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Corruption: The Thief of Organizational Excellence

Author: Edward J. Tully
June 2008


Men and women are not angels. If they were, there be no need to address the issue of corruption in our society or in the law enforcement profession. Being human means that all of us have some tendency to behave occasionally in ways that violate the norms of the culture in which we live. Perhaps the allegory of Adam and Eve in the Bible eating the forbidden fruit best explains our sometimes dark nature. Depending on the explanation you choose, the fact remains that all of us are susceptible to errors of judgment some of the time, and a few people make these errors all of the time. These lapses of judgment on our part can have grave consequences individually. If we are employed by a law enforcement organization or other organizations dependent on public trust, these improper behaviors may well significantly damage the organization, end whatever reputation the organization has for excellence, and, in the process, virtually destroy those involved.

A few organizations recently damaged by employee misconduct include the Roman Catholic Church, the United States Congress, Enron, the United Nations, the Red Cross, the FBI, and several other law enforcement organizations. While it is not possible to accurately assess the damage done to these organizations by employee misconduct, it is reasonable to conclude that it has been significant. The way in which the organization handled employee misconduct after the fact played a significant role in damage control. As we have seen in the past, if the organization does not handle the matter of misconduct properly or allows it to continue unabated, the public will withdraw the trust they have in the organization and it may well eventually fail.

Over the past fifty years, the level of corruption within law enforcement agencies has been relatively predictable. For example, corruption increased during Prohibition. Our present drug culture has spawned a spike in the incidences of corruption. Finally, during times of economic recession we have experienced an increase in both corruption and improper behavior. Now this Nation and the world are having problems with both the illicit drug trade and a depressed economy. Therefore, it should not be a surprise to see an increase in allegations of corruption, brutality, and grossly improper behavior on the part of our employees.

Virtually every profession in our society is having similar problems. An overwhelming percentage of law enforcement officers are not corrupt and perform their duties in an honorable fashion. If you consider incompetence, fraud, and greed as characteristics of corruption then the law enforcement profession has had less corruption than the medical profession, politicians, teachers, clergymen, and the financial community. What is more significant is that if you factor in the opportunities for corrupt behavior by a law enforcement officer you must conclude they are far greater than most other professions and the public face on a daily basis. Having said that does not minimize the seriousness of the act when a law enforcement officer deliberately violates the law or behaves in a manner that is not consistent with the values of the organization. I can think of no other profession that polices its own conduct more extensively than law enforcement in which the public has placed more trust. We have been given the authority to take away liberty, possessions, and, even under certain circumstances, the life of an individual. Having been given that amount of authority by the public it is absolutely essential that any violation of this trust be treated promptly and fairly with commensurate discipline, and if deemed necessary, policy and personnel changes.

This article will focus on what I consider the two most important positions in law enforcement when it comes to protecting the law enforcement organization from corruption and loss of public trust. These positions are the Chief Executive Officer and the Sergeant, or first-line supervisor. I hope that you do not construe this article's tone as "holier than thou" for it is fully realized that none of us or our organizations are perfect. Who among us has not said of someone else caught violating the rules, "There, but for the grace of God, go I?" In brief, the balance of this article contains a few observations and suggestions for helping the organization, the officers on the street, and yourself in protecting the organization and its employees from the curse of corruption.

The Chief Executive Officer

The job of a Chief Executive Officer in a law enforcement agency is extremely difficult, demanding, and time-consuming. By any measure, it is one of the most challenging jobs in our society and, I might add, one of the least appreciated. In addition to handling the administrative matters of the department, the Chief must also interact and develop positive relationships with various governing bodies, the media, groups representing the rank-and-file officers, and the public. This has to be accomplished at the same time the Chief is exercising a leadership style to gain and maintain the respect of the officers.

All of these responsibilities take far more than eight hours-a-day or five days-a-week. The larger the department is the more time that is going to be required to perform the essential duties. In most cases, time constraints on the Chief require that some aspects of the job be delegated to others. Thus, the prudent Chief selects individuals whose strengths compliment areas where he or she feels a need for able and loyal assistance. For the purpose of this article, I would suggest the two most important jobs to delegate are to have a deputy Chief to handle administrative matters and a Commander of Internal Affairs.

