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Good cop, bad cop: how corrupt police work with drug dealers

The Australia21 report on illicit drugs draws much-needed attention to many serious issues, including the major role played by corrupt police in drug distribution networks. The role played by drugs in…

Shamed senior police officer Mark Standen is lead away from King St Supreme Court after being found guilty of attempting to import a massive haul of pseudoephedrine. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

The Australia21 report on illicit drugs draws much-needed attention to many serious issues, including the major role played by corrupt police in drug distribution networks.

The role played by drugs in police corruption is complex, and bears consideration when evaluating the report and arguments for a change in policy.

The connection between the illegal drugs markets and police corruption is well known. Booms in illegal drug markets in the US in the 1990s, for example, corresponded with a rise in police corruption and violent misconduct.

Similar connections between drugs and police corruption are found in many countries, and Australia is no exception, as demonstrated by the recent conviction of Mark Standen.

Illegal regulation

There are two common situations in which officers abuse (or choose not to use) their power in such a way as to benefit from the drug trade, each of which is often rationalised as an attempt to at least do something about the problem of illicit drugs - a form of “illegal regulation”.

The first of these is the theft of drugs or money from drug dealers.

When police officers are tasked with policing the prohibition of illicit drugs, first-hand experience leads many to believe they are unable to eliminate the industry, or that the people they steal from are unlikely to be arrested or convicted.

In this context, police officers in the UK, the US and Australia have justified stealing from drug dealers as a kind of tax or charge - an attempt to try and make it harder for dealers to do business.

The second common kind of police corruption is “green-lighting”, whereby police agree to turn a blind eye to dealers or groups that adhere to certain rules (e.g. no violence, no selling drugs to children).

Richard Roxburgh played corrupt NSW Police detective Roger Rogerson in the ABC miniseries Blue Murder AAP

This often used with the professed intention of creating a level of control over the drugs trade. Anyone who has seen the ABC TV series Blue Murder) will be familiar with the events uncovered by the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption’s Milloo Inquiry, which alleged that criminal Arthur “Neddy” Smith’s activities had been green-lit by officers including the former detective Roger Rogerson, and that police officers sometimes even assisted Smith in the commission of crimes.

Fans of US TV show The Wire will recall “Hamsterdam”, the free zone where drug dealing was allowed on the condition that the drugs or violence did not spill onto other streets.

The reality is less noble-minded or contained; in New South Wales, for example, green-lighting of different groups by different officers created increasingly organised territorially defined cartels, and did nothing to stop the growth of the drugs trade.

It’s all in the game

Apart from any rationalisation for their behaviour as having some kind of noble cause, officers in these situations also face substantial material incentives.

In the market for drugs the high levels of inelastic demand (particularly in the case of highly addictive substances) and high prices create an very lucrative industry, and officers involved in extorting or protecting dealers can make substantial sums doing so.

One New York police officer made ten times his annual salary in protection money from drug dealers - so much that he often forgot to collect his legitimate pay.

Tackling these problems requires considering the incentives that officers face to engage in corruption, not just weeding out the odd bad cop. Despite the persistence of “bad apple” explanations of police corruption, many officers who are found to be corrupt often began as officers with a good, clean record of successful work.

Draining the swamp

While there may, of course, be bad individuals, of greater concern is that all officers are working in a “bad barrel” or “bad orchard” which is itself a corrupting influence.

The fact, then, that more officers do not become entangled in such activity is a credit to their integrity.

Any policy response to the issues raised in the Australia21 report should take care to ensure it has a real effect on the market for drugs and that it makes it easier for such officers to maintain that integrity by considering the ramifications for police corruption.

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6 Comments sorted by

  1. Matt Stevens

    Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

    Great article. I didn't join the police for precisely the reasons you outline.

    1. Russell Wattie

      SMP Superintendant

      In reply to Matt Stevens

      At age 19 I was activly pursued to join the Victorian police the main selling point from a new officer was the corrupt benifiets. At the time I thought it was the wrong reason to become a cop now with 30+ years under my belt I know it is the only reason to become a cop, and I still couldn't do it today. They say in responce to being called PIG, that stands for Pride, Integrity, & Guts. Sorry I see only Pride but no Integrity or Guts, cowardly organising driveby shootings that they then "blame" on Bike clubs, Through teh UMC's the clubs know that these shootings are not by clubs. There remains only one Gang that can get away with this activity and that is the "Blue Gang"

  2. Madamm Geeky

    logged in via Facebook

    But the picture is FAR worse in Australia than you paint.

    THIS report was published 48 hours ago:

    Read section 2. What happened next?

    On Wednesday 4th April, ex-Detective Sergeant Christopher Laycock will appear for sentencing in a Sydney court, for a string of offences. These stem from the Cobalt Report, which was presented by the Police Integrity Commission to Parliament in 2005, and which presents…

    Read more
  3. William Bruce


    1. Licence users (Must first have 2 Doctors certificates showing they have been warned/advised of the consequences).

    2. Let people get it from their Doctors. This will kill the pushers business.

    3. Compulsorily educate all 12-14 year old children with a Video presentation/s about the facts about addiction and negative mental & physical consequences.

    NB Drugs might cause harm to "an individual" but no harm at all to society. It's people that "can't pay for illicit drugs" that causes ALL the problems...& massive CORRUPTION....and fills prisons and so on...

    Anyone who is against LICENSING DRUG USERS has a vested financial interest or has no idea.

    (Above post from previous drug article).

  4. Patricia Donalds

    logged in via Facebook

    Routine re-screening, including polygraphs every 5yrs to help fight and prevent police misconduct and corruption. Including senior management. Officers would think twice before breaking laws or rules of conduct.

  5. Bruce Tabor

    Research Scientist at CSIRO

    Police corruption - not just in drugs - is incredibly widespread and insidious. As a child I was taught that police could be trusted. As an adult I've learned through bitter experience that only a minority have genuine integrity.

    Among other wrongs, I've witnessed police conspire to give false evidence against an innocent person and then lie under oath. This wont stop until our judiciary takes perjury by police seriously. And police corruption in general wont stop until police stop doing whatever it takes to defend other police. Currently the police are pretty much a publicly funded gang. What are we wasting our taxes on?