New Blog on Police Corruption and Accountability

These past several weeks, protests in the United States and around the world have brought much-needed scrutiny to the problem of police misconduct. While the main focus of attention has rightly been on issues related to systemic racism and police violence, rather than police corruption (narrowly defined), concerns about police misconduct relate to important themes that the anticorruption community has long emphasized. Indeed, as I discussed in my post a couple weeks back, there are intriguing and troubling similarities in the organizational-cultural characteristics associated with corrupt firms and abusive police departments. And perhaps some of the lessons learned from institutional reform strategies designed to combat corruption can help inform approaches to reforming law enforcement agencies more generally.

I’m not the right person to lead that conversation, since I lack the relevant expertise, but I’m happy to announce a new addition to the blogosphere that will focus on these issues. The CurbingCorruption project (which I’ve mentioned earlier), which already featured a section on fighting corruption in the law enforcement sector, has launched a new blog called Trusted Policing. According to the official description:

Achieving Trusted Policing requires changes to laws and to police institutional practices to stop corruption, brutality, racism and harassment. It requires leadership of change not only from protesters but also from those in positions of responsibility – the police themselves, elected officials, public officials, whether in government, law enforcement agencies – and those who analyse and live the problems – academics, not-for-profit organisations, grass-roots reformers, police committees. The purpose of this blog is to contribute to one small part of this massive improvement challenge: to serve as a source and a repository for good experience and constructive proposals for police improvement from around the world.

The blog is brand new and only has a handful of posts so far, but those posts are quite interesting, and I think this may be a useful forum for those interesting in engaging in dialogue at the intersection of anticorruption reform and policing reform more generally.

Fighting Corruption in U.S. Civil Asset Forfeiture Requires State-by-State Reforms

Civil asset forfeiture is a judicial process through which law enforcement officials seize assets belonging to a person suspected of a crime. To be subject to forfeit, the assets in question must be either the proceeds of crime or were used to further that criminal activity, but in many jurisdictions, civil asset forfeiture does not require a criminal conviction, or even the formal filing of criminal charges, and the typical legal threshold is probable cause that the seized property is connected to criminal activity, rather than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard generally required for a criminal conviction.

In the international context, civil asset forfeiture is an integral component in the battle against corruption. Empowering law enforcement agencies to seize ill-gotten gains, without the need to first secure a criminal conviction, is one of the most effective methods of punishing corrupt actors and depriving them of the proceeds of their crimes. But civil asset forfeiture is not limited to seizing the proceeds of grand corruption, and in the United States, the civil asset forfeiture system, particularly at the state and local level, has itself has become a significant vector for corruption, albeit on a much smaller scale, with local officials taking advantage of lax oversight to use seized funds for their own personal benefit. For example, in March 2020, the Michigan State Attorney General’s Office brought charges against Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith, alleging that Smith and other county officials had misused forfeiture funds for things like personal home improvements (including a security system for Smith’s house and garden benches for several other employee’s homes), parties at country clubs, and campaign expenditures. Smith is far from the only public official accused of corruption relating to forfeiture funds. To take just a few other examples: State revenue investigators in Georgia used millions in forfeited assets to purchase travel and trinkets like engraved firearms; police officers in Hunt County, Texas awarded themselves personal bonuses of up to $26,000 from forfeiture accounts; and the District Attorney in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania leased a new personal car with forfeiture funds.

To be clear, there are concerns about the civil asset forfeiture system in the United States that run much deeper than the misappropriation of funds. Critics have vigorously attacked both the legal underpinnings of the civil forfeiture system as it currently exists in the U.S., as well the system’s implementation. But for the purposes of this post I want to bracket those larger issues to focus on the question of why the civil forfeiture systems at the state and local level in the United States pose especially high risks of corrupt misappropriation, and what might be done about this (assuming that the civil forfeiture system is here to stay, at least in the short term).

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Are There Common Features of Dysfunctional Organizational Cultures? Corruption and Police Brutality

For the second time in the last several months, I’m finding it extremely difficult to blog about corruption due to a more urgent crisis. A few months ago, it was the Covid-19 pandemic, which is still very much with us. But now, in addition to the ongoing public health emergency, my home country (the United States) is in the midst of widespread social and political unrest triggered by the murder of an unarmed black citizen at the hands of police officers, as well as several other similar incidents. The underlying problems—systemic racism and misconduct by law enforcement agencies—are, sad to say, longstanding problems with deep roots. But the protests have given them new urgency and salience. And while there have been instances of rioting and looting—acts that the vast majority of peaceful protestors have roundly condemned—we have also seen what can only be described as a grossly disproportionate response by far too many law enforcement agencies and officers. In multiple cases, police have used unnecessary force not only against rioters and looters, but against peaceful protestors and members of the media who clearly identified themselves as such. And multiple senior elected officials, including President Trump and Senator Tom Cotton, have advocated the use of military force to suppress what they would characterize as civil unrest.

