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.
Being the chief counsel to New York City's Knapp Commission, Armstrong was on the scene from the beginning of the citizens commission on police graft in the 1970s and knows the perils and pressures faced by the panel before its eventual success. Armstrong, currently chair of the New York City Commission to Combat Police Corruption, plots the Knapp Commission's genesis from a 1970 New York Times article with bombshell revelations from rebel cop Frank Serpico, then details Mayor John Lindsay's lukewarm support of the commission and full-out resistance from police hierarchy until the public breakthroughs. The panel, headed by noted lawyer Whitman Knapp, survived crisis after crisis, tallying payoffs, illegal gambling, loan sharking, and drug sales, with a series of heroes and robbers. Armstrong provides some color and flash with chapters on truth-seeking TV newsman Gabe Pressman, Serpico, a pair of flamboyant patrolmen known as "Batman and Robin," honored cop and thief extraordinaire William Phillips, and Xaviera "The Happy Hooker" Hollander, who counted powerful politicians and cop bag-men as clients. Anyone interested in urban law enforcement and big city politics will find this book an important, surprising expos of the corruption and reform of police power.