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To Protect and Serve, Honestly

The mayor should look for a chief who has the courage to stand up to corruption.

September 29, 2002|FRANK SERPICO | Frank Serpico is the former New York City police detective whose revelations of corruption resulted in the Knapp Commission being formed.

In April 1999, after I finished a lecture to a group of criminal justice students at an upstate New York university, several police officials and I retired to a local tavern for a beer and some cop talk.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed what first appeared to be a seedy-looking character approaching me. Who was he and why was he there?

The man seemed out of place, yet with all those cops around, no one seemed to be concerned. In fact, a couple of officers seemed to know him.

I soon discovered that he had flown all the way from L.A. just to see me. Before I took my first sip of beer, I realized we had something in common; it was like talking to an old colleague.

He said he had something to tell me: Something big was about to come down in the Los Angeles Police Department, something he and others had warned supervisors about; they had been ignored.

He was an undercover narcotics officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. That something big he alluded to was what we now know as the Rampart Division scandal, in which rogue cops, among other things, stole drugs and money and planted evidence.

What has this to do with the selection of a new police chief?

Well, as it turns out, the Rampart scandal could have been avoided if top officials had been willing to listen to a couple of honest cops and followed through on their revelations.

This story is reminiscent of what happened in my case when, as a narcotics officer in the New York Police Department in the 1970s, I brought large-scale corruption in the department to the attention of the police commissioner. This resulted in the formation of the Knapp Commission, which concluded that the department was rife with corruption.

Thirty years have passed, and half a dozen police commissioners in New York have come and gone, and there are new scandals. I am still treated as an outcast by the powers that be in the NYPD. This tells me that they saw me only as a source of embarrassment; they would have preferred sweeping the issue under the rug.

The best reflection of the commission's attitude at the time was Chairman Whitman Knapp's response to a reporter who asked how the commission was going to handle then-Mayor John Lindsey in its investigation. Knapp asked, rhetorically, how could he investigate the man who appointed him? The integrity of the chief lays heavily on the integrity of the man who hires him.

What the community requires is what the police require: a leader who is concerned with the welfare and safety of the whole community and not a select few. A police chief with vision, compassion and an understanding of the communities that his officers are to serve.

There is a need to change the culture of the LAPD so that all people are treated equally. The new chief should be a person of integrity who recognizes the diversity of the population and its needs and believes that minorities and the poor have the right to equal protection under the law. It should be someone who knows that part of the reward for police is serving the public, not exploiting them or being a bully; someone who sees the need for new applicants to be properly psychologically screened and community-trained and -oriented.

This person must not be an ego-centered head-breaker or a wannabe politician looking to advance his own cause. It must be someone who understands that police are civil servants who need to be respected and who can be proud of their calling but first have to earn that respect by respecting the people they serve.

A chief must make his officers understand that if they violate the law, they will be punished in the same manner that other suspects are punished. Too often, cops caught breaking the law are simply dismissed rather than given jail terms.

A good chief will earn the respect of his men by treating them fairly, without double standards. The police profession is a demanding one, and officers should feel free and safe to talk to their commanders like grown men and women, without fear of retribution. Most important, a chief must encourage his officers to speak out against corruption, praising and rewarding them when they do so and not hanging them out to dry.

Police scandals come and go, but one underlying truth remains. In each instance, there was an honest cop who tried to bring it to the attention of superiors and was ignored. A scandal must be avoided at all costs. A few small fry get fired and sometimes are arrested, but their cases often are reversed on appeal. The good cops are left holding the bag.

The big chiefs who don't make waves sail on to another country-club assignment. One NYPD commissioner stated in my case that it was his job to safeguard the image of the NYPD. In the eyes of the community, that image doesn't amount to much if communication is lacking. The police image will only be improved by mutual respect and fairness, not by fear and intimidation.

Although the grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence, Mayor James Hahn needn't cross the state line for a candidate for police chief. All he needs is someone who can identify the local flora and fauna and knows how to weed his garden.

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