The Dallas News ran a lengthy feature Sunday on police officers who commit crimes, focusing in particular on the experiences of officers who go to prison ("Enforcing the law, then breaking it," Oct. 8). The writer Diane Jennings did a nice job - go read the whole thing.
While only a small percentage of officers commit crimes on the job, when they do the offenses usually go unpunished. The infamous "blue wall of silence," combined with prosecutorial reluctance to aggressively go after police, protects many officers in situations where average citizens would do hard time. Those who actually wind up going to prison by far are the anomalies - many more officers are fired or merely disciplined for acts that would be criminal offenses if committed by anyone else.
Partly that's because everyone knows what a grim fate awaits the police officer who winds up incarcerated. "There are three types of inmates hated in prison," a former officer who served time told Jennings, "The child molester, the snitch and the cop." That's why you frequently see probation awarded even in the most egregious cases - judges and juries believe officers will be persecuted and punished in prison in excess of what other defendants might face. Reports Jennings:
The patterns of corruption everywhere differ little from those on the border. Officers involved in enforcing the drug war are most susceptible to the lure of criminal life:
At least 110 licensed Texas officers, from jailers to police chiefs, have spent time behind bars – for offenses ranging from theft to sexual assault, on and off the job, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of law enforcement records of the last four years.
More than twice that many have been convicted, received deferred adjudication or been placed on probation for felony charges.
Those most likely to be corrupted are vice and narcotic officers, says Dr. [Tom] Mijares [of Texas State University]. "Let's face it, you've got, in many cases, millions of dollars being exchanged, and the officer gets this very cynical feeling of 'all this money is being exchanged, and I'm putting my life at risk. ...Why should I not take advantage of my position?' "Said one former officer, "I had a strong sense of right and wrong," but "the lines become gray when you're fighting a war. That's what it is – drug war." Jennings relates the story of the former head of the Beaumont police union who stole cocaine from the evidence locker and sold it for hundreds of thousands of dollars - he called his behavior an "aberration"! Indeed!
Jennings also focused on how police supervisors improperly protect bad cops. It appeared from her anecdotes to be an almost instinctive reaction:
The first time James McLaughlin – a former police chief who now serves as executive director of the Texas Police Chiefs Association – heard a complaint had been filed against one of his officers, charging inappropriate sexual behavior with a young girl, he was so angry he confronted the girl.
False accusations are common in police work. And officers initially react with disbelief when one of their own is accused.
"I'll see you in TYC [Texas Youth Commission]," he remembers telling her. "I ... wanted to make sure she understood the seriousness of her charges and the consequences of making false charges."
To Mr. McLaughlin's dismay, the officer confessed.
McLaughlin later apologized to the victim, but that's not the point - his reaction was the norm, not an "aberration." If his officer had never confessed, McLaughlin would have probably pursued his threat to have his victim incarcerated, and many other police administrators reflexively would do and have done the same thing when citizens complain against officers.
It's that culture of "blame the victim," "circling the wagons," the "blue wall of silence" that must be confronted to really combat police corruption. Kudos to Jennings and the News for a significant contribution to the discussion of this taboo subject.