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They Wished They Were Honest

They Wished They Were Honest: The Knapp Commission and New York City Police Corruption

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    They Wished They Were Honest
    Book Description:

    In fifty years of prosecuting and defending criminal cases in New York City and elsewhere,Michael F. Armstrong has often dealt with cops. For a single two-year span, as chief counsel to the Knapp Commission, he was charged with investigating them. Based on Armstrong's vivid recollections of this watershed moment in law enforcement accountability -- prompted by the New York Times's report on whistleblower cop Frank Serpico -- They Wished They Were Honest recreates the dramatic struggles and significance of the Commission and explores the factors that led to its success and the restoration of the NYPD's public image.

    Serpico's charges against the NYPD encouraged Mayor John Lindsay to appoint prominent attorney Whitman Knapp to chair a Citizen's Commission on police graft. Overcoming a number of organizational, budgetary, and political hurdles, Chief Counsel Armstrong cobbled together an investigative group of a half-dozen lawyers and a dozen agents. Just when funding was about to run out, the "blue wall of silence" collapsed. A flamboyant "Madame," a corrupt lawyer, and a weasely informant led to a "super thief" cop, who was trapped and "turned" by the Commission. This led to sensational and revelatory hearings, which publicly refuted the notion that departmental corruption was limited to only a "few rotten apples."

    In the course of his narrative, Armstrong illuminates police investigative strategy; governmental and departmental political maneuvering; ethical and philosophical issues in law enforcement; the efficacy (or lack thereof) of the police's anticorruption efforts; the effectiveness of the training of police officers; the psychological and emotional pressures that lead to corruption; and the effects of police criminality on individuals and society. He concludes with the effects, in today's world, of Knapp and succeeding investigations into police corruption and the value of permanent outside monitoring bodies, such as the special prosecutor's office, formed in response to the Commission's recommendation, as well as the current monitoring commission, of which Armstrong is chairman.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52698-2
    Subjects: Law, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xii)
    (pp. 1-11)

    On April 25, 1970, New Yorkers awoke to a news story on the front page of the New York Times that was to keep many people awake for a long time. Written by thirty-seven-year-old investigative reporter David Burnham, the article accused the New York City Police Department of being laced with corruption. It suggested that Mayor John Lindsay, a tall, handsome patrician with an eye on the White House, had deliberately ignored the problem.

    Burnham’s article was based chiefly on the experiences of a young police officer named Frank Serpico. To most of the cops who knew him, Serpico was...

    (pp. 12-26)

    With our appropriation in hand, Knapp decided it was time to inform the public that we were officially in business. At a well-attended press conference at the New York headquarters of the National Press Club, Whit announced that we had been funded, introduced me as chief counsel, and stated that our purpose would be to identify whether there were systemic patterns of corruption in the New York City Police Department. He said that we would announce our findings in a final written report and perhaps in public hearings. We would not be saying anything in public until we found something...

    (pp. 27-34)

    We were beginning to grope about, starting to determine ways that a dozen investigators and a half a dozen lawyers could unravel the secrets of a gigantic municipal police department, when Otto Obermaier came into my office and closed the door behind him. “Mike,” he said, “I know it seems a near impossible task to investigate a whole department with only twelve investigators, but we’re going to have to do it with eleven. Otherwise you are going to jail.” Otto had my attention.

    His point was that, from an administrative standpoint, we were proceeding in an utterly haphazard fashion. Payroll...

  7. 4 GABE
    (pp. 35-39)

    An obvious tactic in the identification of police corruption was to look for activities that were common, or even flourishing, despite the fact that they did so in open and obvious violation of the law. The absence of police interference with such illegal activities, we reasoned, was probably bought and paid for.

    We began with a surveillance of a construction site. It was my idea. I recalled that when I was in college, working summer jobs as a construction laborer, policemen would often stop by the timekeeper’s shack, and walk away, looking satisfied. Maybe if some of our new agents...

