The public is used to categorizing police officers into either good cops or bad cops. Good cops are police officers who catch the criminal elements in the society. Bad cops are those who protect the criminal elements in the society. In theory, the differences may be clear. However, in today’s society, it is no longer that easy to classify police officers as some of them may start doing bad things for the good of the society.
For instance, a police officer desires to make the streets safer. But he knows that he cannot catch all the bad guys in the streets since they are smart and they know how to dispose of any evidence against them. The police officer may start violating the law by fabricating or planting evidence on these persons for the purpose of ensuring their conviction. The police officer justifies his action by saying that he is only making the society safer. On the other hand, some police officers accept the reality that most of the bad guys they will catch will be able to escape conviction because they have deep connections with judges and prosecutors which make their jobs of enforcing the law very difficult. For this reason, the police officer may decide to disobey the law by executing the criminal offender. The police officer justifies his action by saying that he is only making the society safer from the society’s criminal elements. In the mind of these two police officers they have done nothing wrong. In fact, they are merely reducing the number of criminal offenders in the streets.
These acts are called noble cause corruption. John P. Crank and Michael A. Caldero (2000) define noble cause corruption as a “corruption committed in the name of good ends, corruption that happens when police officers care too much about their work. It is corruption committed in order to get the bad guys off the streets…the corruption of police power, when officers do bad things because they believe that the outcomes will be good."2
In fact, there are studies which say that noble cause corruption has become a part of police subculture. This means that many police officers are doing it and they feel that they are right and that they are justified in their actions.
The United States Department of Justice fears that noble cause corruption has become a practice in many law enforcement agencies. What is most worrisome is that these activities are being done not only by police officer who are known as rotten apples but even those considered as best officers who are also respected by their peers . As such, it is considered as the most threatening type of misconduct. It is basically the idea deeply held by individuals who think that the ends justify the means.
Steve Rothlein cites as an example of noble cause corruption the situation that led to the killing of Police Officer Sherman Griffiths in February 1988. (Steve Rothlein 2) Police officer Sherman Griffiths was killed by Lewin when police officers including Griffiths executed a search warrant in his home. He fought and killed police officer Griffiths. Lewin was eventually charged with murder. However the charges against him were eventually dismissed when the court found out that the affidavit for search warrant was based on false information and a fictitious informant. The police officer responsible was also charged for perjury.
Noble cause corruption must be distinguished from traditional corruption. Traditional corruption is defined as the use of one’s official position for personal benefit and gain. Personal benefit and gain may refer to accumulation of more wealth or getting sexual pleasure or simply deriving pleasure from doing bad or evil things. Contrary to noble cause corruption, a person who is traditionally corrupt does things only for himself. He does not seek to achieve any noble purpose but only seeks to pursue his own interest.
The reason why noble cause corruption has become a practice among many law enforcement officers is that it is very easy to judge a person solely because what he has done in the past. In today’s society there is a clamor for harsher punishment against criminal offenders. The public wants to get rid of the criminal elements. The public wants longer prison sentences or even death penalty. In the midst of the clamor the police officers are forced to engage in these actions. In one sense, it may be said that these actions are beneficial for the society since it gets the job done faster and easier.
In contrast, however, engaging in these actions may get the police officer and the police department in trouble for violation of the rights of the criminal offender. Noble cause corruption is a violation of the constitutional rights of the offender. It does not matter whether he has a past criminal record the police officer has to respect his rights. Consequently, the courts have in a number of cases awarded damages against police officers who have willfully done acts in violation of existing laws.
In many cases, distinguish whether a police officer is engaging in noble cause corruption or traditional may be difficult because some police officers who have become used to committing noble cause corruption may be motivated by personal gain, anger, or hatred when they engage in these actions.
The end does not justify the means. No amount of rationalization and justification can replace respect for the law and the constitutional rights of the accused. Crime is an evil that must be controlled but it should not be accomplished by sacrificing established legal procedures and cherished rights and liberties. Police officers should be the guardians of the law and the primary instruments to enforce the law. They cannot violate the law in the guise of common good.