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Michael Armstrong: Dedicated, Complicated
October 28, 2019
Michael Armstrong, who died last week at age 86, was a seminal figure in changing the NYPD’s culture of corruption that went back to the 19th Century.
As counsel for the Knapp Commission in the early 1970s, he probably did more than anyone, save Frank Serpico, in exposing the department’s widespread and systemic payoffs that began with beat cops and ran right up to the police commissioner’s office.
Yet, four decades later, Armstrong’s views on police corruption had apparently so altered that he maintained that a permanent outside monitor — a key recommendation of the Knapp Commission — was no longer necessary, and that the NYPD could police itself.
Serpico, with the encouragement of Sgt. David Durk, had initially detailed the corruption of his Bronx plainclothes unit to NY Times reporter, David Burnham, after department and mayoral officials, including Jay Kriegel, a top aide to then mayor John. V. Lindsay, ignored him. When the Knapp Commission held three weeks of public hearings in 1971, Armstrong presented a tableau of corruption that went far beyond Serpico’s initial allegations.
Star witness William Phillips, who’d been caught taking payoffs from a high-end madam, Xaviera Hollander, was subsequently charged with the murder of a pimp and prostitute, and served 32 years in prison. Another witness was Edward F. Droge Jr., who admitted that seasoned cops had corrupted him on literally his first days on the job.
Armstrong was so impressed with Droge he helped him gain admission to Yale, which Armstrong had attended. Droge received a BA in English, and later applied to Newsday for a job as a police reporter. He wasn’t hired; it’s hard to hire a police reporter who’s been found guilty of corruption.
In 1973, following the indictment of Queens DA Thomas Mackell, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller appointed Armstrong to fill out his term. He considered running for DA, but shifty Queens politicians sandbagged him.
I was just coming up as a reporter for Time magazine. What about running for national office, say the U.S. Senate? I asked him. He said he couldn’t be elected because he supported the rights of the Palestinians. After I quoted him in Time, he said the story ensured he would not have a political career.
Instead, over the next four decades he defended (and occasionally fell in love with) his malefactor clients, most notably Queens borough president Donald Manes, who had been indicted on corruption charges. After Manes successfully committed suicide (he’d failed in his first attempt), Armstrong praised him with the same fervor with which he had prosecuted corrupt cops some 15 years before.
Armstrong then stated that an outside monitor was no longer necessary. “The best formula for a corruption-free department,” he said, “is to have a tough, knowledgeable, hands-on police commissioner, and we have one now.”
Kelly tasked Armstrong with defending the department in the Central Park Jogger case. His report concluded that detectives had not coerced the five black and Hispanic teens into confessing they had beaten and raped the female jogger. He further concluded that, besides beating up people in the park earlier that night, it was “more likely than not” that the five had subjected the jogger to some sort of “hit and run” attack.
A few years later, he tried, unsuccessfully, to present the department’s case to filmmaker Ken Burns, who viewed the teenagers as innocent victims of police abuse and a racist judicial system. Here in Armstrong’s words is what happened:
“Sarah (Burns’ daughter who collaborated with her father) called me to tell me she and her father were doing a documentary. “I took her to lunch at the Harvard Club and we talked for at least two hours. She was most pleasant and led me to believe that she was out to produce a fair, impartial presentation of what happened and the various theories surrounding the events. I agreed to be questioned on camera, and some months later went to Burns’ studio where I spent a full afternoon in a taped question and answer session. I answered all questions put to me, volunteered information where I thought it would be helpful to do so, and pretty much covered our report’s factual findings, conclusions, criticism of police procedure and recommendations for reform. The questioning was thorough but not confrontational, and I came away with the impression that they were going to do an objective job.
“A few months after that, Burns called me to say that they were not going to go into the matters about which I had been questioned so they wouldn’t be using the footage of my interview. He thanked me for my help.”
Around this time Armstrong received a shock. He learned to his surprise and discomfort, that his father was Jewish, a fact he had apparently concealed from his family.
“He learned about his heritage some time ago,” a longtime friend said last week, “but didn’t want anyone to say anything about it until his mother passed. Never really understood what that meant but made him promise to tell me when she died so we were all free to talk about it.”
Yes, dedicated, complicated.
Copyright © 2019 Leonard Levitt