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Police corruption: Part 2

June 19, 2024  By Peter Collins


Photo: Jon Anders Wiken / Adobe Stock

The word corruption comes from the Latin word ‘corruptus’, which means ‘to break.’ Although corruption is a complex concept to define, its most broad definition is the “exercise of official powers without regard for the public interest”.

Corruption occurs when a police officer loses integrity in their professional actions and accepts benefits or rewards in exchange for violating their mandated responsibilities. Police criminality occurs when police officials engage in direct acts of crime whether they are on-duty or off-duty. Corruption occurs on a continuum that ranges from serious crimes to attending a conference, in Las Vegas, using public money and never showing up at the event after registering on-site.

Police corruption can overlap with other forms of police deviance and misconduct. Several studies on police misconduct have found that profit-driven crime is the main type of police malfeasance. One theory is that low pay can lead to the acceptance of bribes and the risk of extortion, especially with living costs skyrocketing. Some disagree, stating that even well-paid officers will engage in profit-driven activities due to greed. Even if police officers are well-salaried, they may believe that they are not remunerated to match their responsibilities and thus may still engage in corrupt practices.

Nine types of police corruption are noted in academic literature:

  • Corruption of authority – attaining perks without contravening the law, such as receiving free meals, beverages and services.
  • Kickbacks – goods, services or money obtained for business referrals promoting a company or individual.
  • Opportunistic theft – stealing from people who have been arrested, engaged in accidents, or from victims or deceased individuals.
  • Turning a blind eye – bribes undertaken for ignoring criminal activity.
  • Protection of illegal activities – protecting criminal enterprises and organized crime engaged in illegal activities such as drugs, prostitution rings, sex trafficking, illegal gambling, etc.
  • Fixing – undermining investigations at the behest of criminals.
  • Direct criminal activities – engaging in a crime against individual(s).
  • Internal payoffs – when promotions, annual leave, are “bought”.
  • Adding or planting evidence.

Some researchers believe that it is difficult to separate integrity violations from corruption. These violations can include moonlighting (non-declared secondary employment), misusing information, intimidating citizens and colleagues, the misuse of power for a perceived justified good, and abusing and wasting resources.

When police engage in corrupt practices, they betray the trust placed in them by society.

Case study

In 2021, Darren Balsom was engaged in a sensitive internal corruption file involving a former member of a large police service. This operation spanned many months and involved interviews with multiple vulnerable persons. As this file progressed, more alarming behaviours were uncovered. While the assessment of this former member had been completed and was being updated as new concerns came forward, Balsom noted that, seemingly, after each new piece of evidence and additional vulnerable women were discovered, investigators learned of more who were impacted.

At the end of this operation, the member resigned, and the provincial department of justice decided not to proceed with prosecution. This decision had to be communicated to the women who came forward. This was not an easy task and they responded as one would expect.

This took a toll on the entire team. They were all seasoned investigators – however, they all felt this was different. This was a “fellow officer” who abused the role and exploited women. Balsom suggested the team consider attending a formal psychological debrief. This was a foreign concept to many on the team, but they were open to innovative ideas. As a group, they agreed on a clinician and they let the boss know. The day was set.

This debrief occurred at an off-site location and spanned an entire afternoon.

As the doctor walked the team through this incident, they expressed their anger, celebrated successes, and placed responsibility for various aspects on other sections of the justice system. After a few tears, some laughs and a lot of personal and professional support, the team left there feeling like a weight had been lifted. They were a little more at peace with the outcome of this file and better prepared to face the next file.

Conclusion

When police engage in corrupt practices, they betray the trust placed in them by society. Corruption within the police also undermines the principles of justice and fairness upon which the legal system is structured. In the past, corruption has led to wrongful convictions.

When cases of police corruption come to light, it erodes public confidence in the service, making citizens less likely to cooperate with law enforcement or report crimes, which can ultimately weaken the effectiveness of policing efforts. In addition, corruption has a major impact on community relations by exacerbating tensions between police services in the communities they serve, particularly marginalized or minority communities.

Corruption within the police service can have detrimental effects on the morale and professionalism of law enforcement officers. It tarnishes the reputation of all officers, including those who uphold their duty with integrity, and undermines efforts to maintain high standards of conduct and accountability within the profession.


Peter Collins is the operational forensic psychiatrist with the Ontario Provincial Police’s Criminal Behaviour Analysis Section. He is also a member of the crisis/hostage negotiation team of the Toronto Police Service Emergency Task Force. Dr. Collins’ opinions are his own. Contact him at peter.collins@utoronto.ca.

Darren Balsom is a Certified Threat Management Specialist and Criminal Profiling Understudy assigned to the Calgary Police Service Behavioural Sciences Team. Darren is the former President of the Canadian Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (CATAP) and has trained staff and worked with all levels of the criminal justice system.


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