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

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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