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The Knapp Commission

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  • Category: crime

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The purpose why the Knapp Commission came into existence in the 20-th century was the high level of corruption among the authorities meant to combat this evil. Since the old times, power has been often abused, and policemen, who are representatives of this power in the legal society, have many temptations in their service. It happened so that more and more police officers were falling into a bad habit of taking bribes and covering criminals. Why did they do it? Who made them? All these questions were to be answered by the independent investigation appointed by the Mayor of New York City, John V. Lindsay. The Commission took its name after its chairman, Whitman Knapp, the United States District Judge. What was the reason for it to come into existence, how was it formed and what were their findings – these are the questions to be answered by this work.

The Knapp Commission

In the “war against organized crime,” an array of law enforcement approaches have been legislated and implemented. These initiatives, in many respects, represent extraordinary investigative techniques that often require judicial authorization and/or oversight. Electronic surveillance, witness immunity, asset seizure and forfeiture, preventive detention, and anonymous juries require a level of judicial oversight not usually found in society’s response to crime. One mechanism that has received little attention but is arguably one of the most useful and valuable is the independent crime commission. This vehicle was recommended by the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. By its recommendation, the states that have organized crime groups in operation should create and finance organized crime investigation commissions with independent, permanent status, with an adequate staff of investigators, and with subpoena powers. Such commissions should hold hearings and furnish periodic reports to the legislature, governor and law enforcement officials.

Essentially three types of crime commissions exist in the United States. First are publicly funded crime commissions where powers derive from legislative enactments. Typically these commissions employ investigative agents who are given law enforcement status but lack arrest authority. Further, most such commissions have no prosecutorial authority. The New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania crime commissions mirror this model. They are bipartisan in composition, commission members being appointed from the major political parties, and typically, statutory guarantees of political balance promote the independent status of the commissions. Supported by tax revenues, commission budgets remain relatively modest in comparison to other agencies within the criminal justice system.

A second type of crime commission involves a citizens’ group usually funded by private contributions from the business community. A citizens’ crime commission has no law enforcement authority. The Chicago Crime Commission, formerly headed by the legendary Virgil Petersen, the Citizens’ Crime Commission in New York City, and the Citizens’ Crime Commission of the Greater Delaware Valley in Pennsylvania are characteristic of this kind of commission.

The third kind of crime commission consists of a temporary group that has been created either by legislation or executive order to investigate – after the fact – a specific incident, event, or phenomenon. The Lilley Commission, charged with the investigation of the Newark riots in 1967, derived its authority from an executive order by former New Jersey governor Richard Hughes. The Knapp Commission created to investigate corruption in the New York City Police Department is another such example. Both were funded with public money, had subpoena power, and could hold both public and private hearings. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s executive order created the Kerner Commission in 1968 to investigate the causes of civil disorder in the United States. It, like President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Commission on Organized Crime, was publicly funded, had subpoena power, and could hold both public and private hearings. Once a commission’s goal has been achieved or the commission’s life has expired, the commission is terminated. These kinds of commissions are analogous to royal commissions in Hong Kong, Japan, Great Britain, and Australia.

All three types of commissions may serve to educate, mobilize, and galvanize the public. They are created to address a specific phenomenon and do not necessarily collect evidence of general criminal activity. However, they are not precluded from providing criminal evidence to law enforcement authorities.

According to McMullan (1961) “A public official is corrupt if he accepts money or moneys worth for doing something which he is under a duty to do anyway, that he is under a duty not to do, or to exercise a legitimate discretion for improper reasons.”

Police forces everywhere and whenever they have existed have been poisoned by a well of corruption. The disease has varied in chronicity and acuteness, but its cure remains illusive, despite the recent “discovery” of democratic forms of public accountability. Its current manifestations, both in Britain and North America, where public accountability is allegedly strict, demonstrates this failure. One contributory factor to the continued existence of police corruption is its relative invisibility, which in turn reflects a vital difference between the victim of police brutality and the “victim” of police corruption.

The victims of police brutality are likely to feel aggrieved, indignant, and physically hurt. For these reasons, they are more likely than the “victims” of police corruption to report the crime to officials or researchers. Consequently, as was documented above, there is quantitative evidence of police brutality. Police corruption, however, is not so easily discovered and is certainly less amenable to quantification.

It is sometimes ”victim”-initiated. For example, owners of licensed premises, parking lots, pornographic shops, homosexual bars, and other businesses where legal requirements and their regulation are unpredictable and uncertain, might actively seek out police officers to negotiate the exchange of money or goods in return for “environmental tranquility”. In this way, the costs (and hence profits) can be better forecast.

