A Closer Look at Mr. Paulson’s “Bad Apple” Theory
A series of public scandals, implicating all ranks, over the last several years, albeit involving a proportionately small number of members, has caused widespread concern about the standard of ethics and integrity within the RCMP. Mr. Paulson was quick to label this as a problem caused by a few “bad apples”, and to commit himself to the eradication of this rotten fruit. I will suggest to you, after some considerable research, that this is the typical response by a senior executive after a police agency has been confronted with allegations of corrupt behaviour for which there is supporting evidence. Moreover I will assert that the history of policing is full of examples where this explanation has been found wanting in the face of consistent evidence of unethical behaviour and a paucity of integrity.
Prior to digging in to this topic I think it is important to define it and put it in perspective for those who may be unfamiliar. One noted author has stated, “Most police departments have members who commit corrupt acts from time to time. Only some police departments, however, become corrupt police departments”. In other words, police corruption is not uncommon whereas totally corrupt police departments are.
The term corruption has been applied to many police behaviours including: bribery; violence and brutality; fabrication and destruction of evidence; racism; and favouritism or nepotism. Experts in the area differ in the breadth of the definitions they put forward. Some favour broad and inclusive definitions which suggest police corruption includes deviant, dishonest, improper, unethical, or criminal behaviour of any kind. Others prefer narrower definitions that distinguish between prototypical corrupt behaviour, including both material and process, and criminal behaviour, such as theft on duty, that they regard as qualitatively different. All would agree however, and it is generally accepted, that police corruption involves an abuse of position. It is thought that what is corrupted is the “special trust” invested in the profession by the public. Very few have put this in perspective as well as the late Director of Police Studies at Massey University (New Zealand):
“Remember now and always that the office of constable is held by you as a public trust, and that the uniform you wear and the commission you carry are symbols of public faith. If you dishonour, disgrace, or disregard the faith placed in your office you become more dangerous than any criminal you will ever confront. When the public cannot trust individual police officers or the police institution to operate within the law confidence in the justice system is undermined and the very foundations of our democratic society are threatened”.
As noted above, Mr. Paulson’s “bad apple” theory has come under close scrutiny and been discredited as an explanation for police corruption. Likely the best known example would be the Knapp Commission hearings that were convened following the revelations of the well known New York police officer Frank Serpico. The evidence produced by the Commission shattered the police union’s position that the corruption uncovered was confined to a few “rotten apples” in an otherwise healthy barrel. Commissioner Knapp stated:
“The ‘rotten apple’ theory won’t work any longer. Corrupt police officers are not natural born criminals, nor morally wicked men, constitutionally different from their honest colleagues. The task of corruption control is to examine the barrel, not just the apples – the organization, not just the individuals in it – because corrupt police are made, not born”.
Further evidence to dispute Mr. Paulson’s “bad apple” theory comes from the Wood (New Zealand) and Mollen (USA) Commissions. Both of these Commissioners were crystal clear in their reports that the corruption they unearthed was organizational in its genesis. The conclusion drawn by the Wood Commission was that the evidence it surfaced “must dispel, for all time, any explanation based upon individual deviance or opportunistic corruption. The problem to be addressed is much more fundamental”.
Even before outlining the most successfully applied solutions to the problem of police corruption (a topic for future consideration) it is important to understand the etiology of the phenomenon. As I wish to be brief, I will address only a couple of variable factors that seem central to the case of the RCMP.
Based upon the volume of media reports, the RCMP has developed a habit of wandering to the dark side. They have burned barns, broken strikes, dipped into pension funds, produced Canadians for torture abroad, mistreated their own members, perjured themselves, applied excessive force, and turned a blind eye to questionable (criminal?) behaviour internally. If you follow this stench, one of the places it will lead you is to the Force’s questionable and unsavoury relationship with government and politicians. As it is with all police agencies, the RCMP’s working environment is likely to have a significant influence on their day to day activities, including the degree to which their members engage in corrupt practices. The extant literature cautions that both the direct and indirect influence of the political environment and political culture can influence the degree of corruption within a police agency. If this holds true for a municipal police agency that is “arm’s length” from its municipal master imagine the case of the RCMP who sleeps in the same bed as the ruling federal political party. One noted author has suggested that, “capture by the political environment is probably the leading explanation of why police departments become corrupt”.
My final comment focuses on the variable factor of organizational culture. Those police agencies that maintain high morale, encourage personal and career development, address frustration, stress, harassment, and cynicism are less likely to have serious corruption problems. Police agencies that develop a meaningful understanding and offer practical guidance in relation to ethical and integrity issues, and emphasize the organization’s commitment to both its employees and its customers is much less likely to have a serious corruption problem than those that ignore these factors. The authors of the above noted Commission reports have linked the absence of “professional pride” and the development of corruption within a police agency. Vigorous efforts toward maintaining morale, high professional standards, and mutual respect within the organization are thought to be preventive maintenance against the drift into corruption. According to several management studies, to say nothing of the RCMP’s own survey data, “professional pride”, organizational pride, mutual respect, and morale have likely never been lower than they are today.
So with a closer look at Mr. Paulson’s “bad apple” theory we find some convincing evidence of its lack of veracity. It seems that several very prominent commissions convened to examine the phenomenon of police corruption, have pointed more toward the barrel than the apples that lay within. Could it be then that Mr. Paulson’s populist notion, that the RCMP’s many mis-steps are due to “bad apples”, is somewhat wrongheaded? A more important question might be, how will he solve the problem when he (or is it Vic Toews?) doesn’t even know what the problem is?
Dr. Mike Webster, R.Psych.