National Association of Attorneys General

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Addressing Law Enforcement Corruption

This is the first of several public corruption articles to appear in the monthly NAAGazette. They are the work of attorneys who participated in the June 2012 National Attorneys General Training and Research Institute (NAGTRI) International Fellows Program.

This group was assigned to focus on police corruption and methodologies to address it. They looked at the opportunities for graft and corruption, its effect on a community, and the motivators.

By Chatchom Akapin, Office of the Attorney General, Bangkok, Thailand; Ganzorig Gombosuren, Office of the Prosecutor General, Mongolia; Maxine Jackson, Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Jamaica; Brian Kane, Office of the Attorney General of Idaho; Steven Kayuni, Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Malawi; and David Robinson, London Crown Prosecution Service, United Kingdom.

Since an effective system of government that prides itself on democracy and good governance is at the forefront of all nation states as they embrace the 21st century, it is critically important that democratic countries build effective institutions and enhance institutional capacities to deal with corrupt practices.

Corruption, by its very nature, undermines the rule of law and good governance and ultimately forfeits the public trust and confidence in those institutions, whether they are governmental or private.

In this paper, we looked at corruption within the law enforcement elements of the state — particularly among police, border patrol, and custom and immigration officials — and how that corruption affects public trust and confidence and subverts respect for the rule of law. This is particularly true because, since these officials often exercise a large amount of discretion when carrying out their duties, it is vital that the citizenry perceives that the discretion is being carried out in an even-handed manner. As guardians of the law, law enforcement provides the direct link between the justice system and civil society.

Here are some examples:

Issuing Traffic Tickets to Motorists

A police officer fails to stop or ticket a motorist for going 80 mph in a 50 mph zone because the driver represents a person of social standing within the community or is a close friend or family member or is of a similar ethnic group as the officer. This might not be classified corrupt behavior in and of itself, but does illustrate the undermining of confidence in the justice system because of unequal application of the law. Furthermore, such behavior easily leads to corrupt behavior because that officer now may be compensated through small gifts or other forms of quid pro quo that encourages him to look the other way when additional violations occur.

Establishing Close Links to Inner City Communities

Community policing is considered a valuable asset, leading to police officers gaining the trust of community members who are then more willing to assist the police when crime occurs in their community. However, it is also true that these police can achieve such a comfort level with the community, developing relationships and sources, that it makes pursuing less serious violations of the law more difficult and problematic. Similarly, close connections to informers can sometimes mean turning a blind eye to crimes where the informers may be culpable.

Border Control Agents and Customs Officers

The opportunity for corrupt behavior within the law enforcement community dealing with immigration and customs is self-evident. The discretion, for instance, to inspect one overseas shipment instead of another, can hide dishonest behavior unless there are mechanisms in place to detect individual discretion from being used in a corrupt manner.

The end result of the above examples is that the discretion given to police may be used in a negative way that leads to corrupt behavior. Ultimately, distrust of the legal system will undermine the rule of law, leading to an increase in crime and gang-related activities. Corrupt behavior can also affect the collection of public revenue in the form of fines, visa fees, and custom duties.

The Fraternal Nature of Law Enforcement

Every police force is subject to the pressure of a “protectionist policy” that may be either spoken or unspoken. This may involve actions such as statements in a police-involved shooting, overlooking behaviors that should be addressed, and turning a blind eye to indicia of wrongdoing involving turning in evidence. Junior officers and new recruits are often socialized to “toe the line”; a failure to do so leads to ostracism.

The End Justifies the Means

At the heart of law enforcement is a desire to “get” the bad guys. In simplest terms, the goal of every police officer is to arrest a criminal and see that the criminal is prosecuted. To that end, there is a high incentive, as well as pressure, to color the version of the events in such fashion as to ensure that the accused is convicted. But once an officer embarks on this path, what was a half-truth or a “white” lie becomes a bolder lie, all in order to justify the arrest and prosecution. In the worst case, it may result in a piece of evidence being “planted” on the scene to ensure that the evidence is both present and convincing as to guilt.

This corruption is particularly difficult to combat because there is an expectation both within the force to support the officer’s conduct and an equal expectation within society to do what it takes to keep people safe from criminals. This conduct is further facilitated within the system of justice when prosecutors ask questions in such a way as to elicit these types of answers from police officers. In simplest terms, the desire for conviction provides an easy rationalization for corrupt practices within arrests.

There are a number of measures that can be implemented to prevent corruption. But no single measure can address corruptive influences entirely. Nor is there a single “cure” for corruption or its influences. As measures are implemented, enterprising minds are working to overcome those measures — this is the frailty of the human condition. It is also why overlapping measures should be adopted and considered. One of the measures that must be taken includes establishing clear standards of conduct for law enforcement. This requires continued training of both law enforcement and training for society so that citizens know what they should expect from the law enforcement. It is important that police receive regular promotions and adequate pay so that there is less incentive for corrupt behavior. Furthermore, there should be a way that citizens can complain of police misbehavior and a methodology for these complaints to be honestly and adequately addressed.

Where it exists, overcoming a culture of corruption in law enforcement will require the dedication of those in power to forego benefits that accrue through that corruption. Only then can real strides be made.

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Tim Fox, Montana Attorney General

Tim Fox, the Montana attorney general, has worked in public service since 1990.