Police Corruption: Towards a Working Definition

Police Corruption: Towards a Working Definition

Syed, T. & Bruce, D. (1998). Police Corruption: Towards a Working Definition. In African Security Review, Vol. 7, No. 1.



Police Corruption: Towards a Working Definition

Taleh Sayed and David Bruce,
Researchers, Criminal Justice Policy Unit,
Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

Published in African Security Review Vol 7, No. 1, 1998


Many of the illicit practices found in police organisations are subsumed under the concept of `corruption' although no satisfactory definitions of this concept exist.1

Take a look through any of South Africa's major daily newspapers and you are almost assured of coming across a story or two mentioning some police act or pattern of behaviour which may be said to be inappropriate, immoral or illegal. Allegations of police involvement in drug trafficking, car hijacking, docket theft, business scams, obstructing the ends of justice and a whole host of other criminal activities, such as murder, rape, theft and assault, are commonplace. In a newspaper poll surveying public attitudes towards the police, over half of the respondents viewed the police in general as "corrupt and having no integrity."2 Charges of improper and criminal conduct by the police are also becoming increasingly frequent outside South Africa, with public outbursts against the police surfacing time and again in places like Australia, Mexico and the United States.

It is clear that the topic of police corruption occupies an increasingly prominent place in both media reports on and public attitudes towards the police. What is less clear is what is meant by the term `police corruption'. In a report entitled Police Corruption, the US Congressional Quarterly Researcher discussed widespread police practices ranging from planting evidence to assault to racism, all under the umbrella of corruption.3 In fact, at times the terms `misconduct' and `corruption' were used interchange-ably. Much the same is true of media and public discussions in South Africa, abroad and on the Internet. The term, as used in news stories or invoked during periods of public outcry, fails to convey a clear sense of what is meant by its use, lending discussions an air of considerable vagueness and confusion. Increasingly, one cannot be sure if corruption refers to all crimes commit-ted by the police, acts of gross or even minor negligence or incompetence, or just any behaviour seen to be inappropriate.

While the inclination to label any behaviour deemed immoral or criminal as corrupt may be understandable, from an analytical perspective such an approach is untenable. It means proceeding with inquiry armed with only a vague notion of what is actually being studied. Without a more concrete and refined idea of what corruption is, one cannot clearly identify which particular practices are corrupt. Not knowing what it is that corrupt practices have in common limits the effectiveness of any attempt to analyse the consequences of such practices, determine their possible causes, and propose strategies to combat or eliminate them. In short, one is unable to contribute effectively to an understanding of the problem and a discussion of how it needs to be addressed. Therefore, before proceeding directly to the heart of public debate, there is a need to first identify, examine (or re-examine) and grapple with the basic concepts involved. That is, there is a need to try and answer the question: What is police corruption?

As one analyst has observed, "no one has ever devised a universally satisfying `one-line' definition" of police corruption.4 Rather than attempt to do so, this article will seek to formulate a working definition, something that can serve as a tool to guide further study of the problem of police corruption. What is sought is a flexible yet precise and practical definition, one that is able to distinguish between what is and what is not police corruption while still remaining in touch with and relevant to the more general, public usage of the term. In addition, the purpose in attempting to define police corruption is also to raise some of the major problems encountered in such an attempt. One of the aims of this article is to problematise and discuss a range of issues that invariably crop up when trying to understand the concept of corruption. By broaching such topics, it seeks to show that, in many areas, there are no straightforward answers. In their absence, concerns such as public perceptions, effects on the criminal justice system and the need to appreciate possible differences in the causes of behaviour in order to devise strategies for change, may serve as aids in better understanding and distinguishing between different forms of police behaviour.

To arrive at a reasonably satisfying analytical definition requires working through a rather difficult and, at times, complicated terrain, where a host of concepts and their meanings need to be evaluated. The following section is a comparison of the usefulness and limitations of both formal, legal definitions and broader, social ones. It emphasises the need for an analytical approach to occupy a position which accommodates both perspectives. Then follows a discussion of various existing definitions of police corruption. Using such definitions and examples of corrupt practices as reference points, we will be better able to flesh out the most contentious and important issues at stake. Once the problems with existing definitions have been identified and the major concepts have been discussed, a working definition will be formulated.


