Chief Penny Eileen Harrington

Challenges Facing Police Administrators

Chief Penny E. Harrington
Director, National Center for Women & Policing
(former chief of police of Portland, Or)

As we enter the 21st Century, law enforcement administrators nationwide are facing a crisis of confidence from the people they are sworn to serve and protect. Corruption and brutality scandals have severely tarnished the public’s faith in the police. From the killings and brutalizing of citizens in New York City to the widespread corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department, more and more law enforcement administrators are faced with the task of reforming police departments…..with little guidance on how to bring about the necessary changes.

This is not the first time in our country’s history that corruption and brutality have been front page news. Over the years, many commissions have been established to examine "what went wrong" in a particular law enforcement agency. From the Knapp Commission in New York in the 1960’s to the Christopher Commission in Los Angeles in the 1980’s, some of the best minds in the nation have tried to determine what causes brutality and corruption and how to prevent it from happening again.

Part of our current problems stem from the unprecedented level of drugs, gangs and guns in our cities. Systemically, the problems are caused by law enforcement agencies that continue to hire the wrong type of people as police officers and then participate in cover-ups of misconduct.

The Role of Illegal Drugs in Police Corruption:

In the past 40 years, drugs have become a commonplace element of life in our cities and even in our rural communities. From the "flower children" smoking pot in the 60’s to the hardcore street drugs of heroin, cocaine and meth, America has experienced a growing demand for drugs. As with any other enterprise, the law of supply and demand pertains to the drug business. Since most of these drugs are illegal, persons wishing to use them must participate in a criminal transaction to obtain drugs. As our society has become more affluent, the demand for recreational drugs has skyrocketed. And, the only source of supply of these drugs is drug dealers. Cartels in Columbia and other countries produce this product and illegally smuggle it into the United States where organized gangs distribute it. The money to be made is in the billions of dollars each year.

Years ago, most police officers would not accept bribes. It was not worth losing your job over a few hundred dollars to look the other way. Today, police officers have been arrested for selling drugs, providing protection to drug dealers, and stealing the proceeds of illegal drug sales. The money to be made can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars….much more than a police officer could hope to earn in years of work.

In addition, there has been a great deal of political pressure to clean up the streets. Even the President of the United States declared a "war on drugs" and poured a great deal of money into interdiction. That type of pressure trickles down to the officer on the street with demands for more arrests of drug dealers. And, to compound the issue, under the RICO Act (Racketering Influenced Criminal Organizations), police and prosecutors can confiscate money, cars, real estate and other property that is involved in the illegal criminal enterprise, thereby increasing dollars available for budgeted needs. It is not difficult to understand how political pressure to clean up the streets can lead to police officers who violate the rights of citizens by planting evidence, lying in search warrants or in court and "confiscating" money and property for their own use. The surprising thing about the scandal of police corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department, Rampart Division, is that there was not a huge public outcry and demand for accountability. This may be due to the fact that the persons who were brutalized by the police or who were sent to prison on false testimony were street criminals who were terrorizing the neighborhoods with their criminal activities.

Police Brutality

Being a police officer is not an easy job. Officers are expected to make split-second decisions on issues involving life and death. They are subjected to danger and extreme stress on the job. It is not surprising (although it is inexcusable) that some of them explode into a frenzy of brutality. Video cameras have captured police officers in the act of brutally beating people, such as in the Rodney King beating, the Philadelphia incidents and others. Because police officers are under extreme stress and are forced to make instant decisions, they sometimes make mistakes and people are killed or seriously injured. Sometimes police are killed because they did not react quickly enough. However, there are some situations that no one can understand, such as the brutal sexual assault on Mr. Louima by New York Police officers. That was not a "split-second" decision and was not an act that took place in the heat of an extremely stressful incident. It is an attack that took place in a police station where the victim was a prisoner. What causes police officers to take the law into their own hands and to become judge, jury and "executioner".

Hiring the Wrong People

If we could examine the work and personal histories of officers who engage in corruption, brutality or other serious misconduct, we would frequently find warning signals that were ignored.

For many, many years, law enforcement agencies recruited heavily from the military for police positions. Police departments have traditionally been militaristic institutions with a heavy reliance on obedience to orders and the use of force to gain compliance. Military men were logical candidates for that type of police work. So, we would hire these men from the military, put them in a different uniform, teach them to use force to enforce the laws and put them to work in a fairly unsupervised situation.

In addition, because of community dissatisfaction with the way policing was being conducted, police became more insular and developed an "us against them" mentality. They distrusted the public and felt that the police were under appreciated. They became cold and mechanical in the way they conducted business. This led to even more complaints from the public. If officers used excessive force, the community was quick to condemn them and demand that they be fired. This helped fuel a "code of silence" in policing where officers will not report misconduct committed by fellow officers. Some even go so far as to falsely testify during internal investigations. Officers who violate this code and provide information suffer severe retaliation, including no cover from other officers during emergencies.

Suggestions for Improving the Situation

Conscientious police administrators must take several different approaches to deal with these serious issues.

The police cannot be held solely responsible for solving the ills of society. Police cannot make sure that your children resist peer pressure to try illegal drugs. Police cannot solve the problem of dysfunctional families, poverty and other issues that exist in many of our communities. When community members, elected officials and law enforcement work together to solve crime problems, investigate allegations of misconduct and improve the livability of the community, magical things can happen. By working together with mutual respect, we can set an example for our children, tackle the tough issues and someday break the cycle of drugs and violence in our cities.


Chief Penny Harrington is the Director of the National Center for Women & Policing, a division of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Chief Harrington spent 23 years in the Portland, Oregon, Police Bureau where she became the first woman to be appointed as chief of police of a major city in the United States. Her autobiography, "Triumph of Spirit" was recently published and is available at most bookstores. Chief Harrington also just authored "Recruiting & Retaining Women: A Self-Assessment Guide for Law Enforcement" that will be published by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The National Center for Women & Policing is a non-profit organization working to increase the numbers of women in policing and address issues of police reform nationally. For more information, see their website at