Police Corruption: A Conversation with Leslie Holmes

Leslie Holmes is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Melbourne in Australia, as well as a visiting lecturer and thesis supervisor in IACA’s Master in Anti-Corruption Studies (MACS) programme. He is an internationally renowned expert in areas including comparative and police corruption, organized crime, corporate misconduct, human trafficking, and post-communism.

Prof. Holmes has written several books on corruption and related issues, including, most recently, “An Advanced Introduction to Organised Crime” (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2016) and “Corruption: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2015). One of the volumes he edited, “Police Corruption: Essential Readings” (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2014), focuses on police corruption and collusion across different countries.

In this interview with IACA Prof. Holmes talks about the problem of police corruption, ways of combating it, his research findings, and his classroom discussions with MACS students.

It might sound like an obvious question, but why is police corruption such a serious issue?

Leslie Holmes: There are several reasons. One is that, according to the Global Corruption Barometer, more people pay bribes to the police than to any other agents of the state. At the same time the police are supposed to be the group to whom citizens can turn if they feel other public officials are corrupt. So if people can’t trust the police to enforce the law, where do they go?

Another factor is that unlike other officers of the state, the police in many countries are armed and can threaten businesses in particular. In addition, organized crime gangs often find that former police officers are good targets as potential new members. Ex-officers know how the police are working to fight organized crime, they often have access to arms, and they’ve often been desensitized to violence and killing.

The final problem is that the police are involved with a lot of serious issues. Trafficking of drugs and humans often involves police collusion, for example.

You’re currently doing a comparative study of police corruption in four countries: Bulgaria, Germany, the Russian Federation, and Singapore. What were some of the main differences you found?

LH: Well, the type and level of corruption in Germany and Singapore is rather different from that in Russia and Bulgaria. For instance, you don’t get nearly as much petty corruption in Germany as you do in Russia or Bulgaria, and nothing like the levels of traffic police corruption.

In Singapore, my research indicates strongly that police corruption is very much among individual officers, whereas in Russia and even to some extent in Germany it’s more systemic, at least at the level of police units — there have been some serious police corruption scandals in places like Leipzig, for instance.

Was there anything that really surprised you?

LH: Yes. One of the things that particularly stood out in my surveys was that many citizens and businesspeople across all four countries were relatively tolerant of noble cause corruption, where police officers break the rules not specifically for their personal benefit but because they believe they are doing something good for the benefit of society.

Another big surprise for me was the fact that German businesspeople considered “threats from organized crime” the number one reason for police corruption in their country.

What specific measures might be effective in combating police corruption?

LH: One of the factors I believe contributes to police corruption is the feeling that the state is not supporting them, in particular that the judiciary is letting criminals off scot-free or with extremely lenient punishments.

So I’ve suggested getting police officers and judges to sit down and talk to each other, which they don’t often do. Judges could explain why they have to — or why they think it’s more appropriate to — pass softer sentences, so the police might understand this. At the same time, judges could understand the police officers’ perspective, that they’re putting their lives on the line and then criminals are being let off scot-free. That’s a simple and almost cost-free solution that could be adopted by developing countries too.

There are lots of other solutions, such as unambiguous legislation, for instance. Moonlighting, or having a second job, is illegal for police officers in Singapore, whereas in my own country of Australia, certainly in my state, it’s allowed. It has to be approved. And wherever you get that sort of grey area that involves discretion by superior officers, then you’ve got the potential for corruption.

Have your discussions with MACS students here at IACA generated interesting observations for your own work?

LH: Certainly. For example, one student asked me whether it’s fair, when doing comparative work, to highlight the fact that corruption and bribery among police officers are much more common in developing countries than in developed ones. That made me articulate something that had only half-formed in my own mind: one of the reasons we get so little petty corruption in developed countries among traffic police, for instance, is that cameras and technology do many of the jobs that police officers in developing countries do in person when they stop people for a fine.

So police officers in developed countries are not necessarily much less corruptible. Rather, the opportunity for corrupt behaviour is simply not arising in the way it does in developing countries.

For more information about the MACS programme, please click here.


International Anti-Corruption Academy

Laxenburg/Vienna, Austria  |  T: +43 2236 710 718 101

© 2023 IACA. Developed by IACA.

Laxenburg/Vienna, Austria  |  T: +43 2236 710 718 101

© 2023 IACA. Developed by IACA.

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