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Over the past few weeks we have been seeing in the local media police officers demonstrating questionable behavior. If they are not running down an unarmed suspect with a patrol car and then beating him up, they are stealing cocaine from drug dealers and then getting caught reselling it. But just how corrupt are police officers in this day and age? Are these rare occurrences, or is this behavior the norm?
One does not have to go that far into the past to notice vast amounts of police corruption. Travel back to New York City during the 1960s and meet a police officer by the name of Frank Serpico. Frank Serpico was a member of the New York Police Department. He soon became a plainclothes police officer. Because of this position, his work had him involved with illegal drugs, illegal gambling, and prostitution (Maas, 26). The massive amounts of money involved with these "industries" was just too tempting for many of his fellow officers. Serpico complained to his superiors, but they had no desire to stop it. Fed up, Serpico went to the press and told his story. The New York Times ran a front-page story in 1970 about corruption in the New York Police Department (Maas, 328). Serpico became the first officer in the history of the New York Police Department to not only report about police corruption, but to also testify in court. (Maas, 13). Because of his actions, a massive shake-up occurred in the New York City Police Department. With the discovery of payoffs to policemen (some up to twenty-five thousand dollars individually), the police commissioner as well as many others at the top of the police department resigned. In addition, many inspectors, captains, and lieutenants lost rank or got transferred (Maas, 14).
And what about more recently? Mass corruption in the New York Police Department has drastically decreased. Proof of this is that several years ago the ABC television show PrimeTime had people turn in twenty wallets and purses to twenty different police officers claiming they found them. Every single wallet and purse was returned to their rightful owners with all the money intact (abcnews.go.com). Sure, there will still be instances where the officers of the New York Police Department cover-up their bad actions. But overall, the cult of corruption has disappeared.
Now let us travel to the West Coast to Los Angeles, California. On March 18, 1997, undercover narcotics offer Frank Lyga fatally shot fellow police officer Kevin Gaines during an act of road rage (Sullivan, 3). What started as a police on police shooting turned into the biggest corruption case in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department. The investigation of this shooting led to the revelation that Officer Gaines was a member of the Bloods gang (Sullivan, 34). Later in the year on November 6, 1997, Officer David Mack executed a major bank robbery (Sullivan, 175). Also, in March of 1998, Officer Ray Perez stole more than six pounds of cocaine from the Los Angeles Police Department's Property Division (Sullivan, 202). Officer Perez later stole an additional pound of cocaine. And this cocaine that was stolen was originally booked into evidence by Frank Lyga, the undercover officer that killed Officer Kevin Gaines (Sullivan, 203).
Both Mack and Perez not only worked in the Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, they both worked in the CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit (Sullivan, 205). Created as an anti-gang unit, many police officers in CRASH became rather corrupt. They would beat-up suspects, plant weapons on suspect, and steal the drugs from dealers. They would even have sex with prostitutes (Sullivan, 223). In August of 1998, Officer Ray Perez was arrested for the cocaine theft. Facing a twelve-year prison sentence, Perez told the prosecutor the dealings that went on within CRASH (Sullivan, 228). As a result of the statements made by Officer Perez, over a hundred felony cases have been overturned (Sullivan, 269). In addition, a dozen police officers were suspended, seven resigned, and five were fired (pbs.org).
And how is the Los Angeles Police Department doing today? Just like in New York City, the ABC television show PrimeTime had people turn in twenty wallets and purses to twenty different police officers in Los Angeles. And just like the police officers in New York, every single police officer returned the wallets and purses to their owners with all the money still in them (abcnews.go.com).
Which brings us to Houston. While the Houston Police Department has never had the reputation of graft and corruption like numerous other cities, the Houston Police Department has been known for police brutality of minorities. In May of 1977, Jose Campos Torres was not only beaten by Houston police officers, they threw him handcuffed into Buffalo Bayou where he drowned (http://query.nytimes.com). In October of 1989, Ida Lee Delaney, a black grandmother, was shot and killed by Alex Gonzales, a drunk off-duty police officer. And one month later Byron Gillum, a black security guard, was shot to death by Officer Scott Tschirhart under questionable circumstances. Gillum was the third African-American killed by Officer Tshirhart (http://query.nytimes.com).
Today, although complaints of police brutality here in Houston still occur, they are definitely not the same as in the past. When was the last time anyone has heard of a member of the Houston Police Department killing an innocent person? With the exception of the rare case of a person getting arrested and dying from a heart attack while in police custody, we hardly ever hear of a person dying from the police under questionable circumstances. And these individuals who die during the trauma of being arrested are usually in poor health and out of shape while strung out on crack or some other illegal drug.
So why is there less police corruption today than in the past? Personally, I think there are a few factors. First, communities are paying their police officers more money. When the police make more money, they not only have less of a desire to commit petty crimes because of this increase in income, but they also have more to lose if they get caught committing these crimes. Next, there is education. The current police force in this country is definitely more educated that in the past. And studies indicate the more educated an individual is, the less likely he or she will commit crime. With a job paying more and requiring a decent education, police departments get better recruits. And better recruits make better officers.
But what I believe is the most important factor in preventing police corruption, and certainly police brutality, is the advancement of video cameras. At one time police officers could get away with police brutality because it was their word against the word of a citizen, a citizen most likely who has a criminal record. And society wants to believe the police. Now, there are video cameras everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Security cameras inside of buildings, security cameras outside of buildings. And everyone with a cellphone, which is pretty much everyone, has a camera in that cellphone. There are even cameras in police vehicles. When people know they are being recorded, they act more civilized. And the police are no different. They know they are being watched. If they arrest someone in public, cellphones start to record the event, and within hours it will probably be on YouTube.
There will always be pockets of police corruption. But these pockets are getting smaller and smaller. There will always be rogue officers. The police officer pulling over an attractive female who he catches speeding and then telling her he will not give her a ticket if she performs a sex act will still occur. But not nearly as often as in the past. There will always be police cover-ups. Some officers will never cross the "thin blue line." However, compared to their brethren from the past, the majority of police officers do what they are supposed to do - to protect and serve.