In trying to come to grips with the concept of corruption, one becomes acutely aware of tensions between the two major approaches to the problem: formal and social.5 The first, which seeks to identify corrupt behaviour and refers to specific actions by specific individuals, finds its most extreme form in legal definitions of corruption. In South Africa, the law states that anyone who "gives or offers to give any benefit" not "legally due" to any person who has any power or duty "by virtue of any employment" with the intention to influence or reward the person to "commit or omit to do any act in relation to such power or duty" is guilty of corruption.6 Also declared to be guilty is anyone who has such power or duty by virtue of employment and "receives or attempts to receive" the above benefit for committing or omitting to do any act in relation to such power or duty. Thus, a corrupt act involves at least two parties (i.e. a `corrupter' and a `corruptee') and an exchange of some benefit that is not legally required in return for favourable treatment with regards to the discharging of some powers or responsibilities of an office.

The advantage of such a definition is "safety and certainty."7 We have a clear statement of what constitutes corruption and, with the aid of methods of legal interpretation, we are able, with relative precision, to distinguish between those acts that are corrupt and those that are not. The problems with this approach become apparent when one applies it and finds that its scope is far too limited, excluding many forms of police behaviour that most of us would readily identify as corrupt. The stipulation of two party involvement rules out any activity, such as theft from a crime scene or the selling of seized or recovered property, that an officer may engage in alone, or at least without a corrupter. The idea of exchange throws doubt on the applicability of the law to many types of favouritism, such as not giving a ticket to a family member or obstructing the investiga-tion of a fellow officer, since no identifiable exchange takes place in these cases. While most would agree that these acts are corrupt in fact, that is how they are usually described all fall outside the strict legal definition.

Where the legal definition suffers from being too narrow, the social approach operates on the level of broad generalisations and principles. A more accurate reflection of what is commonly meant by corruption, it places emphasis on morality and has its roots in classical conceptions of corruption which sought not so much to identify behaviour, but to judge the overall political health of a society and its institutions.8 Its definition is more akin to the one supplied by the Collins English Dictionary, which defines corruption as "moral perversion; depravity", "an act lacking in integrity."9 The problems with this approach are readily apparent. It is too vague and, depending as it does on an agreement of what integrity is, or what qualifies as morally proper, it leaves us little hope of achieving any consensus. The benefit of a social definition, however, is that it provides us with a way to evaluate more narrowly focused formal definitions. It is precisely because of its application to a wide range of cases that it can serve as a useful check, pointing out major incongruencies between what members of the public view as corrupt and what any one definition identifies. Without such a check, any formal definition which simply seeks clarity and some measure of objectivity is in danger of side-stepping important ethical principles and values and thus being irrelevant. It is by using a broad social conception of police corruption that we can see that the strict legal definition is not sufficient for the purposes of any analysis which seeks, at least in part, to reflect public concerns.

Thus, while we do need to adopt a more formal approach in defining corruption and being able to identify specific acts as corrupt or not, the social conception of it must always be in the background. The attempt to come up with a working definition is fraught not only with conceptual difficulties, but with problems on the larger scale of the application of values. Furthermore, as the values can be applied not only to individual actions but also to the institutional structures of a society, any meaningful attempt at understanding corruption in a broader sense "is a political as well as an analytical process."10 As Johnston states, a social conception of corruption poses "significant questions relating to fairness, justice and the connections between wealth and power."11 While such questions are generally outside the scope of a formal approach, ignoring them runs the risk of failing to recognise some of the broader and more important issues concerning the uses of police power.


In an article discussing relations between international investors and African govern-ments, one commentator defines corruption as "the misuse of public power for private and personal benefit."12 This definition provides us with a good entrance point into a discussion of various definitions, as it identifies the three major components of a corrupt act: what kind of improper act was committed, how it was committed, and why it was committed. An examination of these three areas will bring us into contact with the most important issues involved in gaining a better understanding of what constitutes corruption and what the difficulties are in defining it.


