With crazy homeless people randomly smashing, slashing, and stabbing passersby, graffiti spreading across the city with no one bothering to clean it, racial tensions stoked by race hustlers in Gracie Mansion, welfare rolls mushrooming, a reborn pay-to-play political culture, school discipline so dead that public education fails more than ever, police demoralized by a mayor who not only doesn’t have their back but publicly slanders them, while the city council weakens the quality-of-life policing tools that brought New York back to life under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, you have to wonder if any element that created the urban dystopia of Mayors John Lindsay, Abe Beame, and David Dinkins is still missing. And sure enough, now even police corruption is back. With five top cops recently demoted, and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton telling the New York Post that investigations by his Internal Affairs Bureau and the FBI are turning up evidence that stinks as foully as that uncovered by the 1970s Knapp Commission investigation into corrupt cops, but that he can’t talk about it while the probe continues, you can only imagine what’s about to hit the fan. All we need now is a brush with municipal bankruptcy and a president who responds by telling New York to drop dead, as the Daily News’s famous 1975 headline put it, and the recurring nightmare will be complete.
Just to get ready, let’s recall what the commission headed by Whitman Knapp, a lawyer, ex-prosecutor, and later a federal judge, turned up, in hearings so riveting in 1971 and ’72 that my friend Mike the Cop would sometimes come over, put his gun on top of the fridge, and join me in open-mouthed amazement as the squalid testimony poured out of the TV. There were “grass-eating” corrupt cops, small fry who took a monthly $5 or $10, adding up to $6.2 million a year citywide, from bodega owners to overlook Sunday beer sales or $2,000 annually from individual liquor store owners to let customers double park while they ran in for a bottle; and “meat eaters,” who stole drugs from dope dealers or took big bribes to suppress evidence of felonies, including a $50,000 payoff to destroy wiretap tapes nailing a heroin kingpin. We heard of two dope-addict police informers who would steal goods to order for cops in exchange for drugs that the officers purloined from the NYPD evidence room. We heard from a detective who took fat payoffs from East Side brothel boss Xaviera Hollander, the Happy Hooker, in exchange for warning her when a police raid was imminent, that corruption was systemic—with entire precincts, from the captain on down, sharing a monthly “pad” of payments from numbers racketeers, totaling up to $15 million a year, to look the other way while they publicly took bets. At least one cop thought that the deal included arresting competing gamblers, so that the NYPD’s function wasn’t so much to prevent crime as to license it, as the New York Times put it when the scandal first broke. And we learned that two police whistleblowers, Frank Serpico and David Durks, couldn’t stir Mayor Lindsay’s Investigation Department chief or one of his deputy mayors to take action to clean up the mess. When Serpico complained about corruption he had seen to his captain, the commander replied that he could go to the commissioner, and “by the time this thing is through, you’ll be found floating in the East River, face down. Or you can just forget about the whole thing.” But Serpico didn’t forget it and got shot in the head, non-fatally, in a drug bust some thought a set-up by his fellow cops.
Even before the Knapp Commission hearings began, a joint committee of the state legislature noted that ghetto residents, seeing the pervasiveness of police corruption, “have a deep cynicism concerning the integrity of the police to maintain law and order in the community.” It wasn’t just that minority communities knew, in those pre-Compstat days, that the NYPD didn’t care about crime in their neighborhoods. They saw that not only were the police not part of the solution, but they were also a key part of the problem.
How big a part became even clearer when the next major cop scandal, long in the making, broke on Mayor Dinkins’s watch, in hearings chaired by ex-judge Milton Mollen in 1992 and 1993. “Today’s corruption is not the corruption of Knapp Commission days,” the Mollen Commission’s report noted. “Corruption then was largely a corruption of accommodation, of criminals and police officers giving and taking bribes, buying and selling protection. . . . Today’s corruption is characterized by brutality, theft, abuse of authority and active police criminality.” Unlike the old corruption, which was systemic and infected the entire NYPD, the new corruption festered in only a few precincts and involved only a limited number of cops. Nevertheless, declared the commission, “From the top brass down to local precinct commanders and supervisors, there was a pervasive belief that uncovering serious corruption would harm careers and the reputation of the department.”
