The Knapp Commission was a committee of five citizens established and impanelled by then-New York City Mayor John Lindsay in 1972 that endeavored to investigate corrupt activities of police officers, detectives, and supervisors working in the New York Police Department (NYPD). Mayor Lindsay was pressured to investigate corruption in the NYPD after a series of articles that appeared in local newspapers detailed a wide breadth of corrupt activities of officers throughout the NYPD. The first article in the series was written by a reporter named David Burnham and the article appeared in the New York Times. The impetus and primary sources of information for Burnham’s article were two NYPD police officers, Frank Serpico and David Durk.
Frank Serpico and David Durk were once both idealistic officers who became increasingly frustrated after attempting to report corrupt activities to their supervisors. From initial indoctrination into the NYPD, the officers noticed that other officers received free food and coffee and often were offered bribes in lieu of issuing summonses. When Frank Serpico was transferred into an undercover plain-clothes unit, he discovered that corruption there was even more systematic and sophisticated in that many officers and detectives were on “pads” (controlled payments to the police). Serpico and Durk eventually complained to the district attorney’s office, an authority outside of the NYPD.
Dissatisfied with the resolution of the investigation, Serpico, Durk, and other officers who were also disgusted with the systematic corruption befriended a reporter named David Burnham who worked for the New York Times and on April 25, 1970, an article about the corrupt activities of the NYPD appeared on the front page. The article ushered in one of the biggest scandals in NYPD history and Mayor Lindsay created the Knapp Commission in 1971, named after a judge Mayor Lindsay chose, Whitman Knapp.
The enormity of New York City, the size of the NYPD, and New York City’s preeminence as the media capital of the world intensified the scrutiny on the NYPD and the NYPD’s police officers. The NYPD, as a formal police agency, was chartered and centralized in 1844. Early NYPD “patrolmen,” as they were known then, were appointed at the bequest of local ward politicians and expected to protect the illegal rackets of the ward politician who appointed the patrolmen, particularly the vice rackets, which at that time in history consisted mainly of selling alcohol illegally and prostitution-related criminal activity. Thus began a cyclical pattern of corruption and reform. One of the earliest police reformers in New York City, future President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt, was the police commissioner of New York City. Roosevelt, along with a reform-minded clergy official, Charles Henry Parkhurst, initiated the Lexow Committee to investigate police corruption in New York City. According to the Lexow Committee’s findings, police corruption in New York City was firmly enmeshed in local government politics. Other commissions that investigated police misconduct in the NYPD followed in 1913, 1930, and 1950.
The Knapp Commission was the next major commission to investigate police misconduct and corruption. The Knapp Commission found that the most serious police misconduct involved the enforcement of prostitution, gambling, and narcotics. New York City was enduring an increase in the illegal street narcotics trade (mainly of heroin) that led to new opportunities for corruption prior to the creation of the Knapp Commission investigation.
The Knapp Commission found that corrupt NYPD police officers were collecting “protection money” and were on the “pad,” which meant that they took bribes from criminals to ensure the criminals that their illicit activities could continue without the threat of being investigated or arrested by the police. Many of the criminals involved in bribing police officers prior to the Knapp Commission were involved in vice crime rackets such as prostitution and gambling. However, the Knapp Commission and subsequent investigations found that the easy flow of currency involved in the illicit narcotics trade afforded new corruption opportunities. One of the commission’s chief witnesses was a police officer named William Phillips who was caught receiving bribes during an investigation conducted by the commission.
The Knapp Commission findings prototyped two main types of corrupt officers, “grass eaters” and ”meat eaters.” Grass eaters would accept free meals and bribes that were offered to them. Meat eaters would openly solicit free meals and would proactively solicit bribes and would attempt to obtain assignments in enforcement units that were mandated to enforce gambling, prostitution, and narcotics laws. One of the principal recommendations of the Knapp Commission was to appoint a special prosecutor (outside of New York City) to investigate police corruption, reorganization of the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Division, and command-level responsibility for corrupt officers.
Frank Serpico was shot in the face during an undercover narcotics operation on February 3, 1971, and was seriously wounded. He did ultimately testify before the Knapp Commission and recommendations of the Knapp Commission led to many anticor-ruption policies in the NYPD. A movie detailing Serpico’s efforts was made in 1973 starring Al Pacino as Serpico. Ser-pico retired in 1972 on a disability pension and currently remains active in police reform efforts. David Durk also testified before the Knapp Commission and his career reportedly suffered as a result and he eventually retired in 1985.
Eventually, another commission named the Mollen Commission was established in 1992 to investigate alleged police corruption in the NYPD. A New York City police officer named Michael Dowd was arrested for trafficking illegal narcotics in New York City and outside New York City in a suburban area where Dowd lived. The advent of the street crack-cocaine trade in New York City in the 1980s, like the burgeoning heroin trade of the 1960s, afforded increased opportunities for corruption. The corrupt activities consisted of police officers stealing narcotics and cash from narcotics dealers and, in some cases, protecting the illegal narcotic activities. Unlike the Knapp Commission findings, the Mollen Commission found that these corrupt activities were limited only to a few precincts. The Mollen Commission did not find that corruption was systematic in the NYPD, as had previous NYPD corruption investigations. The Mollen Commission found that corrupt activities were the actions of a “crew” operation, a small group of police officers usually working in the same assignment and during the same work hours.