Let us begin with the `why' question, or alternatively, the problem of `gain'. Barker and Wells state that a corrupt act is a "misuse of an officer's position for material reward or gain."13 Examples of such acts would be the use of discretionary power in not enforcing a parking violation in exchange for money, or `fixing' someone's speeding ticket and receiving free meals, since in each case the reward is materially tangible. While this position offers a great degree of certainty in identifying what constitutes gain, it places too great a restriction on the term. Letting a family member or friend get away with speeding, or protecting a prostitute from arrest in exchange for sexual favours also involve some sort of identifiable gain and would certainly seem to be corrupt. However, using material gain as a standard would mean excluding both of these examples from a list of corrupt practices.

The problem with expanding gain beyond a material definition lies in the difficulty of doing so while still retaining the ability to specify what qualifies as `gain'. Certainly, in addition to any material goods, forms of identifiable exchange, such as political favours, the benefits of helping friends and family members, winning the approval of one's peer group and avoiding personal harm, would all fit and would need to be included as gain. Any time the result of an act can be readily and easily identified as a recognisable benefit, it should count as gain. However, once we enter the area of personal gratification in terms of emotions or feelings, there are some difficult cases. For example, if there was nothing else to be gained from killing somebody, would a kind of vengeful or vindictive satisfaction derived from the murder qualify as gain? A more relevant case is the satisfaction of asserting authority or releasing frustrations by administering `street justice' that seems to spur some police officers to assault people.14 In another example, what do rapists gain? In these cases, when there is little in the way of definite answers, recourse to the other criteria of corruption and a consideration of the intentions behind the act are helpful in determining whether such practices involve enough of the common characteristics to be viewed as police corruption or if they are better understood in another light.

An additional problem of gain is the question of `who' gains. Many analysts, such as King, limit it to "personal gain."15 Thus, the material restriction is lifted, but now there is a stipulation that any gain derived from a corrupt act must be "private and personal."16 Such an approach ignores two additional aspects of gain that often play a considerable role in police corruption: group and organisational gain.17 The `group' in group gain refers to the sub-group of peers that often forms the most important reference group for an officer.18 Group gain can be just an extension of personal gain, as in cases where officers share the spoils of corrupt activity with their partners or a few collude to engage in corrupt acts together. However, it is not uncommon that such sub-groups become the main locus of corrupt activity. In such a case, many improper or illegal acts may be committed in order to protect another member of the group or to keep the activities of a group as a whole secret. In fact, there may be times when corrupt acts are committed at considerable risk or cost to the individual. Examples include an officer providing a false alibi for a colleague being investigated, committing perjury to cover up for the misconduct (e.g. the use of unnecessary force) of her/his partner, or even shouldering the blame for the actions of a group. In such incidents, often referred to as examples of "misguided loyalty",19 there may be an element of personal gain in terms of helping out friends, but it often is the case that the gain accrues to the group at the expense or sacrifice of the individual.20

A further type of gain that Punch emphasises is organisational gain. At one level, the line between group and organisational gain is quite blurry. Especially in precincts or stations where corruption is rife, the group size may be so large that it coincides with the organisation. In such a case, group or organisational gain may be one and the same. However, there is a distinct type of gain which is specifically organisa-tional in character. This is when the motivation for a corrupt act is not for the benefit of oneself or the members of a group, but rather for the organisation itself, as distinct from any individual or set of individuals. For example, when police officers are directed by their superiors to avoid investigating politicians or business people who "are influential and supportive of the police agency" and will therefore be in a position to act favourably towards the department, the gain to be had from such an action is exclusively organisa-tional.21 Another example is the cover-ing up, through faulty investigations or burying `troublesome' files, of corrupt activities or misconduct of one or a few officers by others, solely for the sake of avoiding a scandal that would damage the image or credibility of the organisa-tion as a whole.22

Including organisational gain in one's definition carries the risk of broadening one's scope too widely and including too much as gain. For example, it could be argued that any breach of procedure by an officer resulting in an arrest, a confession, a lead in a case, or a conviction is an act of corruption, since it increases the performance level of the organisation as a whole. However, we would suggest that, in most cases, such an action should not be viewed as corrupt but rather as an instance of the use of "illegitimate means for legitimate ends."23 When the gain of an organisation from an improper act coincides with meeting its legitimate or approved aims or goals, it should not automatically be considered an instance of corruption. Police tasks, such as obtaining evidence, getting leads on cases and catching alleged perpetrators, can and often do involve illegal or inappropriate methods, such as the payment of criminals for information. Often, rules which are intended to ensure `due process' may come to be seen by the police as barriers which they must circumvent in order to do their work effectively.24 While such cases are certainly problematic, including them as examples of corruption would result in labelling the vast majority of officers, even those motivated only by a desire to be effective in their work, as corrupt.

