The corruption continuum: How law enforcement organizations become corrupt

Author: Trautman, Neal Source: PM. Public Management 16-20 82, no. 6 (Jun 2000): p. 16-20 ISSN: 0033-3611 Number: 54463897 Copyright: Copyright International City Management Association Jun 2000

Scandals can be prevented. They result from an evolution of predictable and preventable circumstances. Virtually every significant case of employee misconduct has involved warning signs that leaders either ignored or failed to recognize as important.

Leaders themselves are at the core of both the causes of and the solutions to corruption. Past research has repeatedly confirmed that most scandals start with relatively small unethical acts and grow to whatever level the leadership allows.

It now is understood that administrators play a much more direct and powerful role in the prevention or promotion of misconduct than previously thought. The "rotten apple" theory that some administrators have proposed as the cause of their demise has usually been nothing more than a self serving facade, intended to draw attention away from their own failures.

Few events are more devastating to an organization than a scandal, and understanding how they begin and evolve is necessary to prevent them. Yet, a much more important requirement for stopping corruption is that administrators have the courage to acknowledge that they have integrity needs.

The Continuum

Phase 1. Administrative Indifference Toward Integrity

Many administrators are instantly resentful and defensive at the inference that they are or have ever been indifferent to ethics and integrity. But actions speak louder than words. The reality is that most workplaces are filled with employees who never have had ethics training, and the vast majority of workers in America feel far more stress from rampant backstabbing, internal politics, hidden agendas, and blatant unfairness than they do from simply doing their jobs.

At first glance, it seems illogical that the upper administration of an organization would not be deeply committed to maintaining a high level of organizational integrity. After all, employee misconduct leads to civil suits, negative publicity, ineffectiveness, and devastated morale. Chief administrators who have found themselves terminated will confirm that these and similar circumstances were used to justify their terminations.

It is widespread indifference that serves as the breeding ground for future misconduct. Pitfalls in the daily operations of a law enforcement agency that are the most revealing of integrity-related indifference include these indicators:

* A low quality of recruitment and hiring.

* The perception that discipline or promotion is unfair:

* Disgruntlement among field training officers.

* Supervisors who treat people with a lack of respect.

Phase 2. Negligence of Obvious Ethical Problems

Because it is clearly in the best interests of an administrator to prevent misconduct, why aren't leaders more dedicated to stopping unethical behavior? In this phase of the continuum, leaders who are not committed to integrity can be categorized into three distinct levels according to their behaviors:

* At the least harmful level are administrators who don't devote resources to enhancing or maintaining ethical standards but are not negative role models themselves.

* At the second level of severity are leaders who intentionally look the other way and ignore acts of indiscretion by workers, even though these acts continue to grow in seriousness and frequency.

* Finally, the most despicable leaders are those who cover up misconduct rather than admit the truth and attempt to rectify a situation.

The failure of leadership to address internal integrity needs is more than just indifference at this phase because the needs are more recognizable and serious. Intentionally ignoring obvious ethical problems primarily arises out of one of two problems: a lack of knowledge or a certain self-centeredness. Although these leadership failures usually lead to devastating consequences, they can be prevented and corrected.

Lack of knowledge. In this instance, misconduct occurs because administrators don't know what they can do to prevent or stop it. This is a circumstance in which leaders have the courage and desire to enhance integrity yet lack the knowledge, skill, or ability to carry out their good intentions. Their lack of training doesn't excuse them from being responsible, but it is the primary reason that misconduct has been able to flourish. They must still hold themselves accountable for ensuring that they learn how to implement and maintain the state of the art in misconduct prevention.

Self-centeredness. The second reason why some leaders don't do more about clear ethical problems is that they believe that bringing attention to their integrity needs could hurt them personally. Encouraged by the hope that they will escape scrutiny and criticism if no one brings attention to the situation, they make their self centeredness more important than maintaining integrity. Examples include doing nothing even though they know that:

* Discrimination or harassment is occurring.

