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From Grass-Eaters to Today's Graft: Police Gangs in America

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Behind The Oath

Corruption has tarnished law enforcement since the days of Tammany Hall.

“Tenderloin” is old-timey American slang for the section of a city where vice and corruption rule the roost, and it’s still a designation for a downtrodden neighborhood in modern gilded San Francisco. The origin of the term goes back to one of the New York Police Department’s most infamous members: Alexander Williams, a 19th-century captain whose penchant for brutally beating suspected criminals with his nightstick earned him the nickname “Clubber.” One particularly brutal year, Clubber had 358 complaints against him, at least a hundred more than anyone else on the force. His legendary toughness was surpassed only by his love of graft. In 1876, he was transferred to a precinct flush with brothels and gambling houses, to which he licked his chops and said, “I’ve had chuck for a long time, and now I’m going to eat tenderloin.”

True to his word, Clubber ate like a king. On a cop’s salary, he owned a 17-room townhouse, a $17,000 yacht, a Connecticut country estate, and accumulated a $500,000 fortune. Consequently, he was a central figure in the inquiries of the Lexow Committee, the first thorough investigation into the endemic police corruption of the time. Beginning in 1894, State Senator Clarence Lexow and his fellow committee members examined the NYPD’s entanglement in the black market, where the going rate for a captain’s appointment was $15,000. In 1895, fifty years after the first police force was created, a young reformer named Teddy Roosevelt was hired as police commissioner. Clubber was forced out, albeit with an annual pension of $1,750.

“It was the time of Tammany Hall, patronage jobs, and paying for promotion, so from the beginning there were dirty cops,” said Dr. Mitchel Roth, a criminology professor at Sam Houston State University, in an interview. “But any type of organization with a political structure where people wield a lot of power is going to have corruption on one level or another.”

Corruption was so fundamental to Prohibition-era Chicago that when gunmen in police uniforms murdered seven men who worked for one of Al Capone’s main enemies on February 14, 1929, many locals assumed they were actual officers of the law following Scarface’s orders.

Police gangs have existed from the earliest days of American law enforcement, but there’s also long been a distinction between “meat-eaters” (wholly corrupt cops) and “grass-eaters” (small-timers). It’s the breadth of corruption that makes the difference. The “few bad apples” metaphor is right, but it’s often used incorrectly. The problem isn’t that there are “only” a few bad cops, it’s that it only takes a few to poison the entire bunch, especially during high-crime eras. The scale of police corruption tends to go along with the tenor of the times: the greater the prevalence of crime, the more rogue actors.

There are multiple common-sense reasons why police corruption endures, but the main one is primal: When citizens are gripped by fear, they give police greater leeway to restore “law and order” by any means necessary. Add in the very real fear police officers have of working in dangerous areas; the long-standing tensions between law enforcement and people in minority neighborhoods; the “blue wall of silence” (an ethos dictating that cops never rat out other cops, no matter the circumstances); economic downturns; and the cultural and systematic advantages of the citizenry tending to give officers the benefit of the doubt.

When conditions are ripe, police gangs flourish. Cops are sent out on streets awash in drugs and cash without anyone looking directly over their shoulders, so the opportunity for corruption is always there. And because violent neighborhoods are often viewed as filthy gutters that can never be cleaned, the notion prevails that ripping off the “scum of the earth” is inconsequential. 

In 1985 eight Miami cops raided a boat, stole 350 kilos of cocaine with a street value of $9 million, and let three men drown after they jumped overboard. Investigators initially assumed it was police impersonators who perpetrated the crimes. Eventually, more than 100 cops were caught up in one of the worst corruption scandals in Miami’s history, which saw 20 law enforcement officials convicted and sent to prison.