What is needed is a more nuanced approach which uses considerations such as an officer's intent in order to differentiate between improper practices, allowing us to recognise the possibility that such practices may have different causes or motivations and therefore need different strategies to combat their existence. The fact is that police officers do have to make assessments about who is guilty, who may be guilty and who is not guilty and then build cases to convict the ones who appear to be guilty. Whether or not one condones such practices, they are a reality and should not be instantly considered corrupt. Instead, the degree to which such actions are oriented towards convicting the guilty, as opposed to simply `securing convictions' (regardless of whether the person convicted is actually responsible for the crime), is the degree to which such actions should be identified as either `corrupt' or `not corrupt'. In certain cases, for example when the intent is obviously to fraudulently enhance the performance of oneself or others (e.g. mismatching fingerprints to help a detective make a case) or when there are special inducements (such as secret bonuses) for achieving one's tasks, the label of corruption does apply. In others, however, such as the instance cited by Klockars,25 when an officer kept a piece of official evidence obtained at the scene of a crime in order to obtain a lead to catch the perpetrator and then afterwards forged an evidence receipt in order for the case to be successfully prosecuted, the case would seem to be more appropriately labelled as an example of the use of inappropriate means for achieving desirable ends.

`Corrupt' or `Illegitimate' uses of the police

Beyond the issues of organisational gain and the use of `illegitimate means for legitimate ends', lie cases when police powers are abused, not for the gain of an individual officer or even the police organisation as a whole, but rather for pursuing the agenda of other groups in a society. In Queensland, Australia, it was not uncommon during the 1980s for the police to be used "as means of surveillance of troublesome politicians and other opponents of the ruling regime."26 Similarly, in Latin American countries such as Argentina and Brazil throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the police were used "to engage in repression against a `target' group or individual", such as "student and labor organizations."27 Such repression often took the form of "enforced disappearances" and served to "neutralize the controls of civil society" while evading "the judicial control over the police", to maintain an atmosphere of terror in an effort to protect the interests of the "ruling classes within the sociopolitical system."28 Such cases may be termed the `illegitimate use of the police for illegitimate ends', where the ends have less to do with police goals than with the aims of powerful sectors of society.

In these cases, it is doubtful that individual acts by officers should be deemed to have been instances of police corruption, although many were certainly examples of brutality and human rights abuses, since performing such `tasks' did not clearly provide any identifiable gain for the officers in question or even the organisation as a whole. What is clear, is that the victimisation of certain segments of society has been carried out through the abuse of police powers. Also, this victimisation involved illegitimate or illegal acts and resulted in benefits for those with power who directed police actions. Thus, in a broad sense, there is certainly some legitimacy in viewing these as instances of corruption. However, it is argued here that, rather than being regarded as examples of individual acts of police corruption, they may be better described as instances of the `corrupt use of the police', with their roots and direct causes being considerably different. They have less to do with individual police abuses of power for gain and more to do with political conflicts among non-police forces involved in competing for power and legitimacy. As such, interpreting their `integrity' or `legitimacy' lies outside the boundaries of a formal definition.