* Sex among employees who are married to other people or with a supervisor exists.

* There is a general lack of accountability: some officers may have a number of citizen complaints or use-of force incidents, for example.

* Some supervisors are degrading and intimidating employees.

* New officers are allowed to complete the field training officers' (FTO) program even though feedback from field training officers warrants termination. This, the single most demoralizing event that can occur within an FTO program, takes place because administrators don't want the city or county officials to feel that their hiring process was ineffective.

Administrators must always rise above the belief that they may look like hypocrites if they mandate ethics training. The reality is that if the organization has evolved to this phase in the continuum, they will look hypocritical. Here lies yet another example of why courage is the greatest quality of leadership.

There can be no place for leaders who are afraid to improve integrity because an improvement may bring harsh criticism for past misconduct they have condoned by ignoring it.

Phase 3. Hypocrisy and Fear Dominant in the Culture

This phase of the continuum is only possible after an administration has orchestrated several years of indifference and deliberately ignored the ethical needs of its organization. This phase is characterized by several clear symptoms that must be resolved, or the likelihood of significant corruption will be imminent.

Fear. By this stage of the evolution, fear has manifested itself in several forms. The most harmful consequence of fear occurs when an administration's rolemodeling of ignoring integrity problems prompts the majority of supervisors to ignore them, too.

Although this idea is never found in a policy manual, every manager or supervisor knows at this point in the continuum that politics and hidden agendas decide which leaders will continue to be promoted and which will be ostracized or pushed aside. Thus, if you want to prosper or even merely survive as a leader, you are forced to abide by the unwritten rules of internal politics. The frustration of being treated with such disrespect and hypocrisy causes supervisors to discredit administrators in front of employees. What began as indifference has now grown into to a cancer, destroying morale, productivity, and dedication.

Extreme bitterness. Because all employees want to be treated with dignity and respect, an indication that serious misconduct has begun within a workplace is that employees have become deeply resentful over the way they are treated. Overt warning signs of this degree of resentfulness are:

* Constant, harsh criticism from large groups of people.

* Open defiance of administrators.

* Workers who rationalize doing unethical things during conversations with each other.

Hopelessness. When workers no longer believe there is any hope for improvement or relief from their unbearable working conditions, they can justify carrying out unethical acts that would have been unthinkable to them in the past. If people are robbed of their dignity by insecure supervisors and find themselves surrounded by the "Everyone else is doing it" mentality, misconduct is guaranteed.

Confirmation of this fact can be found in the most extensive research ever conducted on serious law enforcement misconduct. The circumstances surrounding the decertifications of 2,296 local and state officers in the United States between 1990 and 1995 were analyzed by the National Institute of Ethics. Among the realities was this profile: 91 percent of all decertified officers had not been promoted, had been employed an average of 7.2 years, and were resentful.

Phase 4. Survival of the Fittest

This ultimate level of the continuum of corruption is dominated by the pervasive intention of most employees to do whatever it takes just to survive. While the particular circumstances dictate the specific forms of misconduct, several common denominators exist among organizations that have reached this phase:

* The administrator's la82, no. 6 (Jun 2000): p. 16-20ck of knowledge on how to prevent unethical acts, combined with his or her refusal to address such prevention, blocks any attempt to enhance integrity.

* Good, honest employees fear the corrupt, dishonest ones.

* A long tradition of ignoring misconduct has convinced employees that leaders want misconduct covered up, rather than exposed or corrected.

* The code of silence is both condoned and privately encouraged.

* FTOs are resentful and bitter.

* There is a predominate, unwritten priority to "keep corruption out of the newspapers" at all costs.

* Officers that should be fired, arrested, and decertified are allowed to resign quietly.

* Chief administrators believe they would be fired if the truth about corruption were known, so they hide misconduct rather than try to resolve it.

* No one thinks the situation will get any better.

The Best Solutions to Corruption

Truly great leaders do much more than merely supervise or administer. They are remembered for their courage to stand steadfast, doing what is right and just. They are individuals who always have remained uncompromised in their integrity.

