In The News: [Progressive Magazine] - It’s Been 50 Years Since Frank Serpico Exposed NY's Dirty Cops
This article features the Lamplighter Project and originally appears here. The article includes an interview with Lamplighter Project Board Chair, Sara Thompson. Also referenced is Lamplighter Project's annual Award for Moral Courage in Law Enforcement.
"According to Sara Thompson, president of the board for the Lamplighter Project, a law enforcement whistleblower support organization, the commission was significant due to its genesis in Serpico’s and Dirk’s whistleblowing. As Thompson told me in an interview, the commission’s findings “validated many of the concerns brought forward by police officers who were motivated by a moral responsibility to address wrongdoing and protect the public."
Published on October 15, 2021 12:16 PM
On September 24, Frank Serpico posted a link on Twitter to a New York Times article titled “Bipartisan police reform talks are officially dead on Capitol Hill.” Serpico’s take on the headline? “Business as usual.”
The article showed that legislative talks on overhauling police departments nationwide had ultimately failed. Although legislators had been meeting since April, spurred largely by the sentencing of officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, they had not made any “meaningful progress on establishing really substantive reform for Americans’ policing,” according to Cory Booker, the Democratic Senator from New Jersey.
Serpico, best known as the plainclothes officer who reported widespread malfeasance in the New York Police Department in the 1960s, is intimately acquainted with corruption. Serpico, the 1973 Sidney Lumet film, depicts how Serpico (played by Al Pacino) refused payoffs that were regularly offered to police officers—as well as the consequences he suffered for not playing along.
Today, Serpico still keeps track of contemporary corruption-related headlines, such as when, earlier this month, he retweeted a breaking story about an FBI raid on the home of the NYPD Sergeants’ Benevolent Association (SBA) president. Serpico’s tweets come at an historically significant time: Fifty years ago this week, starting on October 18, 1971, hearings were held before the Knapp Commission in New York City to address some of the most damning corruption charges ever leveled against an entire police department.
On April 25, 1970, David Burnham’s article “Graft Paid to Police Here Said To Run Into Millions” ran in The New York Times. According to Michael F. Armstrong’s They Wished They Were Honest: The Knapp Commission and New York City Police Corruption, the article prompted former New York mayor John Lindsay to form the Knapp Commission.
Named for its chairperson Whitman Knapp—the former Manhattan assistant district attorney and future U.S. district court judge—the commission sought to “uncover definitive proof of the extent of graft among 32,000 police officers, and bring that proof to public attention.”
The Knapp Commission did, eventually, accomplish this mission. But it got off to a slow start.
After the commissioners were chosen and former assistant U.S. attorney Michael F. Armstrong was hired as lead counsel, the group set out to find proof of police corruption. They had scarce funds and struggled to find officers who would break the “blue wall of silence.” But a major break came when they found two key witnesses: Waverly Logan and William R. Phillips.
Logan was a former NYPD officer who had been assigned to a squad meant to combat the drug trade in minority communities. He was willing to testify that, while he hadn’t gone looking for bribes, he did accept them when they came along.
More importantly, Logan told the investigators that his superiors seemed uninterested in investigating corruption cases when they arose. Department policy was to quickly fire anyone against whom evidence of corruption could be found, without asking questions about those individual officers’ contacts and networks.
It soon became clear to Armstrong and Knapp that there was extreme public interest in Serpico’s and Durk’s allegations.
Phillips was a patrolman who had been with the NYPD for thirteen years when he came to the attention of the commission investigators. Working with other informantsand New York City’s “leading madam,” Xaviera Hollander, the investigators eventually recorded Phillips taking and arranging multiple payoffs from Hollander and others. When they confronted him with this, Phillips agreed to play ball.
When the commission’s hearings began on October 18, the media attention was intense, with the hearings aired live on Channel 19, the city’s local public television station. Over the next two months , commission members and their attorneys grilled various witnesses, including Phillips and Logan, to establish a large-scale pattern of police corruption.
