The Knapp Connection
March 1, 1973
On December 29, 1972, the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the City’s Anti-Corruption Procedures, popularly known as the Knapp Commission, presented its final report to the Mayor and the people of the City of New York. It is a remarkable document, 264 pages of neat, colorless lawyers’ prose, calmly setting forth the most lurid tales of crime, corruption, and bloody murder, the last days of Sodom described by an accountant.
Scarcely a page goes by without its small shock, its little jab of horror: a police officer, for $2000, covering up two mobsters’ connection with a murder; another, for $5000, revealing to organized crime the identity of a narcotics informant, who was then taken upstate and murdered; organized crime paying an elite squad of Harlem policemen three times what the Department paid them; policemen, including high officers, financing heroin transactions, selling official information, and protecting narcotics dealers, all of which were described by the Commission as “typical” activities; as well as “numerous” instances of police introducing customers to pushers, kidnapping critical witnesses to keep them from testifying against pushers, providing armed protection (“riding shotgun”) for dealers, or offering to obtain “hit men” to kill potential witnesses.
Bit by brutal bit, the Commission lays a mosaic of corruption that is “an extensive, Department-wide phenomenon, indulged in to some degree by a sizable majority of those on the force and protected by a code of silence on the part of those who remained honest.” When the report was first released, this statement brought howls of outrage from the PBA (and some politicians who hope for its support in forthcoming elections). But since the revelation of the “French Connection” heroin disappearance — which meant that the Department has been perhaps the single greatest source of heroin in New York for several years — the last protesters have been silent. There is no more talk of a few rotten apples in the barrel. It is the barrel that is rotten. The only trouble is that we are all still inside it, and the Commission has not told us how to get out.
The Commission has told us what we need to know about the fact of police corruption. But it has failed — refused is a better word — to tell the city who is responsible for the corruption, for the extent to which it developed and the terrible damage it was allowed to do. It is as if the Nuremberg trials covered Rotterdam without Goering, or Lidice without Himmler; as at My Lai, there will be accusations and trials, but up to the level of captain only.
This is not because the Commission lacked the knowledge or the facts about the responsibility for corruption. Buried in its back pages is a devastating indictment of the police and political leadership of the city over the last five years and more.
A prime example is in the Department’s refusal to act on 69 reports from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) which alleged that specific policemen were “extortionists, murderers, and heroin entrepreneurs.” Some of these reports were two years old, and still unacted upon in any way, when Commission staffers happened upon the file in late 1970. At the same time these reports were being filed and ignored, the BNDD was asking for Department cooperation with an operation “which might have led to the exposure of certain police officers believed to be involved in the sale of narcotics.” This request too was unacted upon, but was filed with an attached notation in the hand of Assistant Chief Inspector John McGovern, “IDC” (First Deputy Commissioner John Walsh) “doesn’t want to help the feds lock up local police. Let them arrest federal people.”
It is true that the BNDD did not enjoy a high reputation at that time in New York; 47 of the 50 agents in its New York office had recently been transferred, fired, or indicted for narcotics dealing. But that was not the excuse given to the Commission by McGovern: he said of his notation that he did not recall it, or the Walsh statement it described. The Commission, apparently, went no further, nor does its report.
But what do these incredible episodes tell us? Why were specific allegations of terrible crimes, made by a federal law-enforcement agency, left idle? Why were “murderers, extortionists, and drug dealers” left uninvestigated and unmolested in the Department? The Commission does not tell us, nor does it bother to assess the responsibility. It is content to tell us about the episodes — on page 210 of its report, where few if any of the daily reporters were likely to read them. (Sandy Garelik’s acceptance of businessmen’s “gratuities” got most of the news play.)
A similar example is the tender treatment reserved for Howard Leary, Police Commissioner from 1965 to 1970, who resigned shortly after the Knapp Commission was appointed. It is generally agreed among law enforcement authorities that Leary presided over the Department’s slide into the worst corruption in its history; the phrase “benign neglect” might have been invented to describe his tenure, much of which he apparently spent at his Philadelphia home while Jay Kriegel ran the Department. Once, at an early stage of the inquiry, Chairman Knapp suggested that Leary “has a lot to answer for.” But the Commission Report goes out of its way to avoid mentioning his name in any but the most casual fashion. Not only does it never suggest that Leary has any responsibility for the corrupt state of the Department he headed, it never mentions specific command actions taken under his tenure which enormously increased the possibilities, indeed the certainty, of corruption: for example, the placing of an officer widely regarded as corrupt into command of the narcotics division in 1968. (Bookmaker Hugh Mulligan was convicted of contempt in 1972 for refusing to answer questions about bribes of up to $5000 paid to transfer certain detectives into the narcotics division.)
The Commission does declare that one of the greatest barriers to anti-corruption activities was that “between 1967 and the beginning of the Murphy administration, ISB” (the Inspectional Services Bureau, comprising all the internal investigation divisions) “manpower was kept at a level that virtually made it impossible to do its job effectively. The manpower of its various units actually shrank.…” Notice how delicately the Commission avoids mentioning Leary’s name, which indeed does not once appear in the entire chapter dealing with the mockery of the Department’s efforts to police itself. Nor is there an inquiry why the inspectional manpower was reduced.
