By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, October 3, 1986
The reason the current police corruption scandal is important to all of us is not because it shows that widespread police graft is inevitable — which it isn’t — but because it is emblematic of, and has the same roots as, the other, wider corruption that continues to unfold in the city’s government.
The mayor and the police commissioner and other top city officials will do their best to keep the extent of the problem from public view, to keep it private and internal, to say it’s limited and to try to prevent the rest of us from finding out the real causes of the disease.
One real cause is that the Police Department, as presently constructed and led, is not designed to let cops prevent or crack down hard on crime — only to make it look as if that’s what they’re doing.
For instance, one of the results of the Knapp Commission probe in the early 1970s — which showed systemic corruption reaching up to the high officer levels of the Police Department — was a new set of rules designed, probably with good intentions, to insulate street cops from “corruption hazards” — in other words, to remove them from temptation.
The rules said uniformed cops couldn’t go into bars or bookie joints or numbers parlors, where bad guys who might try to bribe them hang out. The rules also discouraged uniformed cops from making drug arrests; the assumption was that any drug arrest by uniformed personnel, instead of by undercover narcotics cops, was being made because the drug peddler had rebuffed the uniformed cop’s attempt at a shakedown. Still other rules, founded on the same assumption, discouraged all arrests by officers who were off duty.
What has evolved from these rules — good intentions or no — is that certain crime situation have, in effect, been legalized. The bad guys who operate in these situation have a kind of police protection, because they know that uniformed cops and off-duty cops are not going to bother them.
Another cause of the corruption disease — a more important and more corrosive cause — is that honest cops feel they have no one to turn to if they want to get away from police graft or report it.
They say that if they go to the department’s Internal Affairs Division, the inside gumshoe unit designated to uncover “dirty” cops, they will be asked to become gumshoes themselves, wearing hidden “wires” to record conversations with unsuspecting “dirty” cops.
Good cops — and that’s the vast majority of the force — did not choose police work to become informers against their colleagues. Beyond that, they don’t trust the Internal Affairs Division to keep their undercover role secret. They are certain, from precedent, that their peers will find out and will label them as “rats” — informers. Such honest cops in the past have been made pariahs — the lepers of the force.
An honest cop who has witnessed police corruption in Brooklyn called me the other day. I gave my word that I would not identify him in any way, but I have satisfied myself that his story is authentic.
He said the corruption was not limited to the 77th Precinct but had oozed to other precincts as well. Cops talk to each other all the time — as when they go to Central Booking — so they know what’s going on far beyond their own stationhouse.
This cop said that dirty cops were shaking down drug dealers for everything from money and drugs to television sets and guns — “anything that’s sellable.”
“If honest cops on patrol knew this was going on,” he said, “the bosses had to know. And if they did, there’s something drastically wrong with the system.”
this cops said it was IAD’s job, not his, to investigate dirty cops. “I don’t feel an honest cop should be forced into proving he’s honest, forced into wearing a wire,” he said.
“It’s going to get worse,” he went on about the graft. “There’s more and more crack out there. Dealers are springing up all the time. Money’s easy [for dirty cops] to get.”
He spoke for a long time and finally I asked him to tell me, though I thought I knew the answer, why he was talking to me confidentially instead of going public with his information.
This is what he said: “I like my work, I like being a cop. I have a lot more time to serve, and I’d like to serve it in one piece.”
Was he talking about violent reprisals by dirty cops if honest cops reported them? “Yes,” he said, “I’m talking about getting hurt seriously out there. There’s big money involved. They’ll do anything.”
So honest cops don’t trust their own investigators, they don’t trust their own commissioner or the city’s district attorneys or the mayor’s Department of Investigation.
“Unfortunately,” he said, bitterly, “we’ve got nobody to turn to.”
This is why the police corruption is but a microcosm of the much larger disease that afflicts this city’s government. It’s the disease that rewards not those who are honest and competent but, instead, those who go along with the shabby practices, those who will help you make money or win power in return for government favors that they do not earn through merit or ability.
When the cop who called me said “the system” was rotten, he was talking about a system that punishes whistleblowers instead of applauding and protecting and rewarding them.
As the honest cop said, “Unfortunately, we’ve got nobody to turn to.”