The sources for Burnham’s bombshell article, Frank Serpico and his fellow police officer David Durk, were not originally scheduled to testify before the commission. However, it soon became clear to Armstrong and Knapp that there was extreme public interest in Serpico’s and Durk’s allegations.
The pair had brought their complaints to different individuals within the NYPD in 1966 and 1967. They had reported misconduct by their fellow police officers to their superiors, and eventually to Jay Kriegel, an aide to the mayor. Nothing happened and nothing changed until they went to Burnham.
Serpico testified before the commission in December 1971. His mere presence was sobering; accompanied by his attorney, Ramsey Clark (Lyndon B. Johnson’s former attorney general), he described the “pad” (the highly systemized collection of bribery payments) and his efforts to bring its ubiquity to his supervisors. He was still recovering from physical trauma; in February 1971 he was shot in the face while making a raid on an apartment during a drug bust.
The commission hearings closed just before the beginning of 1972. Although they had been heavily covered by the media, the members of the Commission felt the more important legacy of their proceedings would be their written report, which was later issued in two stages in 1972.
“We found corruption to be widespread,” the report plainly stated in the first line of its executive summary. It went on to detail corruption that was significant, systematically organized, and known about not just by frontline officers but by supervisors as well. The report also found that, though not all officers were corrupt, “even those who themselves engage in no corrupt activities are involved in corruption in the sense that they take no steps to prevent what they know or suspect to be going on about them.”
The commission made several recommendations for the NYPD. These included creating an outside agency to investigate corruption allegations, requiring accountability all the way up the chain of command, and setting in place higher penalties for corruption while also providing more incentives for “meritorious police performance.” It also noted that police attitudes toward corruption had to change, and reform had to be supported by the public.
According to Sara Thompson, president of the board for the Lamplighter Project, a law enforcement whistleblower support organization, the commission was significant due to its genesis in Serpico’s and Dirk’s whistleblowing. As Thompson told me in an interview, the commission’s findings “validated many of the concerns brought forward by police officers who were motivated by a moral responsibility to address wrongdoing and protect the public.”
Serpico’s and Durk’s revelations may have been validated, but Serpico, in particular, paid a price for his lamplighting (a term for whistleblowing that he coined, and which is the basis for the name of the Lamplighter Project). He noted that, when he was shot during the drug raid in 1971, his backup team did not call 911—another tenant in the building did. The difficulty of continuing on in his career, after Burnham’s and his testimony before the commission, became clear, and he retired in June 1972.
Earlier this year, the Lamplighter Project awarded their inaugural Lamplighter Award for Moral Courage in Law Enforcement to Sergeant Javier Esqueda of the Joliet Police Department in Illinois.
Before George Floyd’s death in January 2020, a Black man named Eric Lurry died while in the custody of Joliet police. Months later, when it became clear that no investigation into Curry’s death would be held, Officer Esqueda released video footage of Lurry’s treatment to the media, which brought broader attention to the case. It also brought retaliation: Esqueda is being criminally charged for releasing the footage.
Fifty years ago, Frank Serpico told the Knapp Commission, “We create an atmosphere in which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer and not the other way around.” When asked to comment on the commission’s legacy now, Serpico referred me to that quote, highlighting how “This statement still has not changed.”
The public is increasingly aware of and against what Serpico dubbed “business as usual” in our criminal justice system.
In Armstrong’s history of the commission, he wrote that he felt its contribution “was to use the weapon of public exposure to help bring about the elimination of the general, pervasive climate of corruption that existed in the Department at that time.”
At least one goal of the Knapp Commission has been met: The public is increasingly aware of and against what Serpico dubbed “business as usual” in our criminal justice system.
Disappointingly, our political leadership does not seem to have the will to even discuss substantive reform, proving that the hope for another commission on police abuses has yet to be achieved