This story is over 5 years old.


​Is Police Corruption Inevitable in the War on Drugs?

The black market for drugs creates all sorts of twisted incentives for agents of the law.
Cash seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Photo via DEA

Last week, police in Pennsylvania pulled over a car carrying three men and apparently $2 million worth of weed. Among the 247 pounds of pot and $11,000 in cash in the vehicle, investigators also found a law enforcement badge and service weapon belonging to California Sheriff's deputy Christopher Heath, one of the men arrested and a frequent drug investigator in Northern California. Now Heath's bosses have to figure out if the drug cases he led on their behalf will hold up in court given that one of their investigators has been outed as a corrupt cop.


Given how much money's at stake in the drug game, the fact that police can be swayed to join the distributors they usually bust isn't all that surprising. Yet police corruption in the drug war is often depicted by the media as a foreign phenomenon, consigned to countries with notoriously powerful cartels such as Mexico or Colombia—despite decades of high-profile examples of US authorities breaking bad, too.

On one hand, the corruption of drug-law enforcers seems almost unavoidable as long as drugs continue to garner generous black-market premiums, keeping profit margins high in a futile campaign that's failed to reduce use. However, others in the law enforcement and criminology sectors still think we have some options to ensure cops are staying on the straight and narrow in their enforcement of drug laws. VICE spoke with Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovic, professor at Michigan State's school of criminal justice and author of several books and many studies on police integrity. She offers some perspective on what tools are available to drug enforcement agencies to better police their own.

VICE: How prevalent are incidences of corruption in drug law enforcement, like this recent example?
Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovic: A simple answer is that we don't know. A couple of years ago I wrote a paper discussing why this is the case. In a nutshell, we do not have the nationwide database that would measure the level of actual police corruption. We do have some data sources, but the answers they would provide are limited.


Given the often invisible nature of police corruption in the drug war, would you say that it's likely that it's more common than the public is aware?
Criminological research teaches us that, for various reasons, there is more actual crime (measured, for example, through victimization rates) than what is officially recorded (measured through crimes known to the police or crimes cleared by arrests). How large these dark numbers are depends on a host of factors, including the nature of the crime; for example, rape and domestic violence cases have larger dark numbers than robbery or burglary. Using the same logic, we can reasonably expect that there are more actual cases of police corruption than what has been recorded in the official statistics.

However, we have to be careful with our interpretations here, because public perceptions and the level of actual crime may not necessarily match. For example, in the aftermath of the Rodney King incident, public opinion polls demonstrated that the public thought that incidents like that occurred frequently across the country. On the other hand, criminological research—based on surveys of representative samples of the US population—has documented that, compared to the overall number of contacts with the public, police officers use force and excessive force very infrequently.

What sorts of oversight and policy tools exist to combat corruption of drug enforcement agents? How effective are they at deterring corruption?
The answer is highly dependent upon a specific police agency. In a country with a highly decentralized police system, composed of about 18,500 different police agencies, police officers in one police agency may experience quite a different control system from the police officers in a police agency down the road or across the country.


Control mechanisms could be internal, such as training, early warning systems, reactive investigation; external, like prosecutors, courts, media; and mixed, such as citizen review. I discuss this in detail in my book and a recent book chapter.

If we use the citizen reviews as an example, [University of Nebraska Professor Samuel E.] Walker's study found that the effectiveness of the citizen reviews is highly dependent upon a number of factors, such the type of the review, the powers given to them, the ability and education of the personnel, etc. He found auditors [Class IV citizen reviews] to be more effective in leading a long-term change than any other class of citizen reviews.

With recently publicized cases of questionable uses of force by police officers, citizen oversight of police is being called for more widely. But in regard to drug enforcement, it's difficult to imagine how citizen review could deter drug enforcement corruption, as the nature of it is very secretive compared to a public use of force. How do you think citizen oversight could deter drug war corruption?
When people think about citizen reviews (CRs), they typically think about an independent group of citizens sitting as a citizen review board and investigating individual cases of police misconduct [Class I in Walker's classification]. However, Walker argues that the most effective type of CRs are not Class I CRs, but Class IV—auditors. Auditors work as [permanent, full-time] agencies with the director.


There are examples of effective auditors, such as the San Jose Independent Police Auditor and the Special Counsel to the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. From the corruption standpoint, auditors have the capacity to audit police operations and expect documents such as the use of force reports or evidence seizure and custody forms. They also engage in policy review and can identify problems, make recommendations, and monitor their implementation. This way, monitors can identify management difficulties, problems with supervision, inappropriate training; all of which can all be related to police corruption. Walker and [his co-author North Dakota State Professor Carol A] Archbold have several examples of how these two auditors changed their police departments in their book.

In this most recent case of a California deputy sheriff being caught smuggling marijuana to Pennsylvania, it appears that while a reactive investigation was pursued, this officer is likely involved in previous undetected acts of corruption and cases he worked may be compromised. How could preventative internal controls be implemented to deter corruption like this from taking place earlier?There are several internal controls that could be put in place to prevent corruption, from establishing the official rules and enforcing them, providing integrity training to police officers, creating the police culture of integrity (one which does not support serious corruption), to strengthening supervision and employing proactive investigative mechanisms. Each of these is described in my book. The most recent tool in the arsenal is the early warning system that many police agencies across the country have been implementing.


Could you tell me more about the 'early warning systems'? How do they function and how could they specifically prevent drug enforcement corruption?
Early warning systems (EWS) or early intervention systems are computer systems which allow police supervisors and managers to identify potential problem officers and address these problems before they escalate. They are expected to "catch" them early. Therefore, these EWS are not part of the official disciplinary system.

Information entered into the system could include use of force incidents, complaints, traffic accidents, and other indicators. Some systems use very few indicators, while others rely on a much larger number. Once the red flag is raised, intervention occurs. It may involve counseling, retraining, or other measures. After the intervention, the officer is monitored for a certain period of time (typically six months to two years).

The Department of Justice recommended the use of EWS in their "Principles for Promoting Police Integrity" in 2001. They have been introduced under different names, like the Personnel Performance Index in the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, the Personnel Assessment System in the Phoenix PD, and the Risk Management System in Cincinnati.

The primary incentive for corruption of drug enforcement agents appears to be financial, given how lucrative illicit drugs are. Wouldn't legalizing and regulating drugs such as marijuana greatly diminish any financial incentive for corruption, just as it would discourage many black market dealers due to lack of profit?
Please note that I am not taking a stance for or against the legalization of marijuana. From the economic standpoint, eliminating opportunities for corruption works well as a tool in corruption control. The independent commissions investigating allegations of police corruption in the 1970s reported about the opportunities for police corruption created by the enforcement of "problematic" laws. While police officers in New York were once in charge of enforcing "problematic" laws (gambling, construction), the laws were changed in the aftermath of the Knapp Commission and these illegal opportunities ceased to exist. However, as the case of the NYPD illustrates, unless new opportunities for corruption are monitored and the changes affecting opportunities for corruption are made on a continuous basis, police officers with high levels of propensity for corruption will find alternative new ways of obtaining illegal gain.

What do you think cases like the California deputy sheriff say about the drug war at large? What lessons do you think police leaders and policymakers should be gleaning from these cases?
One of the key lessons is that police integrity does not come as given. The work addressing police misconduct in general and police corruption in particular should be continuous, rather than sporadic.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Follow Bill Kilby on Twitter.