Ira PilgrimIRA'S CORNERFilename:N-program

March 29, 2002 (Ira Pilgrim)

Gifts, Tips and Bribes

Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law.

Louis D. Brandeis

When I was growing up in New York City, it was the custom, when a driver was stopped for a traffic violation and asked for his drivers license, to include a $10 bill with it. This might result in a warning instead of a traffic ticket. In those days, $10 was real money. It was also the custom for the cop on the beat to never pay for any food while pounding his beat, and for the local merchants to give him gifts on appropriate occasions. Those practices were excused on the basis that the cop didn't make much money and that those gifts were the equivalent of the tips given to a waiter.

For me, the ethics of all of these behaviors is fairly clear. When a storekeeper gives a cop some money to keep an extra eye on his place, in other words, to do his job well, it is as legitimate and honest as giving a waiter something extra for doing a good job. While this is good in theory, it may not work in practice. The cop can take the money and do a lousy job. On the other hand, giving a cop money to look the other way while a crime is being committed, or paying him to ignore a serious violation is criminal.

Some waiters deserve a 10% tip, some deserve 20% or more, and some should pay their customers, the service is so bad. Still, what they get often depends on the particular customer rather than the service.

What often happens is that the cop comes to expect the gift and the merchant suffers if he doesn't give it. He might find the cop ticketing him for a trivial violation, instead of ignoring it or warning him. At that point the cop is in the extortion business. He is a criminal.

H.L. Mencken, in writing about the Baltimore of his youth, says "I never heard of cops getting anything that the donor was not willing and eager to give." While he never heard of it, I have.

In my year in Nigeria, bribery and shake downs were common. I resolved never to give in to it. The small "dash" was perfectly all right, but when a customs inspector or a government immigration agent tried to shake me down, I refused. Yet, despite my resolve, I did take part in it once. On my return home, when I got to the Lagos airport, I saw long lines in front of each counter. When an airport tout came up to me and offered to check my baggage through and get other bits of red tape taken care of for "whatever you care to pay," I succumbed, and after he had taken care of everything, I paid him very well for a job well done. I knew that he had bribed the right people. Besides, the Nigerian money that I had would be of no use to me; except to bribe someone else. Of course, I could afford to take the high road because I paid someone else to do the dirty work for me. In Nigeria, I was comparatively wealthy and most of the people were very poor. They were mostly good and honest people who worked hard and deserved more than they got.

These days a cop, particularly one who deals with drugs, is exposed to some powerful temptations. He is not highly paid and he is frequently exposed to large sums of money which, if he took some, would never be missed. He is also exposed to the fact that some drug dealers live a lot better than he does.

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