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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

Dekmar also lets his officers know that he takes ethics very seriously. He personally teaches the department’s classes on ethics. “Our integrity policies are reinforced by the FTOs, the supervisors, and the management team,” he says. “If we see somebody heading down the wrong path, we try to do whatever we can to help them be successful.”

On-the-Job Testing

Proper recruiting and training are critical to maintaining departmental integrity, but where the rubber meets the road is in the field. Both rookie and veteran officers are constantly faced with temptation on the job, and some departments, rightly or wrongly, have instituted pop quizzes to test officer honesty.

One of the first reforms instituted in the mid-‘90s at the scandal-plagued New Orleans PD was what the department calls “integrity checks.” In New Orleans, agents of the Public Integrity Bureau—a joint operation of the NOPD and the FBI—go undercover in the field to test and observe police officers in scenarios that present them with temptations. For example, the undercover agents have left cash in the glove compartment of abandoned cars; set up accidents to make sure that responding officers are not working for lawyers, doctors, or insurers; and offered cops bribes.

NOPD spokesman DeFillo says the tests are conducted randomly and that none of the officers being tested are tipped off to the test. “The officers never know when they are being tested,” he says. “It keeps everybody guessing. They have to wonder, ‘Was the test the call I got yesterday, or the call I responded to last week?’”

After an NOPD integrity check is completed, the Public Integrity Bureau sends the results to the commander of the unit that was tested. DeFillo says the only time the results are shared with the officers who were tested is when their behavior merits correction or discipline. And he adds that if the tested officer’s action is illegal or a gross violation of departmental policy, he or she won’t know about the test until fired or arrested. DeFillo says that no integrity check has ever led to the discovery of such serious misconduct.

Such integrity “pop quizzes” are probably not appreciated by street cops, but they have become a common practice in large agencies, especially in police forces that have suffered through corruption investigations. For example, the federal consent decree that now governs many of the policies and procedures of the Los Angeles PD specifies that the department conduct “sting audits” to sniff out corruption.

Of course, as when offering temptation to criminals in sting investigations, there is a fine line between a legitimate test of an officer’s honesty and entrapment.

“We don’t entrap officers,” says Lt. Jorge Perez, commander of the Miami Police Department’s Internal Affairs unit. “We take the environment where the officer is and we observe how he handles himself in that environment. For example, if there’s an allegation that a specific officer is out there picking up hookers, then we’ll send an undercover officer out there posing as a hooker and see what he does.

“But we don’t just go out there and put a good-looking female officer undercover flirting with every male officer she sees and see what happens. We don’t do that. We don’t set officers up for failure like that,” he says.

Rotten From the Top

The focus of sting audits, integrity checks, quality-control checks and the like is usually the street cops, but experts say that law enforcement agencies generally rot from the top down.

“I believe with absolute certainty that the greatest category of misconduct in law enforcement is committed by chiefs, sheriffs, directors, and superintendents,” says Trautman. “The most destructive form of police misconduct is administrators ignoring obvious ethical problems. That causes a backlash that reaches every part of the department and every employee.”

Trautman’s research shows that misconduct spreads fast and that when the brass ignores bad cops and bad cop behavior a culture of corruption begins to flourish in a department. This is especially true if officers believe discipline is inconsistent from officer to officer and easily influenced by outside forces and internal politics.

“We collected 1,902 surveys from 444 agencies in 20 states, and we discovered that the number one reason that officers were angry and frustrated with their agencies was their belief that discipline was unfair and that administrators play favorites,” says Trautman.

Eliminating anger and frustration in the ranks is critical to any attempt to clean up a department because certain types of police misconduct are often an expression of the officer’s disdain for his or her employer. “Most officers who commit misconduct rationalize their behavior,” says Trautman. “They see themselves as victims of their departments. That’s why the biggest category of misconduct is theft by falsifying reports, documents, and time cards.”

Airing Dirty Laundry

One of the reasons why some police administrators ignore corruption in the ranks of their officers is that they don’t want to find themselves in the middle of a media feeding frenzy.

Unfortunately, this is a case of causing something to happen by attempting to avoid it. Put simply, if you don’t eventually wash your dirty laundry, it’s going to start to stink. And reporters who are looking for corruption know how to follow their noses.

Believing it’s better to give reporters a story than have them dig it up on their own, some enlightened administrators have taken a novel approach to dealing with the media in cases of police corruption. “We’re not shy about it,” says NOPD’s DeFillo. “When an officer is accused of a crime or wrongdoing, the superintendent is very proactive about calling a press conference.”

Last to Know

Unfortunately, in some agencies, the brass can’t tell the public about corruption in the ranks because they are unaware of it. Some chiefs want to know and some don’t. Others may be ignorant of problems in their agencies because junior officers shield them from the truth. This is a very dangerous condition for a chief and a department.

The New Orleans force was once characterized as corrupt beyond redemption and now it’s held up as an example of how an agency can clean up its act. And part of the ongoing process of maintaining that reputation has been the elevation of the department’s Public Integrity Division to bureau status.

There are only five bureaus in the NOPD, and each bureau commander reports directly to the superintendent. This structure gives the commander of the Bureau deputy chief status and prevents any interference in its investigations. It also means that the superintendent can’t plead ignorance when it comes to internal investigations.

Career Killer

There are numerous reasons why law enforcement agencies must be vigilant in their attempts to excise bad cops and eliminate police misconduct.

But perhaps the most important is that a culture of corruption within an agency endangers every officer on the force by undermining police authority and officer morale.

Worse, the bad officers in an agency make life extremely difficult for the good guys. Police loyalty known as the “blue wall” or the “code of silence” has forced many officers to jeopardize their careers and their liberty to cover up another officer’s misconduct. The results are often tragic.

“Misconduct and the code of silence are the most destructive forces in law enforcement,” says Trautman. “It is far more likely that an officer’s career will be cut short by these things than by a bad guy with a knife in the alley.”

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