How honest is the typical police officer when tempted? PrimeTime's bait: a lost wallet full of money, and hidden cameras to capture what happens next.
Over a six-week period, ABCNEWS' chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross and his team turned in 40 wallets or purses to 40 police officers chosen at random in Los Angeles and New York City. Varying amounts of cash were put in each, as well as numerous pieces of identification, with names, addresses and phone numbers.
The test: Would the officers do the right thing and track down the proper owners?
Thirty Years Later
Ross' investigative team copied a technique many police departments around the country routinely use to test the honesty and integrity of their officers. In fact, Ross used this technique back in the 1970s as a local reporter in Miami, when confidence in public officials at all levels was at an all-time low.
The results of that wallet test did little to boost public confidence: 10 of the 31 wallets given to officers in the Miami area were never recovered, and two of them were turned in but the cash was missing. A number of the officers were fired or took early retirement after that report.
Almost 30 years later, police honesty and integrity are again being called into question, most recently in Los Angeles, where the police department is trying to recover from a serious corruption scandal in its Rampart Division.
Skeptic Citizens, Optimistic Commissioners
Many people on the streets of LA expressed extreme skepticism about whether LAPD officers would return a lost wallet to its rightful owner.
"To be honest, I think most of them would keep them," said one Los Angelino.
New Yorkers, too, were doubtful. "I'd say a majority would keep the wallets," said one New York passerby.
But neither Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks or New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik were bothered by the PrimeTime investigation.
"There is never an excuse or any rationale for a person keeping it as their personal property," he says. "Officers are put in that temptation every day and our expectation is for them to have 100 percent compliance with the rules."
Kerik said he welcomed the test and was prepared to prosecute any officer who kept a wallet. Police were not given any advance notice as PrimeTime staff members turned in the wallets.
Of the 20 Los Angeles police officers who were given wallets and purses, every single one turned in the wallet and the money. Not a penny was missing from the wallets, which were given to officers of all races, throughout the city.
"Police officers have only one legacy and that's their integrity, their honesty," says Parks. "Their word means a lot … and people believe in that badge and what it represents."
But Parks was upset to learn that in three instances, Los Angles police officers refused to take the wallets in the first place, saying it was inconvenient for them.
"Part of the job is to service the public," he says. "That property could be part of a crime, it could be somebody's valuables. It's our expectation that they would take it."
And for all that has been written and said about the shortcomings of the NYPD, New York's police officers passed the integrity test with flying colors.
"The reality is that all 20 [wallets] came back," says Kerik. "It basically shows that our integrity standards are very high and the cops are doing their job. And it's something we're very proud of."