Date of Degree

2-2016

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Criminal Justice

Advisor

Candace McCoy

Committee Members

F. Warren Benton

Andrew Karmen

Subject Categories

Courts | Criminal Law

Keywords

Police corruption, Prosecution, NYPD, New York City police scandals

Abstract

From the 1890s to the 1990s, the police department in New York City experienced six major corruption scandals that occurred at approximately twenty-year intervals. These cyclical scandals all involved intense public attention, examination by an outside agency, and a comprehensive report calling for departmental reforms to address corruption issues. The scandals resulted in turnover of police commissioners and political fallout for sitting mayors. Police officers faced transfers, administrative sanctions, dismissals, and forced retirements. Some faced criminal prosecution.

This dissertation examines prosecutions of police in the context of the city’s changing social and political circumstances surrounding the scandals, while recognizing the influence of key individuals who served as district attorneys or in other prosecutorial positions. Prosecutors charged over four hundred police officers in cases related to the scandals. Research disclosed that the number of prosecutions and the outcomes of the cases varied greatly across the six scandals. The conduct charged in the prosecutions reflected an evolution in the civilian illegal conduct that supported most of the police corruption—from a mix of liquor, gambling, and prostitution to the more recent dominance of illegal drugs.

Research confirmed that each era needed a triggering event to elevate public concerns about ongoing police corruption to the levels of responses that characterized the cyclical scandals. Those responses better explained the phenomenon of the cycles than the severity of the underlying police corruption. Over time, outcomes of the related criminal prosecutions became more favorable to the prosecutors; that is, a higher percentage of cases resulted in convictions. The number of cops prosecuted increased with the involvement of more prosecutorial agencies, particularly as federal prosecutors picked up their pursuit of police cases and when New York State experimented with a special corruption prosecutor in the 1970s.

The cyclical scandals reflected limits on the effectiveness of criminal prosecution as a response to police corruption, although the prosecutorial response became more essential in the last two scandal cycles. The examination suggests a waning role for federal prosecutors, the need for consideration of a new model to revive the position of special prosecutor, and perhaps an end to the cyclical scandals.

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