And on it goes. The gambling operations of organized crime are protected at “precinct, division, and borough levels,” says the Commission. Does this mean that virtually the entire command structure of the Department is rotten? And who the corrupt or negligent commanders are, and whether they are still in the Department, we are not told.
Similarly, it was widely known in the Department that the plainclothes divisions had been substantially corrupted by their work in gambling and vice. But these men were transferred wholesale into narcotics enforcement in 1964, with predictable results.
But if the report shies away from assessing command responsibility within the Department, it resolutely turns its back on the issue of responsibility beyond it. The Commission tells us of a detective who provided armed physical protection for the deliveries of a multi-kilo heroin operation in which he was a partner. He was indicted in Queens County for conspiracy to sell heroin, for which the penalty was then up to four years in prison. He was allowed to plead guilty to one count of official misconduct and was sentenced to a year on probation. The report does not even suggest that there might be anything to criticize in the performance of District Attorney Thomas Mackell, or his son-in-law assistant handling the case, or the sentencing judge. But if a policeman, as the Commission tells us, can make individual “scores” on individual heroin deals of $80,000 or more, and receive no more than a year on probation in the unlikely event he is caught, how will anyone but a sucker stay honest?
The report states as a “fact” that “corruption in narcotics law enforcement goes beyond the Police Department and involves prosecutors, attorneys, bondsmen, and allegedly even certain judges.” This, it says, serves to “illustrate the demoralizing environment in which police are expected to enforce the narcotics laws.” But it has no further comment on this “fact,” and it can say no more of this finding than that it is “frustrating”: “…only 43 per cent of those arrested (in New York City) for possession of one pound or more of heroin or cocaine from January 1, 1969, through October 31, 1971, were convicted. Thirty-four per cent of those convicted (15 per cent of those arrested) received prison sentences of more than one year. Twenty-six per cent were sentenced to local jails for one year or less. The remaining 40 per cent received non-prison sentences such as fines, conditional discharges, and probation. The disposition of these cases appears disproportionately lenient in view of the fact that possession of one pound or more of these drugs became punishable by life imprisonment” (September 1, 1969).
The Commission does not say, although it is also a fact, that possession of a pound of heroin or cocaine is a Class A felony, carrying a minimum sentence of at least 15 years in a state prison, and that the legislature has specifically forbidden fine or conditional discharge of those convicted of any narcotics felony. Thus a significant proportion of sentences in these major drug cases were not just “disproportionately lenient,” they were illegal.
The Commission recognizes that “under these circumstances, some officers see little wrong with accepting money to write up a weak arrest affidavit or to change testimony at trial, feeling that the offender is going to get off lightly anyway. These practices, in turn, contribute to high rates of dismissals and acquittals.” Indeed they do, particularly for organized crime figures who, the Joint Legislative Committee on Crime found in 1972, were four times more likely to have their cases dismissed, and three times more likely to be acquitted, than the general criminal population. But do the courts have responsibility for these “circumstances”? The report is silent.
The Commission states its mandate was limited to police corruption. But how can it, or we, propose to end police corruption, for another example, without dealing with the Bar, since the report tells us that it “learned that it was not uncommon for defense attorney in narcotics cases to pay policemen for such favors as lying under oath and procuring confidential police and judicial records concerning their clients’ cases.” Almost all the Commissioners are esteemed and honored lawyers: Chairman Knapp is now a Federal Judge, Cyrus Vance is a former high federal official and a leader of the Bar, John Sprizzo a law professor, Franklin Thomas a former Deputy Commissioner for Legal Affairs and now head of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. Yet no one, so far as I am aware, has suggested to the Bar Association that it might try to clean its own house of the “not uncommon” defense attorneys who pay policemen to lie under oath.
All questions of responsibility, of course, come in the end to political leadership. The firm fixing of responsibility for the actions of government is the entire meaning of democratic government, the whole panoply and hoofaraw of elections: since only men, not policies, are on the ballot, we can only affect the actions of government by insisting that those who are in office, who must come to us for their votes, seek and accept the ultimate responsibility for what the agencies of government do and fail to do.
It is this responsibility above all that the Commission refuses to assess. The corruption, according to the Commission, has existed for years. To its enormous credit, the Commission, with a staff that varied from two to 12 investigators, established in a year not only the general fact of the corruption, but dozens of serious, specific criminal cases. But of the five District Attorneys, with their hundreds of lawyers and investigators, about what they did and failed to do, the Commission says nothing; the State Attorney General, with his 400 lawyers and dozens of investigators, is not even mentioned; the Governor, who might have saved how many lives and how much pain by appointing Maurice Nadjari 10, or five, or even three years ago, is mentioned favorably for appointing him in 1972.
But all these omissions pale beside the report’s treatment of Mayor John V. Lindsay, and the record of his administration in dealing with law, order, and corruption. A glance back at that record is essential to understanding the Commission and its report.
