Police Culture: Corruption or Oppression?

I propose to critique the institution of the police, particularly in their actions towards protecting vulnerable groups that as part of society. As part of this query, I will look towards specific examples of abuse of police powers with the intent to query whether those actions are indicative of a type of corruption, being examples of aberrant behaviour for the institution, or whether they are a type of oppression, being examples of behaviour normative of the institution itself.

In order to consider this question I will contrast a number of incidents in Australia and Russia. First, I will focus on a number of incidents during the 2013 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival, where police were accused of abusing police powers, including police brutality. Then, I will focus on Russia, where there exists a broad, loosely connected series of incidents that pertain to the treatment of LGBTI subjects in this jurisdiction following the legislation on a ban of ‘gay propaganda towards minors’.

I reference to the terms ‘corruption’ and ‘oppression’, with particularity. Though they are both contestable terms, as shown by Leys showing how the reality of corruption can be informed by context, and difficult to isolate with definitive rules or heuristics. For the purposes of this essay, it is sufficient to understand an idea of corruption as an abuse of police powers (this is elaborated on in the second section). On the other hand, I would contend that in the context of abuse directed towards a marginalised group in society, corruption and oppression may appear very similar in how they manifest. However, I consider a theory of oppression like that of Cudd, describing institutionally structured harm, perpetrated on social groups through a variety of direct and indirect forces (material, economic, and psychological). What I infer from models like Cudd’s is that oppression describes more of a systematic and pervasive expression of coercion and abuse, which has internalised and institutionalised the instrumentation of harm; contrasted to corruption which would signify and aberration of the norm.

By comparing these ideas, I propose a simple heuristic for assessing whether a type of abuse is more symptomatic of corruption (a perversion of a normative order) or of oppression (an expression of an institutionalised system of harm), with the former being characterised as acute and irregular, and the latter being chronic and pervasive. Using this heuristic, I will endeavour to demonstrate that the violence of Mardi Gras 2013 is acute and irregular while Russia is evidence of chronic and pervasive, thereby demonstrating a distinction between them.

Background of Incidents

It is not necessary to fully detail the incidents compared, only to provide an overview of police actions. However, I outline the violence experienced by LGBTI groups in both jurisdictions, and make inferences from their comparison.

During the Mardi Gras festival 2013, a number of incidents alleged police brutality and hostility several key events. The most visible was alleged police assault on Jamie Reed on the night of the parade, which was accompanied by a second alleged police assault against Bryn Hutchinson on the same night.

These incidents occurred within a broader range of alleged abuses of police power, particularly towards attendees of large dance parties. A sample of observed police conduct from the Inner City Legal Centre includes:

  • “police not giving warnings or following legal process before asking people about drugs in their possession”;
  • “police singling out stereotypical gay people and gender diverse people to search with dogs”;
  • “police placing hand on dog’s hind to encourage them to sit”; and
  • “dogs not giving any indication for a search but the police perusing the person regardless”.

Compare this to Russia, which gained international attention in passing legislation that banned the “propaganda of nontraditional [sic] sexual relations to minors“, followed by the rise of vigilantism towards LGBTI groups. Russian vigilante groups used social media to lure gay men into fake sexual encounters where they are promptly kidnapped and filmed being beaten, tortured, and humiliated; some reports indicated fatal casualties from these incidents. In recent months, there has been an arrest of a Dutch activist for discussing LGBTI rights in Russia, and violent encounters with LGBTI activists and their counter-protesters at LGBTI protests. Moreover, in many of these incidents, the police have seemingly failed to intervene adequately to prevent that violence.

Comparisons

The biggest difference between these jurisdictions is the source of the violence. In Australia, the source was from the police force: in Russia, the violence was the product of vigilantism, which the police failed to prevent. This describes two distinct caricatures of violence, as comprehended by the broader public. In the Australian context, these describe examples of an excess of power that has directly caused harm. In the Russian context, such incidents describe complicity by the police to allow pervasive harm to be applied. On this consideration alone, it would seem that the Australian incident describes an acute example while the Russian incidents describe a chronic example.

