Reflections on police integrity in a global context

My friend and colleague Zoe Mentel and I wrote this for a conference earlier this year. Our joint thoughts and ethical basis are reflected in it, and sure enough, all my experience from so many different places of this world. But most importantly, this article is the result of Zoe’s brilliant work putting our combined thoughts “on paper”.

Re-reading this, almost a year later, within the context of a current discussion about Police reform, here in New York, and the United States, it becomes clear how complex reform is, and how much time is needed for it: The same Police organization (and the same political oversight body) that I am referring to in this article is subject to renewed and deep, loudly voiced distrust by citizens.

Does it mean that this Police regressed? Does it mean that the citizens are wrong? Does it mean that my arguments are wrong, or my assessment of a positive reform which started here in the 90’s?

All statistical and empirical data (and there is a lot), and all work by researchers and scholars clearly make the case that the current policing model over here needs to be fundamentally adjusted. And moreover, a fundamentally democratic and peaceful process of citizens demonstrating is calling for it. So, it both means to acknowledge how much time is needed for sustainable reform, and that reform never is a job that will be, at some point, finished. Rather, it is a continuous process of adjusting Police organizations to contemporary needs of the society they serve, to constantly reflect on mismatches between expectations of the public, and actions by the Police, and to address denial as a deep seated psychological mechanism preventing people from seeing and acknowledging the reality. At the same time one needs to strongly advocate the values on which policing is founded, and ensuring compliance with those values.

Which values? Well, my values are obvious, from the below. I argue that, in my experience of successful policing even in the harshest and most dangerous societies, they are almost universal, and they actually work. More about the latter in many examples I am planning to write about, here. I will also write about denial.

So, here we go:

Reflections on police integrity in a global context

On an affective level, the word “police” evokes widely disparate responses from individual citizens. On the one hand, those of us who enjoy the protection of a well-disciplined, professionalized service organization, which respects the principles of democratic policing and human rights, live in a reality where policemen and women are understood as public servants, accountable to the public.

Under this schema, individuals are able to associate the image of the uniformed police officer with a provider of security and order, a crime-fighter who puts the safety and security of others front and center.

Conversely, those who are subject to discriminatory, arbitrary and corrupt police practices likely associate the police with the abuse of authority and poor governance, either of an ineffectual or authoritarian flavor.

Transparency International’s “Global Corruption Barometer 2013” found that, in the 36 countries where “the police are seen as the most corrupt institution [,] … an average of 53 per cent of people report having paid a bribe to the police.”[1]

As the police officer is often the most visible, daily representative of state authority within a community, erosion of trust in the police is inextricably linked to an erosion of trust in the government and the rule of law overall. These two polar images of the law enforcement profession establish serious challenges for any who attempt to modernize a police organization through change management.

This is even truer in a peacekeeping environment. The public’s understanding of police varies from country to country, from city to city. Even within cities, the legitimacy of local police may fluctuate drastically from neighborhood to neighborhood, especially when questions of police bias against minority communities come into play. In its ideal form, however, policing is society’s safeguard for protecting the most vulnerable, rather than the most powerful, among us. The best police officers are the ones who demonstrate the spirit of service, instead the desire to exercise power. A government that holds its police accountable to its citizens, adhering to transparency of law enforcement action, has a much stronger chance to be considered a legitimate stakeholder of citizen’s interests.

Police transparency and the development of modern policing

When Sir Robert Peel first developed modern policing in early 19th century London, he instituted a number of principles and mechanisms that we still operate under today. One of these seems so simple, that we often forget how radical it was at the time. Every police officer in the new Metropolitan Police Force in 1829 was given an identification number. Upon induction into the force, each officer under Sir Peel received this number, so that he (and at the time, of course, all police were “he’s”) could be held accountable for his actions.

Today, the ability to identify an individual law enforcement official remains a common practice. Police officers from countries all over the world have their unique identification numbers or nametags displayed physically on their uniforms, embroidered on epaulettes or collars and imprinted on official badges and ID cards. Most recently, a modern variation of this practice can be seen in parts of Granada, Spain, where some police are wearing their Twitter handle on patches on their right shoulders.[2]

Community-oriented policing relies on accountability, transparency and open communication and cooperation with the public. And of course, in the post-conflict and crisis-affected states in which the United Nations Police work, building these key elements of policing require much more than badge numbers and twitter handles. Nevertheless, the general principles remain the same.

Police integrity, police accountability, police legitimacy and police effectiveness are built both on the macro-level by large, systemic reforms and on the micro-level by the individual actions, behaviors and attitudes of the women and men who walk the beat, investigate crimes and respond to calls for service.

