New York City’s cycle of police corruption: Do reforms stick, and does it matter?

Diana Robinson/Mayoral Photography Office
NYPD officers graduate from police academy at Madison Square Garden.

New York City’s cycle of police corruption: Do reforms stick, and does it matter?

New York City’s cycle of police corruption: Do reforms stick, and does it matter?
July 17, 2016

With the senseless killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge this month, a long-simmering national debate over the issue of race and policing reached a boiling point. That discussion goes beyond issues of law and order to a deeper question: How much legitimacy and trust do the police have with the people they are sworn to protect and serve, irrespective of their race or socioeconomic status?

For police to refrain from resorting to the use of force to maintain order, they need to rely on an abiding community consensus that their authority is rooted in integrity and the broader public interest.

To that end, police corruption, like the use of excessive force, can have a truly corrosive effect on police credibility in a way that puts both the cops and the public in greater danger.

New York City has grappled with the issue of police corruption for generations.

Since the founding of New York City Police Department in the mid-19th century, six high-profile commissions have taken their turn at holding hearings that made headlines by documenting widespread internal police corruption. These commissions invariably prompted calls for reform and, on occasion, spurred the creation of a new agency aimed at improving police-community relations and accountability.

A few months ago, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton compared the internal department anxiety caused by an ongoing police corruption scandal involving high ranking officials to what was generated by the Knapp Commission in the early 1970s.

There have been calls for a similar independent investigation of the department in the aftermath of the recent arrests of veteran NYPD officers on corruption charges and the retirement of others who have been disciplined.

At the time of the Knapp Commission, the New York City Police Foundation was created as a nonprofit tax-exempt charity that could raise money to spend on projects supporting NYPD reform and modernization efforts as well as helping improve its relationship with the broader community.

Twenty years later, in the aftermath of the Mollen Commission, another body tasked with investigating the NYPD, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani used an executive order in 1995 to create the Commission to Combat Police Corruption.

Both the New York City Police Foundation and the Commission to Combat Police Corruption are still in operation.

Yet, as evidenced by the recent arrest of an NYPD deputy chief, a deputy inspector and a sergeant, as well as the internal disciplining of several other officers, corruption within the department remains.

New York City’s history of police corruption goes back more than a century. In the 1890s, Rev. Charles Parkhurst, described in the People’s Almanac as “a scholarly Presbyterian minister,” went on a fiery crusade “against police corruption, political connections and the underworld and all forms of urban vice.”

Parkhurst went undercover to saloons and prostitution houses to substantiate his case that the city’s police force was on the take. His campaign prompted Albany to form the Lexow Committee, named for Clarence Lexow, the state senator who led it.

The Lexow hearings generated a 10,000-page record that included testimony from saloon owners and prostitutes, who described a well-oiled machine that ran on paying off the police. The disclosures set the stage for a defeat for Tammany Hall with the election of William Strong as mayor, who ran on a reform platform. Strong then picked a young Theodore Roosevelt to be police commissioner.

Roosevelt, who had already lost a bid for mayor before his appointment, spent less than two years on the job as police commissioner, but he had a major impact. His strategy of going out into the city during the overnight shift to roust sleeping police officers, who were supposed to be on duty, made him a tabloid sensation. Roosevelt forced out one senior detective who had amassed a fortune under the table from patrons on Wall Street.

Roosevelt ran into political headwinds when he tried to have the police enforce a Sunday closure law on the books for the city’s popular saloons. Yet his decision to have police officers distribute ice to the families living in the city’s hottest and most vulnerable slums during a punishing heat wave was an early example of what would become known as community policing.

Subsequent police corruption panels after Roosevelt's brief tenure include the 1912 Curran Committee, the 1932 Seabury Investigation, and the Helfand Investigation, which ran 1949 to 1950. They were followed by the Knapp Commission in the early 1970s and the 1994 Mollen Commission.

The pattern has varied little. Press reports of a major police corruption scandal forced elected officials to act. Sometimes arrests would be made or implicated officers were forced to retire early. Reforms would be implemented, a few decades would pass, memories and resolve would fade, and the self-correcting cycle would start anew.

The Knapp Commission was established by Mayor John Lindsay after an exposé in The New York Times that reported police corruption was being ignored by the administration and by NYPD brass. The commission’s star witness was Frank Serpico, a police officer turned whistleblower, who, along with Sgt. David Durk, had brought their well-documented claims of systemic police corruption to the Times.

