Monday, July 21, 2014

Me and TR: Time Travelers

Last time, I reviewed Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zacks: a wonderful portrait of the NYPD and my City, 1895 to 1897, during TR’s two-year stint as president of the four-man Police Commission. I was less interested in Roosevelt than in the times, at first. All I knew of TR as the PC is that he left behind his desk at Police Headquarters, behind which all his successors have sat since.

I was astonished to find that the NYPD I joined on May 15, 1967 was one and the same that Roosevelt presided over in 1895: graft-loving, enthralled with the “victimless crimes“ of gambling, prostitution and after-hours saloons while motivated by a benevolent laissez-faire. TR’s crusade against vice that bred graft among his police force had a visible impact on Sin-City during the two years he held the police reins. In fact, his Sunday Closing Crusade, launched on June 23, 1895, had three Sundays later succeeded in shuttering 95% of the City’s roughly 8,000 saloons. (Then, the City was essentially just the Island of Manhattan.) No wonder TR was wildly unpopular with the working classes, especially the Germans, whose only day-off was Sunday. TR hoped to root out the police-run protection racket, starting with the saloons, then moving on to the gambling dens and brothels. But by 1898, with the return to power of Tammany Hall, the City was back on its natural course, TR just an anomalous historical blip on the collective memory. City residents and many in the State Legislature applauded his going. (He fled to Washington D.C., gratefully, to be the newly-elected President William McKinley’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy.)

As a rookie NYC Patrolman, I patrolled the streets in two Precincts from mid-1967 to mid-1969. After just three weeks in the Police Academy, we all were hastily “qualified” with the revolver and sent to patrol precincts in anticipation of a “hot summer” (spelled, riots). I landed in the 90th Precinct on Clymer Street and Division Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The old Nine-O was in the heart of the Satmar sect of Hasidism, a throwback to the Eastern European shtetls of the 18th Century. We walked four-block-long, one-block-wide foot posts along Bedford and Lee Avenues, the main commercial and residential corridors in that Jewish neighborhood. We walked solo five nights a week from 6 p.m. till 2 a.m. for the next six months. Our primary mission was to protect the Hasidim from marauders on bicycles from the Marcy Avenue Projects in the south; on Shabbos, the men in their Saturday best would wend their way after sundown to the synagogues for prayer and the bicycle thieves would swoop down to snatch the spodeks (mink fur hats) from their heads and pedal away. When we were not engaged in foiling that particular crime, we were sternly advised by the Nine-O Sergeants: Stay out of sight, stand in a doorway; don’t dare take any police action! (Not unreasonable, considering we’d received but a smidgen of the six-months intensive training normal for recruits at the Police Academy.)

Once, I was assigned to an RMP, when a veteran in his regular patrol sector was out and I became the recorder (passenger) as his partner drove. It was Sunday, we made several stops at bodegas; I waited in the car as directed while he went in. I didn’t see the two or three dollars known as Sabbaths paid by the store owners for being in violation of the Sunday Closing Law and selling beer, nor did my partner offer to share the tribute with me. Not so, next time, one year later, in my new Precinct, the 9th, on East 5th Street, in Manhattan’s East Village. A repeat performance: me the rookie assigned as Recorder with the veteran Sector Car man on a weekday day-tour, patrolling busy East 14th Street. As I monitored the radio, my partner entered a drug store on Broadway just off 14th Street. When he got back in the car, he handed me seven one-dollar bills. I knew what it was but didn’t hold out my hand, until he said, matter-of-factly: “Take it.” No overt threats, no steely gaze, just like that. To refuse would have labelled me suspect, untrustworthy, a loner without allies in a violent place. Later, I learned the singles were the police tax on the hotdog vendors (mostly Russian middle-aged women) working 14th Street, in violation of the City’s Anti-Peddling Law.

Was it wrong? Sure, but there’s ‘wrong’ and then there’s worse. Many cops made extra money where they could; giving the manager of the Fillmore East Rock Hall a ride to the Bank Night Deposit with the receipts, for example. Of course, it got out of hand when a stopped motorist would be offered the option of paying the officer a reduced fine on the spot rather than receive a traffic summons; and when the Police Radio Dispatcher asked for a car to respond to investigate a possible DOA at a residence. Volunteers were prompt and many, sirens screaming; some of my fellow cops would roll the body for cash and valuables, then ransack the apartment.

