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