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Police Corruption and Misconduct


Society has grappled with misconduct and corruption issues for as long as it has had police officers. Through the mid-to-late nineteenth century, private police forces were commonplace, and agents of Pinkerton's and other forhire services became notorious as the muscle employers used to violently end strikes. Heavyhanded law enforcement as well as VIGILANTISM by groups such as the racist KU KLUX KLAN spurred passage of the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT of 1871, which criminalized acting under state law to deprive a person of constitutional or other rights under federal law. SECTION 1983 of the act remains a critical tool in the early 2000s for enforcing constitutional rights, with direct applicability to police misconduct cases.

The twentieth century saw multiple legal, administrative, and scholarly approaches to the problem. Some developments bore indirectly upon police misconduct, such as the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which gave new protections to citizens who had long suffered discriminatory policing. Additionally, a string of landmark Supreme Court decisions during the era gave new force both to individual privacy rights as well as to curbs upon POLICE POWER: highly influential cases resulted in the strengthening of FOURTH AMENDMENT rights against unreasonable SEARCH AND SEIZURE, evidentiary rules forbidding the use at trial of evidence tainted by unconstitutional police actions, and the establishment of the so-called Miranda Warning requiring officers to advise detained suspects of their constitutional rights.

While these decisions profoundly shaped the legal and social landscape, renewed focus on police misconduct and corruption occurred in the latter part of the century. As the pioneering criminologist Herman Goldstein argued, traditional views were based on the assumption that police abuse reflected the moral failings of individual officers—the so-called "bad cop." Public scandals began to shape a new view of the problem. In 1971, New York City organized the Knapp Commission to hold hearings on the extent of corruption in the city's police department. Police officer Frank Serpico's startling testimony against fellow officers not only revealed systemic corruption but highlighted a longstanding obstacle to investigating these abuses: the fraternal understanding among police officers known variously as "the Code of Silence" and "the Blue Curtain" under which officers regard testimony against a fellow officer as betrayal.

Broader recognition of the problem brought more ambitious reform efforts in the 1980s and 1990s. Spurred by the work of criminologists such as Goldstein and others, police departments sought to improve organizational rules, training, and prevention and control mechanisms. Such efforts are reflected in the publication of a code of police conduct by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, more rigorous training for officers, and experimented with so-called community policing programs to improve ties between officers and the public. Several cities established joint police and civilian complaint review boards to give citizens a larger role in what traditionally had been a closed, internal process by police departments.

Among the most dramatic examples of system-wide reform is New York City's response to long-standing brutality, discrimination, and corruption within the New York City Police Department (NYPD). After flirting with civilian review of complaints against police in the 1960s, the city committed to it after public outcry over the videotaping of officers beating citizens who violated curfew in 1988. The city subsequently established its Civilian Complaint Review Board, which became an all-civilian agency in 1993. In 1992, responding to new complaints, Mayor David N. Dinkins appointed the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Procedures of the Police Department, known as the Mollen Commission. Two years later, the commission concluded that the city had alternated between cycles of corruption and reform. Afterwards, in 1995, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani established the full-time Commission to Combat Police Corruption (CCPC) as an entity independent from the police department. The CCPC monitors

Protesters react to the acquittal of four New York City police officers in the 1999 shooting death of Amadou Diallo.

the NYPD anti-corruption policies and procedures, conducts audits, and issues public reports.

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