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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON POLICE

When Cops Become the Gangsters

The war on drugs has spawned an ominous form of corruption: protector becoming the criminal.

September 21, 1999|JOSEPH D. McNAMARA | Joseph D. McNamara, retired police chief of San Jose, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His forthcoming book is "Gangster Cops: the Hidden Cost of America's War on Drugs."

It may not be much comfort to Police Chief Bernard C. Parks and the people of Los Angeles during the current corruption scandal, but the pattern of small gangs of cops committing predatory crimes has occurred in almost every large city in the nation and in a great many less populated areas as well.

Six years after retiring from 35 years in policing, I began research for a book on police administration. Studying the nation's police forces, I was stunned to discover that the old-type corruption uncovered when cops occasionally were caught taking payoffs from gangsters had been replaced by something considerably more ominous. Throughout the country, small groups of cops were the gangsters.

The lure of fortunes to be made in illegal drugs has led to thousands of police felonies: armed robbery, kidnapping, stealing drugs, selling drugs, perjury, framing people and even some murders. These police crimes were committed on duty, often while the cop gangsters were wearing their uniforms, the symbol of safety to the people they were supposed to be protecting.

Of course, only a small percentage of American police officers are recidivist felons. Sadly, however, these predatory criminals are protected by a code of silence. Otherwise honest officers who knew or suspected what was going on did not report the crooks, and at times even lied rather than testify against other cops.

A code of silence is not unique to police. It exists in the White House, among students, doctors, lawyers, business executives and other groups. Indeed, even as children, our parents and peers admonish us not to tattle. Basic human characteristics of loyalty, trust and security are involved. These motivations are even more intense in police work. If cops make an error of judgment, they or someone else may be killed, or they can be sent to jail for using too much force. And even the most ethical officers fear being falsely accused of brutality or other crimes and of being railroaded to prison because their chiefs or mayors will not support them in politically volatile cases.

Furthermore, the code of silence is strengthened because many cops chafe under the pressure from superiors to make petty arrests for drugs. State and local police made approximately 1.4 million drug possession arrests last year. Very few took place with search warrants, although the 4th Amendment, with few exceptions, requires the police to obtain a judicial warrant to search people or their homes. It is so common for police to lie about how they obtained drug evidence that the term "testilying" has replaced "testifying" in police jargon. Ambitious politicians and police brass calling for more arrests condemn the code of silence while ignoring widespread police perjury in drug cases. It is not surprising that many cops feel that the only one they can really trust is another cop.

Nevertheless, it is perverse when those sworn to enforce the law instead shelter predatory criminals who happen to carry a badge. Minorities tend to be the victims of the most grievous police crimes. The current Los Angeles police shooting scandal, like the thousands of cop crimes elsewhere, does immeasurable damage to the credibility of the criminal justice system. Mayors and police chiefs usually assure their citizens that there are only a few rotten apples when these scandals are publicized. Yet the number and similarity of police gangster crimes nationally indicate a crisis in American policing.

Official corruption will be a major problem as long as we cling to the present drug policies. The code of silence cannot be totally eliminated. But the harm to good cops and to society can be reduced if politicians abandon their demagogic calls for a police war against drugs. Police officers who are true partners with the community in reducing crime will be far more likely to report thugs on the force than cops who think they're part of a warring occupation army.

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