Corruption with regards to the police is generally defined as an officer acting in their official capacity while at the same time abusing their authority to realize personal wants or needs. It has been said and widely assumed that the power associated with authority over others tends to lead an individual to corruptive acts and police officers are no more or less prone to human frailties as anyone else. However, when a policeman is charged with corruption and breaking the laws they are sworn to protect, it is always a shocking revelation to the public no matter how prevalent it is known to be. The drug laws on both state and federal levels have contributed to the abuse of power and corruption among law enforcement officials across the U.S. A comparison can be made to similar circumstances that occurred during the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920’s. It is well-known that alcohol prohibition encouraged the proliferation of criminal gangs and the associated violent activities. It also made criminals out of policemen who took bribes to ‘look the other way’ while illegal booze was delivered to and consumed at ‘speak easies.’ The growth of police corruption instances involving drug sales is relatively easy to explain. The financial rewards offered by the sales of illegal drugs in relation to other forms of income both legal and illegal, is enormous. The temptation attracts law enforcement officials who are becoming increasingly more discouraged by the growing proliferation of drug traffickers.
Though police agencies of all descriptions have fought the 30-plus year ‘drug war’ by spending billions of dollars and locking up millions of people, their efforts have not only not ended drug use or sales but drugs are now more available, cheaper and purer than ever before. Disheartened police officers involved in stopping drug crimes put their lives in jeopardy but are under-paid and under-appreciated by an indifferent public. Many officers joined the force to protect and serve but find themselves regulating an illegal drug market that they know they will never suppress. As long as the U.S. government continues its disastrous ‘war,’ formerly well-intentioned cops will continue to be lured by the money to be had by engaging in the drug trade they are expected to prevent. They risk their lives for a war which has no end and they know this fact better than anyone. Fighting a losing battle discourages even the most loyal and honest of law officials and some use this to justify becoming involved in a drug cartel. It’s easy money, they are being underpaid for dangerous work and their efforts are futile.
It is somewhat ironic that while the public generally expects at least a small fraction of a police department to contain some forms of corruption within it, the surprise is no less severe when it happens. Police officers are held to a higher standard of conduct by the public therefore shock and outrage is acute when instances occur. In addition, corrupt police officers pose a greater danger to the public than do civilian criminals because of the authority factor (Sherman, 1978: 31). Certain, controlled powers are happily allowed the police by the citizens so as to lessen their fears of crime. The revelation of corruption within the police force leads to thoughts of existing in a police state, a condition people fear more than civilian crime.
The rationale behind an individual’s deviant actions, including individuals employed on the nation’s police forces, has been and remains a complex and highly debated subject. Three areas of research which include biological, sociological and psychological studies have attempted to resolve this issue. No one area of study has been able to explain the exact reason why people behave in a corrupt or deviant manner. Because of this, screening for predisposed conditions to deviant behavior on the police force is difficult to determine or justify as tests may or may not accurately identify those individuals more likely to engage in criminal activity as a member of the police when given the opportunity. However, “sociologists’ theories have not been disproved as often as the psychologists’ and biologists’ theories, because their experiments are too hard to define and no one definition for deviance is agreed upon by all experimenters” (Pfuhl, 1980: 40).
Among the biological and physiological explanations for crime is the Behavior Genetics Theory which postulates a biological explanation for crime. While the genetic make-up of an individual does not induce any specific actions, anti-social behavior can be facilitated by neurotransmitters in the brain and hormonal imbalances which generate tendencies to act in a particular way. Abnormal serotonin levels have been shown to be an origin of criminal behaviors of all types of crime because an individual lacks the natural ability to control their impulsive thoughts thereby acting upon them. Everyone has thoughts they would never act upon. Those with this abnormality tend to act first and think later. Evidence compiled from studies has supported another link between a particular inherited mutant gene and criminal behavior. Instead of high serotonin levels the neurotransmitters in the brain, because of genetic abnormalities, may produce low levels of an enzyme which causes interruptions in signals within the nervous system and the brain. “Urinalysis of subjects in the Dutch study, all of whom was related and demonstrated aggressive and antisocial behavior, showed abnormal levels of metabolic products associated with the enzyme” (Vinces, 1996). These persons did not have the ability to produce this enzyme. This genetic defect may be at least a contributing factor leading to deviant behaviors. Biological theories attempting to locate the factors involved in human deviance are difficult to prove but the studies corroborate somewhat with anthropological researches such those conducted by Lange and Rosenoff et al among others. These early experiments and many that followed have endeavored to prove the biological theory by examining twins who had been convicted of criminal activities in an effort to understand the genetic connection, if any. The studies do show that if one twin commits crimes, the other has a higher probability to also engage in criminal behavior than does the general public (Rosanoff et al, 1934). These studies did not take into account the fact that the twins also grew up in similar environments which sociologists argue is the root of the issue. The biological contention is that people who exhibit delinquent behaviors are genetically inferior.
