Read an Excerpt
One Evidence of Things Not Seen
I met Frank Serpico at the Knapp Commission corruption hearings in the fall of 1971. What I remember is how unlike a cop he seemed, how he kept apart from his so-called fellow officers. He had a bushy black beard, and when I spoke to him, he cocked his head like an ancient. Eight months earlier, he’d been shot below his left eye. A .22-caliber fragment had lodged in his brain and rendered him deaf in his left ear.
When Serpico was shot, many feared the worst—that someone in the police department had tried to kill him. Ever since he’d alleged his Bronx plainclothes unit was taking payoffs, he’d been a marked man. By coming forward he had betrayed the police department’s code, its "blue wall of silence," which held that cops didn’t turn in, or "rat out," fellow officers. Serpico received so many death threats that the department provided him with twenty-four-hour bodyguards, though in its bumbling fashion, one happened to be the former partner of his unit’s bagman—the person who collected the money—whom Serpico had accused.
Mercifully for the department, a drug dealer, not a cop, had shot him, although some, Serpico included, believed the department had deliberately chosen not to provide adequate backup after his partner called in sick that night. After he was rushed to the hospital, Mayor John V. Lindsay, the police commissioner, and the top brass trooped to Serpico’s bedside to pay homage to the man whose claims of corruption they’d ignored. The mayor couldn’t ignore him now, and pronounced Serpico "a very brave man."
By then it was obvious to all New Yorkers that Frank Serpico was indeed a very brave man. He had risked his life to expose the NYPD’s pervasive and systemic corruption. Misunderstood by the department, which had never known a cop to come forward unless seeking personal gain, and disparaged by City Hall, which feared antagonizing the police department, Serpico in the end had gone to The New York Times, which splashed his story across page one. Public pressure led Lindsay to appoint the Knapp Commission on Police Corruption. Its revelations became a watershed in the department’s history.
Serpico was thirty-five years old then and I was five years younger. Perhaps because we were close in age, perhaps because Serpico felt more comfortable with a reporter than with his own kind—the police—we began a friendship that continued, intermittently, over the next four decades. I was then a reporter for Time magazine with the lofty title of "correspondent," and this was my first brush with the NYPD. I was a middle-class boy from Long Island who had never seen the inside of a station house. Like most middle-class folk, I regarded the police as society’s protectors, the good guys.
The Knapp Commission painted a darker picture. It would hold three weeks of public hearings, baring the innards of the police department for the world to see. The NYPD would never be the same.
Sitting every day in the dour, high-ceilinged chamber of the City Bar Association, I became versed in a new language. A "pad" was a systemized payoff. A "KG" was a known gambler. Cops engaged in minor corruption were "grass-eaters"; those on the take in a major way, "meat-eaters." I heard how cops shook down store owners, hotel managers, construction foremen, and tow-truck operators; how gamblers, loan sharks, and drug dealers paid cops off. In Harlem, gamblers paid off in heroin, which cops provided to informants.
The corruption was not confined to the lower ranks. The hearings revealed how the top brass ignored and even abetted it. The chief inspector, the department’s highest uniformed officer, acknowledged accepting gifts from businessmen. The chief of detectives refused to turn over his files of suspect detectives to the chief of internal affairs. A confrontation in the chief of detectives’ office ended in a fistfight. The chief of internal affairs left, bruised and empty-handed.
The first deputy commissioner, John Walsh, refused to help federal authorities investigate cops suspected of dealing drugs. A note from his subordinate to another department official stated that the first deputy "doesn’t want to help lock up local police." "Let them arrest federal people," Walsh told him.
In its final report, the Knapp Commission put it this way. "The department was given reason to suspect that some of its members were extortionists, murderers and heroin entrepreneurs and made no attempt to verify these suspicions or refute them." When the commission questioned the top brass about this, they suffered what the final report described as "memory lapses." Even a novice like me understood what that meant: like corruption, the blue wall of silence extended to the highest levels of the police department.
Attempting to explain the police mentality, an Internal Affairs Division captain told the commission that cops viewed themselves as surrounded by hostile forces that wanted to destroy the department. In response, they developed loyalties to each other and would not inform on fellow officers. Superior officers were also reluctant to act because they did not want to reveal their weaknesses by acknowledging they had been unable to control their subordinates.
