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

they-wish-they-were-honestIn the late 60’s and early 70’s, New York was probably not “the place to be.” Never mind the rising crime, race riots, and arson; it was a time of anger and mean-spiritedness. You had the Baby-Boomers protesting the Vietnam war, pitted against the “hardhat” WW2 veterans, and the conservative police who hated anyone everyone. The city was bankrupt, defaulted on its bonds, and Mayor Lindsay caved in to striking workers. Could things have been any worse?

they-with-they-were-honest-serpico    “They Wish They Were Honest” is a book about a controversy of the Lindsay era; the Knapp Commission into police corruption. It was spurred by Frank Serpico and David Durk, a pair of NYC cops who went public about all the bribery that was going on. The man in charge was Judge Knapp, and the author of this book, Michael Armstrong, was one of the lawyers on the commission. I was glad to see this book come out, because information on the Knapp Commission is hard to find, even online (the Wikipedia entry is sparse.) But I hadn’t anticipated how the commission was hampered to extremes, regarding investigating the corrupt officers. According to the author, there were major problems from the start. Firstly, the cash-strapped city had a tiny budget to fund the investigation. Secondly, the investigators had to come from outside of the NYPD, so they had to bring them in from the FBI, IRS, Secret Service, Military Police, Army CID, and any other Federal agency that had trained detectives. Secondly, the city had to pay their salaries, no matter how high they were. Third, electronic surveillance was primitive at the time, and the city didn’t have the money for the best gear.

they-with-they-were-honest-phillips    Whatever information the commission gained was valuable in kicking dirty police officers off the force. For starters, it was commonplace to take bribes to scrap speeding tickets, ignore parking violations, and overlook unsafe construction sites. This passive bribe-taking was known as “grass-eating,” and the most common.  A more serious side of bribery was where a tow truck would arrive at the scene of a car crash, and the cop would say “you’d better take care of me if you want to tow this wreck.” Refusal would mean constant harassment from the police. This aggressive form of bribery was known as “meat-eating,” and was found among plainclothes cops who dealt with illegal gambling.

they-withthey-were-honest-phillips2    The “meat-eaters” among the NYPD were the source of the commission’s biggest bust. The investigators knew that Xaviera Hollander, the famous brothel owner, was paying off the cops; she had to, because there was no way she could run a huge prostitution racket without being arrested. The question was, who were the ones that she paid off? Bugs were planted, her place of business was watched, and sure enough they found their meat-eater, Officer Bill Phillips. When confronted, he agreed to testify and rat out other corrupt cops. Soon after, he was linked to the murder of a pimp, convicted, and sentenced to life in jail.

Another problem that the author discusses is the unreliability of a lot of the witnesses. For starters, Officer Serpico, with his large beard and funny mannerisms, made a poor impression. David Durk, the blonde Amherst graduate, made a better impression, but didn’t get anywhere near as much attention as Serpico. Then there was Teddy Ratnoff, a fat and fish-lipped techie who handled all the electronic surveillance. He was deathly afraid of Bill Philips, and may have been involved in some shady dealings himself. Lastly, the tow-truck operator who testified to being extorted by corrupt police officers, told a few fibs of his own while under oath.

Few of the high-ranking police lost their jobs because of the Knapp Commission, mostly the rank-and-file officers were targeted and that amounted to few. For instance, Officers Greenberg and Hantz, the subject of the movie Supercops, had a terrible reputation, with hundreds of complaints for thievery and excessive force. One of their arrests ended in them shooting a driver, and their version of the shooting contradicted the evidence on all counts. The commission was certain it was a murder, but they could not have won the case against a PBA lawyer. Both of them later got into trouble for various offences. Greenberg left the NYPD, was elected to the state assembly on an anti-crime platform, was convicted and jailed for financial fraud, then went to jail again in the late 1980’s. Hantz remained on the NYPD, lost his detective shield for drug use, and retired in the late 1980’s. Nobody knows where they are now.

Most of the problems made public through the Knapp Commission involved bribery, but I suspect that a lot of it ended with the legalization of the lottery. Then the city gave the NYPD a raise, so that may have lessened the incentive to take payoffs. Other changes, such as allowing businesses to open on Sunday, may have removed possible offenses for which store owners would pay off the police. Nowadays, most police complaints have to do with excessive force and not bribery, while the police who get convicted of crimes usually commit them off-duty. However, it’s easier to get a conviction for theft and bribery than excessive force. Sovereign immunity plays a big part in excusing a police officer who beats a handcuffed suspect. But with bribery, it’s much easier to prove, and if the Knapp Commission investigators had iPhones, I bet there would have been a lot more officers losing their jobs.


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