Two decades later, in the same meeting room where police officer Frank Serpico riveted the city with his descriptions of pervasive corruption, New York’s Police Department--the nation’s largest--is again on trial.
At issue are charges that the very units assigned to root out crooked cops engaged in cover-ups.
Two days of testimony before a special mayoral commission have presented stark portraits of commanders seeking to block undercover investigations and sweeping potentially devastating evidence under the carpet.
On Tuesday, Sgt. Joseph Trimboli, a field investigator who was assigned to uncover police misconduct, testified that attempts were made to frame him and that he was rebuffed from 1987 to 1989, when he tried to expose widespread corruption in a Brooklyn precinct.
“I believe, based upon my experience, there was a lack of resolve to go after these individuals . . . because it would be a tremendous embarrassment to the New York City Police Department,” Trimboli said. “They did not want this investigation to exist.”
Later, a black-hooded undercover informant who worked for a number of federal agencies, including the FBI, told how police commanders halted an investigation into a Manhattan precinct where as many as 15 officers faced potential drug charges.
Many of these officers were so brazen that they hung out in an East Village store with drug dealers and snorted cocaine while on duty, the informant, who operated the store, testified.
The officers spoke openly about administering “black-and-blue lessons"--using force to shake down drug dealers, the informant told members of a five-member commission headed by Milton Mollen, a city and state judge for 24 years.
“They (the officers) would be so high . . . they could not respond to radio calls. They would be in the store, high, intoxicated. Some would stagger out. One even fell down the stairs sometimes,” the informant said.
“They used to boast how they used to hit dealers. The dealers would ask me to put in a good word for them so they would not get hit by the officers.”
The witness told the commission, and later police testimony corroborated his story, that the crooked cops and dealers planned a joint “bring your own drugs” barbecue over the weekend of July 4, 1991.
When they learned of this, some police field investigators and the office of Manhattan Dist. Atty. Robert M. Morgenthau saw the opportunity to make a major case. Arrangements were made for the informant to wear a hidden recording device and to attend the barbecue with an undercover policewoman.
But shortly after commanders of the police corruption unit were briefed on the plan, they and higher-ups ordered the officer in charge of the barbecue to be arrested on drug charges--effectively cutting off the wider inquiry.
The witness told the commission that other police investigators were angry and the assistant district attorney assigned to the case was “furious.”
“My impression was that the case was closed by the department in order to nip it in the bud, to avoid any future embarrassment,” a police supervisor testified.
The Mollen Commission was formed in July, 1992, by Mayor David N. Dinkins after the arrest of Michael Dowd, a policeman assigned to Brooklyn’s 75th Precinct. Dowd, an officer for 10 years, pleaded guilty in June to federal charges of racketeering and drug trafficking.
During testimony on Monday, he told the commission how he advanced from accepting free pizza as a rookie cop to taking $8,000 a week to protect drug dealers in Brooklyn.
On Tuesday, Trimboli told the panel that other investigators tried to divert his efforts to scrutinize Dowd and other crooked cops in the 75th Precinct in Brooklyn’s East New York section, an area stamped by blight and crime.
Trimboli charged that attempts were made to frame him on drug-related charges, that crucial police files were emasculated until they became a “farce” and that members of the department’s internal affairs division failed to follow up on information an imprisoned confidant of Dowd’s was willing to provide against Dowd.
Unlike the Knapp Commission, before which Serpico in 1971 testified about systematic payoffs and corruption involving some 2,000 police officers, the Mollen Commission so far has discovered police wrongdoing on a far smaller--though perhaps more serious--scale. Allegations presently being investigated include murder, gun-running, drug dealing and accepting drug payoffs.
Serpico, whose story spawned both a successful motion picture and book, retired from the force after he was shot in the face during a drug raid in 1971 that he believes was set up by fellow officers.