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Corruption: Cracking Down on Bad Cops

Tougher hiring, training, and monitoring procedures are the keys to cutting down on corruption.

October 01, 2003  |  by - Also by this author

There has probably never been a worse month in the history of the Detroit Police Department than June 2003. In that 30-day period, 17 Motor City cops were indicted on a variety of corruption charges; the agency agreed to oversight by the U.S. Department of Justice; and federal documents leaked to the local papers that in the last decade investigators had never uncovered such “entrenched and embedded” problems on an American police agency.

When you consider the 10 years in question, that’s quite a damning statement. Since 1993 major cities nationwide, including Los Angeles, Miami, and New Orleans, have been rocked by revelations of officer misconduct. Internal and external investigations of these departments led to lurid evidence of officers dealing drugs, stealing evidence, hiring themselves out for contract killings, planting guns on suspects after police-involved shootings, and covering up for fellow officers.

Not all police misconduct is as newsworthy as these infamous cases. But it all has the same results. It erodes the public’s trust in law enforcement and it damages good cops, sometimes destroying their careers.

And you don’t have to plant a gun or lift kilos of coke from the evidence locker to find yourself turning in your badge, or worse, indicted and possibly on your way to a state or federal prison. Each year a lot of cops find themselves jammed up because they falsified timecards for a little extra overtime or lied on a report to cover for a buddy.

Retired cop Neal Trautman who heads the nonprofit National Institute of Ethics says that in the five years from 1990 to 1995 more than 2,000 American cops were decertified for misconduct. He has no definitive recent figures, but Trautman believes that the numbers are climbing and will continue to climb for another 10 years or so. And he makes a persuasive argument.

Bad In, Bad Out

The root of the problem is recruiting and hiring. In the mid-‘90s, the Clinton Administration launched an initiative to hire an additional 100,000 cops for American cities. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an additional 100,000 qualified cops to fill the demand. Remember, this was the booming ‘90s, the economy was good, and it was hard to fill police positions.

But with federal money available to swell their ranks, many agencies hired anyway. Consequently, there are a lot of cops out on the street who would have been rejected if their agencies hadn’t relaxed their hiring standards.

Trautman points out that several officers involved in a recent major police scandal were recommended for rejection by departmental interviewers and investigators. But the ranks had to be filled, so they were hired anyway. “The bottom line is that in terms of recruitment, we have already blown it,” Trautman says.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that every cop hired during this period is going to be a problem. But if hiring standards were relaxed to let them on the force, especially if in the rush to fill the ranks they were hired despite a less than favorable background investigation, then it’s unlikely that they will change their spots just because the department has bestowed on them a gun and a badge.

“If they are thieves before becoming cops, then they will be thieves in uniform,” says Trautman. “If they are abusive to people from certain racial groups, then they will do that in uniform, too.”

Just One Worm

A bad hire can do a lot of damage to a police force. It’s kind of like letting a worm into an apple. The performance and behavior of a bad cop will affect the public’s attitude toward its police force, damage the morale of good cops, and spread corruption throughout the ranks.

This is why thorough recruitment and hiring policies are some of the best defenses against corruption in police ranks. It’s also one of the first things that reformers address when they seek to fix broken law enforcement agencies.

Of course, the best way to attract decent recruits is to offer reasonable compensation. In the early ‘90s, when the foundations for the New Orleans Police Department’s drug and murder scandals were being laid, starting pay for a police officer in the Big Easy was about $16,000 per year. Under reforms implemented by former NOPD superintendent Richard J. Pennington and current superintendent Edwin Compass, NOPD officers now receive a starting pay of about $32,000.

By paying a living wage, NOPD has made it much more difficult for individuals with questionable backgrounds to wear its uniform. “Hiring is now much more selective,” says Capt. Marlon DeFillo, NOPD’s commander of public affairs. “The department now rejects nine out of 10 applicants.”

The vetting of new candidates for the NOPD is also much more thorough than it was a decade ago. Background investigations intensively examine the recruit’s criminal, financial, and military records. In addition, investigators trained in background checks now talk to the candidate’s character references and speak with his or her neighbors. Then when a candidate becomes a recruit he or she receives a psychiatric evaluation before, during, and after the academy.

New Orleans instituted its hiring policies after a major scandal, but some law enforcement agencies long ago decided that the best way to maintain high ethical standards was to turn away questionable people at the door.

For example, few law enforcement agencies meet the hiring standards of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. And admittedly, few can afford to do so. But there are lessons to be learned in examining the department’s hiring policies.

With 72 sworn game wardens, Wyoming Game and Fish is responsible for enforcing the state’s laws regarding hunting, fishing, trapping, etc. The job requires both a biology and a law enforcement background, and it appeals to many people who like the idea of working outdoors in the great open spaces of Wyoming. It’s a popular job, so popular that each opening attracts as many as 100 applicants.

That means that Wyoming Game and Fish can be picky about who gets to wear its badge. And it is. The hiring and evaluation process is long and thorough, involving tests, interviews, psychiatric exams, extensive background investigations, and a series of probationary positions.

Chief Game Warden Jay Lawson says the department’s hiring process is so involved because Wyoming Game and Fish wardens are in a position of great authority that could easily be abused. “Our wardens work alone and beyond direct supervision,” he explains. “They also have huge areas of responsibility oftentimes as much as 2,500 square miles.”

Lawson realizes that the opportunities for misconduct are not as tempting for a Wyoming game warden as they are for say, a New York narcotics cop, but bad game wardens could do some damage to an agency that prides itself on integrity and its high regard with the public. “Our wardens can’t be directly supervised, they’re in charge of lots of valuable equipment, they protect valuable wildlife, and they make arrests,” he explains.

Copy Machines

If you really want to know the culture of a police department, look at the FTOs. Field Training Officers are more than teachers. In some ways, they are like parents raising the next generation of cops and instilling them with the values of society, in this case the department.

“You do not want cynical, unappreciated FTOs,” says Trautman. “FTOs are machines replicating themselves. If you have a group of FTOs who feel unappreciated and they are not compensated for the extra work, then you can’t expect anything but a whole department of cynics.”

Accordingly, many police administrators have come to realize that the proper selection, training, and supervision of FTOs is essential to maintaining the integrity of their departments. For example, one of the first reforms in the scandal-plagued New Orleans PD was an overhaul of the department’s FTO program.

Perhaps one of the nation’s most comprehensive FTO training and supervision programs can be found in LaGrange, Ga. The LaGrange PD’s program is very selective and FTOs are required to complete a 500-hour training program before they are given the responsibility of working with new cops. Then, once they start working with recruits, they are required to submit an extensive report each day to the department brass.

LaGrange Chief Louis Dekmar says the 85-sworn agency has made great strides in the last decade, overhauling its policies and procedures, achieving accreditation, and maintaining high morale and integrity. One of the mechanisms that Dekmar uses to keep his department on the right path is the daily reports from the FTOs.

“They are required to submit every day a two- to three-page, typewritten, single-spaced report to me,” Dekmar explains. “That’s my morning reading. I look at those reports with my morning coffee because I want to know how the recruits are doing. If we take a recruit through training and then have to dismiss him or her later, then we’ve just thrown away $25,000 to $30,000. It’s like taking a fully equipped Crown Vic and driving it off of a cliff.”

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