The term “Noble cause corruption” was first used in Edwin Delatre’s book “Character and Cops ~ Ethics in policing” published in 1989. It has now become a standard phrase for characterising police action to abuse and misuse power and authority for achieving apparently noble objectives. The concept has a classical origin.
In Plato’s Republic, the philosopher king justifies the use of noble lies to advance the welfare of the city. Herein lies a dichotomy. Whereas, Plato’s noble cause does not imply anything more than use of lies or other forms of deception to advance a worthwhile cause, many a police officer justifies blatant abuse of authority and violation of human rights of the suspects for achieving the so-called desirable objectives. They believe that sometimes it is necessary to adopt illegal means for achieving ends which are beneficial for society and such a course of action should not be equated with corruption for sordid personal gains. Unfortunately, this kind of flawed logic is touted not only by just the bad apples in the organisation but, at times, by many senior and conscientious officers.
One common and frequent form of noble cause corruption is testimonial corruption to secure conviction of criminals by improving on evidence by the police. It is a euphemism for perjury. When the police adopt this philosophy, they erroneously think that the end justifies the means and illegal methods, if necessary, have to be adopted to imprison those who prey on the society.
Moreover, besides padding evidence, the police also resort to other palpably illegal tactics like custodial violence, fake encounters, etc. against dreaded criminals and terrorists, who defy law and the criminal justice machinery. Due to the malfunctioning of the criminal justice system, there is also public approval of the dubious police work and operations.
The idea of noble cause corruption finds powerful exposition in a film called “Dirty Harry.” In the film, the police officer, Inspector Harry Callaghan in order to rescue a kidnapped girl, inflicts pain and torture on her kidnapper, who persistently refuses to disclose her whereabouts. The conflict of emotion of the Inspector depicted in the film is emotionally compelling. But it is also true that in many cases policemen resort to torture or high-handed methods not for rescuing a girl or for any other laudable objectives.
On the contrary, the motivating factor is the disposition on the part of the police to perform such acts. Such coercive methods and strongarm tactics clearly violate the rights of the suspects and corrode the moral fibre of the police. In many instances, noble cause corruption has its genesis in systemic arrogance. Many police officers mistakenly start believing that they have the right to decide what is good or bad and punish the wrongdoers accordingly.
But systemic arrogance has no place in policing and generates an organisational culture that legitimises abuse of authority. Many senior officers approve and, at times, encourage adoption of such illegal means in order to get rid of hardened criminals. Therefore, unless senior officers take a decisive stand against these forms of illegal practises and patterns, dishonest law enforcement in pursuit of so-called noble ends will continue.
Admittedly, justification of noble cause corruption implies faith in the concept that the end justifies the means. But the difficult problem in this case is that in police work, it is often seen that ends are not that important and serious to justify adoption of brazenly illegal means. In policing, detection of crime and conviction of criminals is no doubt important, but what is far more important in a liberal democratic order is to uphold the constitutional rights of the citizens. The fact of the matter is that wrong means ultimately pervert the end and thus, proportionality of the means has always to be kept in view.
It has been observed that disproportionate use of force in operations against the terrorists and criminals has proved to be counter-productive. Hence, to break the law in the name of law enforcement is objectionable because it becomes arbitrary as a process and random in its effects. In a democratic polity, order maintained through illegality leads to ultimate disorder.
However, in many countries, in order to combat war against terrorism, torture has been justified and viewed as noble cause corruption. While President Bush condemned torture as an instrument for fighting terrorism, the US Department of Justice issued notorious “torture memos” that sought to restrict the definition of torture to serious physical injury and justified some milder forms of ill treatment as “stress and distress” techniques on grounds of paramount security of the state.
But torture does not become permissible by euphemistically calling it something else. Moreover, using torture sparingly has never worked out. There is the danger of the “slippery slope” and the difficulty of knowing where to draw the line.
Writers like Delatre have held the view that when the police take important decisions between the choice of ends and means, the responsibility has to rest with a senior officer enjoying greater authority, experience and discretion. But it has to be borne in mind that this kind of referral is not always possible in tense and fast-moving situations. It is also to be kept in mind that the police, though a top-down command organisation, allows exercise of considerable discretion by its officers down the line.
Hence, field officers seeking to exercise noble cause corruption while handling a case have to carefully ponder if the end justifies the means because acts of noble cause corruption are often caused by a degree of moral negligence. The police have to keep in mind the rights of the victims as well as the suspects.
Therefore, there is need for training police officers and men in humane and ethical policing. The police have to develop sensitivity for those who are policed. In policing, mechanical application of discretion does not help. Discretion is not license. Though grounded on rules, it is a form of judgment rather than mere following of rules.