According to Dr. Roth and other experts, modern scandals come out of rogue officers finding one another, forming opportunistic cliques rather than a hierarchical organization like the mafia. Police corruption wasn’t always carried out by tight-knit groups of dirty cops—it used to be endemic. Take New York City up until the early 1970s, where “pads” (systemized payoffs) were as common as the free deli sandwiches cops were gifted for lunch. The pad was standard for decades, until the Knapp Commission of 1970, which was aided in large part by a whistleblower named Frank Serpico. The era is summed up in T. J. English’s The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge, a fascinating look at crime, policing, and the racial cauldron that was New York City from 1963 to 1973. English writes:

Graft made the world go round. Dirty money not only determined who got rich in the department, it also played a role in promotions, choice assignments, who got punished, who was seen as a threat, and who was viewed with esteem. By the early 1960s the NYPD’s system of graft was deeply entrenched within the entire bureaucracy. And it had begun to take the department’s work ethic down with it, giving rise to a culture that tolerated brutality, racism, sloppiness, laziness, and police malfeasance.

After the Knapp Commission, some cops still accepted beer and pizza on the house, but the days of large swaths of the force taking payoffs going all the way back to Tammany Hall faded away. The Serpico fallout led to higher standards and urban policing became more professional. Some college became required, more minorities were hired, and patronage was lessened (if not eradicated). 

“Nowadays, rogue cops eventually get caught,” says Dr. Roth. “America has never been safer than it is today, so the job is less dangerous, there are regular raises, and in my experience, more people go into police work with the right values and attitudes than ever before.”

But even as graft went the way of the zip gun, what remained was no less nefarious. Reforms were slow-going in the last two decades of the 20th century for two reasons: drugs and money, which flooded urban America in the 80s and 90s. A Bowling Green State University study of drug-related police corruption published in 2013 listed multiple corruption cases in major US cities throughout the cocaine and crack heyday, when the “war on drugs” was at its peak. This was not the old $50-in-an-envelope to keep the gambling and prostitution rackets running, this was lawlessness of a higher order. There were fewer dirty cops involved, but much bigger crimes committed.

Modern efforts to root out police criminality have been fairly successful, but like in any profession, it’s impossible to clean up entirely. Because heroin usage is way up, there are large bags of unattended cash in small towns and big cities at this very moment. And systemic reforms still lag behind. A study analyzing data from 2005 to 2011 found that 1,100 officers are arrested in the US annually for crimes ranging “from the mundane to the most serious”—an average of three arrested officers a day. There are more than 750,000 police officers nationwide, so that’s a small percentage—but it’s what the study doesn’t show that is most important. As its authors state: “Surprisingly little is known about the crimes committed by law enforcement officers, in part because there are virtually no official nationwide data collected, maintained, disseminated, and/or available for research analyses.”

What is known is that the state endows police officers with extraordinary power, not to mention lethal firearms, so an organized police gang can be more detrimental to the common good than a criminal gang. We, as citizens, put our trust in law enforcement, so when the Oath of Honor to “never betray my badge, my integrity, my character or the public trust” is violated, the psychic damage to society carries more weight.

On February 12, 2017 two Baltimore cops who’d been part of the city’s elite Gun Trace Task Force were convicted of racketeering and robbery, Four other officers had pleaded guilty and testified to crimes including stealing $100,000 from a home safe; pilfering prescription drugs and weed and selling it on the black market; filching Rolex watches, Air Jordans, cocaine, and heroin; taking vacations while collecting overtime; creating false reports to cover up their own burglaries; and carrying BB guns to plant on anyone they “accidentally” shot.

And nothing breeds reform quite like corruption scandals. For example, the Knapp Commission report in 1972 and the Mollen Commission report in 1994 called for changes to the way the NYPD did business, shining a light on the institutional darkness and giving Internal Affairs more resources and manpower to go after corrupt cops. More recently, heightened expectations of law enforcement throughout the US has led to initiatives designed to improve overall accountability. Mandatory body cameras are a relatively recent development on this front (though the jury is out on their effectiveness). Regardless of reforms, temptation being what it is, it seems inevitable that corruption will always be an unfortunate part of policing. Even though things have changed for the better since the days of Clubber Williams, for some rogue police, the hunger for tenderloin can never be satisfied.

Illustrations by Nicole Rifkin