing constitutional rights, with direct applicability to police misconduct cases.

The twentieth century saw multiple legal, administrative, and scholarly approaches to the problem. Some developments bore indirectly upon police misconduct, such as the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which gave new protections to citizens who had long suffered discriminatory policing. Additionally, a string of landmark Supreme Court decisions during the era gave new force both to individual privacy rights as well as to curbs upon police power: highly influential cases resulted in the strengthening of fourth amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, evidentiary rules forbidding the use at trial of evidence tainted by unconstitutional police actions, and the establishment of the so-called Miranda Warning requiring officers to advise detained suspects of their constitutional rights.

While these decisions profoundly shaped the legal and social landscape, renewed focus on police misconduct and corruption occurred in the latter part of the century. As the pioneering criminologist Herman Goldstein argued, traditional views were based on the assumption that police abuse reflected the moral failings of individual officers—the so-called "bad cop." Public scandals began to shape a new view of the problem. In 1971, New York City organized the Knapp Commission to hold hearings on the extent of corruption in the city's police department. Police officer Frank Serpico's startling testimony against fellow officers not only revealed systemic corruption but highlighted a longstanding obstacle to investigating these abuses: the fraternal understanding among police officers known variously as "the Code of Silence" and "the Blue Curtain" under which officers regard testimony against a fellow officer as betrayal.

Broader recognition of the problem brought more ambitious reform efforts in the 1980s and 1990s. Spurred by the work of criminologists such as Goldstein and others, police departments sought to improve organizational rules, training, and prevention and control mechanisms. Such efforts are reflected in the publication of a code of police conduct by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, more rigorous training for officers, and experimented with so-called community policing programs to improve ties between officers and the public. Several cities established joint police and civilian complaint review boards to give citizens a larger role in what traditionally had been a closed, internal process by police departments.

Among the most dramatic examples of system-wide reform is New York City's response to long-standing brutality, discrimination, and corruption within the New York City Police Department (NYPD). After flirting with civilian review of complaints against police in the 1960s, the city committed to it after public outcry over the videotaping of officers beating citizens who violated curfew in 1988. The city subsequently established its Civilian Complaint Review Board, which became an all-civilian agency in 1993. In 1992, responding to new complaints, Mayor David N. Dinkins appointed the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Procedures of the Police Department, known as the Mollen Commission. Two years later, the commission concluded that the city had alternated between cycles of corruption and reform. Afterwards, in 1995, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani established the full-time Commission to Combat Police Corruption (CCPC) as an entity independent from the police department. The CCPC monitors

the NYPD anti-corruption policies and procedures, conducts audits, and issues public reports.

Contemporary Problems

Despite legal safeguards and well-intentioned reforms, police problems have continued to produce headlines. The exact scope of misconduct is unknown. Misconduct complaints can be quantified on a city-by-city basis, but these data are often subjective, and far more complaints are filed than ever are evaluated at trial. Corruption is even harder to measure. As the National Institute of Justice acknowledged in its May 2000 report, The Measurement of Police Integrity, most corruption incidents go unreported, and data that do exist "are best regarded as measures of a police agency's anticorruption activity, not the actual level of corruption."

During the late 1990s, highly-publicized cases in New York, New Jersey, Texas, Detroit, and Cleveland exposed an apparently new trend: police drug corruption. In the Cleveland case alone, the FBI arrested 42 officers from five law enforcement agencies in 1998 on charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. In a 1998 report to U.S. Congressman Charles B. Rangel, the federal general accounting office (GAO) found evidence of growing police involvement in drug sales, theft of drugs and money from drug dealers, and perjured testimony about illegal searches. The GAO survey of police commission reports and academic research suggested a troubling new dimension previously not seen in studies of police corruption. Traditionally, police corruption had been understood to involve individuals acting alone, but the new trend revealed officers working in small groups to protect and assist each other.

In 1999, this pattern emerged in one of the worst police corruption scandals in U.S. history. The scandal involved the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart precinct and particularly its elite anti-gang unit, CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums). Following local and federal investigations, CRASH was dismantled, some 70 officers were investigated, and several either pleaded guilty to or were convicted of crimes ranging from drug theft and peddling to assault, fabricating arrests, and filing false reports.

The Rampart scandal bore heavy costs, financially as well as in human terms. Several dozen criminal convictions credited to the work of the corrupt officers were overturned. By 2003, the city had already paid $40 million to settle lawsuits. In a settlement with the federal government in 2000, the Los Angeles City Council accepted a consent decree that placed the city's police department under the supervision of a federal judge for five years to implement and monitor reforms.

