Film and television has taught us that corruption is pretty widespread in the world of police but how true is that? loaded spoke to an expert to find out.
Louise Westmorland is no fan of CSI.
A senior lecturer in criminology and social policy, when it comes to the portrayal of the police on the big and small screen, she admits to loaded there have been times she’s found herself shouting “no, that is never how it would happen” at the screen.
“It’s the procedural things that are usually wrong. People say and do the wrong things,” she explains.
“CSI tend to come in and have an ‘audio spectrometer’ that shows all around the room – that’s not realistic. You also see people trampling all around the crime scene and that’s not realistic either.”
It’s a different story when it comes to another of film and TV’s favourite tropes in the portrayal of the police: corruption.
To Westmorland’s way of thinking, the types of corruption often seen on the screen have some parallels in real-life, albeit on a somewhat reduced scale.
The type of corruption we see in films, much as in real life, for example, can be broken down into two distinct categories – so-called “noble cause” corruption and “inquisitive” corruption.
“Noble cause corruption is where a police officer thinks it might do something illegal to help them on the job even though it’s against the rules.”
“Then there is the other type of corruption where police officers are in it for themselves which can be an inquisitive.”
Say the police arrive at the scene of a crime and finds a large amount of cash. That idea, often seen in film or TV, of a cop taking his “share” may hold more truth than you thought – albeit in isolated and increasingly infrequent cases.
“From my research police officers have arrived at crime scenes and found large amounts of money and some of it has gone missing,” Westmorland concurs, adding that, historically that sort of issue is “more of a US problem than a British thing.”
In the US, this kind of behaviour came “normalised” in the dark days of New York in the 1980s and early 1990s – but it was only the tip of the iceberg.
“Back then the corruption involved protection schemes with vice and drugs. People were paying a set amount of money so they wouldn’t be raided,” she explained.
“New officers were brought into the scheme whereby they had some money left in their locker. They were told that was their share and the minute they took their share they were implicit in the crime and couldn’t then turn to the authorities.”
Regardless of whether it’s UK or US police, however, a common mentality can emerge among corrupt cops which has more than just a hint of the same mentality Walter White adopted in Breaking Bad.
“There are also those in police who see criminals making a lot of money very easily and they start to think ‘hang on I work all year round on shifts and there are criminals out there living the good life,’” Westmorland says.
“You hear of officers who just decide ‘I am going to have that.’ They want to give those same things to their family.”
“A code of silence definitely still exists in the world of police”
Ultimately, much like Walter, the real problem for any officer attempting this kind of corruption is a more obvious one: money.
As Westmorland explains “If you have a lot of cash there’s not a lot you can do with it. You can’t buy a house or a car. Even when you pay it to the bank they are going to want to know where you got it.
“The only way is to pay for extensions or to build a house – something you could pay for in cash.”
Things have certainly improved though with more systems in place to help officers confidentially inform on those doing any wrong doing though Westmorland doesn’t necessarily think the problem has completely disappeared.
“Police officers are in an incredible position of trust and often work on their own so we would never know,” she told loaded.
“Things have improved massively in the last 10 years but, on the other hand, how do we really know? No one is going to be shouting about this. For example, it’s hard to say whether large sums of money are going missing – banks don’t tend to report that kind of thing.”
So what’s preventing completely transparency in the world of policing today? Well, it’s potentially another issue that regularly appears in the world of TV and film: the code of silence – the idea that those on the force look out for each other and give preferential treatment.
“A code of silence definitely still exists in the world of police. We recently surveyed over 500 police officers to see what they would say if they saw corruption happening.
“They were very definite that if they saw an office steal money or valuable items they would report them. 99.9% would definitely report it with no difficulty. But when it came to asking whether they would report a colleague who was found drink driving and crashed their car, less than 50% said they would. The others would take the officer home.
“It was a similar story when it came to violent crime. If they saw a colleague hitting a suspect, they would potentially turn a blind eye. It seems like the police is forward-thinking in some ways but not so much in others.”
Corruption may not be rife within the UK force anymore, but as long as a code of silence exists, then the portrayals we seen on the big and small screen will continue to hold a grain of truth. At least, when it comes to corruption they will. Not so sure about audio spectrometers…
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