Police officers aren’t immune to taking that one wrong turn in the ethics department.
Whenever a major police corruption scandal breaks, like the madness currently unfolding in Baltimore, it always prompts the question: What makes police officers go rogue? Whatever the severity of the corruption, whatever the size of the department, whatever type of community, there are cops that can’t resist the opportunity to break the law. Today there are far fewer “grass-eaters” (an old nickname for cops who took small-time payoffs), but the “meat-eaters” (cops involved in serious criminal activity) have gotten bolder and dirtier.
One of the reasons small-time grifting has gone by the wayside is that nowadays, a career in law enforcement is much more viable than it was in years gone by. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median 2016 salary for police and detectives was $61,600 annually, which is $4,000 higher than the median US household income. And while every state sets its own benefits, most offer early retirement with at least a partial pension after 20 to 25 years on the job. And while it goes without saying that law enforcement can be dangerous work, it only ranked #14 in workplace fatalities in 2016, and 2017 had the second-lowest number of officers killed in 58 years.
So law enforcement is a solid career choice with a decent paycheck and doesn’t require working well into the golden years. Yet some percentage of officers, in all types of settings, will go rogue. To understand who those officers are and why they choose a life of crime from within the force, I spoke with three experts on dirty cops: Todd Lighty, a longtime investigative journalist for the Chicago Tribune; Ken Eurell, a main player in one of the biggest scandals in NYPD history, a clique of cops whose brazen robbery, drug dealing, and abetting of criminals prompted the reform-oriented Mollen Commission; and Adam Sulfridge, a former cub reporter at a rural Kentucky newspaper who exposed a corrupt sheriff who was moonlighting in the local drug trade.
Once a Thug, Always a Thug
Joining a police force to pursue a life of crime seems counterintuitive; it’s easier to buy off cops than go through academy training followed by years of tooling around in a patrol car. On the other hand, just because someone has a general desire to work in law enforcement doesn’t necessarily mean they’re on the up-and-up.
One example of an apple gone bad prior to joining the force was found in Whitley County, Kentucky, population 35,000. It’s the type of rural area where everyone knows each other, so Lawrence Hodge was already familiar to locals when they elected him County Sheriff in 2002. Hodge was the epitome of the “untouchable” good ol’ boy sheriff who was running shakedowns, trading guns for drugs, and stealing from the department. Once in power, he repeatedly hired the same personality types into the force, including a special deputy who, along with his son, beat the hell out of a local man and pleaded guilty to second-degree assault under extreme disturbance. Twenty-year-old college student Adam Sulfridge, who’d recently gotten a job with the local Times-Tribune, started reporting on the case. Over the course of his investigations he learned that Hodge had a longstanding reputation for bad behavior: Multiple people he interviewed told him that Hodge had always been crooked and had bullied people back in high school.The same character traits were exhibited by the notorious NYPD cop Michael Dowd, as testified by his former partner, Ken Eurell. “He would’ve been half-a-crook no matter what he did,” says Eurell from his home in Florida. Eurell, author of the recent memoir, Betrayal in Blue, it should be noted, participated in robbing drug peddlers, protecting a vicious East New York kingpin, and ultimately running a multimillion suburban cocaine ring. Obviously, not every high school jerk ends up a sociopath with a long rap sheet—some even become exemplary police officers. But those who join the force with even a small tendency toward criminal behavior are likely to get into serious trouble. The life of a cop can be combustible: it only takes a spark to get a fire roaring.
A Single Unethical Step
Some members of police gangs, like Dowd and Hodge, may have jumped into felonious activity with both feet, but typically, the first infractions are small ones. Even for these officers, it’s a slippery slope from petty offenses to major felonies.
For years, Todd Lighty covered the case of Joseph Miedzianowski, oft referred to as the most corrupt police officer in Chicago history. Miedzianowski became such a powerful player in the drug trade—selling crack, arming gang members, and giving up undercover officers—he was sentenced to life in federal prison without the chance of parole, even though there was no murder charge, let alone conviction, against him.
And to think he owes it all to deep-dish pizza. Lighty recalled Miedzianowski telling him about the first time he violated department ethics. He was still learning the greased-up ropes from a training officer who sent him to get a couple slices of pizza, adding, “Remember, Chicago police don’t pay.”
Even Eurell, who didn’t rat out Dowd until he hatched a kidnapping-murder-flee-to-Nicaragua scheme, had pangs of guilt about crossing the line from lawman to outlaw. Eurell’s bending of the rules began with drinking beer at the bodega with other officers on duty, but it wasn’t long before he began taking stolen money. “At first, I was hesitant out of a combination of personal ethics, Catholicism, and where it could lead, because I knew there would be no getting out,” he says. Eurell couldn’t bring himself to spend the first dirty C-note from Dowd—but he spent plenty of the hundreds of thousands to come later from their epic drug dealing. “I paid cash for everything but the mortgage. Dinners, appliances, trips, jewelry, you name it,” he says.
Drugs Breed Corruption
Police gangs can form anywhere, but it’s a lot less likely to happen in a nice, cushy department free of a booming narcotics trade. Ask Eurell to name the main reason he and the others he knew broke bad, and he spits out the answer before the question is finished: “Drugs. Drugs breed corruption. Drugs bring the cash and your exposure goes way up. Guys who never would’ve gone that way flinch when there’s a bag full of money in front of them and they can pocket a couple grand.”
