Corruption for a cause?

Recently Indian Express published a very good article by a former director general, NHRC, and former director, National Police Academy. The editorial raises some valid questions about should Police/Law Enforcement be allowed to break laws sometimes for the greater good?
If so in what extra-ordinary circumstances? Does Ends Justify the means? How do we draw a line between abuse of power and breaking laws for the greater common good.

Its slightly long, but do Read if you have time

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When the police exceed their authority and powers in order to achieve apparently legitimate ends, it is called ‘noble cause corruption’. This phrase, which entered the lexicon with Edwin Delattre’s influential book Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing (1989), has classical origins — in Plato’s Republic the philosopher-king justifies the use of noble lies in order to advance the good of the city. But whereas for Plato, the noble cause does not justify anything more than minor deception, police today indulge in flagrant abuse of human rights.

On the face of it, noble cause corruption is very different from what’s generally referred to as corruption. It is committed in the name of good ends, corruption that happens when police officers care too much about their own work and corruption committed in order to get the bad guys off the streets. Many feel that corruption for personal gain is more serious than corrupt behaviour that tends to benefit the society at large.

This is expressed best in the film Dirty Harry where the anti-hero is trying to achieve a good end, trying to find a girl whose life is in imminent danger, and tortures the kidnapper who refuses to reveal her whereabouts. The image of Harry Callaghan inflicting pain upon a psychopath is emotionally compelling.

But in practice when police either fabricate evidence or use excessive force, they violate the right of the suspect and affect the moral fibre of the policemen indulging in such methods. Besides, corrupt acts including noble cause corruption are habitual, not a one-off immoral action committed for a good purpose. Police officers simply tend to act in this manner, rather than rationally calculating the morality of ends and means on a case-by-case basis.

Noble cause corruption implies faith in the concept that the end justifies the means. However, the critical question is whether the ends are important enough to justify the means. Convicting a criminal is important but in a liberal democracy the police have to behave in accordance with the values of their society. Adoption of impermissible means may ultimately undermine the end.

Again, many means have other consequences that may make their use inappropriate. In the post-9/11 world, many democratic countries have passed draconian laws to curb terrorism but the enforcement of such laws, even in India, show that some ways of keeping a country secure for freedom may end up jeopardising other values of a democratic society.

Some justify torture to fight terrorism. But once a degree of torture is permitted it gives interrogators the license to use it systematically. The argument that enemies deserve no justice will lead to deterioration of justice for all. Proportionality of means has to be kept in view.

Noble cause corruption often occurs in a climate of arrogance which generates a belief that police officers know what’s best for society and have the right to punish anyone posing a ‘threat’ to public order. Unless senior officers take a resolute stand against various forms of misconduct, illegal practices will continue.

One common form of noble cause corruption is testimonial deception, for ensuring conviction of someone believed to be guilty of criminal activity. This can include fabrication of material evidence, selective presentation of evidence and improper collusion in the presentation of evidence etc — deceptions amounting to perjury.

Writers like Michael Walzer hold the view that noble cause corruption is a definitive part of the roles of political leaders, police, and military personnel. They have ‘dirty hands’ as they have to perform actions that infringe on the principles of morality, but may be morally justified, despite questionable methods. For example, a political leader who must order the torture of a terrorist chief with a view to discovering the whereabouts of a bomb likely to kill innocent people — this is an unusual emergency when moral principles can be infringed for the sake of greater public good.

Another view is that in difficult cases where there is conflict between ends and means, responsibility for any such decision should rest with the person with greater authority in the police department. But often, important decisions affecting life and liberties of people have to be taken by street patrolling officers, who have to be vested with enormous discretion. The police system allows enormous discretion in practice while at the same time maintaining a top-down command system.

Training for humane and ethical policing is of utmost importance. The police have to develop sensitivity towards both suspects and victims. In policing, mechanical application of rules do not always help, officers have to use their discretion and discretion is not license. Though grounded on rules, discretion is a form of judgement rather than mere following of rules.

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6 thoughts on “Corruption for a cause?

  1. there is a very fine line here and much as we may dislike this practice it is essential an evil as legal system is far to mild on history sheaters
    infact the beat police are more comfortable dealing with them than citizens.

    encounters were started and specialized in by mumbai police under guidance of bapat and an ib officers code -which had a good record, dgang power and political influence meant them being shunned off reason being income larger than known sources
    this lead to a total failure of police post the recent bomb blast as their infrastructure and network was totally destroyed

    look at russia – why do people like putin
    mainly because he brings order to things

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  2. Russians think that order is more important than any individual’s life.
    There secret police has developed a network where you spy on your neighbor and report his activities while your neighbor spies on you and report yours.. and everybody lives under fear.

    i agree there is a fine line between ends justifying means and abuse of power, but the question is who will set that line.. the corrupt police inspectors?

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  3. no not them the old system meant a special dcp crime under whom an sp and team of inspectors and subs and havaldars worked – i even knew where they first operated from cause it was opposite a friends house..

    now a days it is the corrupt police inspector or area dcp

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  4. those were older days the kgb is gone fsb does have powers, and there is relative independence at an indl level but i doubt if they have resources the only problem is now the ruling elite make/bend all the rules

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  5. There are certain rules which the cops are allowed to break legally. Beyond that the discresion is to be made by the cops themselves. If people are convinced that corruption is the only way to get things done, let them do it. Quite soon they would realize how the quality of living has degraded because of adhering to and encouraging corruption, including for the cops.

    Destination Infinity.

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  6. @destination…
    exactly…
    power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    its like dictatorship… people love the first few months because a lot of things which they always wanted happens so fast.. but soon they realize that it stinks

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