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Violations of Public Trust - The Impact of Municipal Corruption on Community Emergency Preparedness

Violations of Public Trust - The Impact of Municipal Corruption on Community Emergency Preparedness

“In broad terms, corruption is the abuse of public office for private gain. It encompasses unilateral abuses by government officials such as embezzlement and nepotism, as well as abuses linking public and private actors such as bribery, extortion, influence peddling, and fraud.”1

We’ve all heard about, read about, or have experience with public corruption. The mayor’s nephew is now the head of the parks department or the “city bid process is rigged.” Often only the big city scandals make the national news. A few examples:

Sentencing is scheduled June 11th for the ex-Mayor of New Orleans for his convictions on 20 counts of corruption.

“Seven months after the historic conviction of Detroit's former mayor on wide-ranging public corruption charges, Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced Thursday to 28 years in prison for running what the government called a money-making racket out of City Hall.” From here

Unfortunately, corruption can, and is, found across all municipalities.

How Big is the Corruption Problem?

Where corruption involves political and community leaders who have taken an oath to serve, the FBI is the agency who often investigate and file federal charges against wrongdoers.

“Currently the Bureau is working more than 4,000 public corruption cases around the nation with the help of our partners. Our investigative efforts pay off year after year—fiscal year 2013 alone saw approximately 1,200 federal indictments and informations against corrupt officials.” (from here)

Some of the worst violations of the public trust are the corruption cases involving the very people who have sworn to protect life and property in the community. Corruption in the emergency services agencies is not rare, nor is it new.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Released a report: Police, Drugs, And Corruption- A review of recent drug war-related scandals in five states and Puerto Rico, which found that “The GAO reported that from 1993 to 1998 the FBI opened at least 400 state and local police corruption cases that were drug-related, leading to the conviction of over 300 officers.”

Another case reaches back 30 years, where a 1984 New York Times article announced a conspiracy among public emergency services agencies in Boston. These emergency services responders sought to retain their jobs by “creating” work, by setting fires, “To scare the public into supporting more positions for the Police and Fire Departments after property tax reductions had reduced their ranks.”

The Immediate Community Cost (Lost Public Trust, Decreased Readiness)

An honest look at the cost of corruption on any tax funded municipality reveals that there are immediate impacts, community shock and outrage being first, especially where investigations expose a wider system of abuse and corruption than originally uncovered. Community outrage at the agency often creates difficulty for the remaining personnel because every move comes under increased scrutiny and suspicion. Where the community questions the motives of an agency or department, there is likely to be less cooperation with officers and other providers.

After the broader community, the internal shock to the agency follows with firings, resignations, and reorganizations within the department. While the agency is “cleaning the closet” emergency services are also affected. Hopefully, this is seamless to the community, but if you lose 10 members of any department, you have to shuffle shifts, people, and perhaps even equipment around to cover your duty. The emotional toll on the department personnel is often an overlooked component of recovery, but feelings of betrayal by “one of our own” should be acknowledged and addressed.

Once the immediate dust settles, which could take months, the agency must rebuild the image in the community. The community must believe that the organization is trustworthy.

Long Term Impact

Social Trust is, “a belief in the honesty, integrity and reliability of others – a “faith in people.” And a 2008 report by the Pew Research Center found that where Social Trust is high, crime and corruption are lower. Rebuilding trust is one considerable part of mitigating the long-term impact to a community recovering from public corruption. But public trust is only one aspect of the damage.

As budgets are shrinking, the cost of bribery, embezzlement, political favors, and other corrupt actions by municipal agencies is more egregious directly hurting the people of the community where services are already running on a shoestring. Money diverted from the legitimate projects and services can run into the hundreds of thousands. And not just in the big cities. Here is a 2013 slideshow of the “10 Most Epic Small Town Corruption Scandals” for your reading pleasure (you will need a shower afterwards).

Recovery from the monetary fallout can last years, even decades, as exampled by the consequences continuing to rock a small Minnesota town. “Seven individuals and one company have entered guilty pleas in a corruption scandal centered in Pipestone in southwest Minnesota. Many people have been directly affected by the crimes, which stretch back at least 15 years. Even more people are being hurt as the consequences of the crimes continue to ripple through the community.” (here)

There is no room at any level of emergency services to tolerate these blatant abuses of power and violations of the oath to protect the public.

Can Corruption be Stopped?

Starting from the premise that there is always the possibility for corruption in every municipality, there are some steps every agency should consider to prevent violating the public trust. A 1995 article by a former U.S. Attorney, Peter F. Vaira, speaks narrowly to police corruption, but the causes of corruption identified apply to all emergency services agencies. For example, the code of silence against reporting another department member by honest professionals who fear retribution or even firing. Mr. Vaira also points to a failure at a leadership level to implement management practices making corruption very uncomfortable at an agency.

A recommendation from the article is to create a position, not unlike the military Inspector General (IG), which is “three- star general with unfettered power and staff to inspect for efficiency, performance, readiness, morale, fiscal responsibility and dishonesty.”

For smaller and mid-sized municipalities adding another position may not be feasible. Keeping the current force numbers stable during tough budget years is hard enough. Another option is to develop written internal affairs practices and policies that discourage corruption in the municipality. Each and every public service should develop policies outlining:

   •   What corruption is, types and examples,
   •   Reporting requirements when discovered (or suspected) by fellow department members,
   •   The steps that will be taken by leadership,
   •   And a firm stance that corruption will NOT be tolerated here.

A good primer for examining your current policies was written by the Department of Justice (DOJ) Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and can be found from the International Associations of Chiefs of Police

Another resource, from our neighbors to the north (for U.S. readers), is a 2013 report that describes municipality “best practices” to prevent corruption.

Corruption has not place in the emergency services agencies that the public relies on to protect them. If your agency doesn’t have a written policy, write one. If your agency does not have annual training on ethics and corruption, consider this an annual training topic. The majority of responders are honest and dedicated to their craft, rightly earning the trust and respect of the communities they serve. Unfortunately, there are always those apples.


1. Center for Democracy and Governance, A Handbook for Fighting Corruption, Technical Publication (PN-ACE-70) February 1999

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