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Corruption in the American Police: Frank Serpico, and The Knapp Commission

Illustration by Sheyda Sabetian
Illustration by Sheyda Sabetian
Police corruption in the American police peaked during the political era, in the 19th century and early 20th century. Political figures influenced police management and law enforcement. The control of politicians over the police was the worst in big cities such as New York. Almost every management decision the police had to make was ordered or approved by politicians. The mayor and other politicians handpicked officers.

Following the political police era came the reform era. The next era began in the early 20th century, and the main aim was to remove politics from the police. Police adopted a professional approach, away from political corruption. The police assumed new responsibilities other than patrolling and arresting criminals. Corruption was much lower during the early period of the reform era in most cities and departments. The exception was in large cities with Italian-American mafia presence, such as New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The Prohibition between 1920 and 1933 allowed the Italian-Mafia and other organized crime syndicates to become so powerful and wealthy, which enabled them to buy their ways into politicians and the police.

The second half of the 20th century saw the more professional and progressive era of American policing. More strict and professional requirements were enforced on the police officers’ behavior. The rise of civil rights movements during the 1960s put more pressure on the police and their behavior. Scrutiny on the police has been increasing ever since.

During the 1960s, New York City was still heavily infested with corrupted police officers. New York City was also the prominent spot for the largest organized crime syndicates in the USA. The large crime families in New York, such as the Irish and Italian Mafia, were operating in all the primary commercial industries. The Mafia’s existence in extensive corporate and government business dealings would not be possible without corrupt politicians and law enforcement officials.

One of the leading causes of corruption in the New York Police Department (NYPD) was the rise in violent crimes during the 1960s, which forced the department to recruit police officers without regard to their background and qualifications. This relaxed approach to recruiting led to police officers’ hiring with Mafia connections, cops with prior convictions, or just people with weak morals and education who could potentially become corrupted or lousy police officers.

NYPD officer Frank Serpico thought a primary cause of patrolmen corruption was the existence of corrupt chiefs and managers. The higher-ranking officials that Officer Serpico referred to have been in the field for a long time and might have been corrupted by prominent, influential people in the community. Influential politicians, business people, and Mafia bosses are all significant figures in the New York City community that could control police managers, which led managers to turn their eyes away from street-level corruption.

source: www.impawards.com
source: www.impawards.com
Frank Serpico was an NYPD police officer during the 1960s. After few years of working as a plainclothes officer, Serpico started to uncover systematic police corruption. By the late 1960s, Serpico began to report police corruption to government officials, but nothing was done to investigate the issue. Until April 1970, when New York mayor formed a panel to investigate police corruption in NYPD. The committee was named Knapp after its chairman Whitman Knapp. The Commission listened to many witnesses’ testimony, including Frank Serpico, former Police Commissioner Howard R. Leary, and some police victims. Criminal indictments against corrupt police officials were handed down.

The Knapp Commission identified two main classes of police officers’ corruption: “Meat Eaters” and “Grass Eaters.” Meat Eaters are officers who seek financial gain and who spend a great deal of time looking for situations where they can solicit bribes and significant benefits. Grass Eaters are officers who accept or solicit small gratuities such as free food and a small amount of money. The Knapp Commission found that most corrupt police officers are Grass Eaters, who learned it from veteran officers, and some good officers have to accept gratuities to show loyalty to the police subculture of their department.

Managing police corruption is a challenging task. The corruption involved in bribery and financial gain is always conducted in secrecy. Even when a group or a department-wide corruption exists, investigating the issue would always reach blocks because of the “Blue Wall of Silence” that many officers acknowledge as an unwritten rule of police conduct. Even a good police officer would not report another officer’s bad behavior or crime. Sting operations by the Internal Affairs or the FBI are efficient methods to identify bad cops. Even catching a small number of corrupt officers from one department would lower the corruption across the whole department. The “Rotten Apple Theory” suggests that one lousy cop can ruin the entire department.

There are many methods to lower police corruption. The three main elements in reducing police corruption are officer training, ethical development, and increased incentives. However, the first stage in preventing police corruption is during the recruitment phase. Strict screening, background investigation, and psychological testing are effective methods to eliminate the chances of hiring potentially bad cops. After hiring, continuous training on conduct, ethics, and policies will lead to less corruption and less harmful behavior. Another cause for police corruption that officers are underpaid. Many qualified citizens are moving away from police work because of the small financial incentives. Increased pay and benefits would help lower the chances of police corruption.

Nowadays, police corruption is less in the form of financial gain and more in the form of misconduct and physical abuse. Public scrutiny on police behavior has increased dramatically over the past few years due to the increased use of camera phones and social media. Police departments and chiefs are under more pressure to deal with their officers’ misconduct.

Source: Filmin
Source: Filmin

  • Lumet, Sidney. Serpico. Paramount Pictures, 1973.
  • Roberg, Roy R, Kenneth J. Novak, and Gary W. Cordner. Police & Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
  • Schmalleger, Frank. Criminal Justice Today: A Brief Introduction. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1997. Print.
  • 📷 Illustration by Sheyda Sabetian
Fahad Hizam alHarbi

Investigator based in Mexico, multilingual and certified. CFI, CPO, CFCS, CAMS.
I specialize in money laundering, corruption, and fraud. I write about crime, literature, travel, and sport. Contact me through here or on social media for any investigative project in Mexico and Latin America.

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