Learning about the police to understand why they so often act badly

Summary: Modern technology gives us unprecedented tools with which to run America, but only if we have the necessary clear vision. These tools work equally well to feed our delusions about the world. Our response to revelations about police behavior suggests that many Americans have chosen myths over truth.

Police Corruption

See the magnitude of the problem

I have long suspected that we no longer watch TV shows just for entertainment, but also to re-enforce our delusions about the world — a retreat to fantasy as we have disengaged as citizens. A comment to “The Castle season opener shows our divorce from our police” nicely illustrated this, by someone who claims an MS degree in physics.

99.999% of all police work can be perfectly proper, but that 0.001% of bad behavior is what shows up on YouTube.

Applying that fraction to the 34,450 officers of the NYPD means that they have 0.3 bad cops. That’s probably low by a factor of ten thousand. His rebuttal…

OK, make it 99.99%. Or 99.9%. Or 99%.

That gives us 3.4 bad cops in the entire NYPD. Or 34. Or 340. Here we see the clouded vision of Americans at work, as citizens learn about the police by watching “Blue Bloods“. Fortunately we need not rely on TV police procedurals for information. There are studies of police corruption, such as those cited in “Corruption in Law Enforcement: A Paradigm of Occupational Stress and Deviancy” in the Journal of the Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. Footnotes in the original.

If such activities as free meals are excluded, a significant number of police officers do not engage in any corrupt activities. But with extremely rare exceptions, even those who do not engage in corrupt activities are indirectly involved because they do not report what they know or suspect. In some large urban departments, even the reported extent of corruption is staggering.

  • A 1972 study revealed that one of every three police officers in Chicago was found to be guilty of a criminal act, one of four in Boston, and one of five in Washington, DC. Their crimes included assault, theft, shakedown, extortion, and accepting bribes.
  • The Knapp Commission Report on Police Corruption, published in 1973, charged that as many as half of all officers in the New York Police Department were corrupt.
  • According to a 1994 report, 100 of 1,046 Miami police officers had been, or currently were being, investigated on corruption-related matters, and officials predicted that as many as 200 additional officers might eventually be investigated.
  • In New Orleans in 1995, the local U.S. district attorney and several watchdog groups estimated that between 10 and 15% of the 1,500-officer police department was corrupt {“Crime on the take in the Big Easy”, TIME, 20 March 1995}.

Police Discipline

About the response to police misbehavior

Perhaps we have so much bad behavior by policy because it is too seldom punished. Police are protected by their frequent perjury (as shown by videos conflicting with written reports) and more broadly by the the Blue Wall of Silence, district attorney’s reluctance to prosecutor, and juries reluctance to convict. We see how this works in the murder of Tamir Rice.

For a more analytical perspective see “Police Use of Force in New York City” by the NYC’s Inspector-General.  In 2010-2013 the NYPD imposed no discipline in 34 of the 77 (44%) substantiated allegations in which their independent review confirmed that officers used excessive force (i.e., not warranted under the circumstances).

Police Internal Affairs Departments protect us from our guardians. But they’re often protectors of the police, not the tough investigators of corruption that you see on TV. For some examples see “Dirty Little Secrets in NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau” by Graham Rayman in the Village Voice.

Some police attempt to do the right thing when they see corruption among their brothers. Here is a graphic example of the consequences of violating the NYPD’s version of omerta (code of silence): “The NYPD settled a $600,000 lawsuit Tuesday with one of its own officers after they forced him into a psychiatric ward for several days against his will for turning whistle-blower on them.” Source here. Perhaps not that much has changed since the deep corruption revealed by Frank Serpico (for which they attempted to kill him).

Police Corruption
Available at Amazon.

For a deeper exploration of this problem I recommend Police Corruption: Exploring Police Deviance and Crime by Maurice Punch (Prof Criminology at the London School of Economics) — Summary…

“Policing and corruption are inseparable. This book argues that corruption is not one thing but covers many deviant and criminal practices in policing which also shift over time. It rejects the ‘bad apple’ metaphor and focuses on ‘bad orchards’, meaning not individual but institutional failure. For in policing the organisation, work and culture foster can encourage corruption. This raises issues as to why do police break the law and, crucially, ‘who controls the controllers’?

“Corruption is defined in a broad, multi-facetted way. It concerns abuse of authority and trust; and it takes serious form in conspiracies to break the law and to evade exposure when cops can become criminals. Attention is paid to typologies of corruption (with grass-eaters, meat-eaters, noble-cause); the forms corruption takes in diverse environments; the pathways officers take into corruption and their rationalisations; and to collusion in corruption from within and without the organization. Comparative analyses are made of corruption, scandal and reform principally in the USA, UK and the Netherlands.

“The work examines issues of control, accountability and the new institutions of oversight. It provides a fresh, accessible overview of this under-researched topic for students, academics, police and criminal justice officials and members of oversight agencies.”

About our police shooting unarmed men

The current protests result from videos of police killing unarmed men, an extreme example of police dysfunctionality. Slowly Americans attempt to understand why this happens so often. Understanding might be the first step to reform. Or it might precede acceptance by white Americans, and further alienation of minority Americans from America.

Of course, police shootings are just the extreme tip of the out-of-control behavior or many American police. These stories flow through our daily news, with a high proportion of them about excessive police violence against minorities.

  1. NBC video shows Georgia police tasering Mathew Ajibade — tied to a chair. He died hours later.
  2. Albuquerque detective runs down Danan Gabaldon with an unmarked truck, Police beat him up, taser him in the head, Department says It Was an accident. The suspect has a long history of violence, including attacking police.
  3. Ohio Cop Trying To Shoot Dog Shoots 4-Year-Old Girl Instead“.

For More Information

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For broader understanding of these things I recommend Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces (2014) and John T. Whitehead’s A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State (2013). Also see The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) by legal scholar Michelle Alexander.

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