Serpico: A Study in Police Corruption

This is plagiarized from the 1973 biography of Serpico, written by Peter Maas:

In the summer of 1966 – just about the time Serpico was meeting with Captain Foran – a study of police corruption in Boston, Washington, DC, and Chicago showed that 1 of 5 policemen “violated the law,” even though they knew they were being watched. The study, conducted by Dr. Albert J Reiss of Yale University under a Grant from the Presidents Crime Commission, involved 36 trained observers reporting on the activities of 597 cops chosen at random in 3 cities. Crimes witnessed involved theft, protection payments, payoff to alter sworn testimony. They did not include such examples of petty graft as free meals and drinks, small gifts, and discounts on purchases.

In New Orleans, in the early 1950s, some 30 cops were charged with bribery and conspiracy to protect organized gambling and vice. After long prosecution delays, the indictments were dismissed on technical grounds. Then in 1969 the department was further disgraced, this time because of a police-operated burglary ring.

As a result of a federal grand jury investigation in Seattle, nearly 100 cops – about 10% of the force – were tied into a carefully structured shakedown system. The city’s Assistant Chief of Police was among those who were jailed.

In Denver, despite its reputation as a “clean” place to live, the existence of 2 good newspapers, and a presumably well-informed population, the biggest criminal operation in the city’s history did as it pleased for 15 years under tight police leadership. Denver cops turned out not only to be expert burglars, but to belong to at least 5 safe cracking gangs before their busy sideline was finally discovered, and more than 40 of them were rounded up. The bitter joke in Denver was about a shop owner who called the police to report a burglary, and was told, “We know all about it – we were there.”

Over the years Chicago has been famous for corruption, and a new round of unpleasant headlines hit the city in 1960 when it was learned that a police lieutenant had accompanied the head of Chicagos Mafia on a months vacation in Europe. Then a professional thief, facing a 20 year prison sentence, decided to talk about other members of his burglary ring – they were all Chicago cops. It was, Mayor Richard J Daley said with some hyperbole, “the most shocking and disgraceful incident in the history of the Chicago Police Department.” Since it was also an election year, Daley brought in a new Superintendent of Police with impeccable credentials to clean house. The new superintendent reorganized and modernized the department, but behind the facade nothing basically changed. In 1967, for example, a raid on a single policy-numbers operation revealed payoff lists for 10 of Chicagos 21 police districts. Soon afterward the chief of the departments Intelligence Division, who conducted the raid, was removed from his job. And in 1971 yet another wave of scandals – with federal grand jury probes into selling heroin, gambling protection, shaking down businesses, buying promotions – rocked the police department that Mayor Daley continued to hail as “the finest in the nation”.

Incidents like these are only a sampling of the extent of police corruption across the country. But large or small, they have one thing in common. The ordinary police officer, however honest, looked the other way, or got out, or once in a great while anonymously reported a specific payoff. In none of the was there a cop willing to blow the whistle on his own, and then step forward, as would be expected in any other criminal proceeding, and testify openly in court. In none of them was there a Frank Serpico.



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