    (pp. 40-45)

    One of the most vital technical needs of any investigative outfit is electronic eavesdropping equipment. The Knapp Commission had no use for telephone wiretaps or hidden “bugs” because, not being a law enforcement agency, we could not legally employ them. Under federal and New York State law as it was then, only a law enforcement officer, with a warrant, could plant a listening device on a phone, or in a room, if no one taking part in the conversation knew the device was there.

    What the law did allow us to do was equip our agents with concealed recorders or...

    (pp. 46-50)

    By mid-January 1971, the Knapp Commission had been in business for more than six months, and had been actually operating for a little over three. We had come up with absolutely nothing. It wasn’t that we were finding the police department to be free of corruption. There was plenty of graft around alright, but we had simply been unable to find any proof of it. It was still early, but we were beginning to chafe under the taunts of the PBA as the cops slowly came to conclude they had nothing to fear from us.

    It wasn’t only the rank...

  10. 7 GEORGE
    (pp. 51-56)

    In 1960, some ten years prior to the creation of the Knapp Commission, the city had been rocked by a front-page scandal involving police payoffs by tow-truck operators. Reporters had exposed cops taking money to allow tow-truck drivers to haul away disabled vehicles. We were aware of this obvious corruption hazard and had begun some random questioning of tow-truck drivers when one of them walked into our office with just the information we were looking for.

    George Burkert was twenty-three, of medium build, with sandy hair, bright gray eyes, a small beard and moustache, and a sometimes shy, sometimes raffish...

    (pp. 57-60)

    Sometimes things did not go well. On February 3, 1971, we got the shocking news that Frank Serpico had been shot! Temporarily working with a plainclothes unit, he was shot in the face while trying to force his way into a suspect’s apartment. He survived, albeit with a loss of hearing in one ear.

    We were not having much contact with Frank at this point. His sole real involvement with the Knapp Commission had been to give it life. Our investigation focused on what was going on in the Department currently, a subject Frank could not help us with very...

  12. 9 LEUCI
    (pp. 61-71)

    In the fall of 1970, when our investigations were just beginning, we had been introduced to a narcotics cop named Bob Leuci. Leuci had somehow gotten to know Frank Serpico, whose experiences had led to the creation of the Knapp Commission, and David Durk, Serpico’s friend who had guided him to notoriety. Leuci had led Serpico and Durk to believe that he had a pretty thorough knowledge of the workings of corruption in the New York City Police Department, particularly in the Narcotics Division. Durk followed through, eagerly pressing Leuci for more information. But Leuci gave nothing of significance. Instead,...

    (pp. 72-77)

    On May 12, 1971, we arranged to monitor, film, and record one of tow-truck driver George Burkert’s meetings. A police officer had sent him some business and had stopped by to collect what was owed, but Burkert was not at his garage. We had George arrange to meet the officer, and then we called Mark Monsky, the news director at Channel 5, with whom we had made a deal to allow filming. On this occasion, Monsky himself showed up at the scene, in a panel truck equipped with a night camera.

    At about seven o’clock in the evening, following the...

    (pp. 78-82)

    There were a few police officers who, for one reason or another, had “gotten a bit of a name for themselves.” In a department rife with rumors regarding just about everything, scuttlebutt abounded about graft among the high-ranking and the well-known. A borough commander, a chief, a couple of high-profile narcotics detectives, of whom a laudatory movie had been made, a top-level PBA official, and a number of others had reputations within the rank and file of the Department that, fairly or not, were so well established that one need only mention their names to evoke a raised eyebrow and...

    (pp. 83-87)

    Information about a particular source of narcotics corruption in the minority communities came to us through local Channel 5 television producer Mark Monsky. Monsky, who had provided us with surveillance cameras for the memorable filming of “Toody and Muldoon,” discovered a troubled thirty-year-old African American ex-cop by the name of Waverly Logan who had just been suspended from the force for taking a hundred-dollar bribe and was ready to talk. Logan had been a member of yet another supposedly elite outfit, the PEP (Prevention Enforcement Patrol) Squad. This was a unit of black and Hispanic police officers formed to deal...

