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Len Levitt

Len Levitt

Posted: July 12, 2010 10:26 AM

Schoolcraft and Serpico: Smearing Prophets as Nuts

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For those quick to dismiss cop whistle-blower Adrian Schoolcraft, remember that nobody initially believed Frank Serpico.

Not even the Times, which broke his story of police corruption across its front page.

Before Serpico publicly exposed payoffs to his Bronx plainclothes unit 40 years ago, the police department had painted him as a malcontent, a nut, a weirdo, with long hair and hippie friends. That's what agencies do to whistleblowers.

Before the Times ran Serpico's story, they wanted confirmation from someone official - someone they could trust. Only after Serpico appeared with his former partner, Inspector Paul Delise, who confirmed the outlines of his allegations, did the Times print his story.

Before it was over, the city had a full-blown corruption scandal. Public hearings, known as the Knapp Commission, revealed organized, systemic payoffs at every level of the NYPD.

Now, we have Brooklyn police officer Schoolcraft describing corruption of a different kind.

Schoolcraft secretly tape-recorded roll call meetings in the 81st precinct, where superiors, starting with its commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Steven Mauriello, discussed downgrading felonies to misdemeanors.

These allegations dovetail with other unofficial reports that such practices are organized and systemic in police precincts throughout the city.

In 2005, the presidents of the patrolmen's and sergeant's unions publicly revealed this downgrading. Other officers stated that precinct commanders and their aides dissuaded victims from filing complaints or urged them to change their accounts so that offenses could be reclassified as lesser crimes.

Earlier this year, two college professors - one, a former NYPD captain - announced that they had surveyed more than 100 retired police bosses who acknowledged that pressure to reduce crime had led supervisors and precinct commanders to manipulate crime statistics.

More recently, cops and victims from around the city told the Village Voice of similar disturbing reports about how the NYPD low-balled or hid crimes. The Voice, which had published transcripts of Schoolcraft's tapes, reported that such downgrading had, in effect, allowed a rapist to commit six sex sexual assaults in Washington Heights because his spree wasn't flagged as serious.

What's been the NYPD reaction to all this?

When in 2005 the chairman of the Mayor's Commission to Combat Police Corruption began an investigation and sought to obtain precinct records, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly refused to provide them. Mayor Michael Bloomberg remained silent. The chairman resigned.

Since then Kelly and his spokesman Paul Browne have maintained that the police department's internal audits have found nothing inappropriate.

Their official denials that anything is amiss are reminiscent of the department's attitude towards Serpico's charges, just before he was shot in the face and nearly died, eight months before he became the Knapp Commission's star witness.

Wounded by a drug dealer during a police raid, he charged the department had purposely failed to provide him with adequate back-up after his partner had called in sick the night before. Whether or not this was true, it woke up the city, alerting all New Yorkers to the impending police scandal.

Officials are now trying to ignore Schoolcraft. As it did to Serpico, the department has painted him as a malcontent, a nut, a weirdo. Like all whistleblowers, Serpico included, Schoolcraft and his overly protective father have proved difficult to deal with. They live upstate. They keep changing phone numbers, possibly because they can't pay their bills. Their motives seem unclear (perhaps even to themselves) and they have blown through at least four sets of attorneys.

Last October, after Schoolcraft left his Brooklyn precinct an hour early, saying he was sick, the police, led by Brooklyn Deputy Chief Michael Marino, followed him home to his Queens apartment. They broke down his door, handcuffed him and rifled his files, apparently seeking his tape-recordings. Unbeknownst to them, Schoolcraft secretly recorded the encounter.

The police then transported him to Jamaica Hospital, where against his will he was admitted to the psych ward and held there for six days.

In admitting him, the hospital's record, as reported in this column two weeks ago, described Schoolcraft as "coherent" and "relevant" and said "his memory and concentration is intact."

Why, then, was he admitted? Hospital spokesman Ole Pedersen told the Voice: "We have to take the word of whoever is coming in with him, and make a decision based on what they tell us. If there is an issue, the issue is with the Police Department or whoever brought an individual in."

Such is the power of Kelly and Bloomberg that no one - not one politician, starting with City Council Public Safety Chairman Peter Vallone, nor one mainstream news organization, starting with the New York Times with its barrelful of city-side reporters -- has pursued the circumstances of Schoolcraft's hospital admission.

Not one politician nor one mainstream news organization has pursued what is an open secret within the police department: that the downgrading of crimes is not confined to the 81st precinct but is a city-wide scandal that has gone on for years.

Instead, the mainstream media reports each allegation separately, failing to take the obvious step of connecting the dots.

Their laziness or ineptitude is abetted by Kelly. The most powerful police commissioner in city history, he has made the department less transparent than at any time in recent decades, closing it to all outside scrutiny.

Still, Kelly senses danger. Ten days ago in the dead of night, he transferred Mauriello to Bronx Transit. The department called the transfer "routine."

Let's see if Deputy Chief Marino, who led the raid on Schoolcraft's apartment and who has other unrelated issues, is next.

Perhaps Kelly recalls that Serpico's allegations 40 years before began with a single corrupt Bronx plainclothes unit. The Times and the Knapp Commission found others - all the way up to the police commissioner's office.

I SPY. Is Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne bored with being Kelly's factotum, a role he's played with gusto for the past two decades? How else to explain his jumping on the Russian spy story and telling the Wall Street Journal's Sean Gardiner that while a student at the Columbia School of Journalism nearly 40 years ago a Russian spy tried to recruit him.

Is Browne seeking his own limelight? Let's keep an eye on the Manhattan champagne circuit, as the Post described it, where Kelly has become a black tie fixture, and see if we can spot Browne.

AFTER MURRAY. So who will the Post hire to succeed its veteran police reporter Murray Weiss? Sources say the paper is currently interviewing. [Some say the Post was interviewing before Weiss announced his retirement.]

Our suggestion: Why not the ubiquitous and indefatigable Judith Miller? After years as a so-called Middle East expert in the Times' Washington bureau, where her reporting on the Iraq war run-up led to her resignation, she has reinvented herself as an NYPD maven.

What she offers the Post is something Weiss and virtually all other police reporters in town lack: access.

That's access to Kelly and the top levels of the department, in particular former CIA spook, Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence David Cohen, and his deputy spook, Assistant Commissioner Larry Sanchez.

If Miller's past is prelude, she can fulfill an unofficial Post requirement: positive NYPD coverage.

From the Middle East, en route from Amman to Baghdad, she emailed, "I'm flattered. But I've more work than I know how to do! Is Murray leaving the Post?"