And that corruption was brutal. Graphically brutal, as presented in a gripping recent documentary, The Seven Five, which intercuts clips from the Mollen Commission hearings with recent interviews with the chief malefactors from the 75th Precinct in East New York, Brooklyn—then the nation’s deadliest, with some 1,000 murders a year, and as ravaged as any war-torn city, as the film shows in 1980s photos of collapsed buildings and blood-drenched murder victims sprawled on the neighborhood’s truly mean streets. Michael Dowd—whom the New York Post later headlined as THE DIRTIEST COP EVER—tells of being sent in 1984 to protect a woman from her abusive husband while she got her clothes from her apartment. After the woman left, Dowd and his partner, Chickie, found that the husband had a huge bag of marijuana, two guns, and perhaps $20,000 in stacks of bills. So they helped themselves to $8,000, telling the dreadlock-coifed husband that it was his lucky day that nothing worse was happening. And so began Dowd’s criminal career, two years after graduation from the Police Academy, where the chief lessons he learned were “cover your ass” and that a good cop is one “who would never give up another cop.”
In November 1986, a scandal in the 77th Precinct in north Brooklyn—where 12 cops, including a sergeant, had been arrested and a 13th had killed himself—scared Chickie straight. The Seven-Seven cops had made a practice of calling in fake 911 reports of robberies in progress at a specific address, so that they could smash into the premises with axes and sledgehammers borrowed from the neighboring firehouse and steal whatever valuables they could find, including drugs and loaded guns, which they sold to pushers. So Dowd inducted his new partner, Kenny Eurell, into his criminal enterprise, mainly providing protection for a Dominican drug lord for $8,000 a week. When the kingpin underpaid him, Dowd raided his business with extra zeal, until the drug boss put out a contract on his life—called off after Dowd confronted him and offered to duel at 20 paces, then and there. A yet bigger drug lord, who sold Colombian cocaine out of a string of bodegas, then hired the pair for $24,000 down and $8,000 a week to warn him of impending raids, harass his competitors, and guard his shipments. “We were like their Brinks,” said Dowd. “They had a police escort.”
By 1991, Dowd, now a drunk and an addict, snorting coke off his police cruiser’s dashboard and feeling like he was “God, invincible,” went into the drug business for himself on Long Island and got arrested with Kenny and four other cops in May 1992. Out on bail, he dreamed up such reckless schemes that Kenny turned on him, secretly recorded him, and got off with no jail time, while Dowd served 13 years of a 14-year sentence.
A Mollen Commission member asked Dowd if he considered himself an NYPD cop or a drug trafficker. “Both,” Dowd replied, explaining in a later interview, “It wasn’t like you were hurting people. You were hurting fucking drug dealers.”
The Mollen Commission contained a dramatic mystery within a mystery: a witness, identified only as Officer Otto, who testified via videotape, his face concealed in shadow, his voice electronically disguised, and the precinct whose misdeeds he recounted unspecified. Part of that testimony, which came from a young cop named Barry Brown, turned out to be false, and the six cops jailed on account of it were later released because of his perjury. But Brown was an undercover police spy, who claimed he lied under orders to preserve his cover, so that ultimately he had to quit the force but was never charged with perjury. Nevertheless, the squalid scandal he revealed at the 30th Precinct in West Harlem—the Dirty Thirty—was emphatically real. The corrupt cops—called Nannery’s Raiders for the sergeant who supervised them and ultimately became their crime boss—adopted the Seven-Seven’s tactic of making fake 911 calls about robberies in progress at dope dealers’ apartments, which they would batter open to steal cash and drugs to sell at half-price out of the police station itself. Like Dowd, they took protection money from drug kingpins, anywhere from $600 to $1,000 a week. Notwithstanding Brown’s perjury, it’s hard to imagine that many of the 33 cops arrested were innocent.
New Yorkers old enough to remember how rotten all this was—a memory almost washed away by the amazing transformation of the NYPD under Giuliani and Bratton, whose crime-prevention policing gave cops something they could devote themselves to with pride and utterly changed the NYPD’s culture—are uneasily holding their breath to see just what wrongdoing the current investigation will disclose, how high it goes, and how far back it stretches.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images