  16. 13 SUPER THIEF
    (pp. 88-114)

    We were beginning to wonder if we would ever be able to gather enough live testimony for public hearings. It wouldn’t be long before we would be out of money and our lend-lease agents would have to return to their regular jobs. We still did not have enough to warrant going public in the way we felt was needed to make enough of an impression to do some good.

    Then we found what we had been so earnestly seeking. His name was William R. Phillips.

    Phillips was a patrolman assigned to the 25th Precinct in Harlem. Athletic in a dissolute...

    (pp. 115-122)

    Finally, things seemed to be going our way. While the investigation of Phillips was in progress, we came upon another very different but nevertheless promising target: patrolman Edward Droge. Twenty-five years old, from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Droge had a wife and three children, decorations for valor, and ambitions to go to college and law school. He had been on the job for four years, leaving the telephone company on his twenty-first birthday—the first day he was eligible—to become a cop. Initially he had been stationed in the 80th Precinct, in the Crown Heights section of central Brooklyn. Now,...

    (pp. 123-132)

    It was clear that Bill Phillips would be the star of our public proceedings. He was, in the classic sense, a “rogue.” With a swagger, he had shaken down bar owners, construction foremen, prostitutes, thieves, businessmen, other cops, pimps, gangsters, loan sharks, gamblers, and anyone else whom he could threaten or for whom he could do an illegal favor. He boasted that he never gave up trying to “score” a victim. If his solicitation for a bribe at the time of an arrest was rejected, he would continue to make overtures even up to the point of trial. Expected testimony...

  19. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  20. 16 PROBLEMS
    (pp. 133-138)

    At the end of June 1971, the Knapp Commission came to the point where, just as we were hitting full stride, the jury-rigged operation was about to come apart. We were running out of money and on July 1 we would lose most of our personnel. The commitments of our supervisory attorneys were over, and all of them were about to return, or already had returned, to private pursuits.

    Our funds, such as they were, were just about exhausted, without any prospect of replenishment from the City. The Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration came up with an additional $75,000, but...

  21. 17 TANK AND SLIM
    (pp. 139-147)

    Among the matters comprising unfinished business was our just-beginning investigation into a particularly bizarre manifestation of police graft—cops ordering stolen merchandise and paying for it in drugs.

    Waverly Logan—our PEP Squad witness who had first surfaced on a Channel 5 television show—had been unable, because of his notoriety, to work undercover for us. But he was able to put us in touch with two people who could. He introduced us to two youthful drug addicts who went by the names “Tank” and “Slim.” I never knew the real names of the two young men, and it is...

    (pp. 148-162)

    Meanwhile, the Bill Phillips operation was proceeding full blast. Under the direction of Brian Bruh and Ralph Cipriani, Phillips went from one corrupt situation to another, generating films and tapes.

    In an operation that lasted for most of the three months of Phillips’s undercover work for us, he targeted two plainclothes units to the east and south of Central Park. The Third Division covered lower Midtown Manhattan, stretching from Central Park South to 14th Street. The Fourth Division stretched east and south of the park. Approaching two Third Division cops he knew, Fanelli and Laviano, Phillips inquired about getting protection...

    (pp. 163-168)

    Ed Droge had given us a good deal of valuable information about his past activities and had also worked on a few relatively routine projects. It was difficult to develop much of a plan to use him as an undercover operative because he had little to offer in the way of targets. He didn’t know any “meat eaters” and, even if we had the personnel to amass proof against a proliferation of “grass eaters,” we really didn’t need more individual examples. In any event, we didn’t have manpower or time enough to spread a net for little fish.

    Then, in...

    (pp. 169-177)

    As the time for the hearings approached—they were set to begin on October 18, 1971—things became increasingly frantic. With only weeks to go, we still had operations going on, but at the same time we were preparing witnesses, collecting documents, and editing tapes.