In Australia, the public response to the allegations of violence included protests and two separate investigations. Admittedly, some of this protest attribute the incidents of police violence to broader systematic form of violence, signified by the notorious “All Cops are Bastards” banner, but their voice is not necessarily indicative of the community.

The Russian depiction is starkly different, with a number of descriptions that speak to a growing hostility in Russia towards LGBTI persons, including statements by Russian citizens stating that it has “becom[e] dangerous on the streets” and that “[o]rdinary people consider [homosexuals] criminals”, as well as other comments that create a picture by sound-bites of a traditional population compounding a persecution of LGBTI people with a fear of the West (see here for those quotes).

These comparisons conform my own earlier research (from my own Masters thesis), where I contended that legal regimes in the West have come to frame their LGBTI subjects as minorities entitled with civic rights, contrasted with jurisdictions that reject/oppose Western political hegemony. Under these regimes, LGBTI subjects are characterised as politically dissident and sick, such that:

“attempt[s] to create rights for queer subjects must reconcile itself with the structures of power and agency that produce identity… [and that] … systems of power can alienate and marginalise ‘dissonant’ identities”.

These relationships become immensely important when considering the state’s disposition to a vulnerable group. My earlier research compared the characterisation of LGBTI citizens in different types of statehood. I synthesised the position of a number of international commentators, which observed that a large number of nations were increasingly challenged to reformulate their models of statehood with the fall of the Soviet Union (and the end of bipolarity). Emerging nations needed to emulate Western paradigms for political legitimacy, whilst simultaneously attempting to distinguish a national identity that was distinctive enough from the West. This dichotomy produced a number of states that sought to impose strong statist models, and a consequence of those changes included regulations of sexual and gendered behaviour, emphasising family model that repressed any sexual dissidence. Citizenship emphasised allegiance nationalist symbolism, military-patriarchal power hierarchies that encouraged homosocial bonding but homosexual repression.

Police Culture

Having compared the set of incidents, I now enquire directly into police culture. To do so, I will outline some of the theories of the function of police forces and standard models of police culture, while recognising those critiques. In doing so, I hope to provide a framework of understanding the institutionalism of the police, and from this position consider whether the incidents can be considered irregular or pervasive.

I first ground my argument within a theoretical understanding of the role of the police. I refer to a Weberian model of the state, and its proposed monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In doing so, I argue that the police force serves as an ancillary body of the State, being both legitimised and authorised to use force for the purposes of enforcing the law and maintaining of civil order. In this manner, police corruption can be seen as irregular if it constitutes a breakdown of the normal preservation of law and order. They become oppressive when they are part of an institutionalised breakdown of the same.

Standard Model of Police Culture

In Australia public order is frequently mediated by discretionary police powers: police are vested with discretion on “whether (and how) to investigate a reported crime, which method of initiating proceeding to adopt, whether to detain after arrest, whether or not to grant bail (in most cases), whether or not to charge, what to charge with, and so on” (see pp. 746-747 of this book). I would contend that the use of discretionary powers become a means by which we can understand the norms of police culture. So if the alleged acts of violence by the police are extraordinary use of police power rather than normative misuse they would indicate corruption rather than oppression (and vice versa).

To that end, consider the standard model of police culture, which originated with the works of Wesley where:
“[h]e gave a detailed, vivid description of an organization that operated in a context that was often experienced as hostile. This contributed to isolation, self-protection, secrecy and internal solidarity – all seen as central values among the police officers. This is why they often closed ranks against the outside world” (p. 60 from here).

Academic inquiry has refined this departure point through subsequent studies and synthesised a new standard model of police culture. This updated model characterised police culture being possessed of a sense of mission leading to direct action, which is juxtaposed by a sense of cynicism and suspicion of outsiders, such as the citizenry. This characterisation elaborates on Wesley’s observations, depicting a siege mentality buffeted by strong internal solidarity, even over breaches of rules and regulations.

Russian Police Enforcement

In Russia, the base presumption of police culture seems to have shifted someone. Gerber and Mendelson consider Russian police culture and its intersection with corruption. Rather than a siege mentality as outlined above, they provide a concept of ‘predatory policing’, which “occurs where police officers mainly use their authority to advance their own material interests rather than to fight crime or protect the interests of elites”. They conclude that “[p]ublic encounters with police corruption are at least as common as experiences with police violence, and both are widespread”.

