Repairing Broken Windows

Repairing Broken Windows – police corruption

Frank L. Perry

Preventing Corruption within Our Ranks

In the last two decades, research and commentary regarding the causes and effects of law enforcement corruption have intensified and diversified. Efforts in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and the United States have effectively identified symptoms and remedies in those countries, as emerging democracies in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Pacific Rim face the more immediate and stark realities of self-governance and the police role. Comparative reviews of problems and best practices, as well as academic research, suggest that corruption follows certain predictable routes and that precursory signs occur prior to any actual quid pro quo corrupt activity.

Three organizational failures can foster a resentful, cynical, and demoralized work force leading to individual and collective acts of corruption. These failures are: little or ineffective discipline and deselection of trainees (a commitment to fairly but firmly graduate only those individuals who truly demonstrate performance and integrity standards); ignorance of the nature and effects of the goal-gradient phenomenon (the farther away individuals remain from their goal, the less the tendency to remain passionately interested in its attainment); and the allowance of a double standard within the organization, thereby decreasing moral accountability as professional responsibility increases. All of these factors represent instances of what sociologists have referred to for many years as the “broken window theory”–if enough broken windows in a neighborhood go unattended, the neighborhood falls into a moral and material malaise. Law enforcement applications of this theory are addressed rarely. [1]

Understanding Corruption

Corruption can include an abuse of position, although not all abuses of position constitute corrupt acts. [2] Committing a criminal act under color of law [3] represents one example of corruption, while using one’s law enforcement position for a de minimus, or insignificant, private gain may not necessarily rise to what reasonable persons will call a corrupt act, though it may be corrupting. [4] All self-interested or potentially corrupt acts are not completely corrupt. [5] In fact, these acts can constitute police deviance, [6] which best captures the nature of the precursory signs of corruption, as opposed to actual corruption.

Precursory signs, or instances of police deviance, may be agency–specific, or generic and found in law enforcement as a profession. Unprofessional on- and off-duty misconduct, isolated instances of misuse of position, improper relationships with informants or criminals, sexual harassment, disparaging racial or sexual comments, embellished/falsified reporting, time and attendance abuse, insubordination, nepotism, cronyism, and noncriminal unauthorized disclosure of information all represent precursory signs of police deviance that inspection and internal affairs components must monitor. When agencies determine a trend of increasing frequency and egregiousness of such deviance, they must take steps before classic or quid pro quo corruption occurs. An organization with an increase in such deviance becomes a “rotten barrel,” even without completely “rotten apples.”

Literature on the rotten-barrel concept has become more sophisticated. One study surmises that most of the major inquiries into police corruption reject the “bad-apple” theory: “The rotten-apple theory won’t work any longer. Corrupt police officers are not natural-born criminals, nor morally wicked men, constitutionally different from their honest colleagues. The task of corruption control is to examine the barrel, not just the apples, the organization, not just the individual in it, because corrupt police are made, not born.” [7]

Examining Corruption

How, then, can agencies examine the barrel? They must analyze the increasing frequency and egregiousness of precursory signs, then assess their department’s training. Agencies must not treat deselection expressly or implicitly as a negative or detrimental policy. No trainee has a right to become a law enforcement officer, although all qualified persons have an equal right to compete for such an assignment. Personnel, applicant, or recruitment officers within police agencies cannot predict who will meet all suitability and trustworthiness standards prior to the training setting. Therefore, the training components must make this determination with an overriding focus on the agency’s mission, image, and efficacy, while maintaining a respect-of-persons principle. This means deselection–a commitment to fairly but firmly graduate only those who truly demonstrate performance and integrity standards. Organizational laziness in this regard is detrimental to the agency and to the community it protects. Once immersed in the weighty discretion and low visibility of law enforcement culture, those who do not meet minimal suitability and trustworthiness standards will contribute invariably to the frequency of the precursory signs. The practical conclusion drawn from recent research is that, “in order to distance oneself morally from serious corruption, it is important not to engage in any corruption, albeit corruption of an apparently trivial kind…. Once a certain practice is accepted, people are likely to go on to accept other practices that are increasingly unacceptable.” [8]

Failure to impartially deselect trainees based upon suitability and trustworthiness standards eventually determines the organizational grade of the infamous slippery slope. The higher the performance and integrity standards for successful completion of the training program, the greater the angle from actual performance and moral peak to potential failure. Metaphorically, the organizational culture will help prevent individual slide because the ethical and performance slope is so steep and the incremental slide more obvious and preventive. Conversely, the more gradual the slope, the less the perception of moral and administrative slide. [9]

Additionally, law enforcement agencies must understand and confront the goal-gradient phenomenon, a facet of human behavior most relevant to law enforcement work and culture. In general, the closer individuals get to their goal, the faster they run (a race), the harder they try (a career), or the more interest they show (working late the night before a vacation). Applied to law enforcement, the goal-gradient phenomenon suggests that the midpoint in an officer’s career can present a danger zone for malaise, resentment, cynicism, or just plain boredom. Such attitudes fuel precursory corruption or police deviance, if not actual corruption. Most professionals in any field of endeavor can deal with and overcome the “too late to quit and too early to retire” syndrome successfully, but when burdened with the rigors of the very nature of law enforcement, such as high discretion, low visibility, and criminal element interaction, and weighed down further by an agency culture of poor recruitment, ineffective training, and inept internal controls, then the goal-gradient phenomenon can become fatal–to a career and to an organization.

