In a speech titled “The Tramp” he gave in 1902, Jack London described the police as “the right arm of the corporate power of our great cities…” Their job, he asserted, was to keep despised minorities, including the homeless and jobless, out of sight and out of the way.
That’s still the case today, just as it was in 1968 when I was 18 years old and working for a tree company in my suburban hometown outside New York City.
The police station was on the main drag in the heart of downtown. My great-uncle Tom (my mother’s father’s brother-in-law) had been a policeman in town during Prohibition and in 1968 was the security guard at the granite bank that sat at one end of the street. At the other end of the block, maybe a quarter of a mile away, was a little candy store owned by a Holocaust survivor with a faded number tattooed on his arm. He opened early and sold newspapers and cigarettes to the blue collar workers who walked around the corner to the diner where they ate breakfast and lunch.
Everybody knew everybody, and my father was right in the middle of everything. His step-father was the chief of the fire department; his DAR mother had been Town Clerk since World War II. As a kid, nothing bored me more than having to visit my father’s parents and listen to their endless stream of gossip: how the mayor was having an affair with the wife of the Lutheran minister; how the math teacher caught his wife with the funeral director and murdered her, and then their kids; how the accident that killed my friend’s mother wasn’t an accident at all. The sordid sort of thing that makes insiders feel powerful.
It was impossible to escape the scrutiny. The company I worked for had the contract for all the tree work in town. In those days Dutch elm disease was rampant, and we did a lot of big takedowns that required a few extra hands. When we worked in town, the village would send a crew from Public Works to speed things up and direct traffic. As the “top climber,” the guy taking down the tree, I was usually 40-feet in the air, telling the village crew what to do. These were adult men, including my father’s step-brother. I had long hair and a sexy girlfriend, and they were aware I was smoking pot and taking LSD, and there was much macho trash talk.
On one occasion, a guy with the village crew was riding me unmercifully. So I called him over to clean up a particular area under the tree, and while he was there, I dropped a sizable branch that missed his fat head by about six inches. Everyone started laughing at him and he looked up with scorn and derision and said, quote: “You’re just like your fuckin’ father.”
No one had ever made that comparison before and for the life of me, I couldn’t see how it applied. My father was a tough guy, a World War II combat veteran who’d seen things and done things, and who never backed down. Everybody respected him. I was an outsider.
Living and working in the village that summer was stifling. But I was trapped. So every morning I went to the diner for breakfast, and would sit on the side with the guys my age, while my father, who’d just gotten off the graveyard shift at the Post Office, sat with the local cops and village workers on the other side, in the corner by the kitchen door where the chef was scrambling eggs and pouring orange juice while frantically reading the Racing Form and Daily News. It was a high testosterone crowd; everyone was talking sports and placing bets on games, and one guy was writing it all down.
These were the pre-Off Track Betting days of “the generation gap.” My dad, the chef, the village workers and the cops hated Muhammad Ali, the Vietnamese, and Joe Willie Namath. They were racist and sexist and proud of their prejudices. Those things defined them.
My dad and I disagreed about everything, and there hadn’t been a civil word between us since I went off to college. But he was my father, and one morning we found ourselves checking out at the cash register at the same time. He paid first and exited, and when I got outside he was waiting for me. He said: “I want you to meet me tomorrow morning by the bank,” at such and such a time, much earlier than usual.
I didn’t ask why, and he didn’t say. Periodically he gave life lessons; it was how he operated. He knew I’d do what he said, and I knew I’d do it.
The next morning we parked and met over at the bank, bleary-eyed and half-awake. We walked down the main drag, past the police station, past the train station, where the first of the station wagons had yet to pull up, wives wearing bathrobes, dropping off manicured men in suits carrying the New York Times. We walked in silence till we got to the candy store, and then turned right and started walking toward the diner. A delivery truck was parked out front beside another car I recognized. The diner hadn’t opened yet, and they were the only vehicles on the street.
My father stepped into the street and I followed him. He stood behind the delivery truck. Wondering what the hell was going on, I watched while he threw open the doors. The guy who took down names and numbers was sitting in the front passenger seat beside the delivery truck driver; three village cops were sitting on boxes in the back of the truck. Cash and slips of paper were being exchanged.
“Take a good look, “my father said. “This is the true relationship between crime and law enforcement.”
It happened fast, before I had time to think about it. The five men inside the trunk were in a state of shock too; they sat looking at me and my father, their mouths hanging open, muttering curses. Then my father closed the doors and we walked away. The incident was never mentioned again. A few nights later one of the cops stopped me for running a light at 2:00 am; I was drunk as a skunk. “How’s your father?” he inquired. “Don’t you think you should be getting home?”
I knew each of the cops by name. I went to school with some of their kids. I was back at the diner the next morning, and all was right with the world. I just knew something new about reality.
Most people never make that rite of passage. The entire academic world is clueless, and most of the middle class as well. They think the cops are there to protect them, and if they’re white and keep their mouths shut and do what they’re told, the cops might make an effort, if there’s something in it for them. Otherwise they make sure that crime is properly organized, and that the rich and powerful are happy. To think of the cops otherwise is crazy.
Twenty years later, when I started researching and writing about the government, I would tell that story to the CIA officers and DEA agents I interviewed. They would clench their jaws for a moment, then nod and tell me things. I learned lot, and I can assure you that only the packaging has changed.
In 1968, cops walked the beat alone, in blue wool coats, swinging billy clubs. They didn’t act like paramilitary death squads, like they do today, moving around in group formations with bullet proof vests and automatic weapons, in armored vehicles. Along with everyone else, the village cops in 1968 noticed that city cops were moving into the suburbs, buying nice houses, sending their kids to out-of-state colleges, and buying their wives fancy jewelry. Everyone knew how they could afford to do all that.
As Frank Serpico told the Knapp Commission in 1971, after being shot in the face by fellow cops, they were all on the take. First they took a free sandwich, or walked into a movie theatre with their family without paying. If you were a small businessman and you gave things to the cops, they protected you, just like the Mafia hoods. As a cop rose through the ranks, the payoffs got bigger: membership in country clubs, discounts on cars, vacations in Mexico. You might even become president of the PBA, with all the job’s benefits.
Nowadays cops in the NYPD make a better wage, and the bribery often takes other forms; but corruption continues to define law enforcement. The corruption today is largely ideological and the payoffs come in the form of personal power. Cops get to feel extra-special: they can kill with impunity, or turn their backs on the mayor and disrespect him in public (in a way they would never tolerate) for attempting to make reforms that are ideological in nature. The cops can put a gun to your head and make you say the magic words, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
In 2014, cops are so far removed from the public that there is no hope of bridging the gap. Battle lines have been drawn, and you’re either with them or against them. They will judge you on that basis, not according to laws or any rights you think the Constitution and Bill of Rights afford you.
As the world shrinks and we find ourselves all living in the same small town, the stakes only get higher.
Douglas Valentine is the author of The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs, and The Strength of the Pack: The Personalities, Politics, and Espionage Intrigues that Shaped the DEA.