So what constitutes corruption?

By Alan S. Chartock | August 12, 2022

Are the police corrupt?

We know that power corrupts and as Lord Acton famously put it, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

We certainly know that power resides in certain places. We’ve all seen how from time to time, police officers have been known to abuse their physical and legal power. When we witness a police officer putting his knee on the neck of a perceived perpetrator, for example, there can be a huge public reaction. I suspect that the majority of people who choose to get into law enforcement are doing so for the right reasons, but as in any profession, there are bad apples and these are the ones I’m talking about.

Frankly, I would not like to be a cop. Part of the problem is that cops tend to stick together. If someone on a police force acts out, there is always the question as to whether or not his fellow officers will call “foul.” There is indeed a “thin blue line” that, all too often, is not crossed. There are a lot of rats in New York City. But when you are called a “rat” in a police department, it is a very serious charge. The police are not alone in calling out rats. We know that virtually every profession considers double-crossers to be undercutting others in their primary group. Hey, college professors do it to people in their ranks.

So what constitutes corruption? Cops who help themselves to drug bust proceeds or sleep with prostitutes or take money to let someone “off the hook” undercut all their colleagues and put them at risk with the general public. We all know how dangerous that can be. Once people lose faith in the police, the public is put at considerable risk. We have all seen instances of police corruption. It exists in big cities and small towns. When it happens, departments are undermined and when police move to higher up political positions, people will always remember their reputation for corruption. It will stick with them forever.

We know that police officers can get themselves into serious trouble because of the way in which they use and abuse power. We see people who operate restaurants bribe officers to come into their establishments by giving them food or other goodies. Hey, we all get it.  If a cop is in your restaurant, it is less likely that a bad guy will come into the place. If I had a chance to host a cop to prevent bad people coming into my store, I would certainly do that even though anyone reading this will know that is the essence of corruption. Of course, we all know otherwise good citizens who do exactly that.

Law enforcement officials are expected to conduct themselves in an exemplary manner. When I worked with the NYPD, the Commissioner decided that too many cops were too heavy or, in the vernacular, “fat.” An overweight officer chasing someone will be at a serious disadvantage.

All too often, cops have been typecast as being on the right (or fascist) side of politics. I get that. It’s incredibly difficult for a police department to find people who can operate effectively in all the roles they have to play, from social worker to soldier.

It is imperative to understand that promotion within a department is also dicey. I have seen police departments in which the tests that are given are given far too much weight. In some departments, an officer who attended junior college can rise to a senior position based on that little bit of education. It’s like studying for a regents exam. Does knowing all that crap really make you a better officer? Sometimes yes but all too often the answer is negative. Next me you read about scandal in a police department, think about all of this.

Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the State University of New York, publisher of the Legislative Gazette and president and CEO of the WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network. Readers can email him at [email protected].