The first area of delegation frees the Chief of a significant amount of time dealing with the necessary paperwork generated by every department. Delegating administrative matters should allow the Chief to spend more time on developing better relations with politicians, other departments, and the public. The second area of delegation, Internal Affairs, can provide the department with a firewall in regards to allegations of misconduct, corruption, and unethical behavior. These allegations are inevitable and it is necessary for the public to have confidence that the department is capable of policing and disciplining itself. Experienced officers whose competence, loyalty, and judgment are of the highest order must fill these two positions.

While the Chief has delegated the daily activities of Internal Affairs, it does not mean that the role of the Chief Executive in a law enforcement agency is lessened in terms of corruption, ethical behavior, and public trust. This is a critical role and the Chief must understand that his/her every action, every word, and every decision will be dissected and analyzed by each department member in terms of the Chief's character and what this example might mean to their own career and on-the-job behaviors. If the troops view the Chief Executive as being remote, unsympathetic to personnel, tolerant of unprofessional behavior, and uninterested in providing individual growth opportunities through training, then improper behavior problems could become the norm. If just a few other departmental supervisors adopt similar attitudes then the department is, indeed, on the slippery slope into problem areas, which will have disastrous consequences for all concerned.

If implemented there are multitudes of suggestions that can help to rectify the problem of corruption in law enforcement agencies. I set forth a few below with the understanding that there is no one single suggestion that is more important than another suggestion, nor is there any one that will correct a deteriorating workplace situation.

First, every department should have a statement of values. This should be a statement of what the department considers its most important beliefs and its most important duties. For example the first value could be, "This department will completely respect the Constitution of the United States and the rulings of any court which has dominion over our jurisdiction." Second, each department should have a written code of conduct consistent with the values of the organization proscribing the acceptable, and unacceptable, behaviors of all employees. For example, one such statement could be, "Every citizen will always be treated with respect regardless of race, gender, age, or physical condition, unless the safety of the officer becomes an issue." Another could be, "Under no circumstance shall an officer of this department accept a gift, or any object, or substance of value while in the performance of their duties unless this matter is immediately reported to a supervisor for independent judgment and evaluation."

Both of these documents should state that violations of either will result in appropriate administrative action that could include termination of employment and/or prosecution. Yes, both the statement of values and the code of conduct should be very hard-nosed. The reason for this philosophy is not to inflict pain, or undue restraint on officers, rather it is to protect them from themselves and to protect the department. I do not suggest that taking a cup of coffee is a terminal offense or needs draconian punishment--not at all, there are times when such behavior is appropriate. However, the matters that exceed in value that "cup of coffee" should be discussed with an immediate supervisor to evaluate the problem in terms of the underlying intent and how to handle such matters in the future. Common sense should not be absent in these discussions because the objective of the value statement and the code of conduct is to teach all employees what is right and wrong behavior. This provides the officer with a basis so that in similar situations they can conduct themselves in an ethical, prudent, and lawful manner. The departments that furnish each employee with a value statement and a corresponding code of conduct, along with good counsel, is buying the best insurance against improper behavior.

The Chief Executive Officer should have, in my opinion, regular contact with the rank-and-file officers. I would suggest consideration be given by the Chief to visiting various precincts on a regular basis to chat with the officers and to answer any questions they may have. It is not a bad idea to ride along occasionally with officers on patrol, or perhaps to respond to a call for backup. It is a good idea for the Chief to respond to an ongoing crisis, not necessarily to direct the operation, but to give his support to commanders on the scene. These suggestions, if considered, will remind the officers of your concern for their welfare, your support of their actions, and the fact that you are one of them.

If the value statement of the department and the corresponding code of conduct forbids both major and minor ethical behaviors, then the Chief Executive Officer must realize his ethical conduct has to be even higher. That means no free tickets to anything, no playing golf on company time, and no complimentary meals at the country club. You must be mindful that your phone will ring at all hours, you are on call seven days-a-week, and your wife/husband will have to be incredibly understanding of the role you play within the organization and the community. These constraints, or aspects of the Chief's position, is what gives you the moral authority, the character, and the reputation to demand excellence from everyone employed by the department to work up to your standards.