It should also be noted that instances of victimisation and the corrupt uses of the police, or at least public perceptions of such instances, need not rely solely on the use of illegitimate methods. They can involve the use of legitimate police powers and functions for furthering other ends under the guise of law enforcement. In practice, the police have considerable discretion, for example, in choosing which neighbourhoods to target for the detection of illicit drug activity, in selecting which laws are given priority with respect to enforcement or in deciding the amount of investigative resources which are to be directed towards the solving of specific cases. Who decides which approach to take? And how do we know if the motive behind the actions is to combat crime or target a particular segment of society? In the last couple of years, such questions have been especially pertinent in the city of Philadelphia, where sectors of the community (e.g. visible minority associations, church groups, civil rights activists) have been protesting the targeting of minority neighbourhoods by the police. There have been claims of a joining of police aims and an increasingly reactionary political agenda.29 Of course, in cases where the actions of many officers, such as conducting illegal searches, lying under oath or falsifying evidence,30 are clearly illegitimate, they may be viewed, depending on the motives behind them, as either examples of police corruption (e.g. if the aim is to artificially increase conviction rates) or abuses of police powers for repressive purposes. However, what must also be recognised is that even in cases where the police are not using illegitimate methods, their general law enforce-ment powers and tasks can be focused on specific racial or other groups and this focus or `targeting' may be viewed by members of the community as corrupt. Then the problem is largely one of determining what the motivations are behind police actions and who is setting the police agenda. Are their actions intended towards the apprehension of offenders or is this objective secondary to that of `securing convictions' against the targeted community? Where does one draw the line between combating crime and the victimisation of a community, especially if that commu-nity appears to be more heavily represented in crime statistics? Finally, it needs to be recognised that such issues often arise in the context of a political conflict over who determines what shape law enforcement should take.

More examples of the political use of the police, in these cases involving legal police powers for legal police ends, may serve to further identify some of the difficult issues surrounding corruption and the gaps between a formal and a social approach. The case of apartheid South Africa presents us with the problem of the law versus justice. The actions of police officers in enforcing apartheid legislation did not necessarily involve either illegal conduct or gain on their part. A formal definition of corruption would surely not characterise such actions as corrupt. However, as broader conceptions of corruption are animated by questions of morality and justice, a concern with the justness of laws is relevant. Even if the laws under apartheid were clear and their implementation straightforward, is one not entitled to ask whose interests in society they represented? Such questions are also relevant with regard to the legal formation and the role of the state police in the United States, where powerful and propertied business groups launched legislative campaigns to ensure the creation of state police as a mechanism of control over immigrants and organised labour.31 The ensuing role of the police was to complement other efforts to "rationalize and centralize social control mechanisms", based partly on the Mexican model of centralised repression of the peasantry.32 Thus, while the acts committed by police officers in fulfilling this mandate were done simply in order to achieve the `legitimate' aims of the organisation, they resulted in the benefit of a small and powerful segment of the society at the expense of other, larger groups. These examples draw our attention to the possibility that, at their inception, police organisations may have been formed (at least in part) in order to pursue objectives which potentially could be characterised as `corrupt' in the broader, social notion of the term. As such, they raise questions relating to the openness, fairness and equality of the political process in a society. While such questions are difficult and beyond the scope of this discussion, they "are not just `noise', or a problem to be resolved by definition",33 but rather indicate the political nature of a term like `corruption' and point to how power relations in a society play a role in shaping interpretations of the proper role of the police. They provide a background against which formal concepts may potentially need to be re-evaluated, challenged and even modified.

Occupational Power

The question of `how it was done' brings us to the set of issues that deal with the use of one's powers as a police officer.34 In his definition, Stoddard says those practices are corrupt which are committed by a police officer in the "course of his/her occupation."35 Thus, he identifies the powers given to a police officer to carry out her/his legal responsibilities and functions as the powers which facilitate a corrupt act. These powers include investigative powers which permit police access to `suspicious' areas (e.g. unlocked shops), the power of arrest, discretion (i.e. the power to decide when to enforce or not enforce the law), and the power to issue licenses or permits. Such powers can be called a police officer's `core' or `legal' powers and their use is not confined to on-duty officers, but can also extend to off-duty cops. As stated by Goldstone, it cannot be suggested that "when a member of the South African Police Force is off duty" her/his "statutory duties as a member" or her/his "authority" are suspended.36 Further-more, for our purposes, it is not significant whether an officer was engaged in fulfilling her/his accepted or recognised police duties when the corrupt act was committed, but rather if the use of her/his powers as an officer were "conducive to the wrongs committed."37

