Police Corruption from Past to Present

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Police corruption is one of the most serious offenses in the police service. This kind of behavior has drawn great attention from the public over a long period of time. Police agencies in all cities of the United States, including New York, face criticisms and condemnation for rampant cases of corruption across all ranks. The problem is of great concern because it causes misuse of public resources and exposes citizens to increased risks of crime. This report highlights when, how, and why police corruption started and evolved over time. Using scholarly articles and reliable online databases, this research has found out that police corruption in the United States has evolved from lack of discipline, use of force and political motivation to a systematic and organized form of corruption involving drug trafficking and assault.


Police corruption refers to the criminal, civil and procedural violations and abuse of police authority for personal gain. It occurs when a police officer gains material and financial benefits from the use of his or her authority. Common forms of police corruption and misconduct include: extortion, receiving or protecting stolen items, participating in drug trade and human trafficking, and taking bribes (Ivkovic, 2003). In most cases, police corruption involves a whole department, unit, or agency. The organized nature of corruption involving all chains of command makes the vice difficult to correct. The law in Section 18 of the United States Constitution prohibits the use of police authority to violate or conspire to deprive citizens their fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution (Ivkovic, 2003). Despite these efforts to reduce corruption in the police force, the problem has persisted over the years. To control corruption effectively, it is necessary to understand its origin, evolution and nature. The purpose of this paper is to examine police corruption from back then until now.

Origin of Police Corruption: The Use of Force in the Colonial Era

Police corruption is as old as policing itself. During the colonial period, America had a watch system made up volunteers who provided social services such as lighting streets, looking for lost children and runaway animals, and other activities. Policing was significantly ineffective at this time because it sporadic, disorganized and dependent on volunteers. The watch system then evolved to a watch group of men within communities. During the colonial period in America, the night and day watch groups were also ineffective because members of these watch groups would socialize or sleep while on duty. This showed the beginning of corruption as people abused their authority for their own pleasure. The watch groups also lacked proper equipment to deal with social unrests that started to increase in the late 1700s.

Due to immigration from European countries, populations of major cities of the colonial America increased significantly. The population growth caused social disorder and violence. An influx of various racial and ethnic communities created social tension, leading to conflicts and crime. The watch groups could no longer deal with the changing social climate, leading to more formalized policing. In the southern part of the country, the first attempt at policing was the establishment of slave patrols who exercised excessive force to manage racial conflicts and exercise control over slave communities (Reichel, 1988). Modern policing, however, started with the unification of the New York City Police Department in 1845, followed by several other police departments in metropolitan cities such as St. Louis and Los Angeles. The newly created police departments were characterized by significant corruption and misconduct due to political influence and poor supervision. Without proper communication and control of the police service, many police officers abused their authorities for personal gains. Police officers would work with slave masters and politicians to control the slave populations and use excessive force to subdue slaves and gain favor from the ruling class.

Police Corruption During in Post-Colonial America

Although the abuse of power by the police began during the colonial era, systemic and chronic levels of corruption started to take shape after independence. During the 1800s, local politics were highly integrated into the American policing system. There was a mutual relationship between the police and local politicians. An entire metropolitan police department was aligned to a local political group which offered resources and job security to the police officers in exchange for the protection of their political power (Archbold, 2013). The role of the police officers shifted from being custodians of the citizens to being chief political campaigners. Therefore, police corruption in this era took the form of bribes and abuse of authority as the police use their authority to promote the interests of politicians in exchange for personal gains.

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Political control over police agencies was possible in the 1800s because politicians were responsible for appointing the heads of police agencies. According to Archbold (2013), “the appointment to the position of police chief came with a price”. Therefore, corruption in this period was encouraged by political groups through unfair hiring processes. The police had to make decisions that reflected the interests of politicians so that they could be hired as chiefs. Political corruption was characterized by activities such as rigging in elections, influencing voting patterns during elections, and excessive use of force (Kelling and Moore, 1988, p.3). The first commission to investigate allegations of police corruption was the Lexow Commission of 1896 which probed a claim that police officers collected bribes from brothel and gambling business owners (The New York Times, 1986). The police allowed prostitution and gambling to operate illegally in exchange for a share of profits. The Commission’s report led to the dismissal of several police officers from duty. Therefore, economic profits became a key motivation of corruption alongside political influence at the turn of the 20th century.