After two-and-one-half years as a policeman, I wouldn’t have considered myself naïve. Yet, when the New York Times published the revelations of whistle-blowing plainclothesman Frank Serpico in 1970, I reconsidered. A map of the five boroughs of the City was overlaid with a dollar-figure representing the monthly pad paid to each plainclothesman working in each Division to not enforce the laws against gambling, prostitution and after-hours Clubs. In Brooklyn’s 13th and 14th Divisions, the pad averaged from $300 to $500; similarly in Queens’s 15th and 16th, but Manhattan’s 3rd and 5th Divisions were the Gold Coast, with Harlem at the apex: $1,500 each month to those plainclothesmen lucky enough to be assigned to Harlem. Of course, luck had little to do with it; what counted was who your rabbi was within the Department, and your reputation for ‘trustworthiness’.

The Knapp Commission began televised hearings of its Investigation Into Corruption in the New York Police Department on October 18, 1971. That day, I saw a rookie I knew from my Police Academy class, Edward F. Droge, Jr., admit on the witness stand to shaking down gamblers in the 80th Precinct in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where he was assigned. It was implied that the practice was common among the cops of the Eight-O (since defunct). Droge was testifying under a grant of immunity to avoid jail. He had been caught earlier in the year taking a $300 bribe from a drug dealer in the men’s room of the Brooklyn Criminal Courts Building on Schermerhorn Street, downtown. He’d agreed in return for the bribe to testify in Court in such a way that the man would walk; unbeknownst to Droge, it was a Knapp Commission sting, the dealer having been wired by Knapp investigators to record their conversation. On a less personal note, I listened as infamous Plainclothes Officer William Phillips detailed his shakedowns of madams of upscale brothels in Manhattan’s Silk Stocking District. Phillips failed to mention, however, the pimp and the prostitute he was later convicted of murdering over a disputed payoff.

At the same time but off-the-radar, the U.S. Attorney was debriefing NYPD Narcotics Detective Robert Leuci, a member of the Department’s elite Special Investigations Unit, who—his Federal handlers claimed—was acting out of conscience in implicating his police partners and Mafia types in thefts of heroin and money from black and Hispanic drug dealers, whose stash houses were located through the planting of illegal wiretaps. Skeptics, however, believed that Det. Leuci had been caught red-handed by Knapp investigators and had made his deal. Det. Leuci was never charged and spent his remaining years till retirement in the Internal Affairs Bureau since no other NYPD detective would work with him.

In 1970, as well as creating the Knapp Commission, New York Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed a new Police Commissioner, Patrick V. Murphy. Murphy began cleaning house immediately and by 1973, when he left for greener pastures in Washington, D.C. (like Roosevelt), he’d revolutionized the NYPD. The Department was cleaner than the last housecleaning in the aftermath of the Brooklyn gambler Harry Gross scandal of the early 1950s—the big-time plainclothes grafters (called meat-eaters) either in jail or fired, and the signal Murphy response to the so-called Blue Wall of Silence, christened the Field Associates Program. Young cops recruited while in the Police Academy, brainwashed to view old Precinct cops as corrupt and report their suspicions to Internal Affairs. A cautious reticence settled in among the rank-and-file in the founded belief that you couldn’t be sure of whom you were talking to or who was watching. This clean slate of affairs lasted 20 years, more or less—till the advent of the Mollen Commission Hearings in 1993.

Robert Knightly

(Sources: Island of Vice, by Richard Zacks, Random House, 2012; NYPD: A City and Its Police, by James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto, Henry Holt, 2000; The Knapp Commission Report on Police Corruption, George Braziller, 1973; The Patrolman: A Cop’s Story, by Edward F. Droge, Jr., New American Library, 1973.)


  1. Bob, with all the events in your early cop life I am amazed you came out as gentle an adult as you have. God bless. tjs

  2. Thanks so much for this, Bob. Your point if view always helps me feel the city around me in a very different way. While you were seeing the cop's POV, I was working in the banking sector, where hotshot MBA's were shifting the nation's businesses from an engine for middle class jobs to an array of Banana Republics, where the few get disgustingly rich and the masses get minimum wage. I would say that the suits did the greater harm. But maybe that is because one has to be up close and personal with corruption to smell the stink.

  3. Annamaria, from my years of work with the hotshots of the cloth and the round collars and veils, MBA's have no corner on stink and corruption! tjs