USIP hosted an expert panel Nov. 16 to discuss police reform and the need to try new ways that fit the task. USIP also published a new Special Report, "Police Corruption: What Past Scandals Teach About Current Challenges," by David Bayley and USIP's Bob Perito.

Generic solutions to reforming police departments abroad will fail unless reformers plan approaches that are specific to the task at hand.

“To be successful in reducing corruption in police agencies abroad, it is necessary to prioritize the focus of anti-corruption activities and to think tactically about them,” said David Bayley, an expert on criminal justice and international police reform. “Context matters.”

Bayley appeared at a panel discussion hosted by USIP at its Washington headquarters Nov. 16 titled “Police Corruption: “What Past Scandals Teach Us About Current Challenges.” The event was used to mark the publishing of a new report of the same name by Bayley and Robert Perito, director of USIP’s Security Sector Governance Center. The report details how much police corruption is an international problem, but how many remedies fall short of the mark, steeped as they are in academic research and influenced by other experience that isn’t always relevant to the country.

“Exporting what we know into the places where we are concerned with is at least on the surface, very naïve,” Bayley said.

In so many ways, police are the face of any government and therefore must be credible in the public eye. When officers take actions that alienate that public, the government’s credibility fails. But too often, police reform begins on the outside by importing institutional knowledge that doesn’t fit.

“We can’t use the wisdom that has come out of experiences in the west even though that is all the conventional wisdom,” Perito said after the event. “We have to find another basis upon which to go after corruption.”

The report essentially suggests that reforming police forces in foreign countries that lack judicial capacity should begin by identifying what makes the public angry at the police, and then get the police to stop doing it. “Then the police begin to reform themselves, and there is immediate payoff,” Perito said.

Bayley and Perito were joined on the dais by other experts: Athol Soper, assistant commissioner for the New Zealand Police now on assignment with the United Nations; Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovic, a professor at Michigan State University; and Michael Berkow, who was chief of police at the Savannah Chatham Metro Police Department and a deputy chief in Los Angeles among others. Perito moderated the event.

The event aimed to address two questions, including what a working definition for police corruption that can be applied in all countries should be, and how police corruption can be controlled, particularly in countries that remain unstable.

Kutnjak Ivkovic argued for external auditing of police departments in need of reform as one of the best tools for controlling corruption.

But Berkow “violently” disagreed: he said police departments are capable of reforming themselves.

Berkow said definitions are important when you’re talking about police corruption. For example, it can be the difference between misfeasance and malfeasance: if a police officer acts wrongfully by roughing up a criminal after a chase, his actions are wrong but he is still a legitimate actor operating on behalf of a society - misfeasance. Malfeasance is an officer acting, perhaps on his own behalf to achieve a personal gain.

“I really think it’s important to think about those definitions and those contexts,” he said.

In terms of police reform in countries around the world, the U.S. often acts in its own self-interest instead of genuinely working to build capacity. And, he says, the U.S. forgets the lessons it learns each time.

“We all seem to have national amnesia,” he said. “We have done all of these things in the past, we know what works and what doesn’t, and yet we have continually forgotten what we have done in the past,” Berkow said.

Bayley and Perito conclude in their report that “triage” and “bootstraps” are necessary strategies to reduce police corruption. Triage, as they define it, is “targeting assistance in countries where there are solid prospects for tipping police practice in the right direction.” And “bootstraps” is using reform within a police organization as a lever to “encourage systemic social and political reform in countries in crisis or emerging from conflict.”

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