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ACRN Blog: Corruption in the Police

It is our pleasure to introduce to you a brand new feature of ACRN - the ACRN Blog. This space will be used by our contributing editors, invited experts and young scholars to present information about their own research, musings about exciting new topics, reflections from conferences, and more. In this blog post ACRN contributing editor Paul Lagunes presents some findings from his very interesting field study on police corruption in Mexico City and some thoughts on how this problem can be tackled. Your comments and feedback are most welcome!

Please note that views expressed in this blog post are those of the author alone and do not represent the position of The Anti-Corruption Research Network, Transparency International, or any of its affiliates.  

Corruption in the Police: Understanding the Problem and the Solution

By Paul Lagunes, Contributing Editor to the Anti-Corruption Research Network

Corruption is often defined as the abuse of public office for private gain.[i] Among the different government agencies that could be affected by graft, Transparency International’s 2010 Global Corruption Barometer found that, around the world, the police is one of the four most corrupt institutions.

When it comes to petty bribery, things look even worse for law enforcement authorities. TI’s report shows that the police force is the agency most affected by petty bribery. Almost 3 in 10 people who had contact with law enforcement officers worldwide reported paying a bribe.[ii] Thus, stated simply, the problem of police dishonesty is serious.

 Rampant corruption in the police means that those who are directly responsible for protecting and serving society are, instead, a threat to their communities. As case in point, in the 1970s and 1980s, police corruption had become so commonplace in Mexico that many civilians had come to fear law officials more than criminals.[iii]


Mexico City’s Police, A Case Study

It is unclear whether the problem of systemic bribery among law enforcement agencies in Mexico is better today than it was one, two, or more decades ago. That said, Elena Azaola’s sociological work shows, among other things, that corruption remains a key reason why Mexicans do not trust law enforcement officers.[iv] In a similar vein, a 2010 survey run by TI’s chapter in Mexico found that the country’s population regards their police force as one of the 3 most corrupt government institutions, followed by political parties and Congress.[v] In light of these facts, Atheendar Venkataramani, Brian Fried, and I ventured to run a field study to measure petty corruption’s prominence among one set of police officers—Mexico City’s transit police.

Our study is akin to Olken and Barron’s work in North Sumatra, Indonesia.[vi] These scholars had surveyors accompany truck drivers on 304 trips as a means of measuring the number illegal payments they had to make to police at check points and weigh stations. Similar to that study, we were interested in collecting data on bribery through direct observation in order to increase measurement precision. After all, in interviews subjects may not remember key information about a corrupt transaction they were involved in. 

A full description of our methodology can be found in our paper (to read the complete study, please visit:[vii] However, the short of it is this. In 2006, we recruited four drivers who were similar in age (around 30 years old) and male. These drivers were asked to repeatedly commit a high visibility traffic violation that could be carried out with no greater risk than that of driving in a busy city. The specific violation involved making illegal left turns on six-lane roadways divided by medians.

All drivers followed the same protocol when interacting with police officers. When confronted by a traffic police, the drivers stated that they did not know that the left turn they had made was illegal. This allowed the agents (police officers) to set the terms of each encounter and freely choose to write a ticket, give a warning, or ask for a bribe. Regarding this last option, we found that the police officers never explicitly asked for money, but instead said something along the lines of: “We can solve this the easy way” or “Together we can fix this.” We controlled for differences in the drivers’ negotiating ability by having all drivers follow a similar script. Moreover, we made sure to record the results of each interaction between our drivers and police officers immediately after they disengaged.

Throughout this study our drivers encountered law enforcement officers a total of 42 times. The agents’ most common reaction to our drivers’ traffic violation was not enforcing the law. Indeed, in 50% of the encounters, traffic police did not stop our drivers after they made an illegal left turn. In 31%, officers asked for a relatively small bribe (i.e., approximately US$5.00.) In 19%, they let the drivers off with a warning. Finally, to our surprise, not a single traffic ticket was issued. Thus, in sum, we found overwhelming evidence that traffic police in Mexico City did not enforce the law, mainly, out of negligence and corruption.


Getting the Police to Shape Up

Understanding corruption’s intricacies is only half the challenge. The other half is figuring out ways to defeat systemic graft. With regard to reducing corruption in police forces around the world, Hong Kong’s experience serves as a model case.

In the 1960s, corruption was rampant in that city.[viii] Police officers, who were supposed to serve as exemplary law-abiders, were receiving payments in return for protecting drug transactions, illegal gambling, and prostitution.[ix] A vigorous campaign against these sorts of transgressions did not happen until the big scandal of 1973. Police Chief Superintendent Peter Fitzroy Godber, a London-born distinguished police officer was found to have amassed wealth that was nearly six times the total net salary during his twenty years of service in Hong Kong. However, before he could be prosecuted, Godber fled to Britain.[x] In light of these events, the government initiated an independent investigation on corruption led by Sir Alastair Blair-Kerr, a senior judge.[xi]

After the investigations were concluded, in February of 1974, Hong Kong’s governor pushed for the creation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (or ICAC). This new institution was granted significant independence and sweeping powers. The newly launched agency reported to none other than the governor. Moreover, it had the ability to arrest people suspected of corruption and, under exceptional circumstances, the faculty to run a search and seizure without need of a warrant. To safeguard the commission’s integrity, ICAC officials were paid highly competitive salaries and were hired into an institutional structure with significant rewards and punishments.[xii]

To this day, Hong Kong is cited as a success story. As evidence of the ICAC’s effectiveness, soon after its creation, the independent commission was quick to name and punish big, corrupt actors. Key among them, Peter Godber was extradited from England and tried in Hong Kong.[xiii] By the end of 1977, a total of 7,312 corruption reports were received, 3,519 cases were investigated, and 749 persons were prosecuted.[xiv] By the early 1980s, the ICAC’s annual reports cited only a few new cases of the kind of corruption that had prevailed in the 1970s.[xv] Also demonstrating the agency’s success, from Malaysia to the Australian state of New South Whales, a number governments have modeled their anticorruption agencies on Hong Kong’s.[xvi]


Enduring Corruption?

