Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Police Officers Respond to Incentives Too

Last week, former undercover police officer Stephen Anderson told the New York State Supreme Court that planting drugs on innocent people was so common that it didn't even register emotionally to him. The story is starting to get traction in the media as an egregious example of police corruption, but it's notable only because of the admission to the practice in open court. Each year, there are hundreds of cases in which police officers are caught stealing, using, selling, or planting drugs or pocketing the proceeds from drug busts. Despite the obligatory PR protestations that any given instance of corruption is an isolated case, the systemic, legal, social, and economic incentives in every law enforcement agency in America combine to make police corruption virtually inevitable. And with no other category of crimes are these incentives stronger than with drug crimes.

Anderson testified that drugs would be seized from suspects at a given bust, divided, and then used again as evidence against other people on site (or at a time later) who had nothing to do with the initial arrest. This was, in part, due to established drug arrest quotas the officers needed to meet. As public servants, police departments face the same budgetary pressures as any other government entity and thus their officers are required to meet certain benchmarks set by the powers that be. Added to the normal budgetary justification, however, many police officers are in the position to confiscate cash and property that can be sold at auction thanks to civil asset forfeiture laws. Many departments across the country keep a percentage or the entirety of forfeiture proceeds, so pressure to maintain a certain level of drug arrests is something straight out of Public Choice: 101.

So far, about 400 cases have been dismissed because of these most recent revelations from the NYPD. It's too early to say how many and to what extent the victims were “innocent,” but the city seems to think 400 people were victimized by lying police officers. The police were able to lie with impunity because they enjoy the advantage of assumption of innocence. Despite the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra that all defendants are pretended to enjoy, an arrestee's word against the testimony of a police officer (and perhaps his partner) is, absent independent damning evidence of police malfeasance, next to worthless. This reputation imbalance is amplified by the unintended consequence of plea bargains: if the potential penalty is large enough, accepting a plea bargain in the face of nearly certain conviction becomes a rational decision for an innocent person. It doesn’t help that the label of “drug dealer” carries a social stigma just below “murderer” and “rapist”—and the potential sentences for drug crimes reflect that.

While the present NYPD case primarily deals with officers trying to advance their own careers, police corruption takes many different forms and affects every type of jurisdiction.

Authorities in Tulsa, Oklahoma are digging out of the mess members of their police department put them in. Nearly a dozen present and former officers of Tulsa’s police department—as well as one BATFE agent and one former officer turned-Secret Service Agent—have been implicated, terminated, indicted and/or convicted of police corruption charges ranging from, inter alia, staging illegal drug busts to embezzlement to perjury to distribution charges. At last count, 41 different people have had their federal convictions thrown out or state charges dropped as a result of the investigation into the department. Attorneys are now poring over the cases of countless other convicts and defendants who may have been railroaded by the Tulsa PD. (It should be noted that the people getting the strongest consideration are those who were na├»ve enough to refuse plea bargains at some point in the judicial process.)

Despite federal stings catching officers red-handed, confessions of wrong-doing that resulted in termination from the police or federal agencies, only four officers have pleaded or been found guilty. Five remain on the police force. The investigations into the TPD are considered closed and so the only hope for measures of justice are the investigations into case files and those related to the numerous civil suits the city faces.

The point is, these are but two recent and galling cases of police corruption. For every Tulsa and New York City there are innumerable cases of unreported shakedowns, coercive threats, and brazen theft by individual officers all over the country. This isn't the work of a few "bad apples," it's a systemic failure of police departments that are asked to solve an intractable policy problem all the while maintaining the utmost integrity on individual and organizational levels. Officers are highly incentivized to break the rules—and the law—either to satisfy the demands placed on them or to pad their own pockets. There are layers of protection built into the system to keep officers safe from public scrutiny and prosecution, and it's nearly impossible for an ordinary American—let alone an accused drug dealer—to protect herself. Meanwhile, the consequences of the legal and extra-legal drug war continue to chip away at the freedom of criminals and law-abiding Americans alike...and we are all less safe because of it.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

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