Criminal Justice Ethics. Police Corruption & Drug Sales

The growth of police corruption instances involving drug sales is relatively easy to explain. The financial rewards offered by the sales of illegal drugs in relation to other forms of income, both legal and illegal, are enormous. The temptation attracts law enforcement officials who are becoming increasingly more discouraged by the growing proliferation of drug traffickers. Though police agencies of all descriptions have fought the 30-plus year ‘drug war’ by spending billions of dollars and locking up millions of people, their efforts have not only not ended drug use or sales, but drugs are now more available, cheaper, and purer than ever before. Disheartened police officers involved in stopping drug crimes put their lives in jeopardy but are underpaid and under-appreciated by an indifferent public.

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Many officers joined the force to protect and serve but find themselves regulating an illegal drug market that they know they will never suppress. As long as the U.S. government continues its’ disastrous ‘war,’ formerly well-intentioned cops will continue to be lured by the money to be had by engaging in the drug trade they are expected to prevent. They risk their lives for a war that has no end, and they know this fact better than anyone. Fighting a losing battle discourages even the most loyal and honest of law officials, and some use this to justify becoming involved in a drug cartel. Officers nationwide have given in to the same temptations offered by the selling of drugs that have lured their criminal adversaries. This discussion examines the scope of the problem citing specific examples and the possible criminological reasons behind this behavior. It’s easy money, they are being underpaid for dangerous work, and their efforts are futile.

The increase of the drug trade in the U.S., due at least in part to the government’s war on drugs, has supplied violent drug cartels and police officers alike with widespread opportunities to profit from criminal activity. Corruption within police departments is a nationwide epidemic that, while various in nature, is thoroughly intertwined with the narcotics trade. The criminality of police officers focuses mainly on the dealing of heroin and cocaine, but the terrorist tactics go much further than simply harassing dealers and addicts.

Philadelphia police framed 54-year-old grandmother Betty Patterson who didn’t have a police record, and went to church twice a week (General Accounting Office, 1998: p. 36). Fortunately, she was acquitted yet still traumatized. The epidemic of police corruption, just as the illegal trade of drugs, is not exclusively an east-coast, big-city problem.

Members of the New Orleans Police Department committed horrific acts of police brutality after Hurricane Katrina, as was well documented on television news. This department also had a history of corruption prior to the hurricane. For instance, 11 New Orleans policemen were found guilty of taking almost $100,000 from federal undercover agents who told the corrupt officers that the money was being paid in exchange for them safeguarding a warehouse that contained cocaine. Following the murder of an undercover agent, which resulted in orders from a policeman, the undercover segment was terminated (General Accounting Office, 1998: p. 36). In 1994, ten New Orleans police officers were indicted for selling guns and drugs in a department that was described, even at that time, as one of the most vicious police departments in the nation. Another officer was charged with orchestrating the killing of a woman who had filed charges of brutality against him (General Accounting Office, 1998: p. 36).

In 1995, yet another New Orleans police officer was convicted of killing three persons while in the process of committing the robbery of a restaurant. One of the persons killed was the partner of the policeman.

Corruption with regards to the police is generally defined as an officer acting in their official capacity while at the same time abusing their authority to realize personal wants or needs. It has been said and widely assumed that the power associated with authority over others tends to lead an individual to corruptive acts, and police officers are no more or less prone to human frailties than anyone else. However, when a policeman is charged with corruption and breaking the laws they are sworn to protect, it is always a shocking revelation to the public, no matter how prevalent it is known to be. “Most studies support the view that corruption is endemic, if not universal, in police departments” (Sherman, 1978: 31). It is somewhat ironic that while the public generally expects at least a small fraction of a police department to contain some forms of corruption within it, the surprise is no less severe when it happens.

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Police officers are held to a higher standard of conduct by the public; therefore, shock and outrage are acute when instances occur. In addition, corrupt police officers pose a greater danger to the public than do civilian criminals because of the authority factor (Sherman, 1978: p. 31). Certain, controlled powers are happily allowed by the police by the citizens so as to lessen their fears of crime. The revelation of corruption within the police force leads to thoughts of existing in a police state; a condition people fear more than civilian crime.

The rationale behind an individual’s deviant actions, including individuals employed on the nation’s police forces, has been and remains a complex and highly debated subject.

Three areas of research which include biological, sociological, and psychological studies, have attempted to resolve this issue. No one area of study has been able to explain the exact reason why people behave in a corrupt or deviant manner. Because of this, screening for predisposing conditions to deviant behavior on the police force is difficult to determine or justify as tests may or may not accurately identify those individuals more likely to engage in criminal activity as a member of the police when given the opportunity. However, “sociologists’ theories have not been disproved as often as the psychologists’ and biologists’ theories because their experiments are too hard to define and no one definition for deviance is agreed upon by all experimenters” (Pfuhl, 1980: p. 40).

Among the biological and physiological explanations for crime is the Behavior Genetics Theory, which postulates a biological explanation for crime. While the genetic make-up of an individual does not induce any specific actions, antisocial behavior can be facilitated by neurotransmitters in the brain and hormonal imbalances, which generate tendencies to act in a particular way. Abnormal serotonin levels have been shown to be an origin of criminal behaviors of all types of crime because an individual lacks the natural ability to control their impulsive thoughts, thereby acting upon them. Everyone has thoughts they would never act upon. Those with this abnormality tend to act first and think later. Evidence compiled from studies has supported another link between a particular inherited mutant gene and criminal behavior. Instead of high serotonin levels, the neurotransmitters in the brain, because of genetic abnormalities, may produce low levels of an enzyme which causes interruptions in signals within the nervous system and the brain.