No discussion of modern policing would be complete without referencing the intrinsic connection between policing and the rule of law. The rule of law is a principle that situates the relationship between citizens and authorities within a legal framework, rather than upon the arbitrary execution of power. It ensures that any government action is based on law and legality. As the late British judge Tom Bingham described it, “All persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws publicly made, taking effect (generally) in the future and publicly administered in the courts.”[3]

For the reasons stated above, policing refers to a function of governance responsible for the prevention, detection and investigation of crime; protection of persons and property; and the maintenance of public order and safety. Police and law enforcement officials (including police, gendarmerie, customs, immigration and border services, as well as related oversight bodies such as interior and justice ministries) have the obligation to respect and protect human rights, including the right to life, liberty and security of the person, as guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reaffirmed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other relevant instruments.

Pursuant to the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, police and other law enforcement officials are required, at all times, to fulfil the duty imposed upon them by law, by serving the community and by protecting all persons against illegal acts, consistent with the high degree of responsibility required by their profession.[4] For the United Nations, the function of domestic policing must be entrusted to civil servants who are members of police or other law enforcement agencies of a national, regional or local government, within a legal framework that is based on the rule of law.[5]

Police integrity and organizational culture

Policing, as we commonly understand it, only works if the community accepts as legitimate those who are entrusted to enforce the law. But in places recovering from conflict, those who committed atrocities – including, unfortunately, the acts of sexual and gender-based violence that frequently characterize contemporary intrastate warfare – were often those who also wore a uniform. How do we build police legitimacy, therefore, in a state where the police may be fundamentally mistrusted?

Clearly, we need to help host-states undertake long-term, system-wide reforms, including proper training, the vetting of officers, accountability measures to root out corruption and abuse, internal affairs units, citizen oversight mechanisms, merit-based promotion systems, professional standards, and strong commitment from top brass for all of the above.

Experience demonstrates that without a deeply rooted commitment by the state and the society it governs, fundamental and sustainable transformation of policing into the above is nearly impossible. At the same time, the entire internal police culture must change. Ethical police organizations are ones that police themselves, ones in which peers and colleagues hold each other accountable in terms of integrity and ethics. These organizations are fundamentally open to scrutiny and dialogue with civil society.

Criminologists have come to understand how informal social control can be more powerful than formal, institutional controls in curbing criminality within a community. The same argument can be extended to building integrity within police organizations. In addition to formal mechanisms listed above, we must also change the norms of accepted behavior – and leverage the power of peer influence within police cultures to root out bad police practices.

Fostering ethics and integrity from within a police organization is, notoriously, no easy task. It often requires making tough calls and unpopular decisions. In 1994, for example, a new police chief took over one of the most famous police organizations in the world, the NYPD. Its image at the time was badly damaged. Corruption was, in certain stationhouses, endemic. The worst, some argued, was the 30th precinct in Harlem, which was scandal-ridden and accused of a wide litany of abuses, from officers stealing drug money to physically assaulting suspects. In the middle of the night, the NYPD’s chief, backed by the District Attorney, gathered local news media and raided the so-called “Dirty 30.” In front of news cameras, he began publically confiscating the badges of corrupt officers and throwing them into the garbage can. “I am retiring their badges,” he said to the press, “so that no cop will have to wear a disgraced number again.”[6] In the end, almost three dozen officers were arrested and prosecuted.

Many police observers have understood this highly symbolic action as a turning point for the NYPD. Organizational culture began to change once it became clear that neither police leadership nor the public would continue to tolerate corruption and criminal behavior. But the job that we face in an expeditionary police setting is, unfortunately, often much more complex and fraught with difficulties. Former United Nations Police Adviser, Mr. Mark Kroeker, has on occasion told a story about rebuilding the police in Liberia, immediately after that country emerged from its brutal civil war. He wanted to engage a Liberian National Police officer in a conversation about how to prevent corruption in the LNP.   Instead of talking about reform measures and capacity building, however, this officer turned to then-Commissioner Kroeker and said, with simple candor, “I cannot feed my family on integrity alone.”

Doubtless many police who have served with international police missions would be able to recount similar anecdotes from all over the world, from countries torn by or emerging from conflict.

The global effects of both large- and small-scale police corruption

This is how corruption persists. It’s not a simple question of good vs. evil. Questions of ethics rarely are. However, this binary “logic,” often associated with quick and easy value judgments of public services in less developed countries, can lead us to simple assessments: bad police institutions become no more than a collection of backwards, bad people.

