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Ray Kelly Struggles With NYPD's Lack of Institutional Memory Amid Scandals

By Murray Weiss | November 3, 2011 5:46pm

The NYPD has no institutional memory.

That observation was made by Robert Daly, the best-selling author and former Deputy NYPD Commissioner. Cops generally come and go after 20 years, so is it a coincidence that a major corruption scandal rears its ugly head every two decades?

"Those who witnessed scandals are gone, and the new ones know little of the past and think they won't be caught," said Thomas Reppetto, the former president of the Citizens Crime Commission and an NYPD expert.

Back in the 1990s, there were the thieving Dirty 30 cops in Harlem. And in the 1970s, there was the famous Knapp Commission that rooted out corruption uncovered by legendary NYPD whistleblower Frank Serpico. And now, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has his own 20-year storm.

Kelly has had to face the press twice last week to announce wrongdoing by cops within the NYPD.

He stood with Manhattan's U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and FBI officials last Tuesday to announce the arrest of eight current and former cops who allegedly ran weapons into New York City and sold more than $1 million worth of slot machines and cigarettes.

Then on Friday he stood with Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson to announce that 16 cops had been arrested as part of a widespread ticket-fixing scandal.

Add reports of undercover cops in Brooklyn and Queens planting drugs on suspects, a gang of cops involved in a New Jersey warehouse heist, and a Manhattan narcotics detective busted for allegedly running a Staten Island gambling ring — plus questions about the 600,000 stop and frisks that occur annually and reports about NYPD Intelligence units spying on Muslims — and you can't help but wonder if history is repeating itself once again.

These stories all have a commonality. The NYPD has tried to downplay them. Wrongdoing is blamed on a few bad apples.

"Their misdeeds tarnish the good name and reputation of the vast majority of police officers who perform their duties honestly and often at great risk to their own personal safety," Kelly said of the 16 alleged ticket-fixing cops who were arraigned in a Bronx courtroom.

"The sad reality is that some people are going to violate their oath of office." he said earlier, at a press conference about the alleged gun runners. "I submit to you that it is a very small minority."

The bad apple approach may deflect a troublesome story and burnish the NYPD image, but it has insidious shortcomings. Rather than demonstrating openness to criticism and a mission to expose wrongdoing, it sends the opposite message: That the NYPD is a closed society that will protects its own.

No less an admirer of Commissioner Kelly than former Mayor Ed Koch has argued in the wake of these scandals that another Knapp Commission should be convened because the NYPD is incapable of policing itself. And then on Thursday, a group of politicians and activists stood outside Police Headquarters calling for an investigation of the department.

The way to stop cops from ending up in what Kelly called the "very small minority" is to instill fear in them.

That was a lesson spelled out to me years ago by John Guido, the former Internal Affairs Chief who was credited with cleaning up the NYPD in the wake of the Knapp Commission. He once explained to me his theory about cops and corruption.

Guido believed 5 percent of the force were corrupt before they joined the NYPD and remained so while on the payroll. On the opposite end were an equal number of honest cops.
The remaining 90 percent, he said, will "go whatever way we let them."

It may be a somewhat cynical view that honorable people can succumb to temptations if they think no one is watching. But how many more people would cheat on their taxes if they knew there were no I.R.S. audits?

Chief Guido had two fundamental approaches to combat corruption. The first was to vigorously chastise law breakers. The second was to make sure they were dragged before the press to make sure that everyone got the anti-corruption message, and nothing else.

Maybe that image will stick in the minds of future cops.