Similarly, persons engaged in lucrative criminal activities might suggest to officers courses of action other than law enforcement; this might well succeed because the profits from illegal enterprises, especially those involving the supply of heavily demanded services such as drugs, pornographic material, sex, gambling, and loans at higher than legal interest rates are large enough to divert considerable sums to officials in return for protection and still leave sufficient for the operators to live comfortably.

Finally, persons caught in minor criminal activity, such as parking illegally or exceeding speed limits, or being drunk in charge of a motor vehicle might attempt to avoid being booked and risking license endorsement by offering officers small inducements not to enforce the law.

On other occasions, the police initiate the corruptor-corruptee relationship but the former enters it appreciating the mutual benefits it involves.

Only rarely, as the police slip into extortion and protection rackets, is there a genuine “victim”. For example, Chambliss (1978) documents the case of a restaurant’s new owner being forced to pay the police – and through them the local organized crime cabal – in exchange for health, fire, and alcohol license authorities relaxing the frequency and severity of their inspections and penalties.

Because the “victims” of police corruption are more willingly, indeed eagerly involved than the victims of police brutality, it is relatively harder to quantify because those involved are less likely to report it. What would be the point of informing officers, as you handed them a stuffed envelope, that “this is corruption, PC Jones!” Consequently, corruption penetrates the public consciousness rarely, like a missed heart-beat in an otherwise perfectly functioning body. This shock to the system occurs irregularly and with differing severity.

No general quantitative picture emerges from these episodic investigations because they are fundamentally concerned to gather sufficient evidence to mount a prosecution. The standard required to do this successfully is different from that necessary to document the existence and extensiveness of police corruption. Thus the Knapp Commission into police corruption in New York published a report which was not concerned with culpable individuals but with illuminating the problem.

Often, public opinion can be mobilized to weaken the resistance to change or at least to isolate those who are opposed to it. Public hearings, the issuance of reports, and public information campaigns are therefore often essential components of the reform process. The Knapp Commission hearings in New York have been credited by many with playing a key role in reforming the anticorruption practices of the New York City Police Department.

The New York City Police Department, infamous during the late nineteenth century for widespread corruption under Tammany rule, was rocked by an even greater police corruption scandal during the early 1970s. Long before the scandal became public, New York City police officer Frank Serpico made allegations of corruption within the department that were largely ignored by police officials and politicians. Unable to get results within the system, Serpico finally went to the press with his story ( Maas 1973). On April 25, 1970, following a six-month investigation prompted by Serpico’s allegations, the New York Times printed a lengthy exposĂ© of New York City police corruption. In response to the “Times” article, Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York City appointed an interdepartmental committee to review these charges. The committee in turn recommended that an independent citizens’ commission be established to determine the nature and extent of police corruption, evaluate the department’s procedures for handling reports of corruption, and recommend ways to improve these procedures. (Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption 1973)

Called the Knapp Commission after its chairman, United States District Judge Whitman Knapp, the commission took two and one-half years to complete its investigation, during which time Serpico and numerous others testified before the commission in a series of widely publicized and televised hearings. The findings of the commission – a summary was released on August 3, 1972, and the complete report was issued on December 26, 1972 – were shocking. According to the report, more than 50 percent of the city’s 29,600 police officers had participated in some form of corrupt activity. ( Inciardi 1993)

The commission report divided these corrupt cops into two categories – “grass eaters,” who did not seek bribes and payoffs but took them when they were offered, and “meat eaters,” who actively and aggressively engaged in corrupt practices, such as collecting regular payments from illegal gambling establishments or narcotics violators. Although the commission concluded that most corrupt police officers were of the more minor “grass eater” variety, this finding did not detract from the disheartening fact that many of New York’s “finest” were corrupt.

By the time the Knapp Commission report was released in late 1972, many reforms already were under way within the department. Police Commissioner Howard R. Leary, who resigned in 1970 in the wake of the New York Times article, had been replaced by Patrick V. Murphy who immediately set out to reform the department and eliminate corruption. Murphy’s efforts, combined with the work of the commission, led Mayor Lindsay to assert, “There is good reason to believe that the problems faced by Patrolman Serpico six years ago would not recur today” ( Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption 1973).

