Corruption was a huge problem for the New York City Police Department following the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945. Dishonourable activity was proven common practice within most departments where superiors were lenient and the corruption itself was elaborate and efficient. The corruption had an incredibly negative impact on the perceived integrity and capability of the force.
I will begin my analysis of this question with an outline of the problems surrounding New York policing, followed by a discourse regarding corruption within the New York Police Department (NYPD). Both academic and government literature will be quoted to support my arguments throughout this assignment; and I will close with a summary that further clarifies my position on the question posed. My essay will focus primarily on the period between the conclusion of World War Two and the release of the Knapp Commission report in 1973.
The NYPD was created in 1845 with the establishment of the Municipal Police and is one of the oldest metropolitan police departments in the United States. The department currently employs 36,000 officers and 18,000 civilian employees (New York City Police Departmenta, 2017); and its Latin motto, “Fidelis ad Mortem”, means “faithful unto death” (Anonymous, 2014). As part of their core values, the New York Police Department pledge to “fight crime both by preventing it and by aggressively pursuing violators of the law”; and to uphold a more inflated degree of honour than is expected of the general public (New York City Police Departmentb, 2017). However, despite this longstanding motto and pledge, in the post-World War Two era, the NYPD was regarded as one of the most controversial civil organisations in New York City (Chronopoulos, 2015, p.6).
Between 1944 and 1981, crime rates skyrocketed in New York City (Chronopoulos, 2017, 7) as shown in the graph below. There was a lack of organisation and productivity within the force and it was not uncommon for police officers to sleep inside their cars in discreet areas, or in institutions such as hospitals. Hundreds of crimes also went unrecorded (Chronopoulos, 2017, 2/8), as complaints were often “canned” (Chronopoulos, 2015, p.6).
Alongside the widespread corruption within the NYPD, the department also had a poor reputation when it came to police brutality, particularly against ethnic minorities. Patrolmen reportedly routinely abused individuals who seemed to challenge their jurisdiction (Chronopoulos, 2015, p.12).
A well-documented example of such brutality occurred in August 1947 and involved Lloyd Curtis Jones, an impaired African American. Jones was approached by a rookie patrolman after he had been singing with friends near Central Park. The patrolman commanded Jones to move but then began to hit him with his nightstick when he did not move quickly enough. The NYPD declined to punish the patrolman, despite the fact that he eventually shot Jones thrice in the stomach. The department claimed that the patrolman’s reaction followed protocol and whilst Jones was initially charged with disorderly conduct, the charges against him were eventually dropped (Chronopoulos, 2015, p.4).
The Knapp Commission – a panel formed in April 1970 by then-New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay to investigate New York City police corruption – released a report recognizing two distinct classes of corrupt police officer; “grass-eaters” and “meat-eaters”. The term “grass-eaters” was used to describe police officers who accepted relatively small monetary payments or gratuities, for example from contractors, tow truck operators, gamblers etc; but who did not actively pursue corruption payments. A significant number of officers were guilty of taking part in this activity that they often learned from observing the actions of fellow officers. The Knapp Commission suggested that “grass eating” was used by police officers in New York City to “prove their loyalty to the brotherhood”. “Meat-eaters” described officers who spent large portions of time aggressively watching for situations that they could exploit for their own financial gain. For example “shaking down pimps or illicit drug dealers for money” (Halle & Beveridge, 2013, p.261).
NYPD officers made millions of dollars between 1945 and 1970 from illegal payments received from drug dealers, gamblers and entrepreneurs (Burnham, 1970). The most advanced area of corruption within the NYPD concerned plainclothesmen entrusted with enforcing gambling legislation (United States, 1976, p.40). The plainclothes department, where gambling corruption was rife, had a significant role in developing corruption within other departments of the NYPD. Whilst some patrolmen would expand their knowledge during their time in plainclothes, others would be exposed to dishonest dealings in this department, before developing it further elsewhere (New York, 1973, p.89).
Historically, gambling regulations had restricted New Yorkers to only gambling on horse races and in casinos on Indian reservations (FindLaw, 2017). However, gambling corruption in post-war New York was primarily involved with three activities: numbers (similar to modern-day lottery), bookmaking and card and dice games (New York, 1973, p.77). Officers would often blackmail wrongdoers across the city in exchange for immunity from apprehension and prosecution (Gilbert & Gilbert, 2015, p.21).
