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04 August 2011  

Crossing the line: the consequences of police corruption

When institutions tasked with protecting our rights and preventing corruption do not act with integrity, it is citizens that ultimately suffer. Allegations of police corruption are central to the recent, high-profile UK phone-hacking scandal, which saw the privacy of thousands of people violated by unscrupulous journalists. Elsewhere in the world, the failure of the police to act in the public interest facilitates human rights abuses, opens the door to political repression and provides an environment in which organised crime can flourish.

Global views on police corruption

Police corruption is a serious problem in countries across the world. The police are the institution most often reported as the recipient of bribes, according to our Global Corruption Barometer, a worldwide public opinion survey. From accepting kickbacks to providing cover to organised crime, police corruption comes in many forms.

Tracking police corruption
Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer surveys ordinary people’s experiences and perceptions of corruption. In a worrying development, reported bribes to the police almost doubled between 2006 and 2010.

A recent report in Nigeria warned that citizens should not expect help from the police and attested that payments are often necessary to see an investigation completed. It documented corruption at all levels: from embezzlement of budgets by senior law enforcement officials to roadblocks set up by traffic police for the sole purpose of extortion.

In Russia, whistleblower and former police major Alexei Dymovsky was arrested on fraud and corruption charges after speaking out against corruption in a series of YouTube videos. In his videos, he claimed that young recruits are led to expect that bribes will subsidise poor wages.

The cost of leaving police corruption unchecked becomes apparent in Latin America, where one in five people we surveyed reported paying bribes to the police over a twelve month period. But the problem cuts much deeper than bribery.

Police corruption in the region extends to protecting, supporting or turning a blind eye to organised crime, including the trafficking of drugs, arms and human beings, and has allowed the massive expansion of these activities. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has warned that such corruption reaches to the highest levels, pointing to evidence implicating senior police officials in Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador. From 2006-2011, violence linked to the drug trade has cost the lives of an estimated 40000 people in Mexico alone, where 98 per cent of crimes reportedly go unpunished.

When the forces of law and order are compromised, the state cannot legitimately prevent and punish violations of the law or protect citizens' human rights.

Personal story: Read about TI staff experience of corruption in Latin America on our blog.

The challenge of police accountability

In the struggle to maintain standards of integrity, police forces everywhere face challenges, but there are tried-and-tested strategies to tackle corruption in the ranks.

Higher standards of integrity can be promoted with more refined vetting of new recruits and candidates for promotion, formal regulations requiring financial disclosure, regular rotation of officers in ‘vulnerable’ roles such as in narcotics and gambling, and training programmes.

Strong internal anti-corruption units are vital, as the temptation of corruption for police officers is ever present. Governments can also set up anti-corruption commissions ensuring that they have the independence and power to investigate all public services, including police and security forces. Indonesia’s commission has prosecuted high-level officials and police officers, achieving a 100 per cent conviction rate.

While it is tempting to treat corruption as a problem confined to individuals, governments should respond with comprehensive measures: oversight bodies, budget transparency and complaint mechanisms.

Civil society’s role in promoting police integrity

Greater transparency and access to information allows civil society to play a larger role in ensuring that police forces are accountable.

Civil society also has a role in making sure that the legislation in place is as effective as possible in ensuring an honest, accountable police force. In Russia, for example, our chapter has questioned new federal police laws, challenging the inclusion of vague provisions, references to legal documents that are yet to be created and poorly defined standards.

Making police reform popular

Our chapter in Russia entered their “Real Policeman” cartoon into a national social advertising contest. The arrows point to characteristics such as “is nice and polite”, “wears a badge”, “does not take bribes”, as well as a phone number to report corruption. It helped the chapter get important amendments made to a recent police law: Russian police, viewed as the country’s most corrupt institution, must wear a badge to identify themselves, and every citizen is entitled to a telephone call if arrested.

The future of post-conflict countries in particular depends to a large extent on the creation of law enforcement that people can trust. Our Defence and Security Programme has held anti-corruption training courses in which Afghan police officers have taken part.


Keeping citizens safe: an anti-corruption agenda for the Americas

TI-UK Statement - Phone Hacking Scandal

TI blog posts on the UK and bribery


Thomas Coombes
+49 30343820662

The Global Crisis:
Time for Transparency