Serpico and Durk had encountered resistance and hostility from within the NYPD. Serpico described a department in which 10 percent of the officers were corrupt, another 10 percent were honest, and the rest “wished they were honest.” It was the willingness of that 80 percent to remain silent about the misdeeds of the small percentage of their corrupt colleagues that defined the culture of what was shorthanded as “the blue wall of silence.”

“Narcotics dealers, gamblers and businessmen make illicit payments of millions of dollars a year to the policemen of New York, according to policemen, law?enforcement experts and New Yorkers who make such payments themselves,” the Times wrote in a story that rocked the city in April of 1970.

Perhaps even more disquieting was Times reporter David Burnham’s conclusion that the highest levels of the NYPD and the Lindsay administration had turned a blind eye to the corruption, even after it was repeatedly brought to their attention.

Almost a year after that bombshell series hit, Serpico was shot in the face while trying to make a drug bust in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. According to his firsthand account in posted in Politico in 2014, Serpico had been abandoned by his fellow officers after he was shot by a drug suspect.

“I heard a voice saying, ‘Don’t worry, you be all right, you be all right,’ and when I opened my eyes I saw an old Hispanic man looking down at me like Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan,” Serpico recounted. “My ‘backup’ was nowhere in sight. They hadn’t even called for assistance – I never heard the famed ‘Code 1013,’ meaning ‘Officer Down.’ They didn’t call an ambulance, either, I later learned; the old man did.”

Serpico says the officers were never called to account for their actions, but were given awards for saving his life. Years later, Serpico says he confronted the former Commissioner Patrick Murphy, whose tenure included that tumultuous period, but Murphy walked away. Murphy died in 2011.

Among the recommendations of the Knapp Commission was the establishment of special prosecutor to pursue police corruption cases. Such an office was opened in 1973, but it was abolished in 1990 by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo and the state Legislature.

On Mayor David Dinkins’ watch, it was not a Serpico-type whistleblower from inside the NYPD who prompted the appointment of yet another panel to investigate police corruption. It was the arrest in the spring of 1992 of NYPD officer Michael Dowd and five fellow NYPD officers, who were caught up in an undercover drug operation run by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Narcotics Bureau.

Dowd and his crew of fellow officers, operating out of the 75th precinct in East New York, Brooklyn, earned as much as an additional $8,000 a week targeting drug dealers for their money and drugs, while at the same time providing protection for other drug dealers.

In response to the screaming tabloid coverage of Dowd and his crew, Dinkins selected Milton Mollen, a retired state Supreme Court judge, to head up what would be the sixth independent panel to investigate internal corruption with the NYPD.

At the Mollen hearings, the public learned that Dowd had been on the NYPD’s radar for at least six years prior to his arrest by Suffolk County police. Yet, despite being the subject of 16 complaints over that period for robbing drug dealers and selling cocaine, NYPD brass looked the other way. Internally Dowd was described in his personnel file as having “good career potential.”

The Mollen Commission concluded that “while the vast majority of police officers” did not engage in corrupt behavior, there were pockets of corruption in 10 of the city’s most crime-ridden precincts. In these areas, anywhere from a handful to as many as 20 officers were a law unto themselves.

The commission reported that for at least a decade, “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.”

“We find as shocking the incompetence and the inadequacies of the department to police itself,” said Milton Mollen, the panel’s chairman.

But the Mollen Report’s findings were rejected by then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who at the time was serving his first stint as commissioner under Dinkins. “It besmirches the reputation of the department with a rather broad brush that I don’t think is appropriate or warranted,” Kelly said.

One of the key recommendations of the Mollen Commission was the creation of an independent agency with subpoena power to oversee how the NYPD policed itself internally.

The proposal gained traction in the New York City Council, which moved to create such an agency with subpoena power that could legally compel the NYPD to produce documents. But incoming Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, himself a former federal prosecutor who enjoyed strong police support at the time, succeeded in blocking the Council’s move in the courts.

As an alternative, Giuliani used an executive order to create the Commission to Combat Police Corruption. The commission had a handful of staff lawyers with a six-figure budget, but no subpoena power.

A decade later in 2005, Mark Pomerantz, the CCPC’s chairman, and himself a former federal prosecutor, resigned because he said the volunteer post required more time than he could commit. He cited the difficulty the watchdog agency was having in getting documents from the NYPD without subpoena power.

Before he left the post, Pomerantz testified before a City Council committee that his panel had been stymied by the police department in its efforts to examine issues like fraudulent NYPD overtime claims, allegations of sexual misconduct, and how domestic violence cases involving members of the department were handled. Pomerantz said his agency also wanted to investigate allegations that supervisors within the NYPD regularly downgraded the seriousness of crimes that were reported to improve the department’s performance statistics.

