AMERICA'S war on illegal narcotics has a new worry: corrupt cops. Huge bribes from drug smugglers and dealers are threatening law enforcement efforts along the Southwest border, as well as in major cities and small towns. Officials are troubled.
``There's a lot of concern among police chiefs about the corruption,'' says Patrick Murphy, director of the Drug Policy Board of the US Conference of Mayors.
Mr. Murphy, who was police commissioner of New York City during the early 1970s, says the amount of drug money used for bribes is mind-boggling. ``Gambling money was peanuts compared to this,'' he says.
George Heavey, assistant commissioner of the US Customs Service, observes grimly that ``if a smuggler offers $50,000, $100,000, or $200,000 to an officer, it has to be tempting.''
Sometimes the offers are even higher. Edwin Delattre, author of ``Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing,'' says he has ``friends in law enforcement who have turned down cash bribes greater than their entire career earnings.''
How much is that? ``More than $2 million apiece,'' he says.
All this money is taking a toll.
Customs officials are probing 300 potential cases of possible corruption or malfeasance within the ranks of the service. The preponderance of the cases involve narcotics.
Los Angeles County officials suspended 26 deputies earlier this year in an ongoing probe of corruption that may have involved the skimming of at least $1.4 million in drug money.
Prosecutors won guilty verdicts this year against four Philadelphia narcotics officers, who were convicted of stealing money and drugs from dealers.
Not all the cases are so dramatic. Many involve sheriffs in rural counties, small-town policemen, or lone federal agents in cahoots with smugglers.
Nor are bad cops the only culprits. Dr. Delattre, who is the Olin scholar of applied ethics at Boston University, says: ``You will mislead readers if you say that police corruption is a problem, and ignore more widespread problems in the private sector, or other parts of government.''
The professor says drug corruption ``involves judges in some cities, and other public servants in both the legislative and executive branches.''
Drug corruption also taints the private sector. Delattre notes that ``17 people were indicted on Wall Street in [the past two years] for dealing in cocaine, or giving inside information in exchange for drugs.''
But bad cops are foremost on the minds of many officials.
William Rohde, director of investigations for Customs, points to a case in which a Customs inspector was arrested in Arizona, and now awaits trial, on charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine.
Last month, the Houston Chronicle reported growing fears within Customs that some officers in south Texas could not be trusted. The paper quoted an anonymous Customs officer saying: ``The whole area is so corrupt. There are supervisors and Customs inspectors down there who have very close friends who are known drug traffickers.''
Mr. Rohde says Customs' internal investigative unit, now with 310 agents and support staff, was beefed up by 80 people during the past five months to root out corruption. Overall, Rohde notes that Customs is ``a clean operation'' - with only a tiny number of its 17,000 employees charged with committing offenses.
Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., says it is no surprise that some officers are tempted as society's values change.
``Twenty years ago, people who used drugs were viewed as outcasts. They were socially shunned. But when you see renowned athletes, entertainers, and intellects using drugs, then drugs have become part of our culture. ... Police are not immune to that.''
Mr. Williams also says that the country also seems to have lost the kind of integrity it had in government or the private sector several decades ago.
Delattre makes a similar point.
``There was a recent study of education in which over 30 percent of the students said they think cheating is an acceptable way to get ahead. When street-gang members are asked, one answer they all give is, `The most important thing in life is money.'
``When people have that kind of poverty of imagination, when money is more important than who loves you, whose love you deserve, you have social problems of very great dimension.''
The corruption threat is one reason ``the FBI never wanted to get into drug enforcement,'' Murphy says. ``So it's not just the local cops. The drug enforcement agencies of this country have had a problem [with corruption] going back 50 years because of the big money involved.''
Drug money is ``corrosive,'' Delattre warns. Formerly, the taint of drug money was primarily a threat to vice units. Now so much drug money is washing down the streets that it reaches ordinary beat cops.
Murphy points to one example: ``move-along money'' carried by drug couriers. If a policeman pulls over a courier, perhaps on a minor traffic offense, he may discover a big load of cocaine in the trunk. At that point, it is not unheard of for the courier to pull out an envelope containing $25,000 in cash to persuade the officer to ``just let me go.''
``You can get a year's salary in an envelope. ... When police chiefs talk to you quietly, [this is the problem] that is driving them up the walls,'' Murphy says.