Suffice it to say that, given all this, it’s hard for me to think of something interesting or worthwhile to say about global corruption. But as I’ve been doing more to educate myself about the root causes of police misconduct (a mild term for a category that includes, among other things, brutality and racially discriminatory enforcement), I’ve noticed some intriguing similarities to some of the prevailing theories regarding the roots of organizational corruption (in both government agencies, including but not limited to police departments, and in private firms). Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising, because in both cases the ultimate issue concerns the reasons for widespread rule-breaking within an organization. To be clear, I don’t want to overstate the similarities, either with respect to the severity of the misconduct (I condemn bribery as strongly as anyone, but I wouldn’t dream of equating it with systemic racism or police brutality) or with respect to all of the causes and characteristics. I should also emphasize that I’m by no means an expert in police misconduct, and I suspect that many of my observations here will have already been made, or possibly already refuted, in the existing research literature with which I am not yet familiar. With those caveats, let me highlight some potentially intriguing similarities between the characteristics of police departments prone to racism and violence, on the one hand, and firms or divisions that engage in bribery, embezzlement, and other forms of financial malfeasance. These similarities may suggest some common features of ethically dysfunctional organizations. Continue reading

The Independence of U.S. Law Enforcement is Under Attack. Here’s What Congress Can Do About It.

The politicization of the institutions of justice, particularly those associated with criminal law enforcement, is one of the greatest threats to the rule of law and the integrity of government. Corrupt leaders in democracies and autocracies alike seek to undermine any check on their power, thus ensuring impunity for themselves and their allies, and may also try to weaponize criminal investigations to harass and discredit political opponents. For many years, most Americans viewed this sort of threat to the integrity of the institutions of justice as something that only happened abroad, or in the distant past. Not so anymore. Under the Trump Administration, the corruption and politicization of law enforcement institutions is a significant threat to American democracy.

That President Trump lacks respect for the independence and integrity of law enforcement has been evident for some time, at least since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. (Trump dismissed Comey in part to the FBI’s investigation into potential collusion between Trump’s campaign associates and Russia during the 2016 election, and in part because Comey wouldn’t pledge his personal loyalty to the president.) In the last month, the situation appears to be getting even worse. As has been widely reported in the media, President Trump publicly criticized the Department of Justice (DOJ) for seeking a high sentence in the case of Trump associate Roger Stone; Attorney General Bill Barr claimed that President Trump didn’t issue any specific instructions regarding the case (and complained about the President’s tweeting), but Barr nonetheless recommended a much lower sentence that the DOJ’s own prosecutors had originally requested. Barr recently made the highly unusual decision to install an outside prosecutor to oversee the case against President Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. In another troubling move that didn’t get as much press attention, in early February Barr issued a memo saying that any FBI investigations into 2020 candidates or their campaigns would require the Attorney General’s approval.

Trump has asserted that he had the legal right, as President, to intervene in criminal cases. This is a contested claim, to say the least. Some argue that, under the U.S. Constitution, the President has ultimate control not only over general DOJ policy, but over decision-making in individual criminal prosecutions. However, others assert that this is not so, and that the Constitution actually imposes certain limits the President’s control over individual prosecutions—most importantly, that the President cannot seek to affect a criminal case out of corrupt or self-interested motivations.

Putting the legal debate to one side for now, and assuming that Congress—if not now, then at some point in the future—would like to establish new safeguards to insulate the DOJ and FBI from the corrupting influence of an unscrupulous president, what might Congress do? I suggest three steps that Congress might take:

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The Alleged Police Misconduct in the Netanyahu Corruption Investigations Illustrates Why Police Should Err on the Side of Caution

In corruption investigations, witness testimony is often crucial. After all, corrupt acts usually take place in secret, and the parties involved rarely leave behind records documenting their illegal deeds. It should therefore come as no surprise that an essential part of the corruption investigations into Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the law enforcement authorities’ attempt to obtain incriminating testimony from those with (allegedly) first-hand knowledge of the corrupt actions, and to turn some of them into “state’s witnesses” (defined by Israeli law as “an accomplice who testifies on behalf of the prosecution after a benefit has been given or promised [to] him [or her],” usually in the form of immunity from prosecution or other alleviations). These efforts have met with some success (see here, here, and here).