Sitting through every day of those hearings, I realized how little the public or even the city’s public officials knew about what went on inside the New York City Police Department. I also realized that when it came to the police, things are not all that they seem. The Knapp Commission’s story line didn’t convey the full picture. As appalling as the testimony was, there remained pockets of honesty and decency within the NYPD that went unheralded and, I suspected, were probably more prevalent than the corruption. At one hearing, a witness described a Queens command as rife with dishonesty. The next day, its commander appeared before the commission to deny the allegations, pointing out flaws in the witness’s testimony. The commission publicly apologized to him.
At another hearing, twenty-three-year-old George Burkert, a tow-truck operator from Astoria, Queens, told how two cops on Manhattan’s Lower East Side had ticketed him and a friend twenty-six times in thirteen minutes because he refused to pay them bribes. Burkert related his story to cheers and laughter from the hundreds of spectators. He seemed to personify all honest New Yorkers whom the police had mistreated, as well as their Walter Mitty fantasies of rising up in anger at official injustice. "I just had enough of it," Burkert testified. "I got tired of getting tickets for nothing." When he completed his testimony, the audience applauded him.
The following year, the two cops who had ticketed him were indicted. As their trial began, the charges were suddenly dropped. Burkert and his friend were charged with perjury. They had apparently concocted their entire story. Four civilians testified Burkert and his friend had run a series of red lights. The two cops had chased them in their patrol car and on foot before arresting them. The jury, however, voted 10–2 for acquittal and the judge declared a mistrial.
Serpico and the Knapp Commission also provided me with a story I was too inexperienced to appreciate. After his superiors had ignored his accusations, Serpico met with Jay Kriegel, a top aide to Mayor Lindsay, who told him of City Hall’s reluctance to become involved. Soon to declare for the presidency, Lindsay needed a friendly police department, should race riots erupt the following summer as they had in other American cities.
Before the hearings began, I interviewed Kriegel at City Hall and asked what seemed an obvious question: Had he passed Serpico’s allegations of police corruption on to Lindsay? Instead of answering, Kriegel led me from his office and walked me around City Hall Park. There he told me he had informed the mayor. At the time, I didn’t understand why Kriegel took me to City Hall Park to tell me this. Watergate—and the exposure of President Richard M. Nixon’s secret tape-recording system—was in the future. Years later, I would surmise Kriegel had taken me outside his office, thinking that as we walked I might not take notes, or that in such an informal outdoor setting a young reporter like me might not appreciate the import of what he was saying. If those were his reasons, he was at least partially successful. I did not take notes, and although I did file a story, it was unfocused enough that my editors at Time reduced his remarks to a sentence. Referring to the Knapp Commission, the story said only that Lindsay "was slow to react."
Testifying before the Knapp Commission some months later, however, Kriegel gave a different version. Protecting Lindsay, he denied what he had said to me in City Hall Park. Under oath, he stated he had not passed on Serpico’s information to the mayor. His testimony completed, he walked directly to me and asked what I thought. I was too stunned to say I thought he had lied to the commission—and too embarrassed to say he’d played me for a fool.
Later there was talk Kriegel would be indicted for perjury because his public testimony contradicted what he had told the commission in closed session. Nothing came of it. Lindsay’s presidential bid fizzled. The police department revelations were so shocking that he lost any chance he had for reelection to a third term.
Serpico retired from the department. A book was written about him. A movie was made of his life. He became a household name, representing honesty and goodness. He went off to Europe and lived there for ten years. Though he did not know it then, he had altered the department for generations.
The top brass, from the police commissioner on down, also retired. With their departure, the New York City Police Department saw the end of an era. For me, my career as a police reporter was just beginning.
Four months after the Knapp Commission hearings ended, the riot Mayor Lindsay had feared erupted. For the past couple of years, killers known as the Black Liberation Army had randomly assassinated police officers across the country. On May 19, 1971, patrolmen Nicholas Binetti and Thomas Curry flagged a car at Riverside Drive and 106th Street for a minor traffic violation. BLA gunmen inside the car riddled the officers’ patrol car with machine-gun fire, seriously wounding them. Two days later, patrolmen Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini, walking out of a housing project in Upper Manhattan, were ambushed. Jones was shot in the head and died on the street. Piagentini was shot thirteen times and died in the back of a radio patrol car en route to the hospital. On January 27, 1972, the BLA executed two rookie officers, Rocco Laurie and his partner Gregory Foster, in the East Village. Three or four men had passed them on the corner of 11th Street and Avenue B, then shot them in the back. As the officers went down, the men stood over them and continued firing. Foster was hit eight times and died instantly. Laurie took six shots and died on the operating table.
