What does it really mean when someone says “All I ever wanted to do is be a cop?”

Thomas Shea told reporters that back in 1974 after getting fired by the NYPD for shooting a ten year old in the back. Officer Walter Scott was also at the scene and was heard over the radio telling the kid to “Die, you little bastard.” The 4th grade boy, Clifford Glover, complied. The victim was unarmed, didn’t have a rap sheet and was never accused of a crime.

Shea got off at trial. Prosecutors always seem to lose their edge in cop cases.  The New York Daily News reported 1500 of the finest showed up to support Shea and Scott the day they were booted from the force. That’s a kind of loyalty found in no other occupation and very few breeds of dog.  How many colleagues would be there backing you up after killing a child on the job?

Bob McKiernan, president of the policemen’s union, said commissioner Donald Hawley had “cowered before the lawless mobs” in the incident. Serpico, a 1973 biographical film based on the Peter Maas book, dramatized a man’s futile struggle against overwhelming corruption in the department. It was released December the year before and was still running in theaters at the time. Meanwhile the Five Families and other murderous mobs were brazen and thriving. In 1970’s NYC crime was paying and that included many a policeman’s mortgage.  

Shea never elaborated exactly why all he wanted was to be a cop. We are supposed to fill in that blank ourselves with mental images of bad guys taking it on the chin and victims being saved. After 12 years with a badge he must have done some good things. But in that environment from 1962 to 1974 Glover’s killing was not likely the only bad one. After gunning down a half-grown boy, under any circumstances, Shea’s return to New York’s world weary streets would have swollen the specter of urban gloom and doom.

Middle America was less than stunned by what they learned when Maas’ book was condensed for Reader’s Digest in May, 1973. The country’s urban centers were routinely denounced as sinkholes of depravity in the disco era. 8 years down the road from Serpico, Prince of the City  came out. It told the tale of a Special Investigative Unit detective, Robert Leuci, who fed near the top of the law enforcement food chain. Robert Daley wrote the narrative that was scripted into the perfect sequel to Serpico. The moral of the story was not equivocal: the more discretion armed authorities were given the more irresponsible they became.

Translating that knowledge into police accountability has eluded all interpreters for over a century.  NYPD commissioner Teddy Roosevelt may have impressed his fans when he went after crooked cops in 1895 but natives of the city weren’t fooled. The Mollen Commissionwas set up to clean house again in 1992. The 93 years between TR and Mollen included several other shots at reform with spotty results at best. Mayor John Lindsay appointed Federal Judge Whitman Knapp to investigate the revelations of Frank Serpico and David Durk in 1970.

The Knapp Commission Report is never dull reading. It’s loaded with lurid anecdotes of cops shaking down parking garages, trucking firms, restaurateurs, accident victims, contractors, tow truck drivers, hoteliers, grocers, barkeepers, prostitutes, dope dealers, gamblers and each other. They robbed the dead, peddled narcotics on a massive scale, blackmailed thieves into procuring whatever they wanted and generally treated the city as an unlimited buffet. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was passed October of 1970. Knapp probably unveiled more evidence of institutional conspiracy in the NYPD by 1972 than was ever amassed on another criminal enterprise in American history. The law wasn’t used in a case until the prosecution of mob capo Funzi Tieri in 1981.

Whatever inspires people to join law enforcement organizations there are no grounds to believe that overall they tend to be more decent or honest than average citizens. A scientific examination of police morality as compared to Joe Six-Pack’s would likely produce highly controversial conclusions. An enormous number of publicized incidents evince pervasive ethical lapses at every level of the American constabulary. Exact data on the subject has never been sought by ruling circles. It’s something they don’t want to know.

We don’t have studies estimating the number of people who believe they were born for the sole purpose of having authority over others. Nor how many of them have obtained employment as armed agents of the state. People who get elected can never stay interested in law enforcement pathology. The cop lobby is always ready to double dare any politician who would look into their abyss. The gaze of a police state is staring America down. So far politicians have averted from it with the humility of dogs.

Either America will define what its armed employees can and cannot be or they will define what our country will be. It’s not rocket surgery.  


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