Police

What Do I Know About Corrupt Cops? My Family Owned a Few.

Ultimately, the only people watching the watchers are those realistic enough to admit that it's necessary.

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Police
Elijah Bosley

Years ago, members of my extended family were gangsters connected with the Genovese crime family. They had the ability, which they used, to place people in favored positions within the New York City Police Department. I know this, because my father was offered one of those slots.

This is a big part of why I've always had a problem with claims that you can trust the police, in addition to the civil liberties abuses we report at Reason. Cops can be as crooked as anybody else—and are more dangerous for it, because of their power and position. It's the old problem of "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"—"Who watches the watchmen?" The more you give the watchmen to do, the more tempting it becomes to corrupt them, and for them to let themselves be corrupted. And the more temptation for corruption, the more the likelihood that such temptation is the main attraction for people who want to be watchmen.

That temptation sometimes really is the main attraction. Remembering some of the old family stories, I asked my father for details. He told me:

The time was 1954 when I was graduating from high school and my Uncle Puggy, Watermelon King of the East Coast, who presided over the Bronx Terminal Market, told my father he was wasting his money sending me to college. He could get me a beat around the market, located in the South Bronx before it moved to Hunts Point, where I could get on the family's payroll and get an envelope stuffed with cash every week.

Puggy was called "the Watermelon King" because the New York Daily News once published a picture of him standing on top of a mountain of watermelons. The photo illustrated an article pointing out that he extracted his cut from every banana, every tomato, every kind of fruit and vegetable known to mankind that passed through the Bronx Terminal Market. And, if you're going to be in that kind of business, it's helpful to own the people who are supposed to prevent that sort of thing from happening. Puggy did. He wanted my father to join in the lucrative fun.

My father decided not to go that route.

The law enforcement connections continued and expanded. At the end of the 1960s, that crew pulled off an art heist that was elegant in execution, but went to hell pretty quickly. As it turned out the buyers they arranged were FBI agents. But the thieves were tipped off that the buyers were feds. And they were tipped off about a raid on a house where the paintings had been stored. As my father tells me, "they probably had a plant in the FBI as well." (If you're interested, and it's a hell of a tale, you can read the full story of the heist in Gallery of Fools.)

None of this is news to anybody who remembers Frank Serpico's revelations about the NYPD. But it's also something that doesn't go away. My father's brief opportunity for a law (non)enforcement career passed 60 years ago. The Knapp Commission convened over four decades ago. But the NYPD still faces allegations of corruption, including traditional ticket-fixing, outright theft of cash and jewels, and taking bribes to deliver accident reports to doctors and clinics who then market their services to the victims.

Honest cops who blow the whistle still suffer retaliation for their pains.

Not that the NYPD should be singled out. Baltimore cops have been accused of working as muscle for drug dealers. Cops elsewhere have been drug dealers, taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by their badges to shut down competitors in the illegal but highly profitable trade and keep the opportunities for themselves

And then there are the FBI agents who got tight with Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger.

Some of this corruption overlaps with civil liberties violations committed in the course of police work. Those jewel-stealing cops mentioned above also gained a taste for gathering evidence in the absence of warrants. It's probably not surprising that police officers who engage in theft, accept bribes, and carve out illegal narcotics empires might find the Fourth Amendment an unimpressive barrier to further depredations.

There may be no way of doing entirely without professional police forces that are paid and empowered to enforce the laws to some extent (though I'm very willing to consider alternatives). Like many things in life, there's probably no perfect fix. But, so long as we have police forces, we're going to have a problem with police who abuse their positions and succumb to corruption. We'll also have a problem with people who become cops just so they can exploit the opportunity to engage in abuse and get an envelope stuffed with cash every week, offered by the likes of Uncle Puggy.

Asking police officers to suppress highly profitable activities where there's money to be had just for looking the other way is just begging for trouble.

That's enough reason to give extra thought to every job, tool, power, legal protection, and consideration given to police officers. And it's reason to turn a skeptical eye on the people we've hired to keep the peace. Because, in the end, the only people watching the watchers are those realistic enough to admit that it's necessary.

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  1. There you go again with all the anti-Italian-American stereotyping.

  2. I knew you were a good fella, Tucille.

  3. It seems dangerous to turn down that kind of offer. “No, thank you, Mr. Gangster, I would prefer not to participate in your criminal scheme. But don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone what you told me, honest!”

    1. Doubt it. It may be dangerous to get out once you’re in. But since you can’t prove that he made the offer, you aren’t much of a threat.

  4. The more you give the watchmen to do, the more tempting it becomes to corrupt them, and for them to let themselves be corrupted. And the more temptation for corruption, the more the likelihood that such temptation is the main attraction for people who want to be watchmen.

    That’s absolute nonsense. The Keene Act was passed in 1977, to great public support, during Nixon’s notoriously corrupt 3rd term.

    1. At least we still have the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan on the dole.

  5. Good article. And ballsy for putting your own life out there for the interwebs to consume.
    Although my own family’s checkered past is that of Nazis, grammar Nazis that is.

    My father decided not go to go that route.

    Sieg heil.

    1. Your gramma was a Nazi?

  6. I wish there was a better word than “corruption.” To corrupt something is to alter or foul it in some way, make it deviate from its natural course or character. It seems plain to me that the pervasiveness of this kind of behavior is characteristic, inherent to the operation of police power. So long as we continue to refer to it as corruption the implied notion that police power itself is an unqualified force for good will survive, as will the attendant notion that it’s only a “few bad-apples” and not the system itself that is offensive.

