By Michael Armstrong, Columbia University Press, 245 pages, $29.50
In the spring of 1970, the New York Times began publishing a series of reports of systemic corruption in the New York City Police Department based largely on information supplied by Frank Serpico, a Bronx plainclothesman, who outlined to the Times the pervasiveness of organized corruption at every level of the NYPD. Some of the corrupt cops were known as “meat eaters” and some as “grass eaters.” The former devoted portions of every working day to seeking out opportunities to “score,” for example, by stealing a portion of seized contraband or cash from drug dealers and gamblers; the latter were less driven than the “meat eaters” but accepted all gratuities in cash or goods that came their way in the course of a daily tour.
The disclosures in the Times prompted Mayor Lindsay to establish a commission to investigate the nature and extent of corruption in the NYPD and Whitman Knapp was appointed chairman. Other commission members were Cyrus Vance, John E. Sprizzo, Joseph Monserrat and Franklin Thomas. Michael F. Armstrong, then a junior partner at Cahill Gordon & Reindel was appointed chief counsel to the commission and this new book is Armstrong’s chronicle of the events and the personalities he dealt with for the approximate two years the commission was in existence. The book’s enigmatic title is adopted from a Frank Serpico quote: “Ten percent of the cops in New York City are absolutely corrupt, ten percent are absolutely honest, and the other eighty percent—they wish they were honest.”
The commissioners agreed that they would not focus on making criminal cases against any individuals but rather would discover and expose what patterns of corruption, if any, existed in the department. Ultimately, Armstrong and his colleagues would have to rely on the cooperation of police officers who were themselves corrupt but who would testify about the extent of corruption common throughout the department. The primary obstacle faced by Armstrong in achieving this result was the legendary “blue wall of silence,” the traditional unwillingness of one cop to testify against another.
The investigative team was assembled with a handful of experienced former federal prosecutors who would act as direct supervisors of a dozen or so field investigators. Among those initially recruited by Armstrong were two of his former colleagues in the office of U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Paul K. Rooney and Otto Obermaier. Nicholas Scoppetta, a veteran of the New York County District Attorney’s office and Milton Williams, then working at a city legal services agency, as well as Nicholas Figueroa also signed on at that time.
Serpico and several other police officers had given incriminating information to Armstrong’s investigators but much of it was anecdotal, dated or lacking the “punch” needed to generate public interest in televised hearings scheduled for the fall of 1971. Armstrong’s investigation struck pay dirt when the commission’s expert technical operative/informant, Ted Ratnoff, wore a wire and caught police officer William R. Phillips extorting protection money from an infamous East Side madam, Xaviera Hollander, a.k.a. the “Happy Hooker.” Phillips was then “flipped” and wore a wire himself gathering massive evidence of graft and other unlawful activities by members of the NYPD until he himself became suspect as a Commission operative.
The end-game for Phillips began at P.J. Clarke’s one afternoon while he was having lunch with an old friend, former middleweight champion Rocky Graziano, and Commission agents Brian Bruh and Ralph Cipriani approached Phillips and told him in a private conversation “we have you in stereo.” Phillips replied simply “I know” and on the ride downtown he was gracious enough to say “you guys did a great job.”
Armstrong and Rooney awaited Phillips’s arrival at the commission offices on Chambers Street having rehearsed a “Mutt and Jeff” interrogation with Rooney being the good cop and Armstrong the bad.
The interrogation of Phillips, however, was brief as he readily agreed to cooperate, telling Armstrong “Mr. Armstrong, I’ve had people sitting where I’m sitting— and I’ve sat where you’re sitting—I know what I’ve got to do.”
The next day Phillips began wearing a wire and making cases against his brother cops.
Under Armstrong’s questioning at the televised hearings, Phillips, universally identified in the media as a “rogue cop,” testified for several days in the Grand Hall of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. His riveting portrayed a pervasive system of corruption throughout the NYPD in which most police officers were at least complicit while many of the police brass adhered to the “few rotten apples” rationale for doing little or nothing. The hearings were a major media event of the day.
Armstrong’s story of this melancholy chapter in the city’s history is especially interesting for its compelling portraits of so many past and present leaders of the New York Bar and Judiciary and others who feature in this story, e.g., Cy Vance, Judge Whitman Knapp, Judge John E. Sprizzo, Judge John F. Keenan, F. Lee Bailey, Mayor John Lindsay, Police Commissioners Howard Leary, Patrick Murphy and Richard Condon as well as Frank Serpico, Paul K. Rooney, and many others.
The end of the hearings was not the end of the story for Bill Phillips, however. As a result of his TV appearances, he was identified as a suspect in an open double homicide case involving the fatal shootings of an East Side hooker and her customer and the simultaneous (non-fatal) shooting of another “John.” In due course, Phillips was indicted and tried twice on these charges; the first trial, prosecuted by John F. Keenan and defended by F. Lee Bailey, ended in a hung jury. Phillips was not so lucky at the second trial, with a different prosecutor and defense counsel, and was convicted of the double homicide and attempted murder and sentenced to 25 years to life.
He actually served thirty-two years having been denied parole several times for lack of contrition, etc., and at age 77 was finally released in November 2007.
Armstrong has told a compelling story about a crucial time in the city’s history and it is a volume that will be of particular interest for anyone involved in the law or law enforcement and/or issues of government integrity.
Stephen J. Fearon is counsel to the firm of Condon & Forsyth in New York.