The old adage goes, “power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This cliche is apropros to the country’s law enforcement if the headlines have anything to do with it. Police officers swear to serve and protect, but the temptation of fast money in exchange for bad policing can overpower a select few. There have been some fairly high-profile incidents of police corruption and bad actors within the past year across the country.
In what sounds like a storyline ripped straight from The Wire, Baltimore jurors had to deliberate in a federal trial of two officers who were charged with rampant corruption. The Gun Trace Task Force was charged with taking illegal guns off the streets of Baltimore. Instead, members are accused of reselling the guns and drugs they seized back onto the streets. Of the eight officers who were indicted, six have already pleaded guilty. Four of these individuals have testified against the two detectives whose cases proceeded to trial. Some of the allegations and testimony has been shocking, to say the least.
One witness testified that police got a man’s house keys and ran his name to find his address. They entered his home – without a warrant – finding drugs and a safe, found to contain about $200,000.00 inside after they cracked it open. The officers took about half, closed the safe, and then filmed themselves pretending to open it for the very first time. Another witness testified that the officers had a habit of keeping BB guns in their vehicles, in case someone was accidentally hit with a bullet, and they could plant the gun on that person. While there was no testimony that anyone had ever actually planted weapons, the story is chilling.
Baltimore has been struggling with its police department, particularly in the aftermath of the death of Freddy Gray, who died in police custody. The mayor has appointed a new commissioner – the third in five years.
In another story out of Brooklyn, a young woman has recently accused two on-duty police officers of raping her in the back of their police van. She has stated that she was pulled over with her two friends in their car by two plainclothes detectives. They questioned the group and found weed in the front cup holder. After a while, the two friends she was with – young men – were released, but she was handcuffed and led into the back of the van. The two detectives allegedly took turns raping her as they drove across the city for about an hour. The police have not denied they had sex with her – instead, they have stated that she consented. Thirty-five states, including New York, currently have laws on the books where police officers can avoid sexual assault charges if they are able to claim that their behavior was consensual. How anyone can avoid assault charges by claiming that someone arrested, handcuffed, detained and automatically placed in a weakened position consented to a sexual act is beyond logic. This case has attracted some publicity, leading to a call for the laws and policies of police officers to change.
In 2016, also in New York, three NYPD commanders were arrested on corruption charges, accused to have accepted expensive gifts from businessmen who were allegedly seeking improper favors from the police. In the federal papers, agents stated that two politically-connected businessmen showered the inspectors with jewelry, toys for this children, tickets to sporting events, private-jet flights and hotel rooms all over the world. They were motivated, according to prosecutors, by their ability to have the police ‘on call’ for their own personal needs. The official position of the NYPD is that officers are prohibited from accepting any gratuity – even a cup of coffee.
Despite multiple commissions and committees tasked with overseeing police work, the NYPD has consistently been resistant to investigations and transparency. Until this changes and the system of quid pro quo is targeted by the mayor and prosecutors, police corruption seems like it will continue to be a significant issue.