    One fundamental decision we had to make concerned the scope of the hearings. How much of the mass of material we had collected should be presented in the public session, and how much should be left to be treated in our final report.

    Phillips would be our lead-off witness. Interspersed with undercover tapes and films,...

    (pp. 178-194)

    Our public hearings began on October 18, 1971, in the Grand Hall of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, in Midtown Manhattan. Whit Knapp, as an officer of the association, had gotten permission to use the room. Contrary to the association’s established policy, we were permitted to admit the press, including radio and television. It was a magnificent setting. A lofty ceiling, paneled walls decorated with huge imposing paintings of former presidents of the association, and, overall, the ambiance of one of the most prestigious bar associations in the country.

    Along one wall of the...

    (pp. 195-207)

    When Phillips finished testifying, the reaction among members of the New York City Police Department who were watching was one of profound relief. They had been taking hard blows for three days, from a renegade who had broken the sacred code of silence. Now, hopefully, it was over.

    But it was not. The Commission’s next major witness, the following day, was another cop, telling about the corruption of which he had been a part—Edward Droge.

    Droge offered a dramatic contrast to the lead-off witness. Phillips’s story, reflecting his career, had been a parade of spectaculars, portraying corruption at its...

  27. 23 SERPICO
    (pp. 208-218)

    As originally planned, Captain Dan McGowan was to be the Commission’s final public hearing witness. Everything else would be dealt with in our final report—including our conclusions regarding the charges made by Frank Serpico. Serpico claimed that top-level people in the Department and in City Hall, perhaps including the mayor, had, in 1966–67, deliberately or negligently failed to take proper action to look into the corruption Serpico had reported to exist in the Bronx Plainclothes Division in which he then served.

    It was important to fix blame, if it existed. But it seemed to us that it was...

  28. 24 AFTERMATH
    (pp. 219-225)

    The hearings were finally over. Now we had to close shop, organize our files for presentation to various law enforcement authorities, and write a final report, which would detail what we had found, and what might be done about it. During the year that it took to accomplish all of this, I returned to Cahill Gordon and found my partners to be most tolerant of my spending virtually all of my time working on Commission matters, chiefly the final report.

    Ironically, prominent among the many criminal investigations spawned, directly or indirectly, by our efforts, was the Manhattan grand jury investigation...

    (pp. 226-234)

    There was yet another chapter to be written in the saga of Bill Phillips. One day in February 1972 I got a puzzling call from Chief Sidney Cooper. He wanted to know if I was aware of anything “unusual.” Talking in circles, which Cooper never did, he hinted that something was in the works and that I would find out about it—soon.

    A day or so later I found out what Cooper was talking about, when I got a furious phone call from Bill Phillips.

    “They’re pinning a fucking murder on me,” Phillips ranted. He had just come from...

    (pp. 235-242)

    In its report, the Commission’s main recommendation was the establishment of a Special Prosecutor’s Office for the criminal justice system in New York City to monitor the district attorneys in their anti-corruption efforts and, when necessary, to conduct its own investigations. We suggested that the governor select, and the attorney general appoint, a special prosecutor with jurisdiction throughout the City of New York over matters involving the whole criminal justice system.

    Our thought was that a police department covering all five boroughs needed a prosecutor’s office to watch it that had jurisdiction over the same area. Each of the five...

    (pp. 243-250)

    Four decades after the creation of the Knapp Commission, it seems useful to reflect on what it accomplished and its impact, if any, on the New York City Police Department. Some—including Frank Serpico, in recent years—have complained that nothing really worthwhile was achieved because no high-level police brass or political figures went to jail. Others point to the relatively few criminal convictions that ultimately resulted from the Commission’s work. Still others note that in 1992, just twenty years after the Knapp Commission ended, another commission, under the esteemed leadership of State Appellate Court Judge Milton Mollen, found extremely...

  32. INDEX
    (pp. 251-256)