However, the results of the Knapp Commission’s findings were astonishing. They found corruption to be widespread. It took various forms depending upon the activity involved, appearing at its most sophisticated among plainclothesmen assigned to enforcing gambling laws. In the five plainclothes divisions where their investigations were concentrated the Knapp Commission found a strikingly standardized pattern of corruption. Plainclothesmen, participating in what is known in police parlance as a “pad,” collected regular bi-weekly or monthly payments amounting to as much as $3,500 from each of the gambling establishments in the area under their jurisdiction, and divided the take in equal shares. The monthly share per man (called the “nut”) ranged from $300 and $400 in midtown Manhattan to $1,500 in Harlem. When supervisors were involved they received a share and a half. A newly assigned plainclothesman was not entitled to his share for about two months, while he was checked out for reliability, but the earnings lost by the delay were made up to him in the form of two months’ severance pay when he left the division.

Evidence before the Knapp Commission led them to the conclusion that the same pattern existed in the remaining divisions which they did not investigate in depth. This conclusion was confirmed by events occurring before and after the period of their investigation. Prior to the Commission’s existence, exposures by former plainclothesman Frank Serpico had led to indictments or departmental charges against nineteen plainclothesmen in a Bronx division for involvement in a pad where the nut was $800. After the Knapp Commission’s public hearings had been completed, an investigation conducted by the Kings County District Attorney and the Department’s Internal Affairs Division – which investigation neither the Commission nor its staff had even known about – resulted in indictments and charges against thirty seven Brooklyn plainclothesmen who had participated in a pad with a nut of $1,200. The manner of operation of the pad involved in each of these situations was in every detail identical to that described at the Commission hearings, and in each almost every plainclothesman in the division, including supervisory lieutenants, was implicated.

Corruption in narcotics enforcement lacked the organization of the gambling pads, but individual payments – known as ”scores” – were commonly received and could be staggering in amount. The investigation of the Knapp Commission, a concurrent probe by the State Investigation Commission and prosecutions by Federal and local authorities all revealed a pattern whereby corrupt officers customarily collected scores in substantial amounts from narcotics violators. These scores were either kept by the individual officer or shared with a partner and, perhaps, a superior officer. They ranged from minor shakedowns to payments of many thousands of dollars, the largest narcotics payoff uncovered in the investigation having been $80,000. According to information developed by the S.I.C. and in recent Federal investigations, the size of this score was by no means unique.

Corruption among detectives assigned to general investigative duties also took the form of shakedowns of individual targets of opportunity. Although these scores were not in the huge amounts found in narcotics, they not infrequently came to several thousand dollars.

Uniformed patrolmen assigned to street duties were not found to receive money on nearly so grand or organized a scale, however, the large number of small payments they received present an equally serious if less dramatic problem. Uniformed patrolmen, particularly those assigned to radio patrol cars, participated in gambling pads more modest in size than those received by plainclothes units and received regular payments from construction sites, bars, grocery stores and other business establishments. These payments were usually made on a regular basis to sector car patrolmen and on a haphazard basis to others. While individual payments to uniformed men were small, mostly under $20, they were often so numerous as to add substantially to a patrolman’s income. Other less regular payments to uniformed patrolmen included those made by after-hours bars, bottle clubs, tow trucks, motorists, cab drivers, parking lots, prostitutes and defendants wanting to fix their cases in court. Another practice found to be widespread was the payment of gratuities by policemen to other policemen to expedite normal police procedures or to gain favorable assignments.

Sergeants and lieutenants who were so inclined participated in the same kind of corruption as the men they supervised. In addition, some sergeants had their own pads from which patrolmen were excluded.

Although the Commission was unable to develop hard evidence establishing that officers above the rank of lieutenant received payoffs, considerable circumstantial evidence and some testimony so indicated. Most often when a superior officer was corrupt, he used a patrolman as his “bagman” who collected for him and kept a percentage of the take. Because the bagman may keep the money for himself, although he claims to be collecting for his superior, it is extremely difficult to determine with any accuracy when the superior actually is involved.

Of course, not all policemen were corrupt. If we are to exclude such petty infractions as free meals, an appreciable number do not engage in any corrupt activities. Yet, with extremely rare exceptions, even those who themselves engage in no corrupt activities were involved in corruption in the sense that they took no steps to prevent what they knew or suspected to be going on about them.

It must be made clear that – in a little over a year with a staff having as few as two and never more than twelve field investigators – the Knapp Commission did not examine every precinct in the Department. The conclusion that corruption was widespread throughout the Department was based on the fact that information supplied to the Commission by hundreds of sources within and without the Department was consistently borne out by specific observations made in areas they were able to investigate in detail.