At the heart of the gambling corruption was “the pad”. This involved officers having to collect a particular sum of money from illegal gambling dens either weekly or monthly. The total amount collected was shared equally amongst the officers, with supervisors getting a little more (Armstrong, 2012, p.2). This illegality could net an individual plainclothes officer between $300-3500 a month (United States, 1976, p.40); with the payment being deemed a worthwhile and essential expense by gambling operators (New York, 1973, p.73).
According to Armstrong (Armstrong, 2012, p.2) a normal day for a plainclothesman in 1970 consisted of watching the gambling institutions, performing collection duties, scouting new locations and making enough arrests to prevent suspicion. Society had a lenient outlook on gambling offences; and this was also reflected by the courts who would at worst impose only small fines (New York, 1973, p.72-73). There was no real pressure to tackle gambling corruption within the NYPD as it did no quantifiable physical harm.
While problems with bookies and numbers banks were prominent, “other forms of gambling, like race track and sports book-making, which the plainclothes division was also supposed to control, operated almost openly” (Armstrong, 2012, p.2).
Although there was no external or internal pressure on the NYPD to tackle gambling corruption, young people raised in areas such as Harlem where gambling was prevalent developed the impression that all policeman were making significant illegal profits from gamblers. Inevitably this negatively affected the authority and credibility of the department (New York, 1973, p.89-90).
Police corruption in narcotics enforcement was also extensive, and certain high-ranking police officials claimed that corruption within the narcotics department was the Department’s biggest problem. Whilst narcotics graft was perceived as “dirty” amongst policemen, elsewhere there was a more relaxed attitude towards drugs, especially from the younger generation. This more relaxed attitude, combined with easier access to illegal drugs as a payoff for the enforcement officers, made narcotics corruption more acceptable to police (New York, 1973, p.91-93).
In the case of narcotics, the extortion endeavour of an officer would be the end result of attentive surveillance; which would often be undertaken via illegal wiretapping (New York, 1973, p.98). In contrast to the pad system associated with gambling payoffs, “an individual score” of either drugs or money found on a raid or during an apprehension was the most customary form of corruption within narcotics law enforcement (New York, 1973, p.94).
Police officers would extort narcotics and/or money from drug violators. Certain officers went as far as to perjure themselves in court to protect a suspect; and some were even paid by defence attorneys, illustrating that the corruption was not limited to within the NYPD (New York, 1973, p.96-97). It was not uncommon for officers within the narcotics division to also abuse and sell narcotics, improperly enforce violations; and engage in amicable associations with criminals (New York, 1973, p.91).
Page 91 of the Knapp Commission report (New York, 1973) also listed further infractions that took place within the NYPD narcotics division;
Keeping money and/or narcotics confiscated at the time of an arrest or raid. Selling narcotics to addict-informants in exchange for stolen goods. Passing on confiscated drugs to police informants for sale to addicts. ‘Flaking’, or planting narcotics on an arrested person in order to evidence of a law violation. ‘Padding’, or adding to the quantity of narcotics found on an arrested person in order to upgrade an arrest. Storing narcotics, needles and other drug paraphernalia in police lockers.
The corruption within the narcotics department was “well known” by officers and their superiors (New York, 1973, p.93). Narcotics corruption became a huge problem for the NYPD, because although attitudes towards drugs were changing, the involvement of some policemen in narcotics transactions had a catastrophic effect on the public’s perception of the department, as the general public relied heavily on the integrity of the NYPD for protection against narcotics-related crime and deemed the department’s complicity in this area as abominable (New York, 1973, p.112-113).
Alongside gambling and narcotics, police officers employed similar tactics when enforcing prostitution legislation. The Knapp Commission was able to find some evidence suggesting that prostitutes would pay policeman individually for protection from arrest. There was also evidence suggesting that nightclubs and bars would make similar payments as they were headquarters for many prostitutes, especially in the area around Times Square (New York, 1973, p.116).
