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  • Writer's pictureCheyanne Scharbatke-Church - CJL

What Dynamics Drive Police and Judicial Officers to Engage in Corruption

By Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church

Use the systems maps below to follow the police and judicial officers’ experience of corruption in the precincts and courts of Northern Uganda. These maps, based on research conducted in Gulu and Lira in early 2016, explain what drives their behavior, what enables it, and the relationships between these factors.

In survey after survey, police in Uganda are consistently ranked the most corrupt state institution, with the judiciary following in the top three. Crime such as theft, burglary and robbery are experienced by a large swath of citizens, particularly those in vulnerable groups and rural communities; while corruption has proven to be highly resilient. According to the 2013 Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer for Uganda 55% of respondents felt that the level of corruption had increased a lot over the past 2 years.

The third in our Northern Uganda series follows the police and judicial officers experience of corruption in the criminal justice system (CJS). Based on research conducted in Gulu and Lira in early 2016, we used systems mapping to explain what drives their behavior, what enables it and the relationships between these factors. If you are new to systems mapping, we recommend you read “How to Read a Systems Map” before continuing.

In Northern Uganda, bribery is at the heart of the corruption system that is part and parcel of the criminal justice experience. Our research uncovered two different sets of dynamics that feed this vicious cycle; one set of dynamics that drive citizens to engage in or accede to corruption, and another set driving police and judicial officers’ behavior. Below, we try to make sense of the latter.

Police & judicial officer perspective

Pressure on Criminal Justice actors to demand bribes

Police and judicial officials experience significant social pressure to own or display status symbols which reflect the power of their position. Our research found that magistrates and police experience particularly sizable social pressure from their family and communities to live up to expectations. Cars, clothes and a house (and ideally big weddings and funerals as well) all offer signals of success that are deemed necessary to garner respect from one’s community. Notably the lack thereof (i.e. not accumulating visible markers of success regardless of one’s legitimate means), results in ridicule often from those closest to the individual. Many people talked of a general mentality of “grab what you can today”—accumulating wealth quickly—that has been, in part, a response to general uncertainty about the future. This pressure to have status symbols as indicators of personal success —whether for magistrates or for citizens who use them to gain influence in the justice system to pursue their cause—fuels the perpetual cycle of bribery.

Resource constraints

Resource constraints include material infrastructure (e.g. supplies, equipment and fuel) and staff competencies (e.g. inadequate knowledge of proper evidence collection procedure or the law). Mainly noted in relation to the police, these constraints create incentives for bribery and challenges to prosecuting cases. For instance, a legitimate lack of fuel generates a ‘fee for service’ request that often gets topped up to benefit the police officer. When such constraints lead to a flawed investigation or poor quality evidence, the resulting acquittal is also perceived as corruption (see: “citizens perceive all justice must be bought” in Three Lessons About Corruption in the Police and Courts in Northern Uganda)

Normalization & peer pressure

Corruption has become so habitual among the police and judicial officers that it is now considered normal behavior. Implicit peer and professional sanctioning systems have developed over time to ensure that people do not deviate from this “norm.” For example, police or judges who refuse to engage in corruption may be ostracized personally and/or suffer professional consequences (e.g. being transferred). The sanctioning systems strengthen the normalization of corruption, undermine the strength of formal rules (including rules against corruption), and increase opportunities (and behavior) to demand bribes.

Limited oversight

Scant oversight weakens the formal rules that should constrain corrupt behavior. Incentives to provide oversight are limited because all levels in the hierarchy—even at the level of the regime itself—are participating in some form of corruption, and it would not be in their interest to pursue an agenda of control or transparency. Unlike in other countries, the participation throughout the hierarchy is not vertically integrated; meaning in the criminal justice sector money does not flow up and power down. Rather each level operates to maximize its own advantage and that behavior is seen as a model; legitimatizing these behaviors at lower levels. Without oversight (and senior officials modeling these practices), opportunities for corruption are capitalized upon without concern.


Respondents external to the CJS spoke with great respect of people within the criminal justice system who were not corrupt. These people take personal risks in order to step out of the expected pattern of behavior, namely, corruption. This stance comes at a social and professional cost to many. It is possible, that the ability to resist could serve as a limiting factor for bribery, keeping it to implicitly understood ‘reasonable’ levels. However, only weak evidence of such was found. Its worthy of note that our research found no examples of citizens resisting corruption without external support e.g. legal aid; except in cases where they simply had no ability to obtain the required funds.

The system of corruption

The full corruption systems map shows how bribery is the central anchor of the system. The left side, depicted in orange, demonstrates how the citizen demands feed that vicious cycle. While the right side, depicted in purple show how the police and judicial dynamics fit into the system.

How these maps inform action

The causal loop map above may be used in a number of ways, depending on where you are in the life cycle of an intervention. It:

  • demonstrates how different drivers and enablers of corruption interact so that one can review programming to make sure both drivers and enablers are being targeted appropriately;

  • offers insights on where an intervention within the system would be most effective and potential positive and negative effects of an intervention;

  • can act as a tool to test the plausibility of a theory of change;

  • can facilitate coordination between development actors, who can divide up their work to address different elements of the systems map.

If you are leading an intervention in Northern Uganda we will be interested to hear if this map resonates with your experience. Please comment or email Kiely Barnard-Webster at to get in touch.


Want more resources on systems and corruption?

  • For a different way of depicting corruption through causal loop mapping, see Peter Woodrow’s description of corruption in the criminal justice sector in Lubumbashi, DRC.

  • Our work conceptualizes corruption as a complex adaptive system driven by interrelated and reinforcing enablers and drivers. This is further explained in Taking the Blinders Off: Questioning how development is used to fight corruption.

  • The Northern Uganda blog series is drawn from Scharbatke-Church and Chigas’s 2016 Facilitation in the Criminal Justice System in Northern Uganda.


About this article

What is the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program? The Corruption, Justice, and Legitimacy (CJL) Program advances systems approaches to corruption analysis in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. Focusing on the CJS, the program supports more holistic efforts to diminish corruption in core state activities related to human security. The work is built on the premise that corruption is a complex adaptive system. Building upon prior research for the U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, the CJL program puts policy makers’ assumptions about corruption’s effects on state legitimacy to evidential tests. This program is one of four projects funded by the Carnegie-funded project and convened at the Henry J. Leir Institute at the Fletcher School.

Led by Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, Professor of Practice and Diana Chigas, JD, Professor of Practice at The Fletcher School and Senior International Office and Associate Provost at Tufts University, the program team included Saskia Bechenmacher, Teddy Atim, Juliet H. Hatanga and Sophia Dawkins.


About the Author

Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is Principal at Besa: Catalyzing Strategic Change, a social enterprise committed to catalysing significant change on strategic issues in places experiencing conflict and structural or overt physical violence. She has significant experience working on anti-corruption and state legitimacy in the DRC and Uganda. As a Professor of Practice, she teaches and consults on program design, monitoring, evaluation and learning.


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