Semukhina and Reynolds provide a comprehensive book titled Understanding the Modern Russian Police. A significant part of their work reviews the pervasiveness of police corruption, and the way they frame the issue describes it in very ubiquitous manner to the point where it is necessary to produce theoretical positions to explain it. Of these positions, they outline four dominant explanations, which include:

  • a persistence of historical Soviet practices of bribery into the modern Russian police institution, where personal favours were exchanged for consumer goods during a period of commodity scarcity;
  • a consequent of deteriorating social and economic disruptions experienced caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and maturing interconnections between former Soviet government officials and organised crime syndicates;
  • a ‘business of corruption’, where corrupt conduct is normalised, and rationalised with arguments that the costs of proper anti-corruption are higher and more riskier; all exacerbated by widespread poverty; and
  • a larger cultural phenomenon within Russia, of pervasive disrespect for the law and broad public tolerance for corruption.

Regardless of which view is taken, they all collectively describe a picture of police corruption that is widespread and affected by deeply problematic socio-economic issues. In fact, an emphasis of structural problems more strongly highlights the views expressed in the second point, which argues that there has been an increased hierarchical organisation, centralisation, and extreme militarisation of the police force; all having led to a lack of independent oversight of police powers and activity. Specifically, the main institution charged with supervising the legality of conduct, the Procuracy, is an adjunct of the criminal police: international reviews of the Procuracy have revealed low levels of confidence in their ability to fight corruption.

Comparisons

What these comparisons show is that despite the Russian and Australian police forces exhibiting a similar societal role, they can manifest significantly different institutional norms. It is to this that it is necessary to consider a number of criticisms of this standard model, citing the standard model’s claims of homogeneity or emphases on problematic police behaviours.

A particularly relevant critical position is Chan, who argues that police culture is the result of “the interaction between the socio-political context of police work and various dimensions of police organizational [sic] knowledge”. She contends that any model of police culture should:

  • account for multiple internal institutional perspectives;
  • recognise the active role that police officers have in being interpreting and producing that culture;
  • be able to consider the culture within broader socio-political contexts; and
  • include formulations for the acceptance and resistance to cultural changes.

This conforms to my earlier claim that the nature and stability of the state has a deep influence on the integrity of a police culture, and whether an act of corruption is institutional or aberrant. Moreover, Terpstra and Schaap earlier critques includes Chan’s critiques and eventually conclude that many of the descriptive characteristics of the police culture model, as well as the individualistic police behaviours, shift significantly in the broader socio-political context of the state norms that their force serves.

Given these positions and a comparison of Australian and Russian police cultures, it follows that there is a strong argument for the incidents of Mardi Gras 2013 to be acute incidents that are not part of a normative police culture in Australia; it follows that the conduct and actions of the Russian police are located within a comparison, it would follow a point of evidence that conforms to my original premise that particular incidents of police conduct can be understood as acute or chronic in reflection to systemic and pervasive views that inform police conduct.

Conclusions

I have compared a set of incidents in both Australia and in Russia. I have sought to determine whether, given the context of the police culture and statehood, if these incidents could be understood as either acute and irregular or chronic and pervasion.

In the instance of Mardi Gras 2013, the incidents, while not the first of their kind in Australia, do not seem to be rooted within a broader framework of police violence and hostility. While they could indicate the beginnings of a pervasive approach, they currently seem isolated, making them acute incidents. Moreover, the standard model of police culture, which is normative for Anglo-American institutes, would indicate that despite a siege mentality such conduct is irregular. In this sense, I would characterise the allegations of Mardi Gras as an example of corruption, in the sense they are a perversion of the norm.

In the instance of Russian, the incidents of violence are partly attributable to the complicity of the police, which are continuing and repeated; the police only seeming to respond to prosecute vigilantism after international attention. Moreover, these incidents exist within a broader context of state-persecution of LGBTI subjects, and a broad culture of Russian police corruption that is itself regarded as widespread and pervasion. In this sense, I would characterise the issues reported in Russia as an example of oppression, in the sense that they are systematically entrenched and internalised into police culture.

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