The Knapp Commission (officially known as the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the City’s Anti-Corruption Procedures) consisted of five leading citizens of New York City. The commission was instituted by an executive order of Mayor John V. Lindsay on 21 May 1970. Lindsay appointed Whitman Knapp as chairman. Joseph Monserrat, Arnold Bauman (later replaced by John E. Sprizzo), Franklin A. Thomas, and Cyrus Vance (later secretary of state in the Carter administration) were commission members. The commission met for two years and issued its final report on 26 December 1972.
The creation of the commission was not driven by policy considerations of Mayor Lindsay. Quite to the contrary – city officials, as well as top police administrators, were said to be quite content to allow a persistence of on-street corruption of policy activity through bribery in exchange for having a police force that could basically ensure publicly acceptable levels of social control and criminal activity. Their priorities were often directed toward overlooking certain illegal activities by police if strict enforcement would negatively impact police morale.
Allegations of police corruption have dogged the police force of New York City since its creation in 1844. Investigations have been conducted on a periodic basis. A New York state senate committee (known as the Lexow Committee) looked at police extortion of houses of prostitution and gambling operations in 1894. In 1911 the city council appointed a committee led by Henry Curran to look into police involvement in the murder of a gambler in Times Square. The gambler had revealed to city newspapers a pattern of bribes that he had paid to the police. In 1932 the state legislature again sponsored an investigation under the leadership of Samuel Seabury. It examined cases of bribes paid to police by bootleggers and gamblers. In 1950 and 1951 the district attorney again held grand jury hearings into bribery tied to gambling. Harry Gross, the head of one of the largest gambling syndicates in the city, agreed to testify. Twenty-one policemen were indicted, but charges were withdrawn when Gross ceased to cooperate in the hearings.
In the mid-1960s, it could be expected that the issue would somehow resurface again. This time the catalyst for investigations was a policeman whose quest was to be an “honest cop”. His name was Frank Serpico. Serpico’s story was the subject of a popular book by Peter Maas (Maas 1973) and a widely acclaimed movie, Serpico, released in 1973, starring Al Pacino in the role of Frank Serpico.  Shortly after joining the police force, Serpico became aware that officers were taking bribes from persons involved in numbers betting and illegal sports betting. Soon he discovered the depth of a network of bribes tied to protection given to various games. Operators of different kinds of games would pay different levels of bribes depending upon the volume of their activity and the public exposure given their activities. Open gambling games would require higher bribes. All the police of a precinct would participate in the police bribes, with varying shares given to uniformed officers, plainclothes officers, detectives, and higher administrators.
At first Serpico simply refused to accept his share of the bribe money. But as he could not escape personal involvement with the situation on a day-by-day basis, he confided his displeasure to higher police officials. Although he was very reluctant to name any fellow officers in his discussions, he was eager that an investigation follow so that the practices would cease. He found little satisfaction within the police hierarchy and instead was severely ostracized. Even contacts with the mayor’s office were futile. The highest politicians in the city were more concerned that police morale be high, as race riots were anticipated and general social “peace” in the streets was their priority. Serpico’s persistent actions led to internal proceedings that resulted in individual convictions of lower-level policemen. He saw little action at top levels where general reform had to start, although a higher-level investigation was initiated. In frustration and fear for his personal safety, Serpico and two supportive fellow officers decided to go on record and make their story public.
On 25 April 1972, the New York Times reported Frank Serpico’s story on the front page “above the fold”. The cat was out of the bag, and Mayor Lindsay could no longer hide behind bureaucratic values. He immediately appointed an interdepartmental committee to recommend action. The committee asked for public complaints that would back up the New York Times story. They received 375 complaints within a couple of weeks. They told the mayor that as regular city employees they did not have time to follow up with an investigation. They urged that the mayor create what became the Knapp Commission (Knapp Commission 1972, 35).
The city council approved a budget for the commission and also gave it subpoena power. Additional funds were received for the work through the U.S. Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. An investigating staff was formed, and several inquiries into illegal activity were made in the field. The commission also held two sets of hearings. Five days were spent with Frank Serpico and his fellow confidants. The commission also invited public complaints, and they received 1,325 in addition to those sent to the mayor’s earlier committee. In addition to the Knapp Commission’s report, their work led to the indictments of over fifty police officers. Over 100 were immediately transferred after the hearing began.
The commission spent considerable time discussing what is known as “the rotten apple theory”, specifically that corruption is not pervasive but rather the result of a few “rotten apples” that somehow get into every barrel. They rejected that supposition, as their report began with the words, “We found corruption to be widespread”. In one precinct they found that twenty-four of twenty-five plainclothes policemen were involved in receiving bribes from illegal gamblers. Although group norms motivated police to participate in networks of bribery, so did their realization that the enforcement of gambling laws was not taken seriously by the judicial system. The commission reported that between 1967 and 1970 there were 9,456 felony arrests for gambling offenses. These resulted in only 921 indictments and 61 convictions. Of these, only a very few received jail sentences, and the sentences were “nominal”.
Although the commission’s report dealt with a wide range of corrupting activities, a special focus was upon gambling and the bribes gamblers paid to the police in their part of the city. The activity was found in all parts of the city. Ghetto neighborhoods were especially susceptible to this police activity. One witness indicated: “You can’t work numbers in Harlem unless you pay. If you don’t pay, you go to jail. You go to jail on a frame if you don’t pay”.
The commission found that the “most obvious” result of the gambling corruption was that gambling was able to operate openly throughout the city.  Although those with no moral opposition to gambling were not upset, they realized that the pattern of bribery in this area opened the police up to other corruption – looking the other way during drug activity, during certain Mob larcenies, and during other Mob activity. The commission saw a definite link between Mob organizations and gambling activity. The bribery pattern also taught the public that the police were not to be respected. This was especially harmful for children.
An additional danger to police corruption was that the police neglected their specific law enforcement duties as they concentrated on collecting their bribes and protecting gamblers. One remark from Serpico was telling. In effect, he said that all the crime in New York City could be ended if the police were not so busy seeking payoffs. The police responded to the commission by indicating that they were no longer concentrating on small gambling operatives but rather would focus on leaders in gambling operations. The commission felt that this might be admirable, but that it was not sufficient. They believed that “gambling is traditional and entrenched in many neighborhoods, and it has broad public support” (90). Such being their belief, they recommended that numbers, bookmaking, and other gambling should be legalized. Moreover, the regulation of such legalized gambling should be by civil agents and not by the police.
As the commission rejected the “rotten apple” theory, so did the Commission on the Review of the National Policy toward Gambling. They reported that a Pennsylvania Crime Commission that began its study in 1972 also found bribes from gamblers to be pervasive in Philadelphia, and the same was also found in other large cities.

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