Poor in the best of times, race relations in New York City in the early 1970s were at another low. Those random police shootings, as well as Lindsay’s desperate efforts to identify with black New Yorkers, had fueled the anger of many whites, including the largely white police department. Tensions culminated on the morning of April 14, 1972, at a Harlem mosque after a civilian 911 dispatcher received a pseudonymous telephone call. "This is Detective Thomas, 28th Precinct. I have a 10-13 [officer needs assistance] at 102 West 116th Street."
"What floor?" asked the dispatcher. "Second floor," the caller replied, then hung up. He did not mention that the building, near Lenox Avenue, was Nation of Islam Mosque Number 7, headed by the notoriously antiwhite minister Louis Farrakhan.
Police officer Philip Cardillo and his partner Vito Navarra rushed to the mosque. In the reception area, Navarra asked a man talking on the telephone whether police officers were inside the building. The man ignored him. Navarra bounded past him and up the stairs to the second floor. A dozen Muslim men appeared and forced him back down.
Two other cops, Ivan Negron and Victor Padilla, said they saw Cardillo trying to push past the Muslims to reach Navarra. "Bring the cop down or let us go up and get him," Padilla shouted to the Muslims. They refused.
Five other officers arrived, including a sergeant. A dozen Muslims forced them outside, leaving Navarra, Negron, Padilla, and Cardillo inside alone. All but Cardillo fought their way out. There were shots. Negron said later he saw Muslims on top of Cardillo, who’d been hit in the side. His service revolver had been taken. Police later recovered it in the reception room with a spent bullet. He died six days later. He was thirty-two years old, the father of three children.
Meanwhile an angry crowd of a thousand had gathered outside the mosque and the police called for reinforcements. The crowd threw rocks, burned a city bus, overturned an anticrime team’s gypsy cab, and roughed up a white female reporter. For the next three hours, a full-blown riot raged. To end it, the police allowed a dozen suspects they were holding in the mosque’s basement to leave without identifying them. Police later claimed Farrakhan had promised they would appear at the 24th Precinct, on Manhattan’s West Side, where the investigation was moved. None showed up.
No one was convicted of Cardillo’s murder. The repercussions of a police officer’s unsolved killing reverberated through the department for the next decade. The day of Cardillo’s funeral, his commander, Deputy Inspector John Haugh, resigned in disgust, blaming the NYPD’s failure to publicly affirm that Cardillo had acted properly on entering the mosque. Within days, the department issued written rules for sixteen "sensitive locations," including Nation of Islam Mosque Number 7, forbidding officers to enter such places without a supervisor. It turned out there had been an unwritten agreement to that effect with Mosque Number 7. So strictly did the department follow their new rules that for the next two years, the police department prevented ballistics technicians from entering the mosque to gather evidence from Cardillo’s shooting.
In 1974, the dean of the mosque’s school, Louis 17X Dupree, was indicted for Cardillo’s murder. At trial, he claimed that either another cop had shot Cardillo or Cardillo had shot himself. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, the second in acquittal.
In 1980, a Manhattan grand jury under District Attorney Robert Morgenthau investigated the Cardillo shooting. It did not indict anyone but issued a report that excoriated the department. The police investigation, the grand jury said, had been "curtailed in deference to fears of civil unrest in the black community. . . . The long-term interests of justice in apprehending criminals were overridden by the short-term concern of preventing civil disorder."
The grand jury also criticized the department for "inexcusable detective procedures." It specifically cited the release of the Muslim suspects before they were identified. Echoing the Knapp Commission of a decade before, the grand jury accused the department’s top brass of "persistent lapses of memory." It found a "concerted and orchestrated effort by members and former members of the police department to impede" the Cardillo investigation and the grand jury’s inquiry. The Knapp Commission may have rid the police department of its systemic corruption, but it had apparently failed to breach the blue wall of silence.
Within the department, blame for the suspects’ release fell upon Benjamin Ward, a black lieutenant whom Lindsay had appointed deputy commissioner for community affairs. Ward, who had rushed to the mosque after the shooting, denied releasing the suspects. As a civilian deputy commissioner, he argued, he lacked authority to give such an order. No one believed him. So furious was the police union, the powerful Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, that its president, Robert McKiernan, declared in its official publication Front and Center that Ward "should either resign or be fired."
Not until eleven years after the shooting did the truth about what happened at the mosque emerge. A long-hidden document cleared Ward, who would become the city’s first black police commissioner. I would play a role in uncovering it.
