In February, Detective Kevin Herlihy became the third NYPD cop shot in two months. Herlihy was comparatively fortunate; he managed to fire his weapon and kill his attacker, who was being sought for shooting his girlfriend’s daughter. Since then, five more police officers have already been shot. Dozens more have been shot at, knifed, run over, and assaulted over the last few years—including, just last night, an officer who was stabbed in the head and is in critical condition. No accurate statistics track the hundreds or probably thousands who have been spat upon, cursed at, and criticized for just doing their jobs.
New York City police officers regularly face difficulty and danger. That’s why we need to place the recent scandal involving 16 police officers in the Bronx—who have been indicted for fixing traffic tickets—in perspective. Over the last 40 years, two highly respected mayoral investigating bodies, the Knapp Commission and the Mollen Commission, looked into corruption at the NYPD. Their findings provide some of that perspective.
The Knapp Commission Report, issued in 1972, grew out of revelations by a courageous detective, Frank Serpico. It made an important distinction between two different kinds of corrupt cops, “grass-eaters” and “meat-eaters.” Grass-eaters participated in precinct- and division-wide payoff rings. Twice a month, police officers collected modest payoffs from numbers racketeers, bookies, prostitutes, bartenders, and restaurateurs. The grass-eaters didn’t actively shake anyone down. They went around to their appointed spots and made it clear that they wanted a payoff, but if they didn’t get one, they generally left things alone. The monthly “pad”—the share for each patrolman—could run from $400 in midtown Manhattan to $1,200 in Harlem. The meat-eaters were different. They aggressively misused their police powers for personal gain. They targeted and often assisted drug dealers in committing violent crimes. For meat-eaters, an individual score could easily top $10,000.
Michael Armstrong, the chief counsel of the Knapp Commission, quoted Frank Serpico at a recent breakfast at New York Law School. Describing the corruption in the police department at that time, Serpico had suggested that 10 percent of officers were completely crooked, while 10 percent were completely honest. The remaining 80 percent, he said, wished they were honest.
The reforms implemented in the wake of the Knapp Commission’s recommendations had almost wiped out the grass-eaters by 1994, when the Mollen Commission issued its report on corruption in the NYPD. But by then, the carnivores had morphed into organized-crime crews with badges. And they worked hand-in-hand with the worst criminals.
Which brings us back to the current ticket-fixing scandal, which is fundamentally different from those of the past, since the cops themselves don’t benefit financially. Not a nickel has been alleged to have changed hands. These were favors done for family and friends. The indicted cops may be corrupt, but they aren’t even grass-eaters; they’re vegans.
How should we deal with this non-self-enriching corruption? Where is the line between professional discretion and perquisites—and between perquisites and unacceptable behavior? The police officer who stops a car and, after listening to the driver’s explanation, chooses not to issue a ticket is exercising professional judgment. The cop who sees my Patrolmen’s Benefit Association card and lets me go—knowing that I’ve committed an infraction—is providing me with a perk. What about the cop who tells the judge that he has lost the ticket, thus allowing the case to be dismissed? This is the most common method by which police officers “fix” tickets, and it’s a small and dangerous step away from destroying evidence or lying under oath. Just as we cannot indulge broken windows, we cannot ignore corrosive behavior that might lead to a return of widespread grass-eating.
At the same time, if we’re going to change the rules and prosecute cops for practices that were not only indulged but institutionalized for generations, let’s do so with some fair notice. Make it clear that if a police officer “loses” a ticket or “forgets” to make an entry in a notebook, it will cost him a day of vacation time. That should eliminate ticket-fixing without punishing too aggressively a cop who actually does lose a ticket.
Few professions or organizations are more closely scrutinized than the NYPD. The department records, reports, and analyzes a patrolman’s every action. It keeps statistics and makes them public. Department brass assess strategies and tactics and open themselves to second-guessing by every armchair expert.
We rejoice in New York’s safer streets. But we too often forget that those safer streets are not just the result of high-level strategies. They are the result of on-the-ground, day-to-day, hour-to-hour decisions of men and women who do a difficult and often dangerous job. Corruption is properly condemned and punished, but it shouldn’t make us forget the gratitude we owe to those 35,000 men and women in blue.