It is over a decade since Dick Gregory asked, “If every nine-year-old in Harlem knows who’s selling dope, why don’t the cops know?” The answer, that they knew all too well, was not only an inference clear to anyone who took the time to think, it was the subject of specific and detailed information made available to the Mayor’s assistant Jay Kriegel by Sergeant David Durk as early as 1966. The pattern of corruption among plainclothesmen was brought to Kriegel by Patrolman Frank Serpico and Durk in 1967, and to Investigations Commissioner Arnold Guy Fraiman in the same year. Yet, as the Commission states, “although Walsh, Kriegel, and Fraiman all acknowledged the extreme seriousness of the (Serpico) charges and the unique opportunity provided by the fact that a police officer was making them, none of them took any action… No serious investigation was undertaken…”
Kriegel, in executive session, testified that he had informed the Mayor of the Serpico charges. In his public testimony, he said that he never told the Mayor that Durk and Serpico were charging the Department, in effect, with a cover-up; but he did tell the Mayor about their basic charge of corruption in the Department. What all this shows, beyond the fact that Jay Kriegel is one of the most loyal staffers in American politics, is that what Kriegel may or may not have told the Mayor about how the charges were being handled is far less significant than what he did tell him, which was the fact of the corruption itself. Yet the Mayor, who as vice-chairman of the President’s Riot Commission signed a report in 1968 which stated that police corruption is one of the most important causes of frustration and lawlessness in the ghetto, took no action whatever to inquire or investigate into the possible corruption of his own Department: not in 1967, when Kriegel told him of the Serpico-Durk allegations, not in 1968, when he worked on the Riot Commission, and not in 1969, when the full effects of the narcotics plague were first becoming apparent to the entire city. “No general evaluation of the problems of corruption in the Department was taken until the New York Times publicized the charges” (in 1979).… About the Mayor, no more is said.
This is, perhaps, the code of the gentleman. No one, from this report, is responsible. No one, that is, but the “meat-eaters” and “grass-eaters” in the Department itself, and the construction industry to the extent that it pays bribes for its cranes to block the sidewalks. Probably not too many policemen will read the full report. But they did read the headlines saying that “a sizable majority” of them were corrupt, and they didn’t hear much about the lawyers, prosecutors, judges, and politicians who they know shared the corruption and its rewards before, and continue to do so today. So it is hard to believe that they will take it very seriously; like the corrupt policeman who missed a date to sell heroin to a Knapp undercover team because he had to attend an anti-corruption meeting, the real rogues are likely to regard it at worst as a temporary inconvenience.
And here is the real bottom line of the Knapp Commission Report, and the police corruption it was chartered to reveal. At stake is not whether construction companies or hotels or tow truckers pay a little extra for service, or whether cops make money off prostitutes, or take a free meal now and then. The issue is not even a general interest in honest government. The issue, the unspoken story of the report, is the slow destruction of a generation in the ghettos of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant and the South Bronx, their minds and bodies ravaged by heroin, everything that makes a life thrown back at them from a perverted funhouse mirror. Junkies for fathers, whores for mothers, a daily fix the only routine of their days, and how many thousands cut down in the indescribable shooting galleries of the ghetto. The Mayor and the Governor, the Police Commissioner and the Attorney General, the District Attorneys and the judges, pursued their routines, their ambitions, and their careers, made speeches and accepted human-relations awards. Under their blind benevolent gaze, the children died, and they continue to die today.
All this the Commission does not mention. Nor does it draw the final conclusion: we have, in fact, no laws against the selling of heroin. We have a system whereby, for the appropriate license fees to the proper authorities, certain people obtain a protected monopoly franchise to sell heroin, at least to certain classes of people. Not for nothing did the police refer to Harlem, so poor in everything else, as the “Gold Coast” where the real money was to be made.
In time, of course, the plague spread. The drugs found their way into other neighborhoods, into the white enclaves of Italian Brooklyn and Irish Queens, and into the finest Jewish suburbs. And the children of the ghetto, sweating to pay the peddler, began to tax the rest of the city, until today the number of burglaries and muggings, the sheer quantity of robbery and death, is (though none of the system’s participants will admit it) in sheer volume quite beyond the capacity of the criminal justice system to contain.
The real story of the Knapp Commission Report, as it is the real question about the society that is our home, is when or whether we will have the courage and the sensibility to abandon the desperate fantasy that the poison which wastes the children of Harlem will not, sooner or later, come round to haunt our own. And the prospects, at least from our leadership, are not good. A few months ago, long after the facts of this report were known, John Lindsay intoned that the murder of Professor Wolfgang Friedmann was “the worst outrage” to afflict the city in all his term as Mayor. Not a word for the cab drivers, the little shopkeepers, the 85-year-old grandmothers killed for the price of a fix. Nothing for the seven-year-old girl raped and thrown off a Bronx rooftop. Not a word of all the years his police force sold heroin to the children of the city, while we slipped into our daily hell, our triple-locked doors and empty night streets, our death-in-life. Our question is whether we can transcend such “leadership,” and accept for ourselves, as we insist for our public officials, on the final principle of a democracy, which is not the code of the gentleman, but the harsh and solemn test of responsibility.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 25, 2020