An example of the use of such powers in committing a corrupt act is failing to enforce the law by not arresting someone found to be in possession of drugs in return for money or perhaps some of the drugs. Also, the use of discretionary power in overlooking a double parked delivery truck outside a restaurant that provides the officer with free meals would qualify. The granting of towing work to one company over another as a result of a kickback would also fall in this category, as such responsibilities fall under the police officer's legal functions. However, where would the stealing and disposing or selling of a docket fall? Especially when the case is not the officer's own, such an act involves the use of access that is not simply available to an officer in the `course of her/his occupation', but rather is the result of a different kind of power. The problem is that Stoddard's definition confines police powers solely to police legal powers whereas a consideration of the actual `occupational powers' of the police needs to take into account police organisational powers.

What is police organisational power? It is an amalgamation of those powers specific to police officers as a result of belonging to a police organisation and those powers which are more generally available to people who are employed in both public and private sector organisations. Although an abuse of either for gain is police corruption, only an abuse of the former is police corruption specific to the police, whereas an abuse of the latter is a more general form of corruption which may be engaged in by police officers or other workers, both in the public and private sectors. The practical reasons for distinguishing between the two will be explored in the second article in this series. Suffice it to say, making such a distinction allows us to have a more refined understanding of the issue of organisational power. The organisational powers specific to the police include access to police knowledge and resources, support of and influence over fellow officers and the organisation, and the image and credibility that police officers enjoy (e.g. in a court of law). Such powers provide the police with an opportunity to commit a corrupt act. Opportunity here refers not only to access, but also to a cover. It refers to a situation where the police officer knows or believes that the risk of getting caught, reported or punished is minimal. For example, both a regular thief and a police officer can attempt to steal car parts from a police compound, but only the officer has the kind of access to such a compound, which not only facilitates the act, but also greatly reduces the chances of any penalty. Another corrupt use of police organisational power would be providing access to confidential police information to anyone under investigation, be it a friend, a fellow officer or someone willing to pay. Also, destroying dockets, misdirecting investigative resources or using one's influence with other officers or agents in the criminal justice process to intervene in a case all involve the use of police organisational power.

General forms of organisational power are the kinds of access and opportunities that not only police officers, but a range of employees in the public and private sector enjoy. Examples of the misuse of such powers for gain are using office resources for private benefit (e.g. personal long distance phone calls), embezzling payroll funds or engaging in insurance fraud (e.g. the Polmed scheme, involving police officers, doctors and chemists38). All these activities, depending on the resources and structure of an organisation, could be, and are as easily committed by persons other than police officers and thus no special form of police occupational power is used.39 Thus, a more general form of occupational power is used and, while the examples do qualify as police corruption, they are not specific to the police service and should be categorised accordingly. Of course, many activities that may be viewed as improper in one organisation in the private sector, are perfectly acceptable in another, where there are different guidelines for what constitutes an appropriate use of office resources. Therefore, the criteria for abuse of general organisational power vary considerably.

`Improper' Conduct

Thus far we have determined that police corruption involves the use of occupational power (i.e. police legal, police organisational and general organisational powers) for personal, group or organisational gain. That is, we have answered the `how' and `why'. The question that remains is the `what'. What must be the nature of the act to qualify it as corrupt? On this question, most definitions use some combination of two descriptions: impropriety and illegality.40 Using words such as `improper' or phrases like `misuse of power' has the virtue of being flexible and reflecting the immoral aspect of corruption. The down-side is the lack of specificity in such a label. On the other hand, insisting that the act must be a crime, as does Stoddard, enables us to more easily identify what qualifies as corrupt. However, acts that are not illegal, but would qualify as corrupt, such as favouritism for a family member or leaking information to another officer, pose a problem for such a narrow definition. In fact, Stoddard's own application of his definition leads him to label certain activities as corrupt which are not criminal, such as failing to give a ticket for a traffic offence to someone who supports a police journal.41 What is needed is terminology which is broad but not vague.

