CORRECTION: In the story below we erroneously mischaracterized Frank Serpico. In fact, Mr. Serpico achieved fame as an honest police officer who was courageous enough to blow the whistle on corrupt practices in the NYPD. We apologize to Mr. Serpico for this error.
The best defense against systematic police corruption in New York City is strong leadership, and that’s exactly what the NYPD has in Commissioner Ray Kelly, the head of the Mayor’s Commission to Combat Police Corruption said Friday.
Michael Armstrong, who was counsel to the Knapp Commission that exposed rampant police corruption in the 1970s, said concerns about the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy and alleged downgrading of crimes are real – but are nothing compared to the rampant corruption that once flourished on the force.
“In good times, when you have a good police commissioner, when you’ve got a vigorous Internal Affairs Bureau, you don’t have the highly-publicized corruption areas that cry out for investigation,” Armstrong told a breakfast discussion sponsored by the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School.
“Do policemen give erroneous reports of crime in their area so as to make themselves look better? That’s a long way from narcotics and murder and all the rest of the stuff that we found. And it’s a long way from what Frank [Serpico, the legendary NYPD whistleblower] found when he was in his plainclothes division, where you had the whole division dividing up graft. It’s a long way. It’s a more subtle issue.”
The story of what the Knapp Commission uncovered was told not only in its book-length report, but in the memoirs of
corrupt cops Serpico and Robert Leuci that became the era-defining movies “Serpico” and “Prince of the City.”
Armstrong now heads a body that he acknowledged only provides oversight to NYPD operations, and does not have the same mission to probe corruption as the many agencies he said do a good job of it – from Internal Affairs to the city’s five district attorneys and two federal prosecutors.
“If the police catch crooks [in the NYPD], they’re criticized because the crooks exist,” he said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean the system isn’t working. It means the system is working. Maybe.”
The NYPD has been buffeted by scandals involving crooked cops over the last year, though, from dismissing parking tickets as favors to planting drugs on innocent people. Those worrisome examples, on top of broader-based concern about stop-and-frisks and other practices, have led to increased scrutiny of the agency.
“I am concerned, obviously, about overall corruption, but I don’t necessarily see that in the NYPD,” City Councilman Robert Jackson told Armstrong after his speech. “I’m more concerned as a legislator about all of the stop-and-frisk, where 94 percent of the people are not even arrested.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been steadfast in support of Kelly, whose poll numbers have remained high even among minority communities, but in last month’s State of the City speech he announced he would beef up the Commission to Combat Police Corruption by adding four more lawyers to the two already there.
Armstrong said that would be a huge boon for his office. But he said the lesson of the Knapp Commission is the internal culture of the NYPD has more effect on corruption than any outside force.
“I always felt, back then and today, that the best solution for corruption in the department is a strong, vigorous leadership. I always used to say, if you made General Patton or Vince Lombardi police commissioner, you wouldn’t have any corruption,” Armstrong said.
“Frankly, from my standpoint and vantage point, I think that’s the kind of control that we have in the person who’s the current police commissioner. But who knows what tomorrow will bring.”
Tags: Center for New York City Law, corruption, Frank Serpico, General Patton, Internal Affairs Bureau, Knapp Commission, lawyers, Mayor's Commission to Combat Police Corruption, Michael Armstrong, murder, narcotics, New York Law School, NYPD, police, Prince of the City, Ray Kelly, Robert Jackson, Robert Leuci, Serpico, State of the City, Vince Lombardi
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