However, according to Israeli news outlets whose reporters have gotten access to leaked police transcripts, the Netanyahu investigators may have gone too far. These transcripts suggest that police investigators tried to convince two key witnesses, who themselves were suspected of involvement in the corrupt schemes, to replace their defense attorneys – apparently because these defense attorneys had been advising their clients not to sign a state’s witness agreement (see here and here). (In Israel, defense attorneys are not present in the interrogation room, as suspects do not have a right to have their lawyers present during an interrogation.) One of the witnesses did indeed hire a new attorney and signed a state’s witness agreement, though we can’t be sure if the police investigators’ “suggestion” that he do so was the reason. If the police did pressure these suspects to fire their lawyers, it would be illegal, as Israel’s Supreme Court has held that police may not attempt to interfere with a suspect’s relationship with, or trust in, her attorney. In addition, the transcripts suggest that the police may have illegitimately pressured one of the witnesses during his arrest, threatening that lack of cooperation might result in negative consequences to him and others, and employing highly controversial interrogation tactics (see herehere, and here). At this stage, we do not yet know for sure what actually transpired, and Israel’s Attorney General has ordered that the claims of police misconduct be investigated.

The leaked transcripts and the allegations of severe police misconduct have generally been greeted with wide public criticism that transcended political boundaries. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s supporters and party members, including the Minister of Justice, have (unsurprisingly) been most critical, arguing that the police’s actions offer more proof of Netanyahu’s “persecution” by law enforcement authorities, a claim that has been promoted by Netanyahu almost since the beginning of his investigations (see here and here). Putting that harsh (and unproven) last claim to one side, it’s definitely the case that police investigators have been zealous in their pursuit of Netanyahu and his alleged co-conspirators, and the police may have been, at the very least, pushing the boundaries of what the law allows. This, in my view, is a mistake. To be clear, I do not mean to argue simply that the police should not break the law. That is true, but not many people would claim that the police should disregard the law when fighting corruption. But there’s another view out there, espoused by a considerable number of “tough on corruption” proponents, that law enforcement authorities should “push the envelope” as much as possible, doing everything they can even if their actions are sometimes to be deemed illegal by courts. According to this view, there is no place for softness in the interrogation room, and the police sometimes need to be willing to operate right at the edge of what the law will permit. It is this attitude that I want to argue against.

And this is not only because we should care about the rights of suspects and the fairness of criminal investigations. Indeed, “tough on corruption” proponents ought to worry the most about forms of police aggressiveness that come close to, and may cross, the line into police misconduct. In the Netanyahu case, to stick with that example, the police investigators’ alleged overreach may also prove to be counterproductive to anticorruption efforts, not only putting the investigation in jeopardy but producing long-term adverse consequences for effective anticorruption law enforcement. From the perspective of anticorruption policy, there are a few practical reasons why the police, while investigating allegations of corruption, should fully respect the rights of witnesses, and err on the side of caution: Continue reading

Amazonia Is Burning. Corruption Is One of the Reasons.

Amazonia is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, spread over nine South American countries (Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, French Guyana, Peru, Surinam, and Venezuela), with approximately 60% of the forest (over four million square kilometers) located in in the north of Brazil. Brazilian Amazonia is home to around 45,000 different plant and animal species. This rainforest is also crucial to the global environment, especially with respect to climate change. During the past several months, an increase in the number and extent of forest fires in Brazilian Amazonia has triggered great concern, much of it focused on whether the Bolsonaro Administration’s policies are partly to blame for the widespread fires. While that conversation is no doubt important, it is also crucial to recognize that environmental crimes in Amazonia—including those related to the fires—are in part the product of widespread corruption, and that addressing Amazonia’s environmental crisis will require addressing Brazil’s governance crisis as well.

To understand how and why corruption is contributing to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, a bit of background is in order. The greatest environmental threats in this region are the illegal harvesting of timber and the illegal clearing of land (often through burning) to prepare the land for commercial use for agriculture and livestock. (Between 70% and 80% of the deforested area in Amazonia has been used to create pasture for breeding cattle to produce meat for domestic and international consumption.) To be sure, Brazil has laws in place to protect Amazonia from over-exploitation and other forms of environmental damage. About 80% of the land in Amazonia is publicly owned; on this public land, the forest may not be exploited or burned. The remaining 20% of Amazonia is private land owned by individuals or corporations; even for this privately owned land, Brazilian law requires that the owners keep between 50% and 80% of the area intact and unexploited. The Brazilian government is responsible for enforcing these rules and for regulating and overseeing the extraction, transportation, and commercialization of timber from Amazonia. The regulatory system involves government approval of forest management plans, the issuance of permits for timber harvesting and land clearing, and the tracking of timber to ensure that it was not illegally removed from public lands or from the protected areas of private lands.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. But in practice, private companies collude with corrupt public servants—forest wardens, police officers, and others—to evade these rules. As a result, substantial quantities of timber are illegally extracted from public lands and protected private areas, and agricultural and livestock interests illegally burn and clear irreplaceable forests. The corrupted public servants not only turn a blind eye to these environmental crimes, but they also warn the infringers about possible inspections by other agents.