This piece discusses a field study that uncovered bribe-seeking behavior on the part of law enforcement agents in Mexico City. Our study was run in 2006. Since then, the city’s government has made several efforts to curb police corruption. For instance, it has sought ways to bolster law enforcement by limiting the number of face-to-face interactions between drivers and transit police, but also by lowering the transaction costs associated with paying a ticket. More specifically, in 2007, the government set up a number of speed radars that automatically ticket drivers going over the legal limit, and, in 2009, it equipped trained transit police with handheld devices that allow drivers to pay their traffic ticket on the spot using a credit card.[xvii] However, in spite of these noteworthy tactics, a considerable number of residents I interviewed between the summers of 2010 and 2011 shared the same complaint—that is, that the city’s police were not acting against drug dealers and others who infringe the law in all likelihood because they were being paid off. 

If the residents I interviewed are correct, then Mexico City’s problem with police corruption endures. So what can this and other city governments facing a similar challenge do to reduce systemic graft? Modifying the incentive structures is one strategy to consider. As noted earlier, ICAC officials in Hong Kong are paid well if they do their job properly, but face steep costs if they are caught partaking in corruption. Sending convincing signals that corruption is no longer tolerated is also important. Hong Kong’s government of the 1970s achieved this, in part, by “frying big fish”—that is, by prosecuting officials who, in spite of their reputation as being corrupt, had long been thought of as untouchable. As the first democratically elected mayor of La Paz, Bolivia, Ronald Maclean-Abaroa achieved something similar by dismissing an infamously corrupt government cashier.[xviii]

In order to triumph over government malfeasance, it is also necessary to grant the officials heading corruption investigations with the resources and the latitude they need to run successful probes. For example, in the 1970s, New York City’s government set up a commission that was able to uncover corruption in the city’s police by interviewing countless business people and criminals, conducting surveillance, gathering intelligence from paid informants, and sending agents to run undercover operations.[xix]

Finally, city governments that are serious about fighting dishonesty in their police or any other agency should also consider engaging and educating its residents on the topic of corruption. This is essential if the hope is to generate a climate that opposes and exposes graft.


[i] See for example: J.S. Nye, "Corruption and Political Development: A Cost-Benefit Analysis", The American Political Science Review 61(2): 417-427, 1967; S. Rose-Ackerman, Corruption: A Study in Political Economy (NY: Academic Press, 1978); R. Klitgaard, Controlling Corruption (London, England: University of California Press, 1988)

[ii] Transparency International, Global Corruption Barometer 2010 (Berlin, Germany: Transparency International, 2010), pp. 8 - 11

[iii] S.D. Morris, Corruption and Politics in Contemporary Mexico (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1991), pp. xvi.

[iv] E.G. Azaola, Imagen Y Autoimagen De La Policia De La Ciudad De México (Mexico: Ediciones Coyoacán, 2006)

[v] A. García, "Ven Mexicanos Más Corrupción", Reforma ,10 de diciembre 2010.

[vi] B. Olken, & P. Barron, "The Simple Economics of Extortion: Evidence from Trucking in Aceh" Journal of Political Economy, 117(3), 2009

[vii] B. Fried, A.Venkataramani & P. Lagunes, "Inequality and Corruption at the Crossroads: A Multi-Method Study of Bribery and Discrimination in Latin America." Latin American Research Review 45(1), 2010

[viii] S. Rose-Ackerman, Corruption and Government (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 159.

[ix] Klitgaard, Supra, p. 99

[x] M. Skidmore, "Promise and Peril in Combating Corruption: Hong Kong's Icac", Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 547: 118-130, 1996

[xi] Klitgaard, Supra, pp.105-106; J. Cheng, "Police Corruption Control in Hong Kong and New York City: A Dilemma of Checks and Balances in Combating Corruption", Term Paper of Law School (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2006), p. 34

[xii] Klitgaard, Supra, 108 & 110; M. Manion, Corruption by Design: Building Clean Government in Mainland China and Hong Kong (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 23; Rose-Ackerman, Supra, 159

[xiii] R. Klitgaard, R. Maclean-Abaroa & H. L. Parris, Corrupt Cities: A Practical Guide to Cure and Prevention (Oakland, CA: ICS Press, 2000), p. 79.

[xiv] ICAC 1977 in Cheng, Supra, p. 14

[xv] Klitgaard, Supra, 114.

[xvi] Skidmore, Supra, 122.

[xvii] J. Corona, "Suben Al Segundo Piso Radares De Velocidad", 2007, sec. Justicia; Notimex, "Mil 874 Multas En Primer Día De Uso De Hand Held" El, 2009, sec. DF.

[xviii] R. Klitgaard, R. Maclean-Abaroa & H. L. Parris, Corrupt Cities: A Practical Guide to Cure and Prevention (Oakland, CA: ICS Press, 2000), pp. 80-81.

[xix] F. Anechiarico & J. B. Jacobs, The Pursuit of Absolute Integrity: How Corruption Control Makes Government Ineffective (Chicago, Il. : The University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 160.

Author : Paul Lagunes

18 Jul 2011

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