Police Reforms: 1900-1980

In the 1900s, efforts were made to implement policing reforms in America with an aim of reducing political involvement and increasing professionalism in the police department. Citizens, activist groups and police reformers pushed for changes in policing. These efforts were successful as they reduced political involvement and corruption in the process of hiring police officers. The police department was also professionalized through training, setting quality policing standards, and implementing new technologies to help in daily police operations (Archbold, 2013). These standards and technologies improved policing efficacy and sealed loopholes for corruption in the policing system. The Wickersham Commission report of 1931 recommended that the police should be more involved in crime control than social services which had encouraged political influence and corruption in the police service (Wright, 2013). However, these reforms increased tensions between the police and the public as the police started to use excessive force and demand bribes from private entities and members of the public.

Corruption in the police service started to become a profiteering mechanism in the middle of the 20th century, as officers collected bribes from gambling and prostitution businesses. For instance, Seabury report of 1930 revealed that 28 police officers solicited money from prostitutes to protect their business (The New York Times, 1986). During the civil rights movement in 1950s and 1960s, police raids intensified, causing clashes between the police and members of the public. This era of social disorder gave room for corrupt officers to collect bribes in exchange for the protection of private businesses. Harry Gross, an American bookmaker, paid police officers over $1 million every year to protect his gambling business in 1954 (The New York Times, 1986). In 1968, a report by Manhattan’s District Attorney Frank Hogan revealed a pattern of police corruption in which police officers were bribed with cash to warn gamblers of impending police searches.

Systemic and Drug-Related Police Corruption – 1970 to the Present

After 1970, corruption shifted to bribery in drug businesses and became more organized and systematic. According to Bayley and Perito (2011) most of the corruption scandals witnessed in this period are related to drugs. Drug-related corruption cases increased immensely since the late 1900s. Kelly and Nischols (2019) suggests that over 85,000 police officers have been engaged in various scandals over the past decade, and most of them were investigated for drug-related corruption and misconduct. It is clear that the current issues of police corruption in the United States are primarily motivated by drugs and alcohol, assaults, and violence. Police officers engage in systemic corruption to get profits through drug trafficking, often involving violence and burglary.

New York City is one of the most notorious in terms of police corruption and scandals due to its visibility and high crime rates. According to Baer & Armao (1995), drug-related corruption scandals in New York between 1970 and 1990s involved police officers trafficking drugs, seizing and reselling trafficked drugs, and stealing from drug dens. Most often, these corrupt deals involve systematic and organized crime. A good example of an organized drug-related corruption in New York City is the Buddy Boys case of 1986 which involved 11 NYPD members who were indicted for raiding a drug store, stealing and reselling drugs.


Police corruption has been common in the United States since the beginning of security patrol and policing in the 18th century. Before 1970, police corruption was characterized by lack of discipline in the police service as officers abused their authorities and failed to do what they were hired to do. It was an issue of a close connection between the police and politicians in the 19th century and straining relations between the police and citizens in the 20th century. In the 18th century, watch groups and slave patrols used excessive force to combat crime. As the policing system became more organized, police corruption took a more political dimension as politicians hired and bribed police officers who supported their political cause. During the police reforms of the 20th century, politically motivated corruption was followed briberies involving private gambling and prostitution businesses. Recently, corruption has become more systematic and organized, involving drug trafficking and violence.


  1. Archbold, C. A. (2013). Policing: A Text/Reader (pp. 2–44). SAGE.
  2. Baer, Jr., H., & Armao, J. P. (1995). Police Integrity Lost: A Study of Law Enforcement Officers Arrested. Washington: U.S. Department of Justice.
  3. Bayley, D. and Perito, R. (2011). Police Corruption: What Past Scandals Teach About Current Challenges, Special Report. Washington: United States Institute of Peace.
  4. Ivkovic, S.K. (2003). To Serve and Collect: Measuring Police Corruption. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 93(2), 593-650.
  5. Kelling, G.L. and Moore, M.H. (1988). The Evolving Strategy of Policing. Perspectives on Policing, 4, 1-15.
  6. Kelly, J. and Nichols, M. (2019). ‘USA TODAY Is Leading a National Effort to Obtain and Publish Disciplinary and Misconduct Records for Thousands of Police Officers. USA Today, Accessed from https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/investigations/2019/04/24/usa-today-revealing-misconduct-records-police-cops/3223984002
  7. Reichel, P.L. (1988). Southern Slave Patrols as a Transitional Police Type. American Journal of Police, 7(2), 51-77.
  8. The New York Times (September 24, 1986). Police Corruption: A Look at History. The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/1986/09/24/nyregion/police-corruption-a-look-at-history.html
  9. Wright, R.F. (2013). The Wickersham Commission and Local Control of Criminal Prosecution. Marquette Law Review, 96(4), 1199-1219.
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