Stuffing bills down their pants begets robbing—or partnering up with—drug dealers, and the stakes keep on rising from there. What starts as a free bag of chips escalates when there’s so much money to be had, especially when oversight is nowhere to be found. In the 1990s, Miedzianowski was an elite gang crimes officer, so he had free range all over Chicago and made contacts in numerous rough neighborhoods. He set up a network that enabled him to distribute a whopping 770 pounds of cocaine over his long, felonious reign.
Today, the same corruption scenarios are playing out in sparsely populated areas in the US. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, Whitley County qualifies as “distressed” and 27% of its residents live below the poverty line. Running through the heart of the strapped county is Interstate 75. Formerly referred to as the “Oxy Express,” it now goes by “Heroin Highway,” as pills have gotten more expensive and heroin has gotten markedly cheaper: a dose of heroin can cost only $9, whereas an 80-milligram pill of Oxycontin can run about $80. Sulfridge was told anecdotally, “Pills are better to buy a boat than cash.”
Urban centers of yesteryear and rural areas today have all seen police gangs flourish. As Eurell puts it, “How many civilians, if they found a wallet with $50K in small bills, would turn it all in? Now imagine if that temptation was there every day.”
Addiction and Greed
Cops who work dirty tend to play dirty, too. Many want to live a life of conspicuous consumption, just like the drug lords. (Dowd, for instance, audaciously drove a $35,000 Corvette to work.) Others just want to get high. Either way, it’s not as if they use their ill-gotten gains to fund hospitals. During the height of their unchecked corruption, Eurell and his partner-in-crime were drinking and partying nonstop. Dowd eventually reached Henry-Hill-at-the-end-of-Goodfellas levels of cocaine use and paranoia.
For his part in the black-market economy, Sheriff Hodge was sentenced in 2011 to 15 and a half years in federal prison after pleading guilty to extortion, distributing drugs, and money laundering. But Hodge wasn’t horse-trading department firearms for pills just to line his pocket—he was also an addict. “Hodge’s nickname was ‘Lorcet Lawrence,’” says Sulfridge, who left journalism after a year at the Times-Tribune, and now works for the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department in investigative support and public affairs.
Even if drug use doesn’t take over the life of a crooked cop, the expenses that go along with unchecked greed will. Miedzianowski needed to keep money rolling in to pay rent for his mistress, Alina Lis, who doubled as his Miami-to-Chicago drug courier. Even though Lis’s apartment was conveniently close to Miedzianowski’s house, she insisted that she was unaware of his wife and two kids. In the end, Lis was the only one of 22 codefendants who didn’t cop a plea with federal authorities in the case against him. Even Miedzianowski's longtime police partner, John Galligan, cooperated with authorities in exchange for a lesser sentence. Lis’s loyalty didn’t come cheap: She took 20 years for her boyfriend.
Street Smarts, People Skills, and Thrill-seeking
Police gangs may operate with impunity, but that doesn’t mean every felony involves a “gun pointed at your dome” scenario. Being a rogue cop is a filthy business, but it’s still a business of sorts: the smoother the money rolls in, the better. Corrupt officers who rise to the highest levels of malfeasance have to have some combination of street smarts, people skills, and an instinct for reading high-pressure situations. They run schemes on top of schemes, which takes a good deal of intelligence and savvy—all backed up by muscle and weaponry, of course.
Sometimes the easiest way to get paid isn’t with a baseball bat, but through institutional leverage. Hodge collaborated with a crooked lawyer to offer a wealthy felon a misdemeanor plea agreement in exchange for $150,000 plus a $25,000 donation to the sheriff’s department. Remarkably, the donation was paid by cashier’s check, which Sulfridge saw in the convicted felon’s plea agreement. Sulfridge’s ace reporting quickly angered Hodge. With his good ol’ boy corruption racket in jeopardy, Hodge turned violent, and was caught on tape threatening Sulfridge’s life. The young hometown reporter took to carrying a pistol at all times and switched up his routine, eliminating his beloved long-distance runs at night. “I wasn’t too scared, but Hodge did send a couple of guys to my house as some kind of warning.” Before it was all said and done, Sulfridge was living out of a motel for his personal safety.
In Brooklyn, Dowd and Eurell traded information about raids, rival drug activity, and potential undercover operations with a murderous kingpin for a weekly $8,000 payment. Eurell turned a blind eye to beatings, stick-ups, and even a murder confession while the money flowed in his direction. He finally had enough when Dowd agreed to kidnap a woman for a Colombian drug dealer, who intended to murder her as payback for some stolen cocaine. Eurell finally spilled his guts to authorities and thwarted the plan.
In building up his empire, Miedzianowski helped out street gang members when they were jammed up in all sorts of ways. “He [was] your get-out-of-jail free card,” says Lighty. “Miedzianowski got a high-ranking member of the Imperial Gangsters out of jail to have sex. You don’t need to rule with an iron fist when you can do that.”
In his less sanguine moments, Miedzianowski gave up information on undercover operations, and once bragged on a secretly taped call that he’d tortured a drug suspect with a heated coat hanger and threatened to bake him in an oven.
Instances of major police scandals may differ in the details, but ultimately, corruption germinates from the same place. Law enforcement officers are given unique powers, but they’re still human—humans who might happen to find themselves in front of piles of loose cash or drugs for the taking. The one thing all rogue police officers share is their lack of respect for the citizens, the badge, and most of all, the law.
Illustrations by Nicole Rifkin