Wednesday, July 18, 2012


I’ve just finished reading a book that should be part of every police officers library.

Michael Armstrong’s book THEY WISHED THEY WERE HONEST details the workings of the 1970 Knapp Commission in New York City.

The fact that most new police officers today have never heard of the Knapp Commission could either be a testament to its success, or just a bad indication of the lack of historical background we provide our new officers with. 

In 1970, following a New York Times series of articles about the whistle-blower Frank Serpico, a New York City Police Officer who described the widespread culture of police corruption within the NYPD.

It was the Knapp Commission that brought out the phrases “meat-eater” and “grass-eater”.

The “meat-eaters” were the corrupt cops who stole everything they could get their hands on; taking payoffs to allow gambling to go unchecked, stealing from warehouses in response to burglar alarms- big time corruption.

The “grass-eaters” were the small time takers of graft. Those who took a $5 bill from a tow truck driver at the scene of a traffic accident, or the $2 handed over by a driver to keep him from getting a speeding ticket, the free lunches or packs of cigarettes taken while on patrol, etc. These were the “grass-eaters”.

The Knapp Commission sought to discover if the abuses that Serpico spoke about were committed by an incorrigible few, or part of an everyday widespread culture.

The books title was inspired by a memorable observation of Serpico’s.  “Ten percent of the cops in New York City are absolutely corrupt, 10 percent are absolutely honest, and the other 80 percent- they wish they were honest”.

The book’s author, Michael Armstrong, was a criminal lawyer that was appointed as the counsel to the Knapp Commission.  It was Armstrong who conducted the public hearings of the Commission, that were broadcast on live television in New York on the local PBS channel- Channel 13.

What is particularly nice to note is the author’s conclusion upon looking back at the 1970’s NYPD, and the current day’s force.

“I believe that all evidence indicates that the 80 percent of police officers who Frank Serpico said wished to be honest took the opportunity afforded by the Knapp Commission exposures, and the departmental reforms that followed, to become that way.”

As a result of Knapp, and the subsequent Mollen Commission which recommended a more muscular Internal Affairs Division, Armstrong concludes “the attitude throughout the department seems fundamentally hostile to the kind of systemized graft that had been a way of life almost 40 years ago.”


A short article I came across in a recent edition of the NY Times I found to be interesting. 

The 1931 mob hit of Joe Masseria, a mob leader known as “The Boss”, took place in a local seafood restaurant on West 15 Street.

The restaurant, Nuova Villa Tammaro, was owned by Gerardo Scarpato and was named for the owner’s mother-in-law.

On his way to lunch The Boss parked his steel-armored sedan, that was equipped with plate glass an inch thick, in a nearby garage.

The police found The Boss lying on his back, dead from multiple gunshots.

Playing cards were strewn around the room, and the Ace of Spades was in his right hand.  It was widely believed the card was placed there; much like the cigar found in the mouth many years later at the Carmine Galante assassination in Bushwick.

The owner of the restaurant was “out for a walk” at the time.

At the time of his killing, Joe Masseria was considered as the top Mafia leader in New York, “bigger than Al Capone” one anonymous detective was quoted as saying.

The killing of The Boss ended a year-long string of violence and blood-letting known as the Castellammarese War in New York, and paved the way for the rise of the notorious five mob families, with Lucky Luciano replacing Joe Masseria as the family head.

Four months later, in the same restaurant, a banquet at the restaurant was hosted by The Boss’ rival, Salvatore Maranzano, and the person most believed was behing the killing of The Boss.  A month later, Mr. Maranzano was found dead, another mob killing in Brooklyn South.

It was after the death of Maranzano that Lucky Luciano emerged as the powerful mob boss in New York.

With all this violence going on around his restaurant, Mr. Scarpato asked the police to take his fingerprints so that his body could be identified if he were ever found dead.

Good thikng they did.

In September 1932, a year after The Boss was killed in his restaurant, Gerardo Scarpato was killed.  A modern warehouse for a smoked-fish company was built on the site of his restaurant at 2715 West 15th Street.

Coney Island- it ain’t just roller coasters and seafood.