Corruption: Cracking Down on Bad Cops

Not all police misconduct is plastered across national newspapers, 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.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

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.”[PAGEBREAK]

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.”

About the Author
David Griffith 2017 Headshot
View Bio
Page 1 of 2333
Next Page