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Can Discretion Lead to Corruption?

Police corruption and police misconduct have been topics of concern for police administrators since the beginning of policing, as we know it.  For some departments, corruption and misconduct are as common of terms as badge and gun.  Sadly, the use of those terms is not always mutually exclusive, and the toxic combination of greed, lack of self-discipline, poor judgment, and an inconsistent moral compass has left an indelible mark on the fabric of American policing.

Employees behaving badly are a disturbing element in any organization. But, it is especially disturbing when unrighteous or unjust behavior is manifested from a position of public trust. Disturbingly, the very discretion that the police are empowered with to equitably enforce the law, is the very same stratagem they use to break the law.  Officers fiercely defend it when administrators try to limit it, yet it is one of the first things a citizen will point to when making an accusation of corruption or discrimination. The problem is in the definition of discretion.  Discretion is the ability, based on good judgment, to make decisions as to what should or should not be done, in certain situations.  Of all the knowledge, skills and abilities that a police officer acquires during a career, discretion and judgment are two components that are embedded long before the relevant training occurs.

Not all police officers are morally deficient, corrupt and teetering on the brink of criminality as some would like to assert.  Media focus tends to sensationalize even the most innocuous police incident, causing pandemonium within the “conspiracy theorists” circles, who pounce on any slightly questionable police interaction and transform it into a corrupt government covering up something more sinister and diabolical.  The fact is, there are multitudes of officers who are hardworking, caring and boundlessly honest, no matter what the consequences. With that said, just as in any organization that employs human beings, police organizations have good employees and those that are not so good. The behaviors that one engages in, or chooses not to engage in, are as a result of a complex mixture of ingrained familial morals and values, coupled with those of their current organizational and cultural environment.  Administrators are at times rendered helpless in their attempt to control and eradicate corrupt behavior, as policies against such behavior, rely on the administrator’s ability to ferret out undesirable behavior, not merely through the citizen complaint process, but through conscientious and persistent support of officers and their colleagues.  Sadly, an ingrained organizational culture is difficult to change, and even in the best of circumstances, can take seven to ten years to modify organizational behavior.

Corruption and engaging in bad behavior, regrettably, are a part of our larger culture.  The Klockers (2000), article states that the corruption problem for police is the integrity struggle between the abuse of police authority for gain, and the normative inclination among police to resist temptations to abuse their authority.  As long as human beings have the ability to think, approach tasks, reason, make their own independent judgments and are free to use discretion to creatively solve problems and situations based on those judgments, the opportunity for corruption and unjust behavior will always be present.  However, it does not mean those police organizations should accept it or surrender their desire to control and eradicate it.  Organizational change requires work, the buy-in of City Council and consistency. Persistence, despite the difficulty, opposition and long-standing tradition or history, will be the best defense in altering and reshaping how the police, police themselves.  It will be a continuous uphill struggle, however, we must keep in mind the strides that have been made over the past decades to reduce and attempt to eliminate police corruption.  When viewed through this retrospective optic, the past illuminates the future with the hope that even incremental changes make an enormous difference.



Klockars, C.B., Ivkovich, S.K, et al. (2000). The Measurement of Police Integrity. National Institute of Justice, Research in Brief, May 2000, 1-11 (NCJ174459). Washington, D.C.


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  1. Cyrus Satarzadeh says:

    Very well written, Chief.


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