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Are the police corrupt?

Updated Tuesday, 22nd January 2013

What moral lines are police officers willing to cross? A recent survey by Dr Louise Westmarland explores just this question

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Tape protecting a police investigation One of the expectations the public has of the police is that they will carry out their duties in a fair and unbiased way. Serving ‘without fear or favour’ is a well used mantra for forces across the world.

As recent press coverage has shown however, it seems that some UK police officers, in some very high places, are not adverse to cozying up to the press and politicians – viewing the acceptance of hospitality, gifts and even cash as a ‘perk’ of the job.

But how widespread is this attitude? The survey, which involved a research team including Professor Mike Rowe from Northumbria University, Dr Courtney Hougham of the International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research (ICCCR) at the OU, and Dr Roger Grimshaw from the Centre for Crime and Justice Research (CCJS), one of ICCCR’s external partners, used a scenario based questionnaire.


I found that officers thought that stealing money or goods was ‘very serious’ and that over 98 per cent of those who responded would definitely report a corrupt colleague in these cases.

On the other hand, regarding minor gifts and misdemeanours, officers were less sure they would blow the whistle and in terms of a drink driving colleague and the use of excessive force, such as punching a suspect for attempting to escape, they were also unsure about their response. Only about 50 per cent of officers said they would definitely report a colleague in these cases.

The survey received responses from over 500 officers, from three contrasting police forces all across the country. It is the first national survey of serving police officers to ask about attitudes towards policing and integrity.  

Moral compass

The findings of the research suggest that officers are guided by a well formed ‘moral compass’ where offences are clearly ‘illegal’ in the sense that they are offences such as theft. On the other hand reporting a colleague for some offences they may view as ‘ambiguous’ as defined by beliefs endorsed by police occupational culture – sometimes called ‘cop’ or ‘canteen’ culture – is more problematic.

Taking a social harm approach, for example, studied in some depth throughout the OU’s  third level criminology module Crime and justice, it might be argued that covering up for a drink driving colleague or punching a suspect, who may, for example, have a pre-existing medical complaint, could be much more harmful than stealing a watch or taking money from a wallet equivalent to a day’s pay for that officer.

Whilst acceptance of stealing is not a behaviour anyone would want to encourage in police officers, there needs to be more of a discussion in policing circles about what constitutes ‘harm’.  

Social media

I'm hoping to take my research forward by surveying more officers across numerous UK forces and developing a new questionnaire to take more up to date scenarios, including attitudes towards the use of social media, inappropriate sexual behaviour and the way officers’ beliefs about occupational culture and corruption are linked.

I hope to ask questions in a future survey that will explore the way police officers rationalise their use of discretion. In effect police officers have a great deal of power to decide how to proceed in many cases, and this is often regarded as something, along with police ‘culture’ that should be curbed and controlled.

On the other hand, discretion, informed by cultural values, is an essential part of policing, and research is needed to explore how it is used appropriately, but ways in which aspects such as the potential social harm of certain actions could be better anticipated. 


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