By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, November 11, 1986
The trouble with the medicines being prescribed by the police commissioner and the mayor to cure the police corruption that has embarrassed them lately is that these nostrums (1) have little relevance to corruption and (2) punish only the foot-soldiers in the police department and not the senior officers and other city officials whose failures led to the scandal.
The heaviest of the medicines is the decision by Commissioner Benjamin Ward and Mayor Edward Koch to transfer 20 percent of the city’s 27,000 patrol officers into new precincts every year. This mass rotation, which is to begin at the end of this week, is supposed to deter corruption by discouraging cozy relationships from developing the same co-workers over long periods.
That may be the intent, but the result — already seen in the bitter reaction of street cops — is to tell these foot-soldiers, yet one more time, that we trust none of them and see them all as potential grafters. Coping with the problem of law-breaking inside an institution devoted to upholding and enforcing the law is surely a complex and volatile task for a mayor and his commissioner, but is this draconian approach, an approach guaranteed to demoralize the entire rank-and-file, really the best way?
Isn’t it odd that we forever ask and expect the police to clean up the messes we don’t want to dirty ourselves with, and that the same time treat them as outsiders, not quite fit to come to our cocktail parties or even to receive the conditions of employment the rest of us enjoy?
Commissioner Ward’s new “reforms” are a reaction to the scandal in Brooklyn’s 77th Precinct, where a group of cops are accused of turning bad for money — shaking down street drug dealers for cash and drugs to resell, committing burglaries and so on. He and the mayor apparently feel they must do something drastic to kill this odor of corruption — or at least send it wafting somewhere away from their office doors.
But what ever happened to the principle that the buck stops at the top, where leadership sits? If police corruption has become serious enough to requite these massive moves, who is responsible? Is it some precinct commander or is it the failure of the anticorruption system that was being administered from Police Headquarters?
Hadn’t we repeatedly been told that, ever since the police corruption scandal uncovered by the Knapp commission in the early 1970s, the department had put in place the toughest and best anticorruption measures that could be devised? Now we are being told that the explosion of illegal drugs on the city’s streets created money temptations for cops of an enormity that could not have been anticipated. Maybe that’s it, but was this explosion so sudden that leadership couldn’t see it coming? More to the point, is this the whole story?
There is, of course, no justification or excuse for a crop to become a crook and, when he does so, he has to be punished as a crook. But to suggest that all or most cops are corrupt or corruption-prone or that they start out with larceny in their hearts at the Police Academy is to cruelly distort reality — the reality that most of our police enter the force with a desire to serve people, to attack crime and to get their gratification from these pursuits.
Yet the effect of the new policies, whether intended or not, is to create the impression that all of our cops are week individuals whose personality profiles put them only a short psychic step from falling into the criminal world.
If we endorse policies that isolate them in this way, then we will produce cops so embittered and frustrated that they will do nothing but punch clocks and serve out their time — or worse.
When the municipal corruption scandal erupted last January in several city agencies, Mayor Koch didn’t order a mass annual rotation of city employees from department to department, or even from bureau to bureau within departments — nor did anyone suggest he should. He and Commissioner Ward say that cops are different because cops are the law; they must, therefore, live by a higher standard.
No one disagrees with this. Cops don’t disagree with this. But cops can also distinguish between credible regulations and cosmetic posturing, between do-good rhetoric and honest law enforcement.
There are ways to give cops self-esteem and pride in their work. You have to give them a criminal justice system that works, not one where the rich and powerful are treated differently from others, not one where the drug dealer, flashing by in his new Mercedes, is back on the street after arraignment faster than the arresting officer, not one where investigations are quashed because the targets have political connections — in short, not a system like the one we see too often in this town.
It is not fantasy but actuality that leads cops to lose their idealism and replace it with cynicism. If we want to change that, we will seek to create a system that encourages them to lock up the bad guys, without fear or favor, and that rewards them for this honest police work.