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Police Are Still Subject to the Laws of Economics

On August 19, 2011, in Drug War, by John Payne

People like to believe that if we just put good people in the government, we can avoid corruption and they will keep it efficient and just. It’s a nice thought, but it ignores how drastically our behavior is shaped by the incentives we face. When corruption is rewarded, there will be more of it, no matter how moral the people involved seem. The latest evidence for that proposition comes from the Houston Chronicle:

Nine South Texas lawmen have been charged or sent to prison in the past 16 months for using their badges to sneak drugs or guns through the U.S.-Mexico border region from Laredo to Brownsville.

Two are brothers. Another recruited an officer he has known since fifth grade.

And a former McAllen policeman was finally sent to a federal penitentiary in December after escaping five years ago from the East Hidalgo Detention Center.

The lawmen’s downfalls, an indication of growing corruption prosecutions, are all linked to Mexico’s lucrative drug cartels, which long have sought to infiltrate not only federal border guards but local officers patrolling U.S. towns along the Rio Grande.

“I thought we knew these people like the back of our hand,” said Laredo police investigator Joe Baeza. “But then again, if you look at the back of your hand every five years, it changes.”

These officers risked their careers and freedom for a little bit of money–seriously, one of them appears to have been bought off for $700–and they will probably lose everything because of it.

Now, how much more common do you think similar acts of corruption would be if it were officially sanctioned and rewarded by the department as well as state and federal governments? That’s exactly what happens every day with asset forfeiture. The government gives whole departments the incentive to take as much property as they can from whomever they can, with essentially no consequences if the people are innocent of any crime. It also encourages departments to turn away from violent crimes that don’t involve large amounts of cash as well as shipments of drugs to focus purely on profitable forfeitures.

Forfeiture is legal corruption. We lock up the agents who take a stack of bills to let a truckload of drugs slip across the border, but hand out cash and prestigious awards to officials who ignore that same truck further down the road in the hopes of catching it on the way back loaded down with cash. The end results are the same: the drugs reach their markets, and the police line their pockets with some of the proceeds.

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