Police corruption: the whole system is rotten

Corrupt police are a natural product of policing under capitalism, argues Miro Sandev

New South Wales has recently been made privy to accusations of corrupt surveillance by the highest echelons of the state’s police force. The media has transformed the story into a Hollywood style death-match between two deputy commissioners vying for the top cop role. But a series of previous Royal Commissions have detailed systematic, entrenched corruption and links to organised crime within the police. Despite attempts at reform, the problem looms larger than ever.

The latest episode concerns the unauthorised bugging of hundreds of police officers and civilians as part of Operation Mascot. Mascot was an operation targeting allegedly corrupt officers, running from 1999 to 2001, led by now Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn. Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione also oversaw the operation for a period, and the other current deputy Nick Kaldas was targeted as potentially corrupt.

But it has been revealed that there was insufficient or no evidence to issue the warrants for the surveillance that took place, and that information relied upon came from a corrupt police officer turned informant codenamed M5.

The inquiry also revealed that informants in police operations are allowed to give false evidence to magistrates, and to commit other criminal acts. Former commissioner Peter Ryan, who was hired to “clean up” the force after previous corruption inquiries, was himself illegitimately placed under surveillance by the Crime Commission. All this suggests that the phone tapping operation was being used to smear “clean” officers and protect corrupt cops involved in organised crime.

A parliamentary inquiry in February recommended that Kaldas and a number of others be issued with a formal apology. After what many viewed as a poor performance giving testimony to the inquiry, Burn is likely to be sidelined and scapegoated for her role in the operation.

This outcome would be in line with the traditional response of senior politicians and police to corruption: it is a case of a “few rotten apples spoiling the barrel”.

The Wood Royal Commission in the 1990s into police in NSW rejected this idea and said it had found a “state of systemic and entrenched corruption.”

History of corruption

Corruption inevitably follows the creation of the police as a layer of individuals with a monopoly on the use of force, serving the interests of the rich.

The existence of the police is a product of modern capitalism. In Australia, the NSW Mounted Police was established in 1825 to put down Aboriginal resistance to the expanding pastoral capitalism and to deal with convicts escaping indentured labour and bushrangers. One of the first modern police forces was the London metropolitan police, created by the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829.

In response to the first mass working class movement, Chartism, the 1839 County Police Act also established regional police forces. From the 1850s other police forces were formed right across the UK.

The primary purpose of the police from its inception has been to defend the rights of property and the rich by keeping the working class under control. As Simon Behrman argued in International Socialism, “This accruing of power by the state at first alarmed sections of the ruling class, which is why many of them initially opposed the setting up of a police force. But it quickly became clear that the use of physical force by the capitalist state would not be deployed against property rights, but against labour and the poor.”

Police make the majority of their decisions unsupervised by their superiors.

There is a long history of direct corruption through taking bribes to pervert the course of an investigation, cuts from profits to cover up crimes or direct extortion.

There are real material incentives for cops to be corrupted: keeping their jobs and rising through the ranks, enriching themselves through bribes and kick-backs, and also holding power over people through their links with organised crime syndicates and informants.

The policing of organised crime produces particular drivers of corruption, because of the large quantities of money in seizures, the ease of extorting criminal groups and also the widespread use of undercover police and informants. Gambling-related corruption in NSW goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century, particularly in the 1930’s.1

The Knapp Commission concluded in the 1970s that corrupt sections existed in every plainclothes gambling-enforcement squad in New York, and was often extensive in drugs enforcement and criminal investigation. In the 1990s NYPD officers were implicated not only in extorting money from drug rings, but were themselves involved in trafficking cocaine and other illicit drugs.

The Wood Commission described “the active involvement of police in planning and implementing criminal activity, sometimes in partnership with known criminals and on other occasions in competition with them.”

This was backed up at the highest level in 2011, when NSW Crime Commission assistant director Mark Standen (who was tasked with uncovering organised crime and drug trafficking) was convicted of conspiring to import drugs, supply drugs and pervert the course of justice. Standen had plotted with his one time informant and drug trafficker.

