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From gambling rings to sly downloads: how police corruption has changed

Corrupt police look a bit different these days. Shutterstock

Police in England and Wales have been told to review nearly 2,000 cases of alleged corruption after Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary found that no action had been taken in two-thirds of investigations carried out in 2014.

The finding has also revealed just how much the kind of corruption that goes on in the police has changed over the years.

It seems the police have been accused of some pretty serious offences of late, from drug-related crimes to bribery, theft, sexual misconduct and disclosing information without authorisation. But they pale in comparison to what went on in the past.

Old-school crime

In the 1960s the police – particularly in London – were enmeshed in networks of corruption with organised criminals who were involved in the running of prostitution, pornography and gambling operations. With very limited internal supervision and no credible system for making a complaint, detectives in the Criminal Investigation Division and the Obscene Publications Squad would protect brothels or porn shops from raids and put pressure on competitors in return for bribes or freebies.

From the 1970s, the problem was becoming drugs. Networks of corrupt officers were found, not just in London but all over the country – and the corruption extended even to supposedly elite units such as Regional Crime Squads.

In this period, police officers could also be found in cahoots with groups of armed robbers, protecting them in return for a cut

Robert Mark, the outspoken chief constable of that era, tried to tackle corruption of this kind head-on in the 1970s by disciplining or sacking officers. Despite often facing opposition from within the force, Mark dryly believed “a police force is one that catches more criminals than it employs”.

But by the 1990s, the corruption linking detectives to organised crime was so serious that the Met had to establish a secret “ghost squad” to gather intelligence. Then a more formal unit, CIB3, was formed to break up corruption in the longer term using close surveillance, bugging and informants. CIB3 was held to be a major success in rooting out corrupt networks of senior officers.

New-look corruption

More recently though, the nature of police corruption seems to have changed. The kind of blue-collar corruption that blighted the force in the past has been replaced by more sophisticated forms of unethical behaviour.

And where once it was grizzled detectives in the frame, it now seems as though new uniformed officers are becoming the culprits. As the use of drugs becomes more normalised in wider society, a number of those who join the police do not see anything particularly wrong in taking drugs. But once in the job, their drug use puts them at risk of blackmail.

Similarly, the use of steroids amongst some officers in various uniformed branches exposes them to the milieu of gyms which may also be frequented by organised criminals. These criminals may provide them drugs in order to draw them into webs of corruption.

Then there is passing on sensitive information. In the 1970s and 1980s information was held on paper or tended to be passed on personally by detectives in the know. Now that police systems have been computerised, organised criminals can get access to information more easily if they can bribe an officer or civilian workers to access information on the Police National Computer. Even though every officer’s use of the PNC is logged, it is not impossible to get around the system. As recent cases show, information leakage is a problem.

Links between detectives and the press is also an area of concern. Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of The Sun, admitted to a Commons committee some time ago that journalists pay police for information – and there have since been a number of convictions related to the problem.

The Leveson Inquiry disclosed just how unhealthy some of the more informal relationships between police and journalists have been in the past, with police and journalists dining together on expenses and sharing gossip. These were long-term relationships which were useful to both sides. They were not technically corrupt because they did not involve the direct relationship between information supplied and a reward taken. Sometimes they could be useful in investigations in publicising police calls for information. But they also involved cosy relationships between police and journalists that minimised journalistic independence and made the police look unprofessional. Once exposed, these relationships could not survive.

It seems then, that blue-collar corruption has given way to more white-collar crime in the police. The trouble is that there is a worrying lack of intelligence on the problem. In the 1990s, the Metropolitan Police had to start from scratch in gathering intelligence on corrupt networks and their effects on the police. To their credit they recognised they had been caught off guard by the development of networks of serious corruption.

It would be a tragedy if history were to repeat itself. The current generation of Met police is the cleanest in history and all other services now have dedicated professional standards units but they need constant support.

The HMIC report mentioned the need to look at cases to see the full intelligence picture on police corruption. If the police have failed to keep up with the bad eggs in their ranks, be it technologically or in terms of information, the police may need to reinvent the anti-corruption wheel and shift resources back to long-term intelligence gathering and investigation while they are pressured financially on all other fronts as well.

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