Finally, one of functions the Chief may have delegated is that of Internal Affairs--one of the most hated units in any law enforcement organization. As we used to say of what was the Inspection Division in the FBI, "They were the people who came in after the battle and bayoneted the wounded." In reality, this division was also responsible for compliance with a multitude of administrative rules and regulations designed to standardize FBI procedures throughout the country. While not loved, the people who performed these duties were respected as individuals as their duties were essential to the health of the institution. I doubt there is any way a Chief Executive can make Internal Affairs loved, but this function is absolutely necessary and it should be respected. I think this can be accomplished if the ranking officer in charge of Internal Affairs, and the men and women under his direction, have significant experience on the street and reputations as fair-minded, honest, and competent employees. These employees must understand that their primary function is to protect the department's integrity while at the same time protecting employees from false allegations. These functions can only be accomplished if the investigations of employee misconduct are thorough, unbiased, and completed as expeditiously as possible. Recommendations for further specific actions, or no action, should be given to the Chief Executive Officer for review and final decision. I would further suggest that Internal Affairs should give an edited synopsis of the various complaints and final actions to all employees on a semi-annual basis. This will ensure that employees are familiar with department rules and the disciplinary process.

Corruption will exist in any organization that does not have a specific code of conduct, tolerates lax supervision, and condones actions that suggest officers' behaviors are above the law. It should also be said that even departments having all of the above bases covered will still have an occasional case of corruption. This situation can only be prevented or corrected if the Chief Executive and the command staff, working together, set forth and enforce the values of the organization, the rules of conduct for every employee, and the expectation of excellence in the performance of duty. No, this is not a way to gain popularity--at least in the short run--but it is the only way to run a law enforcement agency. The temptations on the street are too great for some officers to resist. These officers need help in resisting the temptations on the job. It is the responsibility of the department to ensure the officers get the help they need before they actually need it. This assistance may include psychological services, substance abuse programs, financial advisors, and regular training programs that emphasize self-discipline, defensive tactics, and the code of conduct.

Should a situation develop that calls in to question the corruption or misbehavior of an officer or group of officers, the Chief Executive must handle the media. This is not a task that should be delegated to the individual who normally handles press inquiries. The public has a right to know directly from the Chief Executive what the department has done to resolve the allegations and what further steps are being taken in regard to the investigation underway. The Chief should also make the outcome regarding the allegation public. It is my observation that when the Chief personally handles allegations of corruption, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the officers involved, the public is reassured that their trust in the department has not been misplaced.

The Sergeant

I would argue that the most important position, in terms of the excellence of a law enforcement organization, is the Sergeant, or first-line supervisor. To the officer on the street the Sergeant is a coach, advisor, disciplinarian, historian, motivator, and defender. To the Chief Executive the Sergeant is the individual who implements policy, monitors the rules of conduct, and directs the department's strategies. Thus, the Sergeant occupies a position that requires loyalty to the officers in every respect. However, as a member of the department's management team he/she also must be loyal to management. Far too many Sergeants do not understand this delicate balance and, often, their loyalty is to the officers first and management second. Quite often, this misplaced loyalty is from a lack of management training upon promotion to Sergeant. In far too many cases, upper management has never understood or appreciated the value of training. Why they believe that an experienced officer can be promoted to first-line supervisor without having a good dose of management training prior to being placed in such a position eludes me. When, I wonder, will the new Sergeant learn the true nature of the position and be intellectually equipped to handle the delicate balance the position requires. Whatever the case, the Sergeant whose loyalty to the officers transcends loyalty to management is a serious problem that will need to be addressed and rectified.

In terms of corruption, I doubt any young recruit comes on to the job with the intent to be corrupt. No, most are quite idealistic, perhaps too much so. Most erroneously think they are working for a higher purpose, and therefore, have the power to impose their will and control over those who have broken the law. In a few short years, most will lose much of their idealism and a few become more cynical. These few never abandon their misconception that they have been anointed to bring justice to anyone who dares break the law or who questions their authority. These officers need the guidance of the wise Sergeant. If they fail to get wise counsel, a few officers under the influence of even more cynical peers, will drift into practices that will eventually become corrupt.