Sociologists generally find disagreement with the genetics theory for explaining criminal tendencies. They argue that an individual’s deviant actions result from feelings of inferiority learned from events occurring at an early age and cannot be predicted by examining inherited characteristics. “Sociologists learn from culture’s influences, other than a biological or psychological bias” (Pfuhl, 1980: 50). Sociologists are not concerned with behavior patterns exhibited by particular persons but indicate the roots of deviant behavior can be traced to cultural experiences that share a commonality. According to the sociological explanation for deviant behavior, all persons including police officers developed their propensity towards corrupt behaviors by way of counter-productive childhood experiences.
Current research has shown that if a child lacks proper supervision or experiences other deficiencies, they are more likely to exhibit delinquent behavior during childhood as well as later in life. Poverty, single parent homes, abusive households or a combination of these situations causes a variety of social adaptive problems for children, the consequences of which follow them into adulthood. “If a person is living in a lower class, single-parent environment, they are then at a real disadvantage. It may be because they do not feel they are good enough to belong in the realms of society” (Lemert, 1972: 59). It is very possible that corrupt cops did not interact well or often with other children and experienced patterns of stress during childhood such as a persistent lack of self-esteem and constant antagonistic treatment. Not surprisingly, child neglect and/or abuse causing emotional or physical trauma retards the normal social development of a child. The problem is widespread which gives at least one explanation for a high rate of crime within the public realm and in police departments. “Over one million of the youth in America are subjected to abuse a year” (Lemert, 1972: 48).
The Differential Association Theory first postulated by Edwin Sutherland explained that behavior, whether criminal in nature or not, is learned. He theorized that criminal behavior was not a genetic abnormality therefore opposing the conclusions drawn by pathological and biological theorists. According to the Differential Association Theory, criminal behavior is learned via communications and experiences acquired from personal relationships. The degree of deviant behavior varies because people absorb information differently whether on the conscious or unconscious level. This theory explains why crime is higher in the inner cities where crime is rationalized more so than in the suburbs, as well as presenting a concern regarding the dangers to police officers working in close association with or against drug cartels on a regular basis. This rationalization can be contagious especially among impressionable youths (Cressey, 1979: 458-460).
Sociological and social structure crime theories such as the General Strain Theory, however, give insight to reasoning’s for multiple types of criminal behaviors. According to Robert Agnew’s research which expanded the general strain theory, police officers may seek retribution when they perceive they are being paid or otherwise treated unfairly, a possible motive for crime (Agnew, 1985: 152). According to Agnew, people strive for three main goals in whatever field they are employed. The first, not surprisingly, is monetary gain. Money, or the lack of, causes strain which leads to delinquent behavior in otherwise law abiding citizens. The second is a need for respect and a feeling of status, a factor especially present in males. Personality characteristics which are often associated with masculine traits are frequently exhibited through delinquent behavior. If an individual cannot achieve this perceived status legitimately, they may resort to criminal activities. The third goal is autonomy which refers to individual empowerment, a valued asset within any society. Police officers experience low pay and many feel a lack of respect and are frustrated that their value to society is unfulfilled because the drug war only heightens despite their best efforts.
Although strain generated by a perceived lack of autonomy has been shown to mainly affect the lower classes and adolescents, because this is a perception of position in a society or in an organization, it is also linked to law enforcement crimes as well. Agnew suggests that “the need for autonomy can result in delinquency and crime, as the individual tried to assert autonomy, achieve autonomy, and relieve frustration against those who have denied the individual autonomy” (Agnew, 1994: 425-426). When presented with an open opportunity to make a gain, people, depending on their social make-up, decide on whether to commit a crime. Are they also genetically predisposed, were they taught through experience that crime is acceptable, are they seeking retribution or wish to artificially empower themselves because of perceived deficiencies within their lives?
Theories describing the causes of crime whether genetic, social or psychological are mere rationalizations. The public expects their police department to enforce the rules, not break them. When they do, it breaks down the trust of the public as well as the tearing down the very fabric of society. The problem of police corruption originates not in the causes of deviance common to all persons but in the laws they are trying to enforce.
Agnew, Robert. (1985). “A Revised Strain Theory of Delinquency.” Social Forces. Vol. 64, N. 1, pp. 151-167.
Cressey, Donald R. (October 1979). “Fifty Years of Criminology: From Sociological Theory to Political Control.” Pacific Sociological Review. Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 457-480.
Lemert, Edwin M. (1972). Human Deviance, Social Problems, and Social Control. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Pfuhl, Erdwin H. Jr. (1980). The Deviance Process. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company.
Rosanoff, Aaron J.; Handy, Leva M.; & Rosanoff, Isabel Avis. (January 1934). “Criminality and Delinquency in Twins.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1931-1951). Vol. 24, No. 5, pp. 923-934.
Sherman, Lawrence W. (1978). Scandal and Reform: Controlling Police Corruption. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Vinces, Marcelo. (1996). Behavioral Genetics. Cornell University Sci-tech archives. Retrieved February 19, 2009 from