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Police Corruption in America


The Historical Evolution of Police Corruption

Police corruption became widespread shortly after the formation of the first American police departments in the mid 1800’s. During this time, political parties ran the municipal government and agencies. Employment could be assured if you followed the directives of the political parties which often required protecting illicit activities conducted by members of the political elite. This environment of accepted corruption further led to practices that monetarily benefited individual officers or their departments. Officers accepted bribes to ignore criminal activity, such as prostitution and demanded money to not report criminals such as pickpockets and con men. Reform efforts began towards the end of the 19th century. The Progressives, upper-middle class educated Protestants who opposed the political control of police agencies instigated the establishment of police commissions, the use of civil service exams and legislative reforms. Though wide-spread corruption declined, it was still a large problem.

Prohibition in the 1920’s greatly increased the potential for corruption. Massive amounts of money were being made by bootleggers who in turn paid off police officers to allow their illegal activities to continue. The Wickersham Commission, organized by President Hoover in 1929, studied the problems associated with Prohibition and found it had caused a number of social and political problems and recognized Prohibition was unenforceable and carried a great potential for police corruption. The Wickersham Commission also provided analysis of police misconduct which led to systems being formed to protect against this.

The civil rights movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s were also marred by police misconduct. Though there was no monetary gain from the actions of some police officers, widespread violations of the constitutional rights of individuals occurred and racial injustices committed. The Kerner Commission suggested many reforms in 1965, but despite the implementation of many of the reforms there was no long-term reduction of corruption.

The Knapp Commission in 1972 highlighted many corrupt practices of the NYPD including bribery and participation in gambling and prostitution. Their recommendations, including prosecution for police misconduct, were implemented but were ineffective. The Mollen Commission revealed another opportunity for police corruption. Misconduct was still widespread and becoming more serious. Officers in the NYPD were involved in drug related crimes. These included protecting traffickers, conducting illegal searches and seizures, falsifying records and trafficking in drugs. Recommendations included an external oversight committee, but acts of corruption have continued.

Corruption at the State and Local Levels versus the Federal Level

Local and state agencies are more susceptible to corruption than federal agencies. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is held in high regard and is thought to be an example of what a law enforcement organization should be and its agents are considered exemplary police officers. Webster, former director of the FBI, stated that the agency uses the most modern forms of management and technology and hires only people who have great strength of character and have displayed a great degree of professionalism and integrity. State and local agencies employ about five times as many people as do federal agencies. The federal pay scales are greater and the educational standards are higher, as well. In other words, the federal agencies have the “cream of the crop” of law enforcement officers. Lower pay and less integrity are identified as two major reasons for corruption and these conditions exist far more often in local and state agencies. The daily contact with individuals in crime control settings is much more prevalent for local and state officers. This places demands upon the police which may result in conflicts of values. The expectation of the police to regulate morality while respecting civil liberties, cracking down on clandestine activities while obeying regulations on how information is obtained and evidence gathered, enforcing regulations dealing with economic enterprise while remaining immune to the temptations create tension and contradiction. One result of this is corruption.

Dealing with Corruption

There are several technological advances in policing and law enforcement that could impact the amount of corruption that is either deterred or detected. These include early intervention systems, Compstat, advanced record keeping, crime analysis tools, and in car cameras. With increased technology comes more transparency. This transparency has led to increased accountability and greater oversight. Early intervention systems are a perfect technological advancement that can be examined to understand how corruption can be effected. These systems increase police accountability by reviewing an individual officer’s actions, arrest patterns, performance problems, accumulated complaints, and various other factors. This system relies on data to manage and identify officers whose performance exhibits problems. Interventions, usually counseling or training, to correct those performance problems can then be initiated. It is supposed to operate on the idea that positive, constructive criticism will be more beneficial than an external review board.

It is interesting to note that a paradox of accountability exists. This term was coined to describe the results of formal regulations and the uncertainty of police work coupled with the struggle of departmental accountability and officer autonomy. As departments and legislative bodies create more laws to attempt to control police conduct, the officers themselves feel resentful due to the dynamic and uncertain nature of their work. This leads to the officers distancing themselves from departmental accountability in an attempt to develop self-protection.

