In fifty years of prosecuting and defending criminal cases in
New York City and elsewhere, Michael F. Armstrong has often dealt
with cops. For a single two-year span, as chief counsel to the
Knapp Commission, he was charged with investigating them. Based on
Armstrong's vivid recollections of this watershed moment in law
enforcement accountability -- prompted by the "New York Times"'s
report on whistleblower cop Frank Serpico -- "They Wished They Were
Honest" recreates the dramatic struggles and significance of the
Commission and explores the factors that led to its success and the
restoration of the NYPD's public image.
Serpico's charges against the NYPD encouraged Mayor John Lindsay
to appoint prominent attorney Whitman Knapp to chair a Citizen's
Commission on police graft. Overcoming a number of organizational,
budgetary, and political hurdles, Chief Counsel Armstrong cobbled
together an investigative group of a half-dozen lawyers and a dozen
agents. Just when funding was about to run out, the "blue wall of
silence" collapsed. A flamboyant "Madame," a corrupt lawyer, and a
weasely informant led to a "super thief" cop, who was trapped and
"turned" by the Commission. This led to sensational and revelatory
hearings, which publicly refuted the notion that departmental
corruption was limited to only a "few rotten apples."
In the course of his narrative, Armstrong illuminates police
investigative strategy; governmental and departmental political
maneuvering; ethical and philosophical issues in law enforcement;
the efficacy (or lack thereof) of the police's anticorruption
efforts; the effectiveness of the training of police officers; the
psychological and emotional pressures that lead to corruption; and
the effects of police criminality on individuals and society. He
concludes with the effects, in today's world, of Knapp and
succeeding investigations into police corruption and the value of
permanent outside monitoring bodies, such as the special
prosecutor's office, formed in response to the Commission's
recommendation, as well as the current monitoring commission, of
which Armstrong is chairman.
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