By all accounts, crime seems to be spiraling downward across the nation. Cities like Boston and New York have seen crime rates dip to levels of the 1960s. There is, however, another facet to this story that is getting scant media attention; police corruption and abuse appear to be at an all-time high. Unfortunately, the public appears to tolerate this situation because the majority of victims of police misconduct and the majority of people defined as "criminals" are often perceived as indistinguishable. This is unfortunate, because police misconduct affects everybody. It erodes the public's respect for the law, and thus directly contributes to a lawless environment.
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Take Philadelphia for instance. It recently convicted six former 39th precinct officers in a corruption scandal triggered back in 1992. Their convictions included crimes ranging from selling drugs, to robbing, beating, and framing drug suspects. When the dust finally had cleared, 1,400 criminal cases were under review. This number may go as high as 10,000, which means that some dangerous criminals who were guilty will probably be back on the street because the police broke the law.
In New Orleans, several officers have been convicted of going on a "killing spree," terrorizing city residents. And in Washington, D.C., officers have been convicted of running a drug smuggling operation. This wave of police corruption (murder, drug dealing, etc.) gets little analysis from the "criminology" community.
Criminologists are quick to link poverty and crime, but conveniently overlook the correlation between systemic police corruption and high crime rates. Consider the broadest negative results that corrupt police officers have on urban communities. When police are abusive, it undermines legitimate attempts at curbing urban crime, such as "community policing." What community wants an alliance with corrupt police officers?
Police corruption also prompts honest citizens to question the truism that more police officers on the street will result in actual reductions in crime. As far back as 1968, in the first Kerner Commission Report, the increasing presence of police was considered to be a counterproductive approach, often sparking violent confrontation between citizens and law enforcement officials. Corruption makes it easy to believe that the same will be true today.
Police misconduct has cost the city of Philadelphia $20 million in the settlement of 225 civil cases in the last 28 months. In New York City, the pay out in 1994 was $2 million. But these are only the monetary costs of police corruption. Those pay outs cannot restore respect for the police. Nor can they restore the dignity of the people in the communities victimized bv their own police force. The socio-economic costs are anyone's guess.
Unlike police brutality, police corruption is often viewed as a victimless crime because the victim is a neighborhood rather than an individual. Often the attention goes to the officers who "crossed the line" or "made a mistake." And again, we too often forget the psychological and social effects police corruption has on the victims and their communities.
Until we treat police officers who break the law the same as citizens who break the law, we are For those who are truly seeking solutions to urban crime, we must place eradicating systemic police corruption at the center of the debate.
C. Stone Brown is a contributor to Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis. He can be reached via email: email@example.com