Moreover, reforming the police must be done in tandem with reform in overall governance, as corruption in the former is largely symptomatic of corruption in the latter. Corruption persists not only because of greed and criminal intent on the part of individual police officers. It persists also because “shortcomings of state capacity” – including, systemic failures in the rule of law, as well as the failure to meet the material needs of both the police and the citizens that they are supposed to protect.[7]

Serious and fundamental deficiencies in the most basic policing infrastructure leave “even well-intentioned and dedicated officers” without the tools to “do their job properly.”[8]

How do we build the political will required to adequately resource a professional police service? Often this boils down to influencing governments to find a way to pay the wages of their police officers, sufficiently and regularly. It also means recruiting the right people and, then, training and equipping them properly. However, anyone who has spent even a short period of time with police in a less developed country will attest to the lack of the most basic infrastructure, which modern police services take for granted. Besides body armor and safety equipment, serviceable police stations, dedicated police vehicles and humane detention facilities, host-states colleagues often lack typewriters, paper and pens – not to mention the literacy that must accompany their use.

But beyond providing resources for such seemingly Sisyphean needs, fighting police corruption also means instilling, in the hearts of every line officer, the fact that each citizen interaction represents a choice – the choice to uphold the principles of democratic policing or the choice to undercut them. While police infrastructure and capacity may be built brick by physical brick, police integrity is built during each and every traffic stop. This is critically important because police integrity lies at the heart of whether we, the international community, succeed or fail.

Perito and Bayley argue that “Eliminating police corruption is required for any country that has establishing the rule of law as a national objective. Ignoring this imperative means that international efforts at nation building proceed at their own peril.”[9] Taking this line of thought even one step further, one could argue that police corruption threatens not only nation building within a government’s borders, but also regional stability as a whole.

Large-scale police failures support global instability through known linkages between traffickers of illicit goods, armed groups, and corrupt political actors. This is made clear by the ability of transnational organized criminals to create serious threats to the international community’s efforts, including peacekeeping, to assist fragile and recovering states. Specifically, illicit networks have demonstrated a resilient ability to undermine to government legitimacy and authority, as we have seen firsthand in a number of contexts. For decades, well-resourced and powerful drug trafficking syndicates have exploited weak governance, porous borders, and limited law enforcement capacity in Central America. More recently, they have also contributed significantly to the entrenched dysfunction troubling a number of host-states, ranging from Guinea-Bissau to Afghanistan, where the weakness of state institutions both creates and is created by the proliferation of drug trafficking.

However, as much as large-scale police corruption, such as complicity with international criminal organizations, supports global instability, it would be dangerous to overlook how “small-scale” or “routine” police corruption can, both individually and in the aggregate, influence world-historical events. In a world that is increasingly interconnected, the actions of a small number of patrol-level police officers can move from local to global in the blink of an eye.[10]

While the geopolitical causes of the Arab Spring are deeply contested and its long-term effects still unclear, one founding narrative has remained constant. The symbolic event most often cited as the immediate spark for this unprecedented regional upheaval has coalesced upon the actions of a single fruit vendor. Both traditional and social media have mythologized a young Tunisian named Mohammed Bouazizi. In 2011, his spontaneous self-immolation on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, a town of 40,000 residents some 280 kilometers from the seaside capital of Tunis, provided the impetus that, in part, mobilized widespread, cascading protests. His suicide unleashed long-simmering frustration at decades of ineffective and corrupt governance. The alleged trigger for Bouazizi’s desperate act has been reported as harassment from local police and municipal officials, who regularly confiscated his wares and the scale he used to weigh his fruits and vegetables. Described as “petty bureaucratic tyranny,” this type of routine police intimidation feeds on the humiliation of individuals without access to well-paying jobs and education, and it preys on communities without recourse to the collective efficacy needed to stop it.[11] The shakedowns, “taxes” and bribes characteristic of police abuse in bazaars and souks and street markets, at traffic checkpoints and in backroom deals, has a significant negative effect not only on the profession but the stability of whole governments.

Our job as UN Police is to reinforce this idea, over and over, both on the ethical and practical levels.   The seemingly isolated response by an individual police officer has the ability to send ripples of mistrust through a society.

Police integrity and the way forward: the interplay of the individual and the systemic

The red thread in discussions on police integrity is the interaction between the individual police officer and the state authority that his or her uniform represents. Much of this particular reflection has focused on corruption – but integrity is also built on the ability of the police to avoid other forms of abuse, including excessive use of force, racial and ethnic bias and, even, police indifference to reported crimes, especially those related to sexual and domestic violence.

