In American political culture the idea of “corruption” is both simple and suppressed. We think of the occasional individual politician or official taking a bribe to direct funds to a particular bidder or contractor. Yet we have lost sight of the essence of corruption – exploitation – and the fact that it can take many forms but always has the same basic character. Individual instances are usually part of a larger pattern.
What is Corruption?
There are, of course, various kinds of corruption found in diverse institutional settings. The scope and scale of corruption may range from personal to systemic. An individual bureaucrat may take a bribe, or a CEO may take executive actions that serve his personal interests more than those of the company that pays him for making good decisions. He may trade securities on the basis of his inside information. If so, he has corrupted the responsibilities of his position by his unethical actions.
But systemic corruption occurs when a pattern of practices involves a number of members of an organization. In a major example, J.P. Morgan Chase and other large Wall Street banks fraudulently engaged in misrepresentation of risk, falsifying ‘due diligence’ and knowingly selling ‘toxic’ securities to clients. Senators and representatives who take political donations from lobbyists and sponsor bills the lobbyist wrote, clearly corrupt the political process. But it is accepted as ‘business as usual’ in the Congress. We live in a corrupt political culture that is taken for granted by the politicians and by the corporate media that ‘reports’ on them. The corporate state is a corruption of democracy and has replaced all but its form.
In the case of law enforcement, you might remember hearing of a bygone era when an ethical challenge faced by the “cop on the beat” was simpler than we hear of today. While making his rounds an officer is offered a free cup of coffee or a meal at the local diner. The shopkeeper considers it good business to be ‘close’ with local police. This probably still happens somewhere. But that the practice is now recognized as currying favoritism. The “peace officer” was supposed to be a neutral figure, even-handedly enforcing the law. In our complex of corrupt institutional relations and practices today, law enforcement has become one of the institutional players. In the systematic corrupt pattern of practices within the nation’s political and legal institutions, law enforcement institutions have been severely corrupted.
The “War on Drugs” is now pretty famous for having failed to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. Masses of vulnerable young men and women of color who use drugs at the same rate as everyone else are systematically incarcerated. The purpose of reducing drug use in society was turned into a practice of mass incarceration of selected target populations (blacks and browns). At the same time, the more powerful population segment (whites) is largely ignored. This is itself the corruption of a mission. But the practice of targeting the vulnerable for personal, departmental, or professional gain is yet a further level of corruption. Regardless of how ill-conceived, futile, and counterproductive the War on Drugs was and is, its conversion into a mechanism for profiteering by police departments and their corporate suppliers rates the highest condemnation.
This, of course, is closely related to the widespread militarization of civilian police. The more ‘drug arrests’ the more credits, loans, and funding for all sorts of power-imagineering paraphernalia. And once they get hold of a hammer, everything looks like a nail. ‘Use it or lose it’ has been the policy of Department of Defense when it distributes military equipment to local police. So, why not send out a SWAT team to serve a simple warrant? What is the bottom line? Well, it is the blatant shift of purpose from (legitimately) “protecting and serving” the public to (illegitimate but accepted) institutional self-aggrandizement. Power seeking and profiteering are practiced at the expense of the public interest in real public safety.
Theft as “Civil Asset Forfeiture”
By now most of us have heard of the police confiscating large sums of money, luxury cars, even mansions, from drug dealers when they are arrested. Laws were passed to support aggressive police actions against drug dealers. The loot came to be shared with local police departments that cooperated in or conducted successful raids. While such extra-judicial practices are constitutionally questionable in themselves, the practice has taken on another level of corruption. With no judicial or other check on the confiscation of the property of citizens where arrests have occurred but not necessarily indictments or convictions, the near complete corruption of the ideals of law enforcement was assured.
The practice of confiscating property from “suspects” has spread to a variety of situations where it would be hard to justify. Yet, unconstrained police now actively look for “goodies” that can be used by the department or liquidated for cash. A “reason” for an arrest can usually be constructed. This, of course, is the ultimate corruption of law enforcement, since it is essentially the use of power to engage in legalized theft. This sort of behavior is hardly different than the shakedowns of organized crime or street gangs. “Reform” is a far too weak a word to use when trying to describe what is needed to bring back law enforcement institutions into a civil society where their job is simply to “keep the peace” and protect the public. The current conflict of institutional interests and the public interest is intolerable.
The growing privatization of the public sector has squeezed state and local government operations including law enforcement. That pressure encourages police to exploit opportunities presented by ill-conceived laws allowing unconstitutional searches and seizures. In a corrupt environment, the weak are corrupted. The weakness of police culture is palpable. Only mobilized public demand can change that.
1. Matt Taibbi, “Meet the woman J P Morgan Chase paid one of the largest fines in American history to keep from talking.” Rolling Stone, November 6, 2014.
2. Shalla Dewan, “Police Use Department Wish List When Deciding Which Assets to Seize.” New York Times. November 10, 2014.