The definition that comes the closest in meeting these criteria, is the one provided by Sherman, who states that a corrupt act must be an "illegal use of organisational power", but qualifies it by adding that `illegal' here means a violation of criminal, civil and administrative law.42 The inclusion of infractions of administrative rules significantly increases the scope of `illegal' to include a range of activities that would otherwise be classified as examples of misconduct rather than criminal conduct. With regards to our concern the application of a definition of police corruption to South Africa a reasonable interpretation of a breach of administrative law would be anything that qualifies as misconduct according to the regulations for the South African Police Service and for traffic officers. Consulting the schedule outlining SAPS regulations, we find that misconduct covers a very broad range of acts, from sleeping on the job to failing to comply with one's duties or responsibilities to using unlawful force to committing any act which constitutes an offence.43 However, by specifying in detail what actually does and does not qualify, the regulations do not succumb to being vague. In effect, by adding the word `misconduct' to our definition, and using it with reference to the SAPS regulations, we are able to broaden the range of activities viewed as improper significantly, while retaining the ability to specify with precision those that are actually classified as such. In addition, even though those acts referred to as `misconduct' in the regulations far exceed our notions of what is corrupt, the other aspects (relating to gain and the use of occupational power) of our definition are able to place the proper restraints on the term's scope.

Police Corruption: A Working Definition

Having worked through the three major components of a definition of police corruption, we can now articulate our own:

Police corruption is any illegal conduct or misconduct involving the use of occupational power for personal, group or organisational gain.

Thus, to be considered corrupt, an act must be a violation of South African criminal or civil law or qualify as misconduct under either the SAPS or traffic officers regulations. In addition, it must use either the legal or organisational powers of the police. That is, the committing of the act needs to have been facilitated by the some form of power, knowledge, access, credibility or other means available to an officer by virtue of her/him being a member of the police service. Finally, the act must be motivated by the desire to achieve some identifiable personal, group or organisational benefit or reward.


As stated at the outset, there are two major purposes in arriving at a working definition of police corruption. One is to identify and grapple with some of the major issues that are linked to the concept of police corruption. By highlighting some of the key issues which serve to expose the complexities of corruption and the limitations of any one definition, this article has sought to underline the need for a degree of fluidity in how corruption is viewed and addressed. Recognising such issues leads us to the realisation that what we decide to focus on, needs to take into consideration not only conceptual difficulties, but also social and political processes which interpret and shape perceptions both of police corruption and the proper role of the police. Conflicts over what the legitimate tasks and ends of the police are, and for what purposes and upon whom their energies ought to be focused, go a long way in determining what is actually viewed as corrupt (and by whom) and which practices are given priority in combating corruption. Thus, a full understanding of different interpretations and perceptions of police corruption needs to go beyond looking at the specific power and gain involved in any one act and must take into consideration factors, such as the institutional framework within which policing takes place, the perspectives of different groups in a society and the interaction between the police and such groups.

The other major purpose in trying to formulate a working definition is to obtain a tool which gives clarity to the further study of police corruption. Having arrived at such a definition, the second article in this series will apply the definition to police acts and attempt to clearly identify and delineate different forms of corruption and distinguish them from other forms of police (mis)behaviour.44



  1. M Punch, Conduct Unbecoming: The Social Construction of Police Deviance and Control, Tavistock, London, 1985, p. 14.

  2. Sowetan, 28 March 1996.

  3. S Glazer, Police Corruption, Congressional Quarterly Researcher, 24, November 1995, pp. 1043-1063.

  4. M Johnston, The Search for Definitions: The Vitality of Politics and the Issue of Corruption, International Social Science Journal, 48, 1996, p. 331.

  5. Y Meny, `Fin de siècle' Corruption: Change, Crisis and Shifting Values, International Social Science Journal, 48, 1996, p. 309.

  6. Republic of South Africa, Corruption Act No 94 of 1992, Government Printers, Pretoria, 3 July 1992, pp. 2-3.

  7. Meny, op. cit., p. 310.

  8. Johnston, op. cit., p. 322.

  9. Collins English Dictionary, Harper Collins, Glasgow, 1991, p. 359.

  10. Johnston, op. cit., p. 321.

  11. Ibid., p. 322.

  12. A Aderinwale (ed.), Corruption, Democracy, and Human Rights in East and Central Africa, Summary Report of a Seminar Organised by the Africa Leadership Forum, Republic of Benin, 19-24 September 1994, 1995, p. 24.

