BY P. SUNDRAMOORTHY
Law enforcement corruption destroys enforcement agencies, the criminal justice system, government and society.
There are many types of law enforcement corruption. Let’s look at some of the most common forms. In the context of law enforcement corruption, bribery is giving or receiving any item of value to influence an officer from taking legitimate action.
Extortion is also somewhat common and is similar to bribery. Extortion is threatening someone to obtain money, property or sexual favours. Here, an officer might threaten to have someone falsely prosecuted if that person doesn’t pay the officer. Extortion always involves a threat.
The mere easy access to large sums of money seems to be the largest contributing factor to law enforcement corruption. Many experts believe the easy access may prove to be simply too tempting for some officers. There are also other possible causes of law enforcement corruption. Some studies cite law enforcement culture of silence and secrecy as a major contributing factor. This code of silence among enforcement officers discourages an officer from reporting the misconduct of another officer. Due to the culture of many law enforcement agencies, officers are willing to tolerate corrupt behaviour, rather than “ratting” on their fellow officers.
Research also argues that the rotten apple theory as the reason why corruption prevails among enforcement agencies. This theory says that most acts of corruption are a result of unethical conduct of a few officers. However, based on the incidents of slavery camps and mass graves, common sense will dictate that the rotten apple theory is not applicable in this saga. In this scenario, it goes beyond a few corrupted officers. Systematic organised corruption obviously flourishes here. Sadly, law enforcement corruption is not limited to slavery camps and mass graves. Again, it goes beyond that and includes the illicit drug trade, prostitution and gaming.
Eradicating corruption completely is not realistic as long as humans are at the helm. Controlling and minimising corruption should be the approach to be undertaken. Unrealistic goals are simply illusions of grandeur. However, steps can be taken to reduce it significantly. There are a few fundamental ideas that can be implemented that can, by their very nature, curb corruption.
The first step is to hire police officers of good character, which is difficult for a number of reasons. Officers are human. Giving a person the kind of authority and power a officer has can overwhelm a person. It is predictable what can happen, namely corruption, as history illustrates so well. It is also predictable that a large majority will do the job they were hired to do, and do it honestly and professionally. Stricter and thorough background screening methods need to be implemented to decrease the chance that a potential officer will become corrupt. Checks must not be limited to criminal history activities. If the candidate can successfully complete all the integrity requirements, then it becomes more likely that he will be honest. Unfortunately, because enforcement officers are human, no department has been successful in creating tests that will reliably predict officer conduct.
Once an officer is hired, the enforcement agencies should promote ethics on the job. Along with such indoctrination, ethical indoctrination is paramount. The agencies must understand that the citizens trust law enforcement officers to be ethical and professional, and a breach of that trust is unjust and violates human rights. People observe enforcement officers and their behaviour. Corruption in enforcement agencies makes it easier for a citizen to rationalise acting unlawfully, which just creates more work and challenges for enforcement agencies. If an enforcement officer, who is allegedly the pillar of the law, can defy it, why cannot the citizens do the same? The credibility of enforcement officers vanishes. A corrupt officer cannot very well express effectively why citizens should obey the law, for he or she has no consistency and thus no credibility to uphold law and order in society. Thus, on-going training and education are instrumental in reinforcing integrity among officers.
Organisational characteristics and anti-corruption laws are relevant and the impact is significant as well. Nepotism and cronyism in law enforcement agencies are weaknesses that make corrupt acts and unethical behaviour the norm. Our anti-corruption laws need some amendments. For example, the fact that an officer has unaccounted wealth does not by itself prove the crime of bribery. In Hong Kong, it is otherwise. We must equip the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission with the appropriate laws to effectively investigate corruption cases. The political will must exist to do so.
The givers need to stop corrupting and the receivers need to be imprisoned. The key is zero tolerance and no exceptions. Leadership makes the difference. Thus, we need to fix it with utmost urgency and without fear or favour. — 22 Jun 2015
Associate Professor Dr P. Sundramoorthy is with the Research Team on Crime and Policing, Universiti Sains Malaysia.