In 1983, I opened New York Newsday’s police bureau. During Lindsay’s second term, police headquarters had moved south from Centre Street, where it had been for a hundred years, to a fourteen-story, red-brick, fortresslike building known as One Police Plaza. The building was completed in 1973, the year before Lindsay left office. It was his final legacy to the police department.
In the eleven years since that shooting, racial tensions in New York City had only worsened. The Black Liberation Army had been subdued, but black New Yorkers were now accusing the police department of systemic brutality. In the summer of 1983, Michigan congressman John Conyers came to New York and held three days of public hearings on the subject. A few months later, Mayor Edward I. Koch—who invariably sided with the police, angering virtually all black New Yorkers—announced Ward’s appointment as police commissioner.
In the years since the mosque shooting, the department’s anger toward Ward had only intensified. The PBA’s president Phil Caruso publicly mocked him, calling him "Bubba." It seemed the union’s opposition might sink his appointment.
Then New York Newsday’s court reporter Gerald McKelvey made a discovery that changed everything. McKelvey, who shared my office at One Police Plaza, knew the court system as few did. He was close to the then–state’s chief judge Lawrence Cooke, and would later become a special assistant to Morgenthau. McKelvey had read the 1980 grand jury report, which mentioned a document known as the "blue book," so-called for its blue cover. The blue book was the police department’s internal investigation of the Cardillo shooting. According to the grand jury report, it had been "circulated only among the upper ranks of the department."
Because the grand jury did not indict anyone, all testimony and evidence had been sealed, and only its final report made public. Figuring the Cardillo family had filed a wrongful death suit against the city, McKelvey sought out the family’s lawyer, who brought in six boxes of discovery material. In the first box McKelvey found the blue book.
We opened it in our office at Police Plaza and began reading. Officially entitled "Report and Analysis of Muslim Mosque Incident of April 14, 1972," it had been prepared a year after the shooting, between March and June 1973, under James Hannon, the chief of operations, then the department’s highest-ranking uniformed officer. It began with the phony 911 call, went through Cardillo’s rushing into the mosque, and cited the riot raging outside and the call for police reinforcements. It described the appearance at the mosque of three black heavyweights—Ward, Farrakhan, and Harlem congressman Charles Rangel. According to the blue book, Farrakhan and Ward "took the position that the street would return to normal if the police were removed from the area, including the mosque."
At that point, the tough-talking, cigar-chomping chief of detectives Albert Seedman arrived. A Jew, described as "more Irish than the Irish," Seedman, according to the blue book, "assumed the responsibility of the investigation." Then came the key sentence. As Gerry and I read it, we looked up and stared at each other without speaking.
"These facts, plus uncertainty that all persons involved were in the basement, led to the reluctant decision by Chief Seedman to move the investigation to the 24th Precinct on the promise of Mosque officials to produce the detainees thereat." There it was. Seedman, not Ward, had ordered the suspects’ release. Ward may have urged that police officers be removed from the area, but it was Seedman who had allowed the suspects in a police officer’s murder to leave the premises without being identified.
"Seedman," the blue book added, "continued his investigation in the Mosque but after about 15 minutes either Rangel or Farrakhan approached him and told him that they had better get out of the Mosque or there would be trouble; that they could not control the crowd outside. Seedman now felt that with the reduced uniform presence protecting the scene outside, he was in an untenable position."
According to the blue book, Seedman said that the decision to transfer the investigation to the 24th Precinct was his. He explained that "no police officers at the scene could identify any person remaining in the basement as being involved in the incident." He added that either Farrakhan or Rangel had promised he would produce the suspects at the 24th Precinct.
I couldn’t reach Farrakhan, but Rangel denied making that promise. "I couldn’t promise anyone to the precinct," he told me as we prepared the Newsday article. "For me to negotiate over a bunch of hoodlums with an officer I didn’t know is . . . ridiculous."
For eleven years Ward had been blamed for something he apparently hadn’t done. The code of silence that prevented police officers from coming forward about corruption also prevented top department officials from revealing the truth about the mosque. How much easier to blame a black man and department outsider whose "position" to remove officers from the mosque implied a cowardly retreat from the murder scene of a fallen comrade than the flamboyant, tough guy chief who personified the department’s macho image. The code that protected the guilty had, in this instance, condemned the innocent.
Excerpted from Nypd Confidential by Leonard Levitt.
Copyright 2009 by Leonard Levitt.
Published in July 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
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