Police Corruption

Brian Thiem Blogging Today:

I opened an email a few days ago and felt like I was punched in the gut. A brother police officer who I’ve known for nearly forty years plead guilty to federal corruption charges. Harry came on Oakland PD a year after I did and worked with me in patrol and investigations. He was the gang unit sergeant under me when I commanded the Special Investigations Unit, was assigned to FBI organized crime task forces, and was one of the nation’s foremost experts on Asian Organized Crime. He was so well respected that when he retired from OPD ten years ago, the DA’s office hired him as an investigator.police corruption

A few years ago, Harry began accepting gratuities from a man linked to Asian organized crime, and in exchange, protected him from prosecution.

Many crime novels and movies include crooked cops, and that leads the public to believe corruption among police officers is rampant. However, in most modern police organizations, it’s extremely rare. And when it does occur, organizations seldom turn a blind eye as occurs in fiction and film.

I’m reading a fellow author’s crime novel manuscript right now. The premise includes a team of corrupt cops who steal money from drug dealers and commit kidnappings and murders to cover it up. Although that scenario is a work of fiction, the plot creates wonderful conflict for the story’s hero to overcome.

But I hate reading about it. I hate it because it reinforces a belief by too many people that police corruption is common. And I hate it because it sometimes happens in the real world.

I wonder why a law enforcement officer would take bribes in exchange for helping a criminal. Why would they go against everything our profession stands for? And why would they risk losing everything—their freedom, family, life savings, reputation—for dirty money?

The temptation was always present when I carried a badge for a living. When I worked Vice Narcotics, I recovered huge stashes of money on drug raids, and could’ve easily grabbed tens of thousands of dollars without anyone knowing. I could’ve negotiated huge payoffs from drug gang kingpins when working Homicide to steer investigations away from them. But it never crossed my mind.

What causes some officers to fall to the temptation? Were they unethical before they were hired, or did the job change them? Did they see the limitations of the criminal justice system, with bad guys living lavish lifestyles from the proceeds of crime and decided they deserved the same? Did they rationalize it by watching politicians and corporate executives receive “perks” as accepted “rewards” for their positions? Or does it just come down to the innate character defect of greed inside all of us, fighting to get out? Why do some succumb to it while others don’t?

I’m deeply disappointed that my friend and brother tarnished the badge and the reputation of the profession so many of us hold in such high regard. It might take a while for me to recover from that punch in the gut, even though I understand that every profession includes some bad apples and that good men and women occasionally fall victim to their human desires and weaknesses. I just wish it didn’t hurt so much when it’s a brother cop who I liked and respected.


10 thoughts on “Police Corruption

  1. What a thoughtful and honest post. Your pain and disappointment come through quite clearly.

    After doing investigations for decades, I’ve come to the conclusion that about 10% of humanity will never make such bad choices under any circumstances whatsoever. Then, there’s another 10% of us who will actively look for any opportunity to lie, cheat, steal, harm another, whatever. The remaining 80% of us lie somewhere on that continuum, depending on the circumstances. Would I steal? Of course not, unless maybe my child were hungry. I’m no killer, but what if my life or the life of a loved one were in immediate danger?

    I don’t know if that same ratio applies to those in law enforcement. Having worked around those folks for all of my career, the vast majority I’ve met entered the field with a sincere desire to protect people and to do justice. It may sound pollyana, but I think police officers are a rare breed. My guess is that they tend to skew more toward the virtuous side of my scale. But all that means is that when those rare, corrupt officers do pop up, it’s a greater betrayal to our society. They’ve abused the power we’ve given them.

    It’s heartbreaking, but a reminder that we’re all human and fallible. But it’s moments like the one you’ve recently experience that make me grateful for the vast majority of law officers who hold to that high standard on a daily basis, often unsung and unappreciated, and all too often while being criticized and demonized. A rare breed indeed, and I thank them for their service to us all. You included, my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ben: I like your 10-80-10 theory and think it has plenty of validity. I believe professional, modern police departments weed out most of the bottom 10%. For instance, out of 100 applicants, OPD only hires 1. And half of those don’t make it through the academy and 18 month probation. Although a few bad ones might make it, I think that most of those who fall victim to corruption and criminal acts, were good people who lost their way. I see it too often in those who spent too much time in assignments where they had to get too close to the seedier element of the world, assignments such as gangs, narcotics, and vice. As long as we hire humans as police officers, they’re bound to occasionally fall to human defects.


  2. Brian, I’ve known you for a very long time. The emotions you revealed here just prove that you are the same guy I knew in college. Now that these emotions are on the surface, use them to further your next novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Rocky. Our careers as Army Officers was similar. The process weeded out most of the bad apples, but occasionally, one would slip through. And when it happened and an officer did something really bad, it felt like it tarnished us all.

      I appreciate the advice to try to capture these emotions in my novels.


      1. I can remember when a fellow loggie was caught accepting bribes overseas. I felt violated. We all worked so much harder to prove we weren’t him. It’s amazing what we can do when we harness those “bad” emotions and use them for good.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Brian, Reading about Harry really broke my heart. I wonder if it’s the type of scenario I would try to warn employees about…You know, when someone you trust asks you to do something that isn’t quite right but doesn’t seem illegal. Once you do that, you can get involved in a downward spiral, a continuous push from that person – who now has power over you because you did that first thing and you don’t want anyone to find out because it’s embarrassing … so they push and keep bringing you bigger and bigger “asks” and they threaten to let your secret out.. before you know it, you can’t see a way out and it’s too late to take it all back.


    1. That downward spiral you speak of is an important subject in ethics courses. Accept a free meal from someone–is that okay? Then you accept tickets to a football game from him–have you crossed the line? Then a weekend at his ski chalet? Then he asks you to “look into” the investigation of his business partner accused of masterminding an arson of his investment property? No problem with “looking into” it, is there? But if you’re a command officer, by asking a subordinate about it, are you influencing the investigation? Do you come right out and tell the investigator to stop the investigation? It’s a slippery slope and one that seldom begins with an obvious bribe such as “Mr. Drug Dealer, if you give me $50,000, I’ll warn you before my brother officers serve a search warrant at one of your crack houses.”


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