Preventing Corruption

How can law enforcement agencies counter this tendency of human nature? First, agencies should consider frequent assignment moves, especially from and to the areas of policing more prone to corruption. [10] Geographical and intradivisional reassignments prevent stagnation, broaden experience, and preempt lasting effects of deleterious associations–albeit perhaps at the expense of deepening expertise in a single area.

Second, agencies should “feed the eagles.” One police corruption investigation “perhaps best known for its distinction between ‘grass eaters’ and ‘meat eaters,’ also included a third category: the ‘birds.’ The birds were the officers who flew above the corruption, seeking safety in the safe and rarified air of administrative positions.” [1] The birds fly above corruption or deviance, but sometimes they also confront it. Certainly, these birds who aspire for management ranks can, to further the analogy, become “eagles.” The eagle confronts corruption, soars to perform duties in the most noble fashion possible, and, thereby, raises the organization’s dignity and effectiveness. Thus, agencies should select, nurture, and promote individuals who demonstrate these attributes early.

Efforts to counter the goal gradient should include positive reinforcement. Individuals relish fair and honest praise, commendation, and recognition. Agencies should do the same for all of their employees as long as flattery, political gain, or gratuitous self-promotion are not intended. True professionals respect each other, and the goal gradient simply will not take hold where a culture of support, commonality, respect of persons, and appreciation of performance exists.

Third, the double standard must die. “Those who serve the public must be held to a higher standard of honesty and care for the public good than the general citizenry…. A higher standard is not a double standard. Persons accepting positions of public trust take on new obligations and are free not to accept them if they do not want to live up to the higher standard” (emphasis added). [12] Beginning a career in law enforcement–perhaps the most entrusting and powerful service for the public good–entails a higher standard of conduct and calling for the trainee. Certainly, this reasoning should continue up through and to the command or executive management level. Who could argue that with increasing rank within a law enforcement agency comes either diminished or even the same obligation to the public good as that of a support employee, patrol officer, or street investigator? If the premise that individuals accepting positions of public trust take on new obligations, then it follows that the higher the position , the higher the standard. Birds must fly but, they also must land. Noble eagles do not hide in the underbrush of hidden agendas or attempts at cover-up and cronyism. Administrators must hold law enforcement eagles more accountable for their actions because they see more, know more, have more visibility, receive more pay, and must make responsible decisions for the sake of the agency’s mission and, correspondingly, for the public good. Law enforcement agencies most resistant to corruption remove temptation, increase the fear of detection, and emphasize managerial responsibility. [13] Moreover, leadership on the part of these agencies’ senior officers consists of their willingness to “state explicitly and openly that…they will personally serve as role models for integrity.” [14]


The benefits of preventing corruption lie in stark contrast to the contempt, cynicism, and resentment generated within an organization–and for an organization as viewed by the taxpayer–when it winks at misconduct, whether precursory, deviant, corrupt, or criminal, on the part of management. As some researchers emphasize, increasing managerial moral responsibility and accountability builds institutional pride. It dies when a policy creates a double standard or when favoritism, cronyism, or career aggrandizement develop it.

Therefore, internal controls must remain firm, fair, and fast, as well as forthright. Even an appearance of management protecting its own in substantiated cases of misconduct will not only cause forfeiture of an agency’s internal police powers, but will ruin the agency itself.

Avoiding deselection, ignoring the goal gradient, and promoting or permitting a double standard of internal controls can result in corruption in law enforcement agencies. Internal affairs and ethics components within law enforcement agencies, therefore, must remain, “vigilant and skeptical.” [15] Neither attribute is akin to cynicism or arrogance, and neither vigilance nor skepticism need be born of zealots. Monitoring human conduct within law enforcement agencies–themselves designed to monitor human conduct writ large–must be done with uncompromising care for human dignity, while carefully maintaining and enhancing the mission of the agency.


(1.) For more information on this topic, see Edwin J. Delattre, Character and Cops–Ethics in Policing, Third Edition (Washington, DC: The AEI Press, 1996); M. Punch, Conduct Unbecoming: The Social Construction of Police Deviance and Control (London: Tavistock, 1985); and J.Q. Wilson and G. Kelling, “The Police and Neighborhood Safety: Broken Windows,” The Atlantic Monthly, March 1982, 29-38.

(2.) Tim Newburn, Understanding and Preventing Police Corruption: Lessons from the Literature (London: Her Majesty’s Press, 1999).

(3.) For a complete definition of color of law, see 18 U.S.C. [ss] 242.

(4.) Supra note I (Punch).

(5.) John Kleinig, The Ethics of Policing (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

(6.) Supra note 1 (Punch).

(7.) Supra note 2; quote by former New York Police Commissioner Patrick Murphy, regarding findings by the Knapp Commission, which was appointed in 1970 to investigate police corruption.

(8.) Supra note 5, 175-176. See also L.W. Sherman, A Sociological Perspective (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1974). See Sherman’s account of “constant” and “variable factors” in police corruption.

(9.) Supra note 5, 175. The logical and psychological versions of the slippery slope appear in excellent summary in The Ethics of Policing.

(10.) Supra note 2, 46. Generally known within the FBI culture for many years, one of J. Edgar Hoover’s basic tenets depended upon this intuitive notion.

(11.) Supra note 2, 36

(12.) Supra note 1 (Delattre, 68).

(13.) Supra note 2, 30.

(14.) Supra note 1 (Punch).

(15.) Supra note 2.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Federal Bureau of Investigation

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group