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Outside NYPD Monitor? Not Likely Under Kelly

October 16, 2006

Retired detective Thomas Rachko was sentenced last Friday to seven years in prison for stealing $800,000 from drug dealers while assigned to the Northern Manhattan Initiative, a narcotics unit, focusing on drug dealers in Harlem and Washington Heights.

The day before, retired Lieut. John McGuire, who had supervised Rachko and 40 other Upper Manhattan narcotics detectives, was sentenced to 14 months for stealing $110,000 in drug cash over three years.

The week before that, Rachko’s partner, Detective Julio Vasquez, was sentenced to six years for robbing drug dealers of $740, 000 over a period of eight years.

The three are among nine current and former officers implicated in thefts of drugs and/or drug money, which have prompted a sweeping corruption inquiry within the NYPD.

As a result of the investigation, former detective Carlos Rodriquez was sentenced to two years in prison for money laundering. After a police administrative hearing, another detective, Luis Nieves-Diaz, was fired. The department is trying to fire two others.

These cases all began with the arrests of Rachko and Vasquez, who in November 2003, were captured on videotape, stealing $169,000 from a drug-money courier. The videotape was made not by the NYPD but by a federal task force investigating unrelated money laundering.

The feds watched as Rachko, who had retired the year before, and Vasquez — both wearing NYPD jackets — arrested a drug courier the feds were tailing and stole the $169,000 he was carrying.

Major corruption scandals involving the NYPD are said to run in 20-year cycles. The last, nearly 15 years ago, began with the arrest of police officer Michael Dowd, who ran a ring of drug-dealing cronies out of two Brooklyn precincts.

Like the current scandal, Dowd’s drug dealing was not discovered by the NYPD but by police in Suffolk County, L.I., where he lived. The result was a public outcry and the formation by Mayor David Dinkins of the Mollen Commission to investigate the NYPD.

By the time the commission wrapped up three years later, it had gone far beyond Dowd, resulting in the federal conviction of two dozen cops in the 30th precinct on drug-related charges.

Dowd’s crimes were, if anything, not as serious as the current scandal. In fact, the current scandal continues the Dowd pattern. Like Dowd, these officers ran wild for years, with no detection. Moreover, one of them was a supervisor — a lieutenant. And the amount of money involved was staggering.

Does anyone doubt that the actions of Rachko/McGuire/Vaquez could be indicative of other pockets of drug-dealing corruption as the Mollen commission discovered after Dowd?

Despite all this, no one has suggested the establishment of an outside investigatory agency or an independent commission to monitor the current NYPD.

Why not?

First, in the wake of 9/11 and the terrorist threat, the public doesn’t seem to care. Long gone are the days when police officials believed that rising crime would not cost a precinct commander his job but that a corruption scandal would.

Second, no one wants to confront Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who under Mayor Michael Bloomberg has become the most powerful police commissioner in the city’s history. The last thing Kelly wants as he decides whether or not to run for mayor is an independent body poking around his domaine at One Police Plaza.

Third, unlike Dowd or Frank Serpico, whose actions led to the Mollen Commission’s predecessor — the Knapp Commission of the early 1970s — the current scandal does not indicate NYPD mismanagement or cover-up. Incompetence or laxness, perhaps. But, so far as we know, nothing deliberate.

During the Dowd case, there existed an outside agency specifically to monitor the NYPD. It was known as the Special State Prosecutor, which was established after the Knapp Commission.

Yet the Special Prosecutor blew the Dowd case. An NYPD sergeant, Joe Trimboli, had approached the Special Prosecutor’s office years before with allegations of Dowd’s drug dealing. Trimboli’s allegations literally fell upon the deaf ears of Special Prosecutor Joe Hynes, at the time focused on running for Brooklyn District Attorney.

In addition, the police department’s Internal Affairs Division [IAD] — the forerunner of today’s Internal Affairs Bureau — ignored all warning signs about Dowd. At a Mollen Commission hearing, IAD’s commanding officer, Chief Daniel Sullivan, explained that IAD had hidden major corruption problems like Dowd’s in what it called a “tickler” file, for fear of angering the NYPD’s volatile commissioner Ben Ward.

As Sullivan testified: “Ward hated bad press.”

A similar scenario enfolded a generation before when Serpico told superiors of the widespread payoffs by gamblers. Not only did his superiors ignore him. They warned him that if he continued making trouble, his life would be endangered.

Serpico next approached Sgt. David Durk, who contacted fellow Amherst College alum, Jay Kreigel, a top aide to then Mayor John Lindsay. When no steps were taken, Serpico contacted reporter David Burnham of the New York Times.

The result was the Knapp Commission, which went beyond Serpico’s original allegations and discovered “pads” or payoffs at every level of the department, including the police commissioner’s office.

Today, there exists no outside agency to effectively monitor monitor the NYPD.

In fact the department — which has more authority than any other city agency to do the right or the wrong thing — remains the only city agency without an outside monitor. [Even the fire department has an inspector general.]

The two city agencies that do exist for this purpose exist in name only. The Civilian Complaint Review Board, which monitors minor police abuse, has effectively been put out of business since Kelly violated the city charter by stonewalling CCRB investigations into police actions at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Then there is the Mayor’s Commission to Combat Police Corruption, whose first chairman, Mark Pomerantz, resigned after Kelly refused to turn over documents he requested and Bloomberg refused to back Pomerantz up.

Ironically, the commission’s current chairman, Michael Armstrong, was counsel to the Knapp Commission. But Armstrong doesn’t see any reason to monitor the NYPD. He has stated he is a friend of Kelly’s and that Kelly — not Bloomberg — selected him.

As he recently was quoted in the New York Sun: “The best formula for a corruption-free department is to have a tough, knowledgeable, hands-on police commissioner and we have one now.”

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Copyright © 2006 Leonard Levitt