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  • Writer's pictureRiccardo D’Emidio, University of Sussex

In Plain Sight: Questioning Assumptions in Anti-Corruption Programming for Law Enforcement

By Riccardo D’Emidio, Sussex Center for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex

Police corruption remains a pressing and unresolved issue for many around the world. Across thirty-four African states, for instance, police organizations are perceived to be the most corrupt institution among government bodies.

Besides some notable exceptions, researchers have only sparingly investigated the nexus of social norms and corruption to unpack police corruption. This is a striking omission given the extensive evidence of informal norms and practices within police organizations—often referred to as “police subculture” or “code of silence”—and their relation to police misconduct.

What social norms are at play within police organizations? How do they relate to police corruption? Can they inform anti-corruption reform? And if so, how? Drawing on my research in Ghana, I underscore three key takeaways for practitioners which can help challenge entrenched assumptions about police corruption.

Social norms & the theory of normative spectrum

In an attempt to answer some of these questions, I apply Ben Cislaghi and Lori Heise’s Theory of Normative Spectrum (TNS) to map a range of corruption-relevant social norms within the Ghana Police Service.

As discussed in this blog, social norms are not an on/off switch; their strength varies depending on some features of the practice and its relation to the norms under analysis. Notably, the effect of social norms depends on whether a given practice—in this case police corruption—is interdependent, detectable, subject to strong and likely sanctions, and if there is an overlap between the norm and the practice.

The combination of these factors results in different degrees of influence. At the weakest level of influence, social norms might offer a model of behaviour which remains “cognitively accessible” to the reference group; when strongest, norms define what is obligatory.

Figure 1 - Spectrum of Normative Influence

Lessons from Ghana: zooming in on predatory authority

In my research on the police service in Ghana, I mapped a range of social norms feeding into police corruption (figure 2). Among these, I detected a descriptive norm of corruption (corruption considered normal and frequent). The bulk of norms identified, however, were injunctive norms (what is considered appropriate) hinging on notions of reciprocity, status or predatory authority. While these are not necessarily norms about corruption per se, they feed indirectly into a range of corrupt behaviors.

The influence of these norms ranged from weak to strongest crosscutting different reference groups from within the Ghana Police Service to the broader social context in which officers operate.

Figure 2 - Constellation of social norms

The injunctive norm of “predatory authority,” namely the notion that if you are in position of authority you are entitled to accumulate resources (public or private) emerged as one of the norms holding the strongest normative influence.

Research participants signalled a strong expectation within the Service, including in the very top cadres who act as “norm drivers,” for police officers to acquire wealth and flaunt it—even when everybody knows very well what the wages of a police officer can afford. A reference to this norm can be found in several proverbial sayings in Ghana, such as “It is not wrong for the one who grounds the stew to have a taste of it,” signalling its salience beyond the Ghana Police Service.

"The mainstream assumption in anti-corruption literature is that corruption is secret and unobservable. Rather, my research suggests that in contexts of endemic corruption, corrupt behaviour of a police officer is often not only a detectable behaviour, but also an interdependent one, whereby most officers are committed to ensuring compliance with norms feeding into corruption and misconduct."

According to some participants, police officers are introduced to the norm of predatory authority during the recruitment process. Several participants indicated that often officers are recruited from among party supporters, or as an officer said, “The government … must find jobs for his boys,” resulting in the enlisting of officers who have “no commitment to the job” and who are interested only in “things that bring the money.” The norm is further reinforced during police training and plays a significant role in the decisions and efforts of police officers to move internally within the Service.

AU Police on duty. Image from Flickr.

Positive sanctions for complying with the norm of predatory authority include recognition, celebration of belonging to a specific unit or team, approval and status within the team or unit, as well as trust and allegiance to the commander leading the team. This in turn often results in career progression within the Service and participation in lucrative foreign missions such as UN peacekeeping missions. Negative sanctions instead range from being tagged as “insubordinate” or “recalcitrant” to being transferred to challenging duty stations.

One officer revealed that he was dismissed and reduced in rank because “the system ganged up against” him. He then referred to the “subculture which is [an] invisible pressure on you to… follow the negative deals and in some cases, it is difficult to defy.”

This account illustrates the strength and likelihood of negative sanctions in place for non-compliers, while also underscoring the interdependence of corrupt behaviour within the police (“the system ganged up against me”), whereby the entire Service is committed to ensure compliance.

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The strong normative influence is compounded by the tight-knit nature of the reference group, in this case the GPS, and the vertical line of command. Several research participants highlighted how senior officers deploy administrative measures—such as refusal to grant leave, transfers or dismissal—to sanction compliance to the norm.

When applying the Theory of Normative Spectrum to the data, the norm of predatory authority emerges as an indirect norm—i.e., no overlap between the practice of corruption and the norm—engendering interdependent and detectable behaviour within the Service with strong and likely sanctions. This suggests that this injunctive norm has a strong normative influence over officers, defining certain behaviours as obligatory.

Image by Denis Vermeirre via Wikamedia Commons

Why is this important? Three takeaways

Three key considerations are relevant for anti-corruption programming in law enforcement organizations.

1. Police corruption as an interdependent and detectable behaviour. The mainstream assumption in anti-corruption literature is that corruption is secret and unobservable. Rather, my research suggests that in contexts of endemic corruption, corrupt behaviour of a police officer is often not only a detectable behaviour, but also an interdependent one, whereby most officers are committed to ensuring compliance with norms feeding into corruption and misconduct. By considering this, anti-corruption interventions in law enforcement agencies should avoid focusing on individual deterrence and punitive measures and instead re-orient efforts towards organizational measures geared to build professionalism and ethical culture.

2. Using administrative processes to sanction social norms. The recurrent use of administrative measures, such as granting leave, transfers, participation in UN missions, reduction in rank, dismissal etc., as sanctions for (non)compliers underscores the importance of human resource management systems. These include effective measures for recruitment, training, career progression, training and development. An understanding of the social norms at play and how they interact with existing organizational features can equip anti-corruption interventions with the necessary insights to assess what needs to be reformed, when and how.

3. Within the realm of social norms, officers play different roles; they can be drivers, followers or beneficiaries. Whereas norm drivers actively encourage conformity and norm followers actively change their behaviour to comply with a new emerging norm, norm beneficiaries are those who benefit and gain from the normative equilibrium. While in complex organizations these different roles are bound to overlap, understanding how they intersect with police hierarchy and functions can provide invaluable insights for anti-corruption reform. For example, an awareness of norm drivers within an organisation can inform the development of an effective theory of change and spell out existing assumptions.

The qualitative nature of this research lent itself to uncover patterns of beliefs of participants, providing insights that can challenge entrenched assumptions and misconceptions about police corruption. These, together with the theory of normative spectrum, can usefully inform quantitative research and programme design strategies.


Riccardo is a doctoral candidate in Politics, at the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex. His research investigates the role of social norms in shaping corrupt behaviour in the Ghana Police Service, exploring how this challenges current approaches to anti-corruption theory and practice. For the past 15 years Riccardo has worked for a range of international organisations and humanitarian agencies in West Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and Asia and the Pacific in the field of governance, citizen engagement, campaigning and advocacy. Currently he works for The Left in the European Parliament as a campaigner.


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