What Frank Serpico Started: The Knapp Commission Report

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Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
March 1, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 9 (And a new logo!)

The Knapp Connection
by Adam Walinsky

On December 29, 1972, the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the City's Anti-Corruption Procedures, popularly knows at 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.)

...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...

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.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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