There is no question that virtually all Sergeants know which officers in their span of control have good character, sound judgment, and an understanding of good policing. The Sergeant also knows which officers are susceptible to improper peer influence as well as the officers who are offering this questionable advice. At this point, the good Sergeant can intercede with both and most likely turn the situation around in fairly short order with good counsel, proper motivation, and, if necessary, appropriate disciplinary measures, such as a kick in the ass. In this case, the good Sergeant shows loyalty to both the officers and the department.

The lesser Sergeant ignores the warning signs obvious in both the young officer and the influential peers because he/she does not want to rock the boat, appear not to be loyal to those under his/her direct command, or be viewed as a wimp. This type of Sergeant fails in loyalty to the department, and just as importantly, to the officers. The lesser type of Sergeant by inaction can encourage behavior that may well be corrupt, brutal, unethical, and/or all three. If this is the case, the only solution lies in rotation of personnel, training, or early retirement of those involved. Otherwise, the situation will only become worse and very damaging to the department. It can be stated, without reservation, that there is a time for training and a time for discipline. The wise supervisor understands this concept and applies it accordingly.


Yes, corruption can exist in many different forms in law enforcement agencies ranging from the two-man police department to the FBI. It is a natural extension of the human condition. That we do not have more corruption in law enforcement speaks well of the thousands of officers who daily perform a most difficult job with great honor and integrity. In virtually all law enforcement corruption cases one of the root causes is lax or poor supervision. It is very difficult to engage in corrupt practices in an agency that has stated its core values and a corresponding code of conduct--both of which are known, understood, enforced by managers. A law enforcement officer has an incredibly difficult job, particularly in our society today. Just as we give them protective vests, weapons, and defensive tactics to protect them from harm, we should also give them the rules for their conduct in all situations and a supervisor who will guide them through the difficult situations they all face each day.

In my judgment, the two most important positions in a law enforcement agency in terms of handling the matters of corruption are the Chief Executive Officer and the Sergeant. The individuals in these positions have to be of exemplary character, knowledgeable of the difficulties encountered by the officers on the street, and willing to hold all under their command, and themselves, accountable for their actions. A strict code of conduct with the understanding by all that "acts have their consequences" is the best insurance for both the department and the officers on the street to prevent corruption in whatever form it takes.

Finally, in our quest for excellence in law enforcement we should understand that law enforcement will always have a problem with corruption. These cases may take the form of brutality, bribery, or some other willful and flagrant abuse of power. I doubt that it will ever reach the level of what we have seen in some third-world countries where the level of trust in law enforcement agencies is near zero. Nonetheless, we need to make every possible effort to reduce corruption to a minimum. This can be accomplished if the Chief Executive, the Sergeants, Internal Affairs, and the Training department all direct their efforts to help officers on the street resist the temptations that they endure on a regular basis. Secondly, should an allegation of corruption surface within a department, then it must be handled expeditiously and the Chief should keep the public informed of steps being taken to resolve the issue. While the problem may be temporarily embarrassing it need not become a reason for the public withdraw the trust they have in the department, nor should it become a barrier to achieving excellence as an organization.


As this article was being prepared an incident occurred in Philadelphia that attracted national attention. A group of officers was videotaped beating and kicking three men after a vehicular chase. The incident occurred on May 7, 2008, and was broadcast nationwide the following day. Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey was interviewed the following morning and quoted as saying that the incident was troubling and that the matter would be reviewed. He also noted that his officers might have been influenced by the fact that another Philadelphia police officer had been killed in the line of duty several days before.

On May 19, 2008, Commissioner Ramsey announced that after a thorough review, four officers would be terminated and four others would be disciplined for their behavior during the incident. This is a classic example of how a Chief Executive should act after an incident of this type occurs. The department handled the matter promptly, fairly, and the public was kept informed throughout the process. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Chuck Ramsey is considered one of the finest law enforcement executives in the United States.


Edward J. Tully served as a Special Agent with the FBI from 1962 to 1993. He served as the Chief of the Education/Communication Arts Unit at the FBI Academy from 1976 to 1992 when he was given another assignment. He was the Administrator of the FBI's National Executive Institute from 1976 until his retirement in 1993. After retirement, he was the Executive Director of the National Executive Institute Associates and the Major Cities Chiefs until he retired from those positions in 2002. He can be contacted at