Some detectives not directly involved in the gambling, narcotics or vice departments would also receive payments. These officers who worked general investigations usually received smaller amounts than their colleagues. However, a uniformed patrolman who was assigned to radio patrol cars or on the beat could receive enough regular small payments to significantly uplift their salary (New York, 1973, p.2-3).
For example, payments were handed out by construction companies to “grass-eaters” so that they would turn a blind eye to parking violations of workers (Alpert et al., 2014, p.144). Alongside the construction companies, there was evidence of similar actions taking place involving bars and the Sabbath Law (New York, 1973, p.2), which controlled the vending of food and other prerequisites on Sundays (New York, 1973, p.149).
It is my opinion that the historic internal culture of corruption that existed within the NYPD is the primary reason that the illegal activities outlined above continued to thrive following the Second World War. However, there were also significant exterior factors that contributed to the unethical actions. It is well documented that in the decade and a half after World War Two, the United States experienced phenomenal economic growth (American History, 2012); and that during the 1960s, a slow financial and communal deterioration came about.
Themis Chronopoulos (Chronopoulos, 2015) notes that within the twenty years between 1945 and 1965, police earnings did not keep pace with the rising costs of living. Also, as bribes became more hazardous to accept, patrolmen became more and more disgruntled. In 1960, there were seventeen thousand patrolmen who held second jobs because their police pay was inadequate. However, then-Police Commissioner Stephen P. Kennedy commenced disciplinary proceedings against patrol officers found to be collecting a secondary income in the Bronx and Brooklyn. “This happened after a patrolman with 366 days of sick-leave in five years had earned more than forty thousand dollars for outside work” (p.14).
Analysis of both the Knapp Commission report of 1973 and the Mollen Commission Report of 1994 can help explain why corruption was such a big problem for the New York Police Department. Although the Mollen Commission report was released over twenty years after the Knapp Commission report, there are similar assertions in both.
In the outlook for the future of the New York Police Department, the Knapp Commission (New York, 1973) stated that the situation within the NYPD was the outcome of an incredibly permissive mindset. Corruption was endemic in the department for the best part of a century and had thrived in spite of efforts by consecutive police commissioners and numerous legislation enforcement organisations (p.260).
The Mollen Commission declared that the NYPD had been unsuccessful in eradicating corruption and had authorised an environment that screened criminality and encouraged wrongdoing by police officers. Crucially, the report found that this had been done so by choice. Police officials argued that corruption was not systemic, but rather, isolated to a few officers. Whilst the Committee concurred with that view, they made it clear that there had been a department failure in addressing said corruption (Raab, 1993).
Political administrations understood that rising crime and suspected corruption threatened New York’s appeal as a city. Both the citizens and the political officials of New York demanded effectual policing, and many political administrations ventured to “make the NYPD a corruption-free, disciplined, efficient, and responsive organization” following the Second World War (Chronopoulos, 2015, p.3).
Robert F. Wagner was the Mayor of New York City between 1954 and 1965, and his term of office is viewed rather negatively from a policing perspective. Whilst his first two police commissioners (Francis W. H. Adams & Stephen P. Kennedy) did a lot of significant work in reorganizing and transferring, there was a feeling that nobody in his administration truly understood the degree to which corruption absorbed the NYPD (Chronopoulos, 2015, p.15). Police officers wanted improved wages – with gratuities – less working hours, and less interference from superiors, so they did not conform to the ideas that their police commissioners were trying to implement (Chronopoulos, 2015, p.3).
The famous whistleblowing detective Frank Serpico stated in 1971 that corruption was prominent within the New York Police Department because “the atmosphere did not yet exist in which honest police officers could act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers” (NYMAG, 2017). This illustrates for how long the problems within the New York Police Department existed. Marilynn S. Johnson (Johnson, 2003) bemoans the “persistent belief that effective law enforcement requires tough, ruthless tactics” (p.304), but the corruption within the New York Police Department shows that such tactics were necessary.
In conclusion, it is apparent that external factors could be cited for the ongoing corruption within the New York Police Department. However, the reality was that from an internal perspective, high-ranking officers were far too lenient, corrupt officials were greedy, the corruption itself was complex and ever-changing, and it even extended outside the confines of the police department. These are the reasons why I believe that police corruption remained such a deep-rooted and significant problem in New York City for such a long period.