However, all of these threats to establishing integrity within policing institutions must be met by efforts aimed both at the individual police officer and serious system-wide change.   To hold police, from commissioner to constable, accountable for his or her actions requires both formal sanctions for police abuse by supervisors and informal stigmatization of bad behavior by peers.

Practically speaking, no foreign actor – be it benign or otherwise – should attempt do “police reform” by imposing its own values on a police force in another country. Instead, the international community can best help weak or post-conflict states by “modelling the way,” by mentoring and advising host-state police institutions into resetting their own internal norms for behavior.

However, in the face of the multitude of problems facing police organizations in weak states, picking a starting point for building police integrity, can be dizzying, if not defeating. Perhaps we in the police profession should take our cue from past successes in changing behaviors around crime in general; after all, the actions that undermine police integrity are often crimes themselves – just ones that are committed by those who are supposed to be upholding the law instead of undermining it.

In the 1990s, police found some degree of success against surging crime rates in large, urban areas by focusing on quality of life crimes. Through a broken windows or problem-oriented policing approach, police attention (not to be confused with enforcement-only “crackdowns”) began to target “small” problems, hitherto ignored, such as graffiti, vandalism and subway turnstile jumping. This refocused attention on demands from the public signaled that the police cared about the problems that communities themselves found most troubling, even if those daily annoyances had seemingly little to do with the homicides, rapes and shootings that usually consumed the attention of most municipal police forces. Nevertheless, this reorientation of police efforts, combined with more enhanced analytical capability and evidence-based practices, contributed to dramatic declines in crime rates across the board, from property to violent crimes.

One limitation to a community policing approach is that research into its effectiveness has primarily been focused on the Western policing context. Another is that its definition is notoriously slippery. However, community policing’s success in the 1990s demonstrates that the way forward can begin with small, narrowly focused goals, which eventually bubble up to large-scale changes. Again, perhaps the best example to invoke is the simple traffic stop. Focusing on combatting police corruption by beginning with this routine task could be one small, but ubiquitous way to kick start the long-term process of building police integrity.

If police officers learn the correct way to conduct traffic stops – focusing on public safety instead of the exertion of authority (or extortion of a bribe) – this would communicate to the public a major shift in what to expect from their police: safety over subjugation, help instead of harassment. The other added advantage is that this first step seems small enough in scale to be practically implemented. All too often, the problems of working in international police reform, as well as the “solutions” proposed to remedy them, seem paralyzing in their complexity. Perhaps by focusing on realistically achievable goals, we can both focus on the actions of the individual police officer and secure the needed commitment from command staff.   In other words, the traffic stop allows for building police integrity from the bottom up by instituting policy changes from the top down. Nevertheless, the work ahead of us in this area will not be solved through this step alone. It would be naïve to think so. Yet, progress is no pipe dream, and policing is worthy of our concerted and collective effort.

Living free from the fear of crime and violence should be the entitlement of all, rather than the privilege of the few. Achieving this reality must, first and foremost, begin with building a legitimate police force, one that communities feel confident in turning to, as a defender of equal protection under the law.

[1] Transparency International (2013). “Global Corruption Barometer 2013,” p. 17. Retrieved from [2] Gordon Macmillan (2013, 24 June). “Pretty amazing approach to Twitter in Granada. All police officers have their Twitter handle on their uniform” [Twitter post]. Retrieved from [3] Tom Bingham, The Rule of Law (London: Penguin, 2010). [4] UN General Assembly, 34th session, “Resolution 34/169 (1979) [Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials], Article 1. [5] According to the “Report of the Secretary-General on the Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies” (S/2004/616), “the rule of law refers to a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires, as well, measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency.” [6] Levitt, L. NYPD Confidential, New York: Macmillan, 2009, p. 84. [7] Goldsmith, A. “Policing Weak States: Citizen Safety and State Responsibility.” Policing and Society, (2003) 13.1, p 10. [8] Ibid. [9] Bayley, D. and Robert Perito. “Police Corruption: What Past Scandals Teach about Current Challenges,” Washington D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace (2011), p. 2. [10] Social media, furthermore, has rapidly increased the visibility and scrutiny of questionable actions by individual police officers. For example, the contested, fatal shooting of an unarmed, 22-year old named Oscar Grant III by a transit police officer in Oakland, California, was caught on film by multiple mobile phone video cameras. YouTube footage of the shooting has received millions of views and fueled both protests and rioting. [11] Ryan, Y. (2011, 20 January). The tragic life of a street vendor. Al Jazeera English. Retrieved from

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