Sunday, January 8, 2012

Diary of a ‘Corrupt’ Cop: or, It Was the Custom

If you are past sixty and were a Patrolman in the New York City Police Department in the 1960s and 1970s as I was (not to mention the 80s), then the name KNAPP divides your memories, like Moses parting the Red Sea, into the nostalgia-drenched PRE- KNAPP Days and the paranoid POST-KNAPP World.

Sure, I took money; everybody did. It was the custom. But not with both hands like Patrolman William Phillips, nor with the princely touch of Detective Robert Leuci, nor stupidly like my buddy, Patrolman Edward F. Droge, Jr. It was more a Gentlemen’s Agreement: that the “gratuity” (a Knapp word) be offered, and bad manners to refuse. At least, that was the way things were when fellow-Brooklynite Eddie Droge and I joined the Finest on May 15, 1967, and that’s the way things stayed until KNAPP fell upon us like a pack of wolves on a herd of nodding sheep.

I refer to the Knapp Commission Investigation Into Allegations of Police Corruption in the New York City Police Department, anointed by Mayor John V. Lindsay on May 21, 1970, in the wake of a story in the New York Times on April 25, 1970 by muck-raking journalist David Burnham. It revealed the graft being paid by gamblers and whorehouse madams to every swinging plainclothesman in every Division in every Borough of the City. Well, not quite every plainclothesman. If Diogenes had still been abroad with his lantern, his quest for an honest man could have ended with Plainclothes Patrolman Frank Serpico. Serpico was reporter Burnham’s Deep Throat, who took a bullet in the face for his principles, but survived to become an international figure, the subject of a biography by Peter Maas and a movie starring Al Pacino.

The ‘pads’ (a cop word) guaranteed each plainclothesman $500 in an envelope each month if he worked in the Fifteenth Division in Queens, $800 if assigned to the Thirteenth Division in Brooklyn, $800 in the First and Third Divisions in Manhattan, and $1,500 in Harlem (the Dream Posting). It was all news to me; with three years on The Job I was still regarded as a rookie. Plainclothesmen worked out-of-uniform, were not dispatched on calls over the police radio. Worked in teams, focusing on their own pre-determined targets by surveilling them on stakeouts and illegally wiretapping their phones. They answered only to the Plainclothes Sergeant. Even a rookie knew that much. But if you were “in clothes,” you didn’t talk shop with outsiders.

The KNAPP Commission, headed by the Wall Street lawyer Whittman Knapp, invented the word corrupt and tagged the NYPD with it during its first public hearings in October, 1971. I know this because when Eddie Droge and I were appointed Probationary Patrolmen in May, 1967, nobody in the New York Police Department was corrupt. From 1967 till the coming of KNAPP in 1970, I don’t recall ever hearing corrupt or corruption applied to New York City policemen. Not because we didn’t take money or didn’t do what KNAPP exposed that we were doing, but simply because those terms weren’t in general currency then. It took Commissions like KNAPP and MOLLEN (the latter also named after its head, former Judge Milton Mollen, appointed by New York City Mayor David Dinkens in 1992 “to investigate Police Corruption, etc”) – to give corrupt, corruption and corrupt policemen the currency that has long outlived memory of the bodies that coined them.

I know this because New York City cops in 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970 (and probably since time immemorial) — with as few exceptions as there are genuine saints in heaven, or wherever they reside — all of us took gratuities (another KNAPP word) of one sort or another. There were cops like me who, at end of tour, might end up with a little extra in his pocket or been fed “on the arm” (no charge) by a restauranteur. And then there were the Phillips, Leucis and Droges who shook down every gambler or drug dealer who crossed their paths. I never knew personally any Phillips or Leuci – whose raison d’etre was to score (a cop word) every gambler, prostitute, pimp, whoever had an illegal dollar in his or her pocket that they could get a hand on. Most cops were like me and, I suppose, Eddie Droge, at least at the beginning.

It’s the late morning or early afternoon of October 21, 1971, and I wake up in my apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn alone, hung-over after a four-to-twelve tour the night before, which always extends to 4 a.m., the last four hours of which we spend in Cal’s Bar on East 5th Street adjacent to the 9th Precinct where I’m permanently assigned. I wake up and punch on the TV for the news and weather and there is my Police Academy classmate, my buddy Eddie Droge, in the witness stand testifying before the KNAPP Commission. Eddie has the youthful appearance of a 24-year-old. I can still see the kid-cop who, during breaks in the Police Academy gym, would bend our ears about the Beetles and joys of smoking pot. The only addition to the baby face is a pencil-thin moustache above his lip.
Aside from that, it’s the old Eddie Droge except that what he’s saying is not how I remembered the old Eddie.

He was describing to the KNAPP Commission, and the world, how he and his partner — and, it was implied, all the other cops of Brooklyn’s 80th Precinct, in Bedford-Stuyvesant — would routinely score any gambler they came across while on patrol. In fact, they hunted gamblers like deer in season. Gamblers apparently were always in season in the old Eight-O. And when Eddie and his partner were fortunate enough to snare their prey, they’d take the gambler indoors or strike the bargain in the back of the radio car. The gambler ransomed himself by agreeing to a ‘Monthly Pad’ for Eddie and his partner and the two other radio car crews in that sector — I forget the amounts mentioned, but it was per man per month, depending upon the size of the gambler’s action. I remember thinking if there were a lot of gamblers in the old Eight-O, it would add up.

Eddie was testifying under a promise of immunity because he had arrested a ‘mope’ (cop term) for selling narcotics in the 80 Precinct sometime earlier that year, but had been persuaded to accept $300 in the men’s room at Brooklyn Criminal Court at 120 Schermerhorn Street in lieu of giving truthful testimony at a Suppression Hearing on the arrest he had made. He sold the case for a $300 bribe. What Eddie didn’t know in the men’s room, however, was that he had been shopped by his arrestee, who had been fitted out with an electronic recording device by KNAPP investigators.

Eddie’s deal with the KNAPP Commission was his testimony, painting a picture of the routine, bottom-feeder corruption practiced by the ordinary cops of the Eight-O. And the 80th was meant to stand in for all seventy-five police precincts in the city at the time.

Eddie did what he had to do to avoid jail. He had been on a one-year leave-of-absence from the Department attending college in Los Angeles. I’m sure he intended to never return, to put the Job and the old life behind him. Yet, the Knapp investigators had coerced his return to testify, and the anecdotes he recounted rang true. Afterward, he was allowed to resign and return to California. At the time and still, from the vantage point of forty-plus years, I don’t fault Eddie for what he did. Cops don’t jail well. Once, I googled Edward F. Droge, Jr. He’d published two books in the 1970s about his police days: an autobiography, “A Patrolman’s Story,” and a novel; I’d read both. I didn’t know that he’d gotten a PhD in Education from Harvard, taught there, and over the past twenty-five years been headmaster at various private academies. Eddie had turned it around.

Maybe I’ll give him a shout, talk about the good times.

Robert Knightly


  1. Fascinating ... tjs

  2. Proud of you, and grateful, that you have the balls to tell the truth. Best regards.