    1. Good point. People ought to understand that the police is just the government’s gang.

    2. “All governments suffer a redurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.”

      FRANK HERBERT, Chapterhouse: Dune

      1. Actually, it’s both. Power corrupts, and the corrupt seek power.

  7. Yeah, similar storyline/plot here. Being of Italian heritage I was ‘privy’ to a lot of, erm, stories at the bar over the years.

    My father, uncles and brother-in-laws father have crazy stories about corruption among the mob, cops and politicians. Of course, the public perception is the politicians are victims but sometimes they’re the ones pulling the strings.

    The one thing I’ve noticed is how outsiders consistently got their stories wrong when it comes to the mafia.

    1. Having Irish and Jewish friends, I know it’s the same story on their side.

      1. If you cross the Jewish mafia, they kvetch you to death.

        If you cross the Irish mafia, they leave a potato in your bed.

        1. If you cross the Irish mafia, they leave half a potato in your bed.

          fixed

          1. Um, no. They take away your potatoes. There’s truly nothing more brutal than that to the Irish.

            1. In some cases it might be more brutal to take away their whisky.

        2. Do they draw faces on the potatoes?

  8. So 2-Chilly was mobbed up? Cool!

  9. Dude knows what the heck he is talking about that is for sure.

    http://www.Anon-Works.com

    1. You know it, Anon Bot!

      Wait, I’m talking to the Anon Bot again….

  10. JD – tell when you’re gonna be made! I hope they don’t shoot you in the face like they did Joe Pesci 🙁

  11. my neighbor’s sister-in-law makes $76 /hr on the internet . She has been laid off for 8 months but last month her pay check was $17299 just working on the internet for a few hours. more information…..
    http://www.Jobs84.com

    1. $17299/$76=227.62 hours. 227.62 hours/8 hours a day=28.4525 days.

      With that work ethic I don’t see why she needed Jobs84.com.

      1. so, uhh, you do know that Anon Bot uses a script with a random function, right? As in:
        SET !VAR1 EVAL(“var randomNumber=Math.floor(Math.random()*10 + 1); randomNumber;”)
        TEXT={{!var1}}

        Of course, that wouldn’t actually generate the script above, but is a copied and pasted example from a quick Google search 🙂

  12. If the only crime was harm, and only victims or their guardians could prosecute, why would you need government cops?

    As for warrants, I would leave that entirely in private hands — any party to a case can issue any warrant they want, but they have explain what they want to do and have minimal consequences. Further, and warrant found defective for being too broad or being executed beyond its scope allows the target to do to the author as much as was done to them, and this also applies to valid warrants issued by the losing party.

    So if you search somebody’s house, and leave their house in a mess, that makes your search defective for not having minimal consequences, and they get to make a mess of yoru house whether you win or lose. If you arrest someone in a humilating manner and lose the case, they get to come around in similar circumstances and embarrass the hell out of you. And the retribution comes at a time of their choosing, just as your defective or losing warrant was executed when you chose.

    Of course it’s a pipe dream. But it makes me smile when I think of it, and I know the current crop of government police could never be hired as police in such a situation, becase they are such thugs that those who hired them would regret it.

    1. Interesting idea, but all of the checks you’ve mentioned presume a third-party authority. In other words, there’s still a state, it’s just shaped differently. Not sure if that’s your goal or not.

      Having flirted with the notion of Anarcho-Capitalism, I’ve thought about how to handle things like this pretty often. I’ve come up with nothing remotely like a solution, but I do keep coming around to the idea that you’d need a certain degree of communal self-policing tempered by cultural norms and mores against the infringement of individual rights or the aggregation of authority. You see a possible model for this in clan systems, from Africa to Scotland and Ireland to the Appalachians.

      1. Yeah, the ancient Greeks had a system somewhat like this, where the State did not prosecute, it was all handled as civil lawsuits. The problem occurs when you have a victim with no one to act on his behalf. For instance, a person with no relatives/ties to the community could be murdered with impunity.

        1. That’s where insurance companies would come in; one could simply purchase a policy that would provide for someone to pursue this in the case of one’s death or permanent disability. Since these companies would lose customers if they didn’t fulfill their contracts for others, they would be motivated to do so.

          1. “One does not, simply, buy an insurance policy”

            The big questions:

            How large is the efficiency of scale for protection agencies in a geographic region?

            If so, a free market in protection would produce a dominant player in a geographic region. This is what happened in the state of nature, and continues to happen in self-organized protection (gangs fight turf wars)

            In some geographic region, a dominant protection agency would become a government, and look to expanding into new “markets”

  13. 2Chili is the Master of Book Floggers! Not just his own, but his old man’s.

    *bows to 2Chili*

    Note to reason staff: THAT’S how you do it.

  14. Having known a few people around the periphery of organizations such as the one Mr. Tuccille’s family was acquainted with, I found them generally fairer and more reasonable than the police — after all, they do have competition.

  15. But aren’t crooked cops a good thing when bad laws violate natural rights? It seems that they protect the victims from the power of the state in exchange for a feee. Why is that so bad? After all, if I want to gamble why shouldn’t the Mob, which lets me gamble on its premises, pay off cops to protect those premises from raids? Wasn’t the NY gay community protected from harassment by patronizing mob owned bars? Would it have been better off if all cops were ‘honest’ and used the law to put them in jail as the politicians and churches wanted to?

  16. I love Reason, but I created an account just to say this article is a piece of trash.

  17. Good story. But anecdotal, and I’m uncomfortable with making the point based on personal anecdotes.

  18. “People ought to understand that the police is just the government’s gang.”Yeah

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