  13. Barker & Wells, in M Palmer, Controlling Corruption, in P Moir & H Eijkman (eds.), Policing Australia: Old Issues and New Perspectives, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1992, pp. 103-104.

  14. Mollen Commission Report, Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Procedures of the Police Department, City of New York, New York, 1994, pp. 48-49.

  15. Business Day, 5 May 1996.

  16. Aderinwale, op. cit., p. 24.

  17. Punch, op. cit., p. 14.

  18. L W Sherman, Becoming Bent, in F Elliston & M Feldberg (eds.), Moral Issues in Police Work, Rowman & Littlefield, Savage, Maryland, 1984, pp. 256-257.

  19. J Morton, Bent Coppers: A Survey of Police Corruption, Little, Brown, and Company, London, 1993, pp. 345-346.

  20. Mollen Commission Report, op. cit., pp. 53-60.

  21. C B Klockars, Police Corruption: Introduction, in C B Klockars (ed.), Thinking about Police: Contemporary Readings, MacGraw-Hill, New York, 1983a, p. 336.

  22. M Finnane, Police Corruption and Police Reform: The Fitzgerald Inquiry in Queensland, Australia, Policing and Society, 1, 1990, p. 159.

  23. C B Klockars, The Dirty Harry Problem, in C B Klockars (ed.), Thinking about Police: Contemporary Readings, MacGraw-Hill, New York, 1983b, p. 428.

  24. For a discussion of strategies used by the police in the United States in order to get around Fourth Amendment restrictions on legal searches and seizures, see L P Sutton, Getting around the Fourth Amendment, in C B Klockars & S D Mastrofski (eds.), Thinking about Police: Contemporary Readings, MacGraw-Hill, New York, 1991, pp. 433-446.

  25. C B Klockars, Blue Lies and Police Placebos: The Moralities of Police Lying, in Klockars & Mastrofski, ibid., pp. 429-430.

  26. Finnane, op. cit., p. 164.

  27. H Dieterich, Enforced Disappearances and Corruption in Latin America, Crime and Social Change, 25, 1986, pp. 45 & 53.

  28. Ibid., pp. 46 & 43.

  29. B Witanek, Special Issue on Corruption, New Jersey Speakout, 4 September 1995, <www-unix.oit.umass.edu/~kastor/newjersey/nj-crime-4>

  30. B Witanek, Philly: Impact of Frame Ups, New York Times, 24 March 1996, <www.neutral. com/lip/polabuse/1565.html>

  31. H Bechtel, State Police in the United States: A Socio-Historical Analysis, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1995.

  32. W Canak, State Police in the United States: A Socio-Historical Analysis, by H K Bechtel, Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, 25, 1996, p. 204.

  33. Johnston, op. cit., p. 322.

  34. This point also raises the issue of who is being referred to by the term `police'. In South Africa, not only members of the SAPS, but also traffic officers, who fall under local or provincial `safety and security' jurisdiction, are regarded, here, as `police'.

  35. E Stoddard, Blue Coat Crime, in Klockars, 1983a, op. cit., p. 333.

  36. M Dendy, Ministerial Liability for the Frolics of the Force: Curbing the Overzealous Policeman, South African Journal on Human Rights, 3(1), 1987, p. 85.

  37. Ibid., p. 87.

  38. The Star, 29 June 1996.


  39. An example of an occurrence outside the police of corruption which uses more generally available organisational power is the case of the stealing of public funds through `fraudulent salary payments' from the payroll of the provincial government in KwaZulu-Natal; The Star, 22 January 1997.

  40. Lusher in Palmer, op. cit., p. 105.

  41. Stoddard, op. cit., pp. 340-341.

  42. Klockars, 1983a, op. cit., p. 336.

  43. Republic of South Africa, Regulations for the South African Police Service, No R. 2086, 27 December 1996, pp. 12-15.

  44. This article will be followed in African Security Review, 7(2), by T Sayed & D Bruce, Inside and Outside the Boundaries of Police Corruption.
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