Corruption can also involve framing individuals, using illegally acquired evidence to convict suspects and tampering with crime statistics, sometimes known as process corruption.

As producers of the majority of the evidence of crime, the police inhabit a privileged and powerful role in the criminal justice system. Police witnesses are pivotal in many criminal trials. Very often the only evidence courts rely upon in accepting a guilty plea is a police report. Janet Chan’s research has unearthed regular manipulation of written records by officers seeking to protect themselves from investigation, as well as the use of evidence inappropriately obtained.

Securing convictions is a top priority for both police and prosecutors, and the issue of the accused’s rights is easily overlooked. Police often believe they are better evaluators of guilt and that the justice system simply lets criminals off the hook. But judges and lawyers, who not only tolerate corruption but also encourage it, share responsibility.

The criminal justice system itself encourages corruption, by structuring trials around confessions and guilty pleas; establishing expectations of convictions; and failing to penalise unlawful conduct during investigations by making evidence inadmissible in court. The Queensland Fitzgerald Inquiry made some attempt to draw links between consistent corruption (such as the fabrication of evidence and assaults in police custody) and the existence of a focus on law enforcement.

The Wood Commission also had an opportunity to lay bare some of these structural causes of process corruption. It made specific reference to the attitudes police officers hold about the judiciary, arguing that the nature of the job can be corrupting in itself: “Police officers may become cynical and distrustful of the judiciary and of the broader community when they appear to pay insufficient regard to the dangers and difficulties of the job.” It also added that such corruption is encouraged because of “senior police and members of the judiciary apparently condoning it.” In particular, it blamed: “the desire to obtain convictions, or information, regardless of the legality of the means used, or their consequences”.

As Dixon notes, after rejecting the bad apple analysis of corruption within the police, the commission effectively reinstated it at the institutional level, with the police service as the bad apple tainting the otherwise pure criminal justice barrel.2 Process corruption has become a functional part of the criminal justice system. This view is supported by recent examples in Ferguson and New York where US Federal Attorneys have chosen not to indict police officers in cases of fatal shootings even where there is overwhelming evidence against the police version of events.

Aborted reform and the Law and Order Agenda

Even the very modest reforms outlined in the Wood Commission’s final report were eventually discarded as NSW went through what can only be described as a law and order auction, with the government and opposition outbidding one another on who could be “tougher on criminals”.

The emergence of a zero tolerance agenda derailed moves for reform of the police.

Zero Tolerance policing was pioneered in New York in the early 1990s. It was based on the broken window theory of criminality, which suggested that the tolerance of minor crimes in a given area would, in time, encourage more serious criminality. It means giving police vastly greater powers to target minor crimes. Inevitably, this leads to higher rates of police assault and process corruption. Nevertheless, its perceived success in crime reduction in the US and the political purchase of “tough” rhetoric saw it gain growing support. In NSW, media pressure over a series of violent incidents involving knives and the emergence of a heroin market in Cabramatta prompted Premier Carr’s shift to the rhetoric of zero tolerance.

This was despite proof of the clear negative impacts this style of policing was having on communities – including major public health issues concerning unsafe injections, as well as drug dealers organising more professionally into harder-to-police syndicates.3

The reform agenda receded largely into the background. The word “reform” was dropped altogether from the police’s list of corporate objectives, and replaced with the language of “continuous business improvement”.

But it is clear that corruption will continue to fester as long as the police exist as a layer of armed individuals separated out from the rest of society, given the power to control the population in the interests of the rich. Ultimately, the police need to be abolished as part of sweeping away the state apparatus that maintains capitalist rule.


1. Newburn, Tim, Understanding and Preventing Corruption, (Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, Home Office London UK, 1999), p.15.

2. Dixon, D. (ed) A Culture of Corruption, (Federation Press: Leichhardt, 1999), p. 173.

3. Dixon, D & Maher, ‘The cost of crackdowns: policing Cabramatta’s heroin market’, Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 2001, 13(1), p. 20.


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