I was wrong. The first place I went was to the mayor’s department of investigation, where I was told outright I had a choice: 1) Force their hand, meaning I would be found face down in the East River; or 2) Forget about it. The rest you know, especially if you’ve seen the movie. After refusing to take money myself, but coming under relentless pressure to do so, I went successively to the inspector’s office, the mayor’s office and the district attorney. They each promised me action and didn’t deliver. The lobbying power of the police was too strong. I discovered that I was all but alone in a world of institutionalized graft, where keeping the “pad” – all the money they skimmed – meant that officers spent more time tabulating their piece of the cake more than as guardians of the peace.
Over the years, politicians who wanted to make a difference didn’t. They were too beholden to the police unions and the police vote. I wrote a letter to President Bill Clinton in 1994 addressing this very issue, saying that honest cops have never been rewarded, and maybe there ought to be a medal for them. He wrote back, but nothing changed. In New York City, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg professed that things were going to change, but in the end he went right along with his commissioner, Ray Kelly, who was allowed to do whatever he wanted. Kelly had been a sergeant when I was on the force, and he’d known about the corruption, as did Murphy.
As for Barack Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, they’re giving speeches now, after Ferguson. But it’s 20 years too late. It’s the same old problem of political power talking, and it doesn’t matter that both the president and his attorney general are African-American. Corruption is color blind. Money and power corrupt, and they are color blind too.
Only a few years ago, a cop who was in the same 81st Precinct I started in, Adrian Schoolcraft, was actually taken to a psych ward and handcuffed to a gurney for six days after he tried to complain about corruption – they wanted him to keep to a quota of summonses, and he wasn’t complying. No one would have believed him except he hid a tape recorder in his room, and recorded them making their demands. Now he’s like me, an outcast.
Every time I speak out on topics of police corruption and brutality, there are inevitably critics who say that I am out of touch and that I am old enough to be the grandfather of many of the cops who are currently on the force. But I’ve kept up the struggle, working with lamp lighters to provide them with encouragement and guidance; serving as an expert witness to describe the tactics that police bureaucracies use to wear them down psychologically; testifying in support of independent boards; developing educational guidance to young minority citizens on how to respond to police officers; working with the American Civil Liberties Union to expose the abuses of stun-gun technology in prisons; and lecturing in more high schools, colleges and reform schools than I can remember. A little over a decade ago, when I was a presenter at the Top Cops Award event hosted by TV host John Walsh, several police officers came up to me, hugged me and then whispered in my ear, “I gotta talk to you.”
The sum total of all that experience can be encapsulated in a few simple rules for the future:
1. Strengthen the selection process and psychological screening process for police recruits. Police departments are simply a microcosm of the greater society. If your screening standards encourage corrupt and forceful tendencies, you will end up with a larger concentration of these types of individuals;
2. Provide ongoing, examples-based training and simulations. Not only telling but showing police officers how they are expected to behave and react is critical;
3. Require community involvement from police officers so they know the districts and the individuals they are policing. This will encourage empathy and understanding;
4. Enforce the laws against everyone, including police officers. When police officers do wrong, use those individuals as examples of what not to do – so that others know that this behavior will not be tolerated. And tell the police unions and detective endowment associations they need to keep their noses out of the justice system;
5. Support the good guys. Honest cops who tell the truth and behave in exemplary fashion should be honored, promoted and held up as strong positive examples of what it means to be a cop;
6. Last but not least, police cannot police themselves. Develop permanent, independent boards to review incidents of police corruption and brutality—and then fund them well and support them publicly. Only this can change a culture that has existed since the beginnings of the modern police department.
There are glimmers of hope that some of this is starting to happen, even in New York under its new mayor, Bill DeBlasio. Earlier this month DeBlasio’s commissioner, Bill Bratton—who’d previously served a term as commissioner in New York as well as police chief in Los Angeles—made a crowd of police brass squirm in discomfort when he showed a hideous video montage of police officers mistreating members of the public and said he would “aggressively seek to get those out of the department who should not be here — the brutal, the corrupt, the racist, the incompetent.” I found that very impressive. Let’s see if he follows through.
And legislators are starting to act—and perhaps to free themselves of the political power of police. In Wisconsin, after being contacted by Mike Bell — a retired Air Force officer who flew in three wars and whose son was shot to death by police after being pulled over for a DUI – I’d like to believe I helped in a successful campaign to push through the nation’s first law setting up outside review panels in cases of deaths in police custody. A New Jersey legislator has now expressed interest in pushing through a similar law.
Like the Knapp C