We are reminded once again … power corrupts



All hell is breaking loose at the New York City Police Department. Top cops, and I do mean top cops, have been accused of taking bribes. Many of these top uniformed officers have been arrested and await trial. The Big Apple’s police department not alone. Police power is often so overwhelming that if we ignore the possible implications of concentrating power in these institutions, we do so at tremendous peril to us all.

It takes heroes to fight uphill battles in their own hometowns. All of this reminds us of the really scary film Cop Land in which the police are running everything and become a law unto themselves. I taught a course for a long time on the “Acquisition and Maintenance of Political Power.” We are reminded once again, “Power corrupts.”

The police have a huge degree of power that can be extremely helpful to many people. In New York City, major police officers are being arrested for taking gifts from alleged “fixers” who the fighting U.S. Attorney, Preet Bharara, says bribed the officers to create their own private police force. We are talking about trips to Las Vegas with a prostitute aboard the airplane, jewelry for wives and much, much more. We are reading that some of the indicted cops got so greedy that they began to muscle those who were bribing them for more and more criminal pay offs. This isn’t the first time this has happened in New York. However, this time we are seeing the folks near the very top of the power pyramid implicated. It is the natural progression of the same “pay to play” that we see in our contemporary politics.

While there are many good and dedicated police officers, there is also, all too often, a “thin blue line” in which officers who rat out their colleagues are seen as the worst kind of Judas. This is more than legend. It was all chronicled in the film Serpico, where the principal character ends up with a bullet in his head because he bucks the corrupt police system.

Many police departments, including New York City’s, have a “not even a cup of coffee” rule. There’s a good reason for that. If the coffee is free, a cop may find himself stopping at a place that offers it to him as opposed to another that does not. Both need the protection of an officer sitting there in the middle of the night. That coffee is in reality a bribe. It’s a slippery slope as the stakes get higher. We have seen recent cases in which cops frequent prostitutes and in return, offer them protection from arrest.

Of course, there are Internal Affairs Divisions in most major police departments and they are among the most hated enemies of cops on the take. If those Internal Affairs cops are compromised, you have a really difficult situation. Once again, we find that those bringing these charges are the federal prosecutors and not the state and local variety. Make no mistake about it, these police people have a great deal of power. We see it in the big cities and we see it in the small towns. Say a cop stops a speeder and gives her a second chance. The same cop sees another speeder and shows no mercy. It happens all the time.

What’s more, while the courts on the one hand have forbidden racial profiling, the Supreme Court just opened the door to even more police power by saying that virtually anyone could be stopped and questioned on the dubious theory that they might have an outstanding warrant against them.

District Attorneys who rely on police for cooperation in making their cases are often loath to bring cases against cops since the DA’s depend on the cops to help them make their cases. Until people start to blow the whistle on crooked cops this sad state of affairs will not change.