Years ago, members of my extended family were gangsters connected with the Genovese crime family. They had the ability, which they used, to place people in favored positions within the New York City Police Department. I know this, because my father was offered one of those slots.
This is a big part of why I've always had a problem with claims that you can trust the police, in addition to the civil liberties abuses we report at Reason. Cops can be as crooked as anybody else—and are more dangerous for it, because of their power and position. It's the old problem of "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"—"Who watches the watchmen?" The more you give the watchmen to do, the more tempting it becomes to corrupt them, and for them to let themselves be corrupted. And the more temptation for corruption, the more the likelihood that such temptation is the main attraction for people who want to be watchmen.
That temptation sometimes really is the main attraction. Remembering some of the old family stories, I asked my father for details. He told me:
The time was 1954 when I was graduating from high school and my Uncle Puggy, Watermelon King of the East Coast, who presided over the Bronx Terminal Market, told my father he was wasting his money sending me to college. He could get me a beat around the market, located in the South Bronx before it moved to Hunts Point, where I could get on the family’s payroll and get an envelope stuffed with cash every week.
Puggy was called "the Watermelon King" because the New York Daily News once published a picture of him standing on top of a mountain of watermelons. The photo illustrated an article pointing out that he extracted his cut from every banana, every tomato, every kind of fruit and vegetable known to mankind that passed through the Bronx Terminal Market. And, if you're going to be in that kind of business, it's helpful to own the people who are supposed to prevent that sort of thing from happening. Puggy did. He wanted my father to join in the lucrative fun.
My father decided not to go that route.
The law enforcement connections continued and expanded. At the end of the 1960s, that crew pulled off an art heist that was elegant in execution, but went to hell pretty quickly. As it turned out the buyers they arranged were FBI agents. But the thieves were tipped off that the buyers were feds. And they were tipped off about a raid on a house where the paintings had been stored. As my father tells me, "they probably had a plant in the FBI as well." (If you're interested, and it's a hell of a tale, you can read the full story of the heist in Gallery of Fools.)
None of this is news to anybody who remembers Frank Serpico's revelations about the NYPD. But it's also something that doesn't go away. My father's brief opportunity for a law (non)enforcement career passed 60 years ago. The Knapp Commission convened over four decades ago. But the NYPD still faces allegations of corruption, including traditional ticket-fixing, outright theft of cash and jewels, and taking bribes to deliver accident reports to doctors and clinics who then market their services to the victims.
Not that the NYPD should be singled out. Baltimore cops have been accused of working as muscle for drug dealers. Cops elsewhere have been drug dealers, taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by their badges to shut down competitors in the illegal but highly profitable trade and keep the opportunities for themselves
And then there are the FBI agents who got tight with Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger.
Some of this corruption overlaps with civil liberties violations committed in the course of police work. Those jewel-stealing cops mentioned above also gained a taste for gathering evidence in the absence of warrants. It's probably not surprising that police officers who engage in theft, accept bribes, and carve out illegal narcotics empires might find the Fourth Amendment an unimpressive barrier to further depredations.
There may be no way of doing entirely without professional police forces that are paid and empowered to enforce the laws to some extent (though I'm very willing to consider alternatives). Like many things in life, there's probably no perfect fix. But, so long as we have police forces, we're going to have a problem with police who abuse their positions and succumb to corruption. We'll also have a problem with people who become cops just so they can exploit the opportunity to engage in abuse and get an envelope stuffed with cash every week, offered by the likes of Uncle Puggy.
Asking police officers to suppress highly profitable activities where there's money to be had just for looking the other way is just begging for trouble.
That's enough reason to give extra thought to every job, tool, power, legal protection, and consideration given to police officers. And it's reason to turn a skeptical eye on the people we've hired to keep the peace. Because, in the end, the only people watching the watchers are those realistic enough to admit that it's necessary.