At the time, the NYPD denied Pomerantz’s claims and asserted that the commission had gotten all the files in every case in which the NYPD deemed there was an instance of serious misconduct.

Three years later, the commission was once again in the headlines after Willa Bernstein, one of its four staff attorneys, went public with claims she was terminated for having an anti-police bias. At the time, the Daily Newsreported that Bernstein had called for an investigation into the decision of arresting officers to use a Taser on a teenage suspect who was already shackled and handcuffed.

Based on internal memos obtained by the Daily News, the commission leadership had determined that Bernstein had lost her credibility with the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Division after she compared the Taser incident to the 1997 Abner Louima police brutality case. That case involved the brutal precinct house beating of Louima by one officer and the subsequent cover up by a handful of other officers. The assaulting officer, Jason Volpe, was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in jail, while Louima was paid over $8 million by the city.

Despite the lack of subpoena power, the Commission to Combat Police Corruption’s internal disciplinary process continues to play a role. According to the CCPC’s last annual report in 2015, the panel conducted a detailed examination of 129 NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau cases and 540 disciplinary cases from 2014.

In the 40 cases involving allegations of domestic violence involving members of the department, the CCPC concluded that in seven of the cases the departmental penalties were too lenient. Similarly, in two related cases described as “profit motivated misconduct” involving veteran officers who received a $100 gratuity for providing an off-duty police presence at the same contentious corporate board meeting the CCPC also found the NYPD’s internal disciplinary response too light.

According to the annual review of the 32 instances in which officers were found guilty of department charges of false entries in NYPD records in the time period under review, only two of those cases resulted in termination from the force.

The latest round of police accountability reforms have come in the wake of the political battle over the Bloomberg administration’s reliance on the controversial stop and frisk policy. At one point under Bloomberg and Kelly, police were making several hundred thousands stops a year, overwhelmingly of young men of color, while 95 percent of them did not produce an arrest or even a summons. Ultimately, a federal judge ruled the practice unconstitutional.

In the 2013 mayoral race, Bill de Blasio, the eventual winner, campaign against the tactic, which had become a defining issue. In August of 2013, the New York City Council voted to create the Office of the NYPD Inspector General, under the auspices of the city’s Department of Investigation. The new oversight office has subpoena power, and in its first two years has focused on issues like the NYPD’s use of force on civilians and the efficacy of the strict enforcement of minor quality of life crimes as a way to reduce the overall number of serious felonies.

While the special prosecutor that the Knapp Commission called for in the 1970s to investigate police corruption has been disbanded for over 20 years, the New York City Police Foundation has prospered. Since the 1970s it has raised more than $120 million on behalf of the NYPD from the city’s power elite. In one case, the government of the United Arab Emirates donated $1 million.

According to its website, the Police Foundation was established in 1971 “to reduce corruption and support innovative programs that the NYPD could not readily fund.” Its first grant was a scholarship, and “when financial hardships threatened the Mounted Unit, the Police Foundation stepped in and donated every horse in the Mounted Unit for the next 20 years.”

One of the Police Foundation’searliest projects was a multimedia campaign that “aimed to improve communications between the police department and the New York Community,” according to a media account from the period.

In 1974, the Civil Service Leader reported on the Police Foundation’s publication of a brochure entitled the “100 Hats of Officer Jones,” which recounted how in one year, in addition to fighting crime, city police officers had delivered 46 babies and helped extricate 361 people caught in machinery and responded to over 1,500 stuck elevators.

In recent years, the foundation’s annual gala, with a price tag well in excess of a half-million dollars, is considered one of the premiere events in the city’s high society social calendar. The foundation’s board is made up an impressive intersection of Wall Street, the media, law and real estate.

If the “One Percent” needed a local steering committee, the foundation’s board would easily fill the bill. The membership also includes longtime philanthropists whose consistent generosity and engagement with the charities they support have made them pillars of the nonprofit world.

The 2016 gala at the Waldorf Astoria was hosted by Matt Lauer of “The Today Show” and honored Brian Moynihan, the CEO of Bank of America. Two years earlier, Bank of America agreed to pay $16.65 billion to settle Department of Justice allegations that it had sold billions of dollars of mortgage backed securities without disclosing the inferior quality of those offerings.

