A return of grass-eaters and meat-eaters at the NYPD, but none of the transparency of the Knapp Commission

By LOUIS FLORES

A new feature of Progress Queens is the "Letter from New York," an occasional series of reports to give historical context to political, economical, and social issues facing the Big Apple.

A new feature of Progress Queens is the "Letter from New York," an occasional series of reports to give historical context to political, economical, and social issues facing the Big Apple.

Updated 23 April 2016 11:30 a.m. ⎪When New York Police Department Commissioner William Bratton announced on April 7 the disciplinary reassignment of several senior police officers, he compared the upper reaches of the current corruption controversies erupting out of the police department with the 1970’s investigation of the police force by the Knapp Commission.

In May 1970, then Mayor John V. Lindsay (R-New York City) appointed an independent panel of five commissioners to investigate the NYPD after allegations were made public, notably by NYPD Officer Frank Serpico and Sgt. David Durk, about a systemic problem with corruption at the police department. At that time then, the work of the Knapp Commission was unique, because it had been formed under authority conveyed by the mayor and granted powers of subpoena by the New York City Council.

Prior to the formation of the Knapp Commission, Mayor Lindsay had appointed a makeshift panel, which dissolved itself after it was accused of conflicts of interest, because the police commissioner at the time, Howard Leary, was a panel member. The persistence of NYPD officers, such as Det. Serpico and Sgt. Durk, as well as a recommendation by that temporary panel, gave rise to the formation of an independent investigatory body : the Knapp Commission.

In decades past, commissions that had investigated the NYPD for corruption had to be formed by state government officials, because, during past investigations, executive and judicial branches of government sometimes figured into the corruption at the NYPD, according to a 1972 report published by The New York Times. In 1930, for example, then Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) formed the Seabury Commission to investigate corruption in New York City, including at the NYPD and the Magistrates’ Courts, the criminal courts of New York City described as the “supreme court of the poor.” Because of how the investigation of police corruption led to an investigation of political corruption, the work by the Seabury Commission triggered the 1932 resignation of then Mayor Jimmy Walker (D-New York City).

Although some government reform activists have called on Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) to form a new panel, similar to the Knapp Commission, he ignored such calls. As noted by the journalist Martin Arnold for a 1971 report he filed for The New York Times, Sgt. Durk had complained about the initial apathy of the administration of Mayor Lindsay to calls for an investigation of the NYPD.

It could be material that the current Federal corruption investigation into the NYPD touches on two businessmen, who were significant contributors to Mayor de Blasio’s various campaign committees.

That these men, Jona Rechnitz and Jeremy Reichberg, are reportedly under investigation for allegedly paying high-ranking NYPD officers in exchange for receiving special police services in return, it may explain why Mayor de Blasio has resisted calls to form a new commission to investigate the NYPD, because he would have been exhibiting a self-interest in trying to deflect any possible linking of any investigation of the NYPD to some of his campaign supporters. Mayor de Blasio may have had a second reason to resist calls for forming a panel, namely, to avoid provoking more scorn and resentment from rank and file police officers, who had publicly protested against him at the turn of the year between 2014 and 2015. The culture of the NYPD has in the past been documented to be suspicious of any outside interference with the management of the NYPD, as was noted in the Knapp Commission’s final report.

At the April 7 press conference, Commissioner Bratton said that he was informed of the Federal corruption investigation into senior NYPD officers immediately upon being sworn into office. It’s unclear who informed Commissioner Bratton about the existence of the investigation. A spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Investigation deferred comment to the NYPD.

Despite all that has been reported about the on-going Federal corruption investigation into each of the NYPD and the de Blasio administration, it is not known when Mayor de Blasio first learned about the aspect of the investigation that was targeting senior NYPD officers.

Questions submitted by Progress Queens to each of the deputy commissioner for public information at the NYPD, to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New York’s southern district, and to the press office of City Hall, about when and how Mayor de Blasio was informed about the investigation into the NYPD were not answered.

It may also be material about the timing of when Mayor de Blasio was informed about the Federal corruption investigation into the NYPD, because it would explain why he backed off from his unfinished campaign promises to end the race-based era of policing tactics by the troubled police department. But it would not explain why he would agree to expand a police force at the same time when he knew the culture of the NYPD was such that some of its highest-ranking officers were reportedly providing private policing services in exchange for illicit payments, sometimes made in diamonds.

Mr. Rechnitz, one of Mayor de Blasio’s supporters, who is reportedly the subject of one aspect of the wide-ranging Federal investigation, formerly worked for a real estate affiliate of a conglomerate owned by Israeli-Russian diamond merchant, Lev Leviev. However, it was Mr. Rechnitz’s friend, Mr. Reichberg, who reportedly provided the diamonds as payment to some police officers, according to a report published by The New York Post.

