Bad Apples or Bad Barrel?

By Swope, Ross | Law & Order, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Bad Apples or Bad Barrel?


Swope, Ross, Law & Order


A few bad apples in the barrel spoil the bunch. Steve Vicchio, a medical ethics professor at Johns Hopkins University, has extended this popular metaphor as it relates to police ethics. Not only the apples, but the barrel, can cause ethical problems in policing.

In light of the Christopher Commission Report, the investigative report on the Los Angeles riot following the Rodney King incident, and the Los Angles Rampart Corruption Report, Vicchio may be right. Compromises in police integrity can go beyond a few bad apples. Maybe the problem, at least in some cases, is the barrel.

The police culture in some police departments can compromise the ethical conduct of many police officers. Yes, a few who should not be part of policing will always find their way into police agencies no matter how rigorous selection procedures are. But these few are generally effectively dealt with. They will never crush a police agency. It is the unethical breeding environment of the barrel that generates the major difficulties. It is the barrel, the culture of the police organization, that can cause the root shaking scandals that periodically face some police organizations.

Police officers do not enter the profession as an opportunity to steal, extort or accept bribes. They do not take on the profession as an opportunity to beat people, violate individual constitutional rights or use excessive force. They do not take on the profession as an opportunity to plant evidence, lie and frame innocent individuals. Unethical, brutal and corrupt behavior is nurtured in the barrel - the culture of a few police agencies. The dangers of corruption, brutality, racism, deviance and malfeasance can be inherent in the very nature of some police organizations, not in the character flaws of individuals.

The bad barrel is not a new phenomenon, it is as old as policing itself. Problems with police extortion and other corrupt activities are documented as early as 1844, when the New York State legislature created its police force as the first municipal police department in the country. The 1890s had the Lexow Commission and the Mazet Commission to handle corruption in the New York City Police Department (NYPD). In other large cities in the United States, powerful, corrupt political machines developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century and obstructed efforts to foster police integrity.

The 191Os saw the Curan Committee and the Becker/Rosenthal Scandals, which were concerned with the corrupt activities of the NYPD. The Wickersham Commission report in 1931 documented corruption and brutality in the criminal justice system in the United States. The Seabury Hearings in the 1930s in New York City looked into police corruption, as did the Harry Gross Investigation in the 1950s.

During the Knapp Commission hearings, following publication of Frank Serpico's story in the New York Times in the 1960s, it was disclosed that plain clothes "pads" existed throughout the department and that corruption was, to some degree, part of life in almost all police units. Bribes and kickbacks were an accepted part of all police operations, both uniform and plain clothes. It was expected. Knowledge or participation went from the bottom to the top of the organization. It was part of the culture of the NYPD. In 1974, the Philadelphia police were accused of engaging in criminal practices at all levels of the police force.

In the 1980s, 75 Miami police officers were arrested for serious acts of police corruption. The "Miami River Cops," as some were to become known, were charged with high-level drug dealing and murder. Then there were the shocking abuses of the New Orleans Police Department, where more than 50 police officers were arrested, indicted or convicted from 1993 to 1995 on charges including rape, aggravated battery, drug trafficking and murder. The Mollen Commission Report of 1993 found large-- scale corruption in the NYPD involving extortion, brutality and theft. …

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