Such securities offerings were considered a major contributing factor to the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, which resulted in millions of Americans losing their homes, massive pension fund losses, and the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The Police Foundation has a handful of employees. The highest paid employee is Susan Birnbaum, the president and CEO, who earns $190,253 in salary and $44,213 in additional benefits. Based on its last filing, the foundation brought in $6.2 million in annual revenue. Roughly $1.1 million goes to salary and benefits for the foundation staff.

In 2014 the foundation brought in $425,000 in licensing fees from paraphernalia bearing the NYPD logo. According to the foundation’s website, in July of 2001 when Bernie Kerik was police commissioner, it was granted the right to license and use the NYPD logos and trademarks as a way to raise money and reduce the widespread counterfeiting of NYPD souvenirs and apparel.

The Police Foundation’s contributions have funded uncontroversial purchases like bulletproof vests, gun buybacks and “crime stopper” rewards as well as scholarships. Other expenditures have been more controversial, like the membership dues for the police commissioner to the Harvard Club and funding the living expenses of NYPD detectives stationed overseas on counterterrorism assignments.

According to the last publicly available documents from 2015, the foundation also funded two management consulting contracts that totaled close to $600,000, which was divided between Robert Wasserman and John Linde, both advisors to Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.

The foundation’s chairman is R. Dale Hemmerdinger, one of the city’s most successful real estate entrepreneurs, who volunteers his time. In 2007 he was appointed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer to be chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Agency. At the time of his Albany confirmation hearings, the Times described Hemmerdinger as “a real estate developer who has helped raise money for the Democratic campaigns” who was going to “need a crash course” in the MTA’s finances.

In addition to chairing the Police Foundation, Hemmerdinger is a trustee of the Citizens Budget Commission and has served as an NYU trustee. Hemmerdinger did not reply to a phone call and an email with questions about the Police Foundation. The media representative who handles press inquiries for the Police Foundation said the Foundation also declined to respond to City & State’s query.

According to a detailed review of the income tax and financial disclosure documents on file with the New York State’s Attorney General’s Charities Bureau, in 2009 the foundation signed a 10-year lease of its office space at 555 Fifth Ave., which is a signature property of of Hemmerdinger’s real estate company. The annual rent ranges somewhere between $160,000 and $170,000 annually over the life of the lease.

According to the filings, “the lease was deemed an arm’s length transaction by the trustees not involved in the ownership of the building.”

The Police Foundation’s close ties to Wall Street became an issue in November of 2011 when the Occupy Wall Street movement was forcibly removed from Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan after nearly a month-long occupation aimed to protest the financial sector’s role in the nation’s growing wealth inequality.

Critics charged that the NYPD had been unduly influenced by a $4.6 million gift from JP Morgan, via the New York City Police Foundation, that funded patrol car laptops as well as security monitoring devices that had been initiated a year earlier.

Advocates for the Police Foundation insist there are no strings to these corporate gifts and that they are made only out of civic pride and to show support for the NYPD.

“This gift is especially disturbing to us because it creates the appearance that there is an entrenched dynamic of the police protecting corporate interests rather than protecting the First Amendment rights of the people,” Heidi Boghosian of the National Lawyers Guild, told Salonin 2011. The National Lawyers Guild had legal observers posted at all the major Occupy Wall Street marches. “They’ve essentially turned the financial district into a militarized zone,” Boghosian added.

Chris Dunn, senior counsel with the New York Civil Liberties Union, says soliciting private donations for police work raises serious red flags. “Private financing of government operations is generally problematic, and private financing of police operations is particularly problematic given the lack of accountability and transparency,” Dunn said. “As the current NYPD scandal demonstrates all too well, mixing private money and police officials is a recipe for trouble.”

Eugene O’Donnell, a member of CUNY’s John Jay College faculty and a former NYPD officer and prosecutor, says there needs to be a bright line between public policing and corporations.

"We have to be sensitive to even the appearance of a conflict of interest,” O’Donnell said. “The integrity of the police department has to be priceless, so taking contributions from a JP Morgan puts that at risk. We are a super-rich city and we should publicly fund all police functions."

But perhaps more importantly, O’Donnell says, having the New York Police Foundation solicit funds on behalf of the NYPD sends the wrong signal to rank-and-file police officers who are told to meticulously avoid using their uniform to get special consideration from local merchants looking to ingratiate themselves with the NYPD.

“You can't privatize the funding of police projects,” O’Donnell said. “It sends the wrong signal to the young cop who’s regularly given the speech about the danger of taking a free lunch when they are out in the community.”

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Bob Hennelly
is a reporter for The Chief Leader.