The most effective solutions to corruption must be instilled with straighforwardness and honesty. Before implementing the following recommendations, however, a leader should be certain to determine whether any existing integrity needs are pervasive enough that instituting the improvements could make the administration look hypocritical. The most common example of this mistake is conducting ethics training before leaders have even begun to address the fact that some employees are being treated with a blatant lack of respect and dignity.

Solution 1. Ensure High-Quality Background investigations

The most important element of any organization's hiring process is the background check. The best predictor of future behavior has been and will always be past performance. Consequently, the most crucial requirement for superior background investigations is a sincere commitment from the upper administration to do what it takes to guarantee them.

Solution 2. Ensure a HighQuality FTO Program

It is a disheartening fact that the national standard of field training programs has remained stagnant for several decades. Most programs struggle with a variety of serious problems, like low levels of communication, standards, FTO selection procedures, compensation, and support from administrators. Unfortunately, the state of the art for field training is a much more efficient model than is the actual national standard. Implementing the cutting edge of field training helps to ensure that FTOs are not angry and frustrated. As a result, a positive organizational culture within the patrol division will be much more likely.

Solution 3. Fight Political Interference

Political favoritism and interference have always been detriments to law enforcement. Although these problems generally aren't as extreme today as they were in the 1800s, they still can be severe obstacles to professionalism. Today's interference typically attacks two aspects of a government, by lowering hiring standards and interfering with promotions. The best solution is usually to educate local officials about the consequences of allowing these two things to happen.

Solution 4. Ensure Consistent, Fair Accountability

A continued lack of accountability is destructive to the culture of an organization. Ethical accountability will be one of the most-used means of preventing unethical acts in the next decade. Acknowledging that there is little or inconsistent accountability in an organization is particularly painful for many administrators, as these leaders are probably the ones who are to blame.

The upper administration is the only correct place to start when a person truly wants to improve accountability because these administrators are usually offenders themselves. They must set an example by holding themselves accountable for starting to resolve integrity needs.

Solution 5. Conduct Effective Ethics Training

Even though this is law enforcement's greatest training need, most agencies have never conducted internal ethics training. The specific topics that will be best for most agencies are the major causes of misconduct; the Continuum of Compromise (Gilmartin and Harris); ethical-dilemma simulation training, which anchors a decision-making process into a participant's long-term memory; study of the researched facts about bad cops; intervention to save fellow officers; the need for ethical courage; and the Corruption Continuum Every effort should be made to teach these topics through interactive, hands-on video case studies.

Solution 6. Accept Nothing Less Than Positive Leadership Role Models

Supervisors act as trainers, counselors, and mentors for all employees. As a result of their constant contact and formal power, they become major role models. The importance of this relationship is vital in developing such traits as sincerity, loyalty, honesty, respect, and dedication. Role modeling is a leader's greatest single source of power.

Actions do speak louder than words. It is impossible for any company, associanon, or agency to be filled with integrity if line supervisors are unethical, for role modeling also can be used to instill corrupt behavior.

Solution 7. Prevent Officers From Feeling Victimized

The Continuum of Compromise,as developed by Kevin Gilmartin and Jack Harris, shows that officers perceiving a sense of victimization can commit progressively worsening unethical acts. Their perception of being victims makes it easier for them to rationalize their misconduct.

Solution 8. Implement an Effective Employee Intervention Process

Employee intervention now can be implemented through two distinct tools: computer software and internal training. Software will permit the tracking of performance, so there can be intervention for those whose performance has been outstanding, as well as for those who could benefit from assistance in correcting performance deficiencies.

The other contemporary form of intervention is training. When an officer begins to exhibit misconduct, other officers are usually the only ones who can intervene to prevent them from destroying their own careers.

Neal Trautman is the director of the National Institute of Ethics, Longwood, Florida (, and author of the book The Cutting Edge of Police Integrity. The author retains copyright to this article.

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