To do a proper job as agents of the criminal justice system, police should be bound by common standards; they should treat people fairly and justly and should be above temptation and undue influences. Obviously if police are perceived to be corrupt and easily swayed by pecuniary or political considerations, they will not be trusted by the public; they cannot depend on the public’s cooperation, which is so essential for successful police activity.

Unfortunately, a number of studies and too many incidents have shown that corruption is a fact of life in many American police forces.

According to the Knapp Commission, half of the police force in New York City accepted payoffs. In 1974 widespread police corruption was found in Chicago, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Houston, Denver, and New York involving illegal gambling, stolen goods, prostitution, and narcotics[1].

The widespread use of narcotics among various social groups and the tremendous profits involved in illegal importation and sale of drugs in this country have corrupted many public officials, including police officers. When millions of dollars can be made in a big drug deal, it is not terribly difficult to buy off politicians, senators, judges, and police officers. As the same Knapp Commission Report states: “Corruption in narcotics law enforcement has grown in recent years to the point where high-ranking police officials acknowledge it to be the most serious problem facing the Department. . . . In many cases police officers actively extort money and/or drugs from suspected narcotics law violators.” (Radzinowicz and Wolfgang, 173, 174)

In one such case, known as the French Connection, “New York City narcotics detectives diverted 188 pounds of heroin and 31 pounds of cocaine to their own use, making the Narcotics Bureau’s Special Investigating Unit (SIU) perhaps the largest heroin and cocaine dealer in the city.” (Silberman, Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice, p. 312) Brooklyn District Attorney Eugene Gold testified that 70 percent of Brooklyn’s detectives were taking graft. (Nicholas Pileggi, New York Magazine, pp. 232-234)

Another form of corruption, usually not perceived as such due to the nature of political processes in this country, is the subservience of the police to strong interest groups. As Dan Dodson, the director of the Center for Human Relations and Community Studies at New York University has observed:

No policeman enforces all the laws of a community. If he did, we would all be in jail before the end of the first day. The laws which are selected for enforcement are those which the power structure of the community wants enforced. The police official’s job is dependent upon his having radar-like equipment to sense what is the power structure and what it wants enforced as law. (Dan Dodson, May 1955)

Although corruption is widespread among American police forces, this does not of course mean that every police officer is corrupt. The extent of corruption among American police may actually be much less than in many other places. Some of the European police forces are notorious for accepting bribes and bending the law to help the rich and the powerful. Nevertheless, since the expectations of the American public are much higher than those of many societies where people accept corruption and favoritism as inevitable facts of life, police corruption in this country may have a more devastating effect in creating frustration and possibly more criminality. Therefore, such organizations as criminal commissions, the Knapp Commission being one of them, serve as indicators of the criminal activity among representatives of the state power bodies.

The role of the Knapp Commission in the historical process of crime and corruption combating is very important. It showed the real situation with criminal activity at that time and initialized the series of reforms and functioning of new commissions in the future. The chairman of the Knapp Commission, Whitman Knapp, died last year in Manhattan in the age of 95. As a judge, he always sought the ways to eliminate crime in the society. He actively participated in the “war on drugs” movement. And he summarized the situation in this filed with the words: After 20 years on the bench I have concluded that federal drug laws are a disaster. It is time to get the government out drug enforcement”.[2]


Braziller G. (1973). Commission to investigate Allegations of Police Corruption, The Knapp Commission Report on Police Corruption. New York, 1-3.

Chambliss W. J. (1969). Crime and the Legal Process. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Dodson D., speech delivered at Michigan State University, May 1955, reported in Proceedings of the Institute on Police-Community Relations, May 15-20, 1955 ( East Lansing, Mich.: The School of Police Administration and Public Safety, Michigan State University, 1956), p. 75.

Inciardi, J. (1993). Street Kids, Street Drugs, Street Crime. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1993.

Maas P. (1973). Serpico: The Cop Who Defied the System. New York: Viking.

McMullan, M. (1961). A Theory of Corruption. Sociological Review 9(2): 181-201.

Pileggi N. (1972). The Mafia at War (p. 85). New York: New York Magazine.

Radzinowicz L. and Wolfgang M. E. (1977). The Criminal in the Arms of the Law. Crime and Justice, vol. 2 (p.162). New York: Basic Books.

Silberman Ch. E. (1978). Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice (p. 312). New York: Random House.

Williams G. (2d ed. 1961). Criminal Law. London: Stevens and Sons.

[1] Time, May 6, 1974; New York Times, March 11, 1974.

[2] New York Times, May 14, 1993.

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