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I Caught the Sheriff: Why U.S. Anticorruption Officials Should Keep an Eye on Sheriffs

An unusual feature of US law enforcement is the important role of the county sheriff. As of 2013, over 3,000 sheriffs’ offices across 47 U.S. states employed 352,000 people—roughly one-third of the country’s law enforcement personnel. The sheriff’s job varies from state-to-state, but the common denominator is responsibility over county corrections, including the operation of jails and transportation of inmates to and from court. In some states—Massachusetts, for instance—that’s essentially the extent of sheriffs’ duties. In other states, though, sheriffs wield much broader authority. Texas sheriffs, for example, can enforce the state’s criminal laws anywhere in their county, even where municipal police departments have jurisdiction. Most states are somewhere in the middle, tasking sheriffs with general law enforcement duties only in unincorporated parts of the county and sometimes with security for state government buildings, in addition to their correctional responsibilities.

Despite the variety of roles played by sheriffs, many commentators view sheriffs as merely another kind of police. After all, they wear badges, can legally use force, and, in many parts of the country, patrol the beat. But sheriffs are distinct from their police counterparts in significant respects. Most notably, whereas police chiefs are appointed by city officials, sheriffs are popularly elected by the county they serve. And, unlike police departments, which are creatures of state statute, the responsibilities of a county sheriff are often rooted in the state constitution.

These differences render sheriffs more susceptible than police to corruption for three reasons:

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Western Anticorruption Policy in Ukraine: Success or Failure?

A few weeks back, I came across an interesting point-counterpoint on the impact of Western-backed efforts to promote anticorruption reform in Ukraine. On one side we have an online piece in Foreign Affairs by Adrian Karatnycky (the Managing Partner of a consulting firm that “works with investors and corporations seeking entry into the complex but lucrative emerging markets of Ukraine and Eastern Europe”) and Alexander Motyl (Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University) entitled, “How Western Anticorruption Policy Is Failing Ukraine.” And then on the other side we have a response piece on the Atlantic Council blog from Daria Kaleniuk (Executive Director of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre in Kyiv) entitled “Actually, the West’s Anticorruption Policy Is Spot on.” I’m no Ukraine expert, and so I’m reluctant to take a strong position on which side has the better of the argument, but I found the debate interesting not only for its implications for Ukraine, but also because it raises a couple of more general issues that come up in many other contexts, issues that anticorruption advocates should pay attention to even if they have no particular interest in Ukraine. Those issues are, first, a question of messaging—what I’ll call the glass-half-full/glass-half-empty question—and, second, the relative importance of holding individual wrongdoers personally (and criminally) accountable for corrupt conduct.

Let me first try to give a flavor of the debate, and then say a bit about each of those two issues. Continue reading

A Border Patrol Surge Will Lead to a Border Corruption Surge

The United States Customs and Border Protection service (CBP) is the largest law enforcement agency in the United States—and one of the most corrupt. CBP employs 59,000 people, of whom almost 20,000 are Border Patrol agents. Every day, these agents process over a million incoming U.S. travelers, 300,000 vehicles, and 78,000 shipping containers. On any given day they might seize over 5,000 pounds of narcotics and apprehend nearly 900 people at or near U.S. borders. Yet according to “conservative [] estimate[s],” about 1,000 Border Patrol agents—5% of the total—violate their official duties in exchange for bribes. To take just a handful of some of the most egregious examples: One CBP agent permitted smugglers to bring over 612 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S. in exchange for $1,000 for each kilo he waved through his checkpoint. Another allowed 1,200 pounds of marijuana to enter into the U.S. in exchange for $60,000. Yet another CBP agent permitted vehicles containing undocumented immigrants to enter the U.S. at a price of $8,000-10,000 per vehicle.

In response to this widespread corruption, the Department of Homeland Security convened an independent Integrity Advisory Panel in 2015. But the Panel’s 2016 report fell on deaf ears, as almost none of its 39 recommendations were implemented. Instead, in line with his hardline stance on immigration, President Trump signed a 2017 executive order mandating hiring an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents and “appropriate action to ensure that such agents enter on duty . . . as soon as practicable.”

Increasing the number of agents by 25% without devoting significant resources to combat the pervasive corruption in CBP is a terrible idea, and is likely to exacerbate current corruption problems, for three reasons: Continue reading