However, reform is no panacea. Even New York City's extensive reforms were called into doubt by two high-profile police cases in the 1990s. Both highlighted the difficulties inherent in prosecuting even apparently clear-cut misconduct. The first, in 1997, involved Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, who was shockingly beaten in a police cruiser and sodomized in a bathroom with a broom handle by four NYPD officers. Louima ultimately settled a civil case against the department for $8.7 million in 2001, one of the highest police brutality settlements ever paid and the highest by New York City since paying a $3 million settlement in the choking death of Anthony Baez in 1994.

Yet, despite much public frustration, prosecution of the officers was less conclusive. Officer Justin Volpe pleaded guilty to leading the sodomy assault and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. However, in 1999, his fellow three officers were acquitted on charges of assault in the police cruiser; one of them, officer Charles Schwarz, was convicted of violating Louima's civil rights for holding him down during the bathroom assault. In 2000, all three were convicted of obstructing justice for their actions in covering up evidence of the attack, but these convictions were later overturned in United States v. Schwarz, 283 F.3d 76 (2d Cir. 2002). Ordered a new trial on the civil rights charge, Schwarz reached a plea bargain in September 2002, agreeing to be sentenced to a 5-year prison term.

The second New York controversy involved the killing in 1999 of an unarmed man. Four undercover police officers shot Amadou Diallo 41 times after stopping the Guinean immigrant in the vestibule of his apartment building, where, they said, he reached into his back pocket. Large public protests attracted activists such as Susan Sarandon and former New York mayor David Dinkins, who argued that the department's so-called Aggressive Street Crimes Unit was in fact far too aggressive. In 2000, the four officers were acquitted in a trial that supporters said vindicated them but which critics blamed on lax prosecution.

Outside the courts, mounting resentment over discriminatory misconduct by police officers has occasionally led to rioting. In contemporary experience, the Los Angeles riots in 1992 followed the acquittal of white police officers charged with the videotaped beating of black motorist rodney king. In April 2001, three days of rioting in Cincinnati followed the acquittal of a white police officer on charges of shooting Timothy Thomas, a 19-year old unarmed black man.

Cities, courts, police departments, and criminologists all continue to examine ways to bring meaningful reform to police departments. Some critics have argued that misconduct and corruption are age-old problems that resist all efforts at eradication; the best society can do, in this view, is monitor and correct. Others trace recent problems to public policy that emphasizes aggressive policing of drug, gang, and street crimes. Whatever the cause and the solution, until more efficacious remedies are found, some citizens will still require protection from the very people appointed to protect and serve them.

further readings

Drug Policy Alliance. "Police Corruption." Available online at <www.drugpolicy.org/law/police/> (accessed August 23, 2003).

Howell, Ron. 2002. "Mother Hopes for Settlement." Newsday (February 5).

Hurtado, Patricia. 2002. "Case Now Closed: Unusual Plea Deal Yields No Clear Win for Louima, Schwarz." Newsday (September 23).

Kennedy, Rozella Floranz, ed. "Fighting Police Abuse: A Community Action Manual." ACLU Department of Public Education. Available online at <archive.aclu.org/library/fighting_police_abuse.html> (accessed August 23, 2003).

Klockars, Carl B., et al. 2000. "The Measurement of Police Integrity." Research in Brief. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice.

"Law Enforcement—Information on Drug-Related Police Corruption." 1998. Government Accounting Office Report. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office (June 29).

Manalili, Joseph, ed. "Chapter 5: Remedies and Legal Developments." Revisiting Who Is Guarding the Guardians? Washington, D.C.: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Available online at <www.usccr.gov/pubs/guard/main.htm> (accessed August 23, 2003).

New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board. "History of the CCRB." Available online at <www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/ccrb/html/history.html> (accessed August 23, 2003).

"The Rampart Scandal." FRONTLINE/PBS Online. Available online at <www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/lapd/scandal> (accessed September 5, 2003).

U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Coordination, and Review Section. "Addressing Police Misconduct: Laws Enforced by the United States Department of Justice." Available online at <www.usdoj.gov/crt/cor/Pubs/polmis.htm> (accessed August 23, 2003).


Civil Rights; Conspiracy; Constitutional Law; Discrimination; Fourth Amendment; Immunity; Ku Klux Klan; Pinkerton Agents; Privacy.

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