External changes in society can also impact law enforcement corruption. Corruption can change to reflect the area of opportunity. From extorting pickpockets to engaging in drug trafficking, opportunities exist to benefit one’s self. The opportunities for corruption are greatest when there is a large degree of discretionary authority given to a police officer. Prohibition and the war on drugs are just two examples of how corruption can change to fit the problems of society. The changes that are a part of society impact law enforcement which then in turn impacts the training that these officers must undertake. The idea is that these various shifts will lead to better policing which will then be better able to serve society. To that end, police training recognizes the need for its courses to provide recruits with real life scenarios. There are four elements to a successful training program. They are: (1) contextualize the learning, (2) integrate key topics throughout the curriculum, (3) build the scenario, and (4) conduct a thorough debriefing after the scenario. Additionally, ethics training should teach officers to ask themselves three questions when faced with an ethical dilemma. These include: Is it against the law?, Is it against policy?, and Is it against my own personal code of ethics?. Other ways to help deal with misconduct include altering management practices, discipline practices, close supervision, role modeling, strict supervision, openness, and better selection. Other areas that will help to lessen the impact of corruption include community involvement, problem solving, and organizational decentralization. Furthermore, better education and training of officers leads to more positive attitudes toward their job. The more educated an officer is, generally, correlates to a higher level of problem solving, a greater appreciation of cultural diversity, and more skill in dealing with and fostering relations with the community. There is also more ethical decision making and less corruption in officers who are more educated, along with fewer citizen complaints and overall better performance. Enhanced training and advanced study has lead to a higher degree of prestige and respect for law enforcement officers, which in turn may lessen corruption.

Given the increase in public interaction with community policing, police and law enforcement organizations are better equipped to deal with potential exposure to corruption than they were 10 years ago. Community policing which seeks to forge a partnership between police officers and members of the community to solve the problems of crime, reduce the fear of crime and social disorder through problem solving techniques requires officers to be close to the community. The close ties to community members in the capacity of serving their needs and addressing their problems and concerns provides citizens a say in the evaluation of the officers’ performances through the early warning system (EW). The early warning system relies partly on citizen complaints registered against an officer. Even though the EW system has been in place for over 10 years, the increase in community policing has increased the exposure of community members to police and the witnessing of their behavior. Citizen complaints provide police and law enforcement organizations information as to potential police officer problems including corruption. Intervention is provided through counseling and/or training followed by post intervention monitoring. Citizen satisfaction regarding a police officer’s behavior provides the organization with a measure of accountability. To further deal with potential exposure to corruption, police and law enforcement agencies could improve by adopting more formal ethics training. Administrators, in addition, must model the behavior they expect from their officers which requires them to emphasize and act with the highest ethical standards. Increasing educational requirements of recruits is also suggested to ensure greater ethical standards. Another way to manage misconduct is by changing measures of police performance. Instead of relying on output measures, for example the number of crimes cleared, which may include incentives for unethical behavior, more emphasis on measuring citizen satisfaction is needed.


Kris Espy on June 04, 2020:

This is definitely an appropriate time to circulate this particular article! on May 02, 2019:

Can I have your last name or full name. I am a student and would like to reference your article but can not do so because your name is missing.

bdo on September 04, 2014:

Paint the pigs black

Scroll to Continue

pintails7886 from Memphis TN on September 29, 2013:

Great piece unfortunately there is no longer viable interventions unless a problem catches the attention of federal agents. Internal investigations and police unions almost always hide the crimes of police officers. Even when they kill innocent people they are usually put of paid leave for a week or so, then almost always cleared for duty. The early intervention systems are trumped by IA covering up the crimes of their fellow officers. These "early" interventions are a joke many officers have HUNDREDS OF FILED COMPLAINTS and of that only about 2% are actually investigated. Usually honest cops are driven out of the force or held back from promotions and such when they speak out on crimes of a department.