“Urinalysis of subjects in the Dutch study, all of whom was related and demonstrated aggressive and antisocial behavior, showed abnormal levels of metabolic products associated with the enzyme” (Vinces, 1996).

Sociologists generally find disagreement with the genetics theory for explaining criminal tendencies. They argue that an individual’s deviant actions result from feelings of inferiority learned from events occurring at an early age and cannot be predicted by examining inherited characteristics. “Sociologists learn from culture’s influences, other than a biological or psychological bias” (Pfuhl, 1980: 50). Sociologists are not concerned with behavior patterns exhibited by particular persons but indicate the roots of deviant behavior can be traced to cultural experiences that share a commonality. According to the sociological explanation for deviant behavior, all persons, including police officers, developed their propensity towards corrupt behaviors by way of counter-productive childhood experiences.

Current research has shown that if a child lacks proper supervision or experiences other deficiencies, they are more likely to exhibit delinquent behavior during childhood as well as later in life. Poverty, single-parent homes, abusive households, or a combination of these situations causes a variety of adaptive social problems for children, the consequences of which follow them into adulthood. “If a person is living in a lower class, single-parent environment, they are then at a real disadvantage. It may be because they do not feel they are good enough to belong in the realms of society” (Lemert, 1972: 59). It is possible that corrupt cops did not interact well or often with other children and experienced patterns of stress during childhood, such as a persistent lack of self-esteem and constant antagonistic treatment. Not surprisingly, child neglect and/or abuse causing emotional or physical trauma retards the normal social development of a child. The problem is widespread, which gives at least one explanation for a high rate of crime within the public realm and in police departments. “Over one million of the youth in America are subjected to abuse a year” (Lemert, 1972: p. 48).

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The Differential Association Theory first postulated by Edwin Sutherland explained that behavior, whether criminal in nature or not, is learned. He theorized that criminal behavior was not a genetic abnormality, therefore, opposing the conclusions drawn by pathological and biological theorists. According to the Differential Association Theory, criminal behavior is learned via communications and experiences acquired from personal relationships. The degree of deviant behavior varies because people absorb information differently, whether on a conscious or unconscious level. This theory explains why crime is higher in the inner cities where crime is rationalized more so than in the suburbs, as well as presenting a concern regarding the dangers to police officers working in close association with or against drug cartels on a regular basis. This rationalization can be contagious, especially among impressionable youths (Cressey, 1979: pp. 458-460).

Sociological and social structure crime theories such as the General Strain Theory, however, give insight to reasonings for multiple types of criminal behaviors. According to Robert Agnew’s research which expanded the general strain theory, police officers may seek retribution when they perceive they are being paid or otherwise treated unfairly, a possible motive for the crime (Agnew, 1985: p. 152). According to Agnew, people strive for three main goals in whatever field they are employed in. The first, not surprisingly, is monetary gain. Money, or the lack of it, causes strain which leads to delinquent behavior in otherwise law-abiding citizens. The second is a need for respect and a feeling of status, a factor especially present in males. Personality characteristics that are often associated with masculine traits are frequently exhibited through delinquent behavior. If an individual cannot achieve this perceived status legitimately, they may resort to criminal activities. The third goal is autonomy which refers to individual empowerment, a valued asset within any society. Police officers experience low pay, and many feel a lack of respect and are frustrated that their value to society is unfulfilled because the drug war only heightens despite their best efforts.

Theories describing the causes of crime, whether genetic, social, or psychological, are mere rationalizations.

The public expects their police department to enforce the rules, not break them. When they do, it breaks down the trust of the public as well as tearing down the very fabric of society. The problem of police corruption originates not in the causes of deviance common to all persons but in the laws, they are trying to enforce.

The drug war is a lost cause, and it is tempting people of otherwise honest intent to behave like the criminals they are trying to protect from the public. Police corruption, statistically speaking, would be cut in half if the war on drugs was ended.


  1. Agnew, Robert. (1985). “A Revised Strain Theory of Delinquency.” Social Forces. Vol. 64, N. 1, pp. 151-167.
  2. Agnew, Robert. (1994). “Delinquency and the Desire for Money.” Justice Quarterly. Vol. 11, N. 4, pp. 411-427.
  3. Cressey, Donald R. (1979). “Fifty Years of Criminology: From Sociological Theory to Political Control.” Pacific Sociological Review. Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 457-480.
  4. General Accounting Office. (1998). “Law Enforcement: Information on Drug-Related Police Corruption,” Report to the Honorable Charles B. Rangel, House of Representatives. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  5. Lacayo, Richard. (1993). “Cops and Robbers.” Time Magazine.
  6. Lemert, Edwin M. (1972). Human Deviance, Social Problems, and Social Control.
  7. Peet, Preston (Ed.). (2004). Under The Influence: The Disinformation Guide to Drugs. The Disinformation Company Ltd. Web.
  8. Pfuhl, Erdwin H. Jr. (1980). The Deviance Process. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company.
  9. Sherman, Lawrence W. (1978). Scandal and Reform: Controlling Police Corruption. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  10. Vinces, Marcelo. (1996). Behavioral Genetics. Cornell University Sci-tech archives.
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