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date: 27 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

Police corruption is ubiquitous and 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 when seeking justice. Leading on from this, if citizens do not trust the police, they are much less likely to cooperate with them, resulting in higher unsolved crime rates.

Yet according to Transparency International’s 2017 Global Corruption Barometer, more people pay bribes to law enforcement officers globally than to any other public officials, rendering the police the most corrupt branch of the state in many countries. Police corruption assumes numerous 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 occasionally even in contract killing. One other form of miscreancy was identified in the 1980s as largely peculiar to the police, namely “noble cause corruption.” This term, also known as the “Dirty Harry problem,” 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 restructuring, risk assessments, greater use of psychological testing, improving working conditions, lifestyle monitoring, civilian review, and introducing anti-corruption agencies that are completely independent of the police. But police corruption is ultimately a “wicked” problem, meaning that it is so complex and changeable that it can never be completely solved; the best that can be hoped for is that it will be brought down to manageable proportions.

Keywords: bribery, civil society, collusion, control theory, corruption, differential association theory, grass-eating, law enforcement, meat-eating, noble cause, opportunity theory, police, rational choice theory, rotten apples, routine activity theory, social learning theory, strain theory, international criminology

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