Lessons from the Lab: Police Corruption and Law Enforcement

Law enforcement is a key component of a well-functioning society. Yet, in many parts of the world the police are perceived as the most corrupt public sector. 36% of respondents of the survey conducted in 119 countries by Transparency International for its 2017 Global Corruption Barometer1 believe that all or most of police officers are corrupt. This number increases to 47% in Sub-Saharan countries.

Police corruption can take several forms. As an illustration, consider traffic police whose main function is to observe drivers’ behavior on the road and enforce traffic laws by issuing citations to violators. One form of corruption is extortion, taking place when a traffic police officer stops a law-abiding driver and threatens to issue a citation unless a bribe is paid. Another is a collusive form of bribery when the officer stops a violator but allows the driver to pay a bribe and avoid an official citation.

What are the consequences of police corruption for law enforcement? If traffic police are busy collecting bribes and stop drivers indiscriminately, will anyone even bother to follow the rules? Answering these questions with observational data is problematic because sufficiently detailed and reliable data on corruption are simply not available. Laboratory experiments with human subjects can serve as an alternative research methodology. Co-authors Klaus Abbink (Monash University) and Danila Serra (Southern Methodist University), and myself have conducted such an experiment where we studied corruption in law enforcement and rule-breaking by observing the behavior of subjects in a game designed to replicate real-world interactions of citizens with corrupt police.2

Subjects were randomly assigned the roles of police officers and private citizens. Citizens chose whether or not to break the law. If a citizen broke the law, they received a monetary reward, whereas all other citizens in the group incurred a cost. This manipulation was intended to mimic real-world situations where rule-breaking benefits the perpetrator but harms other people in the society (think speeding, building code violations, fraud in the financial sector, or tax evasion). Police officers observed citizens’ decisions and could either issue a citation, resulting in a fine for the citizen, or demand a bribe. The money collected in fines was transferred to government coffers (i.e., redistributed back to society), while bribes were simply pocketed by police officers. The game was repeated for multiple rounds in order to observe the evolution of rule-breaking and corruption over time. In addition to the main game, the experiment included two control treatments. In one, there were no police at all, while in the other police officers could not demand bribes.

While studying the details of police corruption and its consequences for rule-breaking is useful,it is at least as important to design measures that help reduce corruption. In systemically corrupt societies, the standard approach to fighting corruption via monitoring and punishment is not effective because the enforcers of anti-corruption laws can themselves be corrupt. As an alternative, bottom-up approach, we proposed and tested two reward schemes for police officers. These rewards are based on society-wide measures of crime and corruption, and not on the monitoring of individual officers, and thus can be implemented via independent surveys by NGOs completely bypassing the state-run (and possibly corrupt) law enforcement. We tested the effectiveness of these reward schemes with two treatments in our experiment.

The results of our study are rather intriguing. First, we saw that the presence of police, even when it is corrupt, was much better than anarchy. Second, corrupt police managed to enforce the law no worse than honest police, although, of course,citizens incurred significant costs due to wide-spread bribery. How did the corruption police manage to fight crime? It turned out that police engaged in targeted extortion; that is, they were much more likely to demand a bribe from citizens who broke the law than from those who did not. Therefore, citizens still had a good reason to follow rules, if only to sometimes avoid paying heavy bribes. But the most interesting findings came out of the experiment with the two reward schemes. When police were rewarded for lowering the crime rate, extortion became even more targeted. Apparently, officers viewed bribes as an effective form of law enforcement, not forgetting about their own pockets in the process. However, citizens were not intimidated and kept breaking the law at the usual rate. In contrast, when police were rewarded for low corruption, they recued the intensity of extortion, still keeping it targeted mostly at violators. Citizens reacted in kind by lowering the rate of law-breaking, albeit moderately.

To conclude, we offer new insights into the unintended consequences of police corruption in societies characterized by high crime and corruption rates. It turns out police officers can use bribes as a law enforcement instrument. We also demonstrate the effectiveness of an anti-corruption mechanism in the form of small financial rewards given to all officers on the basis of the bribery rate observed in the society as a whole. Such a scheme can be implemented by an NGO conducting independent corruption perception surveys.

Dr. Dmitry Ryvkin is the Bernard F. Sliger Professor in the Department of Economics.

The Feature image is from Cops Plus.


1 https://www.transparency.org/_view/publication/8064

2 Abbink, K., Ryvkin, D., Serra, D. Corrupt Police. Working paper available at https://econpapers.repec.org/paper/fsuwpaper/wp2018_5f09_5f01.htm

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