Mr. Leviev has not been identified in any reports as having been involved in activities that are the subject of the investigation. Thus far, no political supporter of Mayor de Blasio has been charged with any crimes, and several police officers have already faced some form of disciplinary treatment, despite the ongoing nature of the Federal corruption investigation. It is not known if any individuals interviewed by investigators have received non-prosecution agreements in exchange for their coöperation with the investigation.

During the proceedings of the Knapp Commission and during the conduct of a study by the Rand Institute, it was revealed that side jobs acted as incentives for police officers to engage in graft. Police officers, who engaged in lower-level form of corruption, such as accepting “the payoffs that the happenstances of police work [threw] their way,” were referred to as “grass-eaters” in the Knapp Commission’s final report, as reported by The New York Times at the time of its issuance. More calculating police officers, who “aggressively [misused] their police powers for personal gain,” were referred to as “meat-eaters.”

Because the Federal corruption investigation of the NYPD is operating under the cloak of policies applicable to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which prevent the commenting about ongoing investigations, there is no transparency for the public to know the full spectrum of misconduct by the NYPD officers reportedly implicated in the current controversies. This contrasts sharply with the significant degrees of transparency of the Knapp Commission, which televised its public hearings and issued a final report of its findings, for the public to bear witness to the administration of justice promised by the Knapp commissioners and by Mayor Lindsay.

The current lack of transparency is also in contravention to the emphasis that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the nation’s top Federal prosecutor for New York’s southern district, placed on the importance of having had public criminal trials for former Assemblymember Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side) and former State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre). In remarks he made following the conclusion of the trials, U.S. Attorney Bharara encouraged the public to look at the conduct of the trials to inform the debate around the need for political reform, urging the public thusly : “I think that people should take a look at what that showed,” he said, referring to the trials, according to a report published by The New York Times. If U.S. Attorney Bharara believes in the need for transparency for large corruption investigations, it is not known why he does not support subjecting his investigation of the NYPD to the same transparency benchmarks established by the Knapp Commission.

In January 2015, Progress Queens asked U.S. Attorney Bharara during the question and answer period following a 2015 speech at New York Law School whether his office would consider forming a committee of prosecutors to review the NYPD for possible reforms, similar to what his office successfully did about Rikers Island. In summary, U.S. Attorney Bharara said at that time then that he thought there was sufficient existing oversight in respect of the NYPD and that, if necessary, he would revisit the matter, if warranted. It is notable that it was unknown at that time then that Federal law enforcement officials were already conducting an investigation of senior NYPD officials.

Side jobs as possible incentives for graft

In the past, as it does now, the NYPD has had departmental rules against its officers working side jobs, and the Rand Institute study, released in 1970, noted that the NYPD had disciplined nearly half of the officers involved in the subset of 1,392 allegations of violations of departmental rules that that study reviewed.

In 2014, the latest full-year for which statistics are available, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB, a disciplinary board of the police department, published a report showing that its “disciplinary action rate on CCRB substantiated complaints” was 73 per cent. It’s material that the way that CCRB now qualifies its disciplinary rate may inflate its actual performance when compared with the Rand Institute’s methodology, because a report in The New York Times did not qualify violations of department rules reviewed by that study as having first been substantiated by CCRB.

A request made by Progress Queens to the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for public information about the current rules applicable to officers working side jobs confirmed that when “a uniformed member of the service wishes to engage in off duty employment,” the officer “must submit an application to their commanding officer for approval,” according to information provided to Progress Queens by the office of the deputy commissioner for public information.

There are procedures noted in the NYPD Patrol Guide applicable to off-duty employment that require supervisor approval.

Additionally, there may be further rules applicable to police officers seeking to do work for enterprises that do business with the City of New York.

According to information obtained by Progress Queens, there is a general ban against all full-time City of New York employees “having a second job with a firm that does business with any City agency.” However, a waiver can be provided to the employee, if the employee receives “written permission from his/her agency head and then a waiver from the Conflicts of Interest Board,” according to a source, who added that, “Many City agencies have stricter rules for their own employees regarding moonlighting.”

It is not known if the rules about off-duty employment were applicable to police officers, who reportedly took part in sensitivity training provided by the Museum of Tolerance New York. One of Mayor de Blasio's supporters, Mr. Rechnitz, was a key supporter of the sensitivity training program. Because news reports have noted that Federal investigators are probing whether police officers allegedly received compensation in exchange for providing policing services to the two businessmen, who are reported targets of the wide-ranging, Federal corruption investigation, it is not known if the police officers’ participation in the sensitivity training was compensated and, thus, subject to off-duty employment rules of the NYPD and the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board.

Complicating matters is the fact that the training program provided by the Museum of Tolerance New York received taxpayer money from the discretionary funds directly allocated by the New York City Council, as was revealed in a report published by The New York Post, raising the possibility of a conflict of interest for any participating police officers.