People say a lot that there are only a few bad ones that people always see. This would be great if it were true, but if it were true there would not be thousands and thousands and thousands of examples to draw from. Police have a new tradition of raiding the wrong houses and killing people who think they are protecting their families from criminals, and nothing is done about it, nothing it is just swept under the rug and forgotten. There has been an enormous trend in lawsuit victories against police and I hope they keep up, this may lead to many police officers having to wear cameras. A study on this shows that police are 80% less likely to abuse their position, and they also have 90% less complaints filed against them. I have called the police 2 times in my life and both times they were rude and extremely unhelpful and some were out right butt holes. I never again will call a police officer from my experiences with them when I was a "victim" and treated like a criminal. Constitutionally speaking there is absolutely nothing a police officer can do for you that you as a citizen can not due for your self. The average response time of a police force nation wide is about 15-20 minutes, they do not protect anything, they are mostly traffic control, and investigative.

eclecticme (author) from South Carolina on May 27, 2013:


I believe jsabfikes was directly using my article for the paper, which is why I wrote the citation as I did. However, if you are interested in the actual sources I used to write the paper, they are as follows:


Braswell, M. C., McCarthy, B. R., & McCarthy, B. J. (2008). Justice crime and ethics (6th ed.). Newark, NJ: Matthew Bender & Company, Inc.

Dunham, R. G., & Alpert, G. P. (2010). Critical issues in policing: Contemporary readings (6th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Grant, H., & Terry, K. J. (2005). Law enforcement in the 21st century. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Oliver, W. M. (2006). The era of homeland security: September 11, 2001… Journal of California Law Enforcement, 40(3), 19-29.

Schmalleger, F. (2007). Criminal justice today: An introductory text for the 21st century (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Stojkovic, S., Klofas, J., & Kalinich, D. (2010). The administration and management of criminal justice organizations: A book of readings (5th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Thurman, Q. T., & Giacomazzi, A. (2004). Controversies in policing. Albany, NY: Matthew Bender & Company, Inc.

Welsh, W. N., & Harris, P. W. (2008). Criminal justice policy and planning (4th ed.). Newark, NJ: LexisNexis.

Shenonymous on May 27, 2013:

While the article was most interesting, using your own blog comment does not qualify as a bona fide bibliographic citation. Where exactly did you get your information as I would like to know for myself?

B-Dawg on November 16, 2012:


I think the police should spray tan their skin black. I think the police could clean up the ghettos lay down the law better with a black face. Black skin = Protection. Black skin a shield for white police. PEACE

eclecticme (author) from South Carolina on November 13, 2012:

Hey jsabfikes, if you are using APA style then your citation would be:

Eclecticme. (2011, September 5). Police corruption in America. Hubpages (italicized). Retrieved November 12, 2012, from

Hope this helps and that you make an A.

jsabfikes on November 12, 2012:

I used this to help with a paper I'm working on for school. I just don't know how to make the citation for my bibliography... Help?

skooter on May 09, 2012:

i completely agree

shortnsweet on April 19, 2012:

There are, and always will be good and bad officers in all police forces; unfortunately it is the bad ones that seem to generate the publicity and weeding them out is vital for the integrity of the profession.

Police corruption is, of course, intolerable but police officers are put in temptation's way on a daily basis. And, officers are on a hiding to nothing. If an officer uses his or her discretion and lets a minor offense go by just verbally warning the perpetrator, observers might suspect the worst. However, if officers are not allowed to use discretion then they raise public ire by appearing to be overbearing.

Generally speaking, most officers try their best to do a good job in difficult circumstances. Yes they sometimes do close ranks when issues arise, which unfortunately makes it appear that they are a law unto themselves, but they do it simply because they often don't get the support they deserve.

If we want to get good police officers, then we have to reward them properly and give them all the support we can.

JudyGoldhorpe on December 30, 2011:

I have eye witnessed and been victim of police corruption my whole life, it does nothing but destroy. What's worse they use tax payers money so even tho we pay we pay

Robert Dunn formerly of Lasco Bathware in Yelm, washington and his brother Lin Sharp both have badges-anyway, Robert Dunn claimed to be the victim of child ransom demands his nephew Chris was taken from the hospital by Lin Sharp who claimed to be the father although, Robert Dunn is the father and that's how close the child had been while Robert claimed having to pay ransom demands! money laundering? Elisabeth Mullin is Chris's twin she lived right in the same town and the childrens lives were threatened to make the mother cooperate, not to mention the beatings and injuries she sustained. Money laundering. And your tax dollars paid for that.

eclecticme (author) from South Carolina on September 30, 2011:

Thank you so much, ubanichijioke.

Alexander Thandi Ubani from Lagos on September 30, 2011:

A whole great piece and well written

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