For a prior report published by Progress Queens, officials with the Museum of Tolerance New York did not answer a request for an interview about that training program.

More opportunities for side jobs for police officers

The Knapp Commission's final report recommended efforts to eliminate the "opportunity for petty graft" as an avenue to create a new culture at the NYPD to reject the notion that "graft [was] an accepted part of the job." Nonetheless, even as off-duty employment for NYPD officials once again becomes the subject of a graft investigation of the police department, the New York City Council has created more opportunities for police officers to potentially seek off-duty employment as security guards, a prime source of moonlighting income for police officers, because police officers are already trained to provide policing services.

As has been widely reported, New York City Councilmember David Greenfield (D-Borough Park) sponsored legislation in 2015 that was eventually passed by the municipal legislature and signed into law by Mayor de Blasio to force the City of New York to pay for private security guards at private schools. Although the NYPD had opposed that law, its rank and file officers may still benefit, if they seek part-time employment during their off-duty hours.

Because Mayor de Blasio is at odds with charter schools, which would stand to benefit from the private policing funding legislation, there is a possibility that Mayor de Blasio would now be funding charter schools to hire off-duty NYPD officers as security guards. If any police officers receive approval and a conflicts waiver, allowing them to work for charter schools receiving taxpayer funding, the extra moonlighting income to be earned by any off-duty officers could become an incentive to ally rank and file NYPD officers with the mayor’s political opponents, furthering past disruptive rifts between the NYPD and Mayor de Blasio.

The irony of a major investigation into NYPD on District Attorney Vance’s watch

U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance with President Jimmy Carter on the White House lawn in March 1977.  Source :  Public Domain/Wikipedia

U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance with President Jimmy Carter on the White House lawn in March 1977.  Source :  Public Domain/Wikipedia

Of the eight oversight, regulatory, or law enforcement agencies reportedly currently investigating the de Blasio administration, one is the office of District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. (D-Manhattan). Yet, District Attorney Vance has not been publicly identified as being one of the agencies participating in the Federal corruption investigation of the NYPD.

One of the five commissioners to serve on the Knapp Commission was the late Cyrus Vance, the U.S. Secretary of State during the Carter administration. Former U.S. Secretary of State Vance was father to District Attorney Vance.

The findings of the Knapp Commission noted the role of prosecutors’ offices in refusing to acknowledge how corruption at the NYPD “might damage the image of the department, thus reducing its effectiveness.”

On District Attorney Vance’s watch, the NYPD has required the leadership of external government officials to institute a house-cleaning that his own father worked so hard to bring about over 40 years ago. The need for investigatory bodies to routinely probe the NYPD in 20-year cycles was accurately foreshadowed by the Knapp Commission in 1972, which was followed by the Mollen Commission, created in 1992 by then Mayor David Dinkins (D-New York City).

In the shadow of the foretelling of the Knapp Commission, which included his father as a commissioner, this latest investigation of the NYPD proceeds now without the involvement of the son in the very office, which the Knapp Commission noted was derelict in its duty to supervise the NYPD.

In another borough of New York City, District Attorney Richard Brown (D-Queens) has resisted calls made by State Sen. James Sanders, Jr. (D-South Ozone Park) and others for the appointment of a special prosecutor to handle the investigation into the shooting death of George Tillman by four NYPD officers, according to a report published by The Queens Chronicle.

In the wake of the national Black Lives Matter social movement to demand greater police accountability for the use of force by police officers, including the use of deadly force, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) issued an executive order, temporarily appointing State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D-New York) as a special prosecutor for cases of police officer-involved fatalities of unarmed civilians. Yet, the office of Attorney General Schneiderman has yet to step in to investigate the deadly shooting of the late Mr. Tillman.*

By comparison, in other jurisdictions, notably in Illinois, voters organized to vote out of office State Attorney Anita Alvarez (D-Cook County) based on her alleged mishandling of the police shooting death of Laquan McDonald.

With the exception of former District Attorney Charles Hynes (D-Brooklyn), lax district attorneys in New York City are relatively immune to political challengers in elections, because of the strong Democratic Party county committee system that protects incumbents and an unorganized activist community that to important degrees includes nonprofit advocacy groups, the latter whose interests are aligned with incumbents. The few autonomous activists groups remaining in New York largely no longer validate elections as a viable lever to exert political pressure for reform, compared with other major cities, like Chicago. The dashed promises for police reform made by Mayor de Blasio, when he was a candidate for City Hall ; the lack of transparency by public officials ; and the lack of a viable third party divorced from a reliance on big money donors partly explain this cynicism.

Update : State Attorney General Schneiderman is reportedly now reviewing the NYPD shooting of the late Mr. Tillman, according to a report broadcast by WNYC.