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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Has Anything Changed?


In a harshly critical report, a special mayoral panel asserted yesterday that the New York City Police Department had failed at every level to uproot corruption and had instead tolerated a culture that fostered misconduct and concealed lawlessness by police officers.

The panel, called the Mollen Commission, agreed with police officials who contend that corruption was not systemic, but rather isolated to small groups of rogue officers. But the commission warned that if corruption itself was not systemwide, the department's failure to address it was.

"We find as shocking the incompetence and the inadequacies of the department to police itself," Milton Mollen, the commission chairman, said yesterday as the panel released an interim report on its principal findings. Will They Be Followed?

After an 18-month inquiry, the commission recommended a dual approach to reforming the 30,000-member department, the nation's largest municipal force. It called for the creation of an independent oversight agency, patterned after itself, to scrutinize the department's anti-corruption investigations and for a vast overhaul of the department's internal programs for preventing and detecting misconduct.

It was unclear yesterday whether the Mollen Commission's recommendations would ever be put into place. Mayor-elect Rudolph W. Giuliani said he still favored a special prosecutor to detect corruption and called the independent monitor "a halfway step."

But regardless of whether its recommendations are enacted, the commission's findings -- that there was a "reluctance to uncover and effectively investigate corruption" and that "no one seemed to care" -- are likely to be used to bolster whatever tack the new Mayor takes to solve the problem of police misconduct. Final Report in Spring

Mr. Giuliani praised the panel yesterday for uncovering and identifying problems and said the group could have as much time as needed to complete its work. Mr. Mollen, a former State Supreme Court justice and a deputy mayor under Mayor David N. Dinkins, said the commission, which was appointed in July 1992 by Mr. Dinkins, will issue a final report in April or May.

The report made no mention of any mayoral responsibility to monitor police corruption.

In its 20-page report, the commission said it found "a deep-rooted institutional reluctance to uncover corruption in the department." It said the department had "abandoned its responsibility to insure integrity" and had failed to instill in supervisors, from the highest commanders to sergeants in the field, the message "that fighting corruption must be one of the department's highest priorities."

Asked at a news conference if any of the last three Police Commissioners, Benjamin Ward, Lee P. Brown and the current police head, Raymond W. Kelly, should be held accountable for the breakdown in corruption controls, Mr. Mollen said, "It is very difficult to hold any individual responsible."

Mr. Mollen said the first signs of widespread problems, including allegations that police officers were stealing drugs and offering protection to narcotics traffickers, occurred in the mid-1980's during Mr. Ward's tenure. But, he continued, "this thing developed over the course of many years and during more than one administration." Kelly Faults Findings

Mr. Kelly was cited in the report for "number of laudable reforms in the department's anti-corruption apparatus." But the panel said in the last year he focused "largely on strengthening and centralizing investigative efforts, rather than on prevention, root causes and conditions." And the commission noted that Mr. Kelly acted only after it began its work.

Mr. Kelly, who will step down as Police Commissioner on Jan. 9, disputed the commission's criticism of the department, saying, "It besmirches the reputation of the department with a rather broad brush that I don't think is appropriate or warranted."

Mr. Kelly, who often exchanged testy words with the commission over the extent of abuses in the department and who was responsible for it, said he accepted the panel's recommendation of an outside agency to oversee the department's anti-corruption programs.

"It is not a bad idea to have some entity outside the department putting its feet to the fire," Mr. Kelly said.

The Police Commissioner, who was selected by Mayor David N. Dinkins in October 1992 to head the department, will be replaced by William J. Bratton, the Police Commissioner of Boston and the former chief of the New York City Transit Authority's police force. Mr. Bratton said through an aide yesterday that he probably would withhold comment on the report until he takes over as the city's Police Commissioner. P.B.A. Sees Politics

The commission also had scathing words for the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. The report said that a "variety of sources, including police officers and prosecutors" reported that police unions interfered with efforts to uncover corruption. The report claimed that delegates of the Patrolmen's Association "have attempted to thwart law-enforcement efforts into police corruption and that "the P.B.A. often acts as a shelter for officers who commit acts of misconduct."

Phil Caruso, the president of the association, which represents 20,000 officers, assailed the charges "as a cheap parting shot from the Dinkins administration, obviously in retaliation that the P.B.A. strongly opposed Dinkins in the last election."

"If we find dirty cops," he said in an interview, "we don't protect them."

Mr. Caruso said hearings in September and October by the commission had produced "a negative impact on the image and morale of police officers." The association, Mr. Caruso, would support an outside monitor "as the best way to rebuild public confidence in the Police Department." Prosecutor Until '90

Mr. Giuliani said he also supported the general concept of an outside monitor, but that he wanted it to take the form of a special prosecutor, who would have more power to fight corruption. The Mollen Commission proposed that an outside monitor be given subpoena and investigative powers, as well as access to police department corruption files, but that it not act as a prosecutor.

In 1973 the Governor and the Legislature created the office of a special state prosecutor after a previous police-corruption scandal. It was financed by the state and abolished in 1990 as an unneeded tool by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and the Legislature.

Mr. Mollen cautioned that a special prosecutor would rekindle jurisdictional problems and friction with the five district attorneys and two United States Attorneys in the city. He said the commission, in its final report, would consider the feasibility of authorizing the city's Department of Investigation to oversee police anti-corruption programs.

Aides to Mr. Giuliani said he might support the Department of Investigation proposal if a special prosecutor's office is unfeasible.

The New York Civil Liberties Union said the proposed permanent commission would lack the authority "to wage an effective, ongoing battle against corruption" and that it favored a special prosecutor or inspector general as a watchdog.

The civil liberties union said the report failed to emphasize problems of police brutality and criticized the Mollen Commission for making undocumented charges that the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association blocked corruption investigations.

The commission's report said "an external force is needed to maintain a sense of commitment and accountability," based on the testimony at public hearings and on confidential interviews with scores of officers and prosecutors and on an analysis of department records.

"From the top brass down to local precinct commanders and supervisors," the commission said, "there was a pervasive belief that uncovering serious corruption would harm careers and the reputation of the department." Community Policing

At a news conference following the release of the report, Mr. Mollen said corruption and abuses by the police fostered public distrust that could endanger the department's community policing program. That program emphasizes putting officers on foot patrol to establish closer relations with residents in their precincts and to spot potential crime problems before they develop.

The commission said its final report would recommend new anti-corruption tactics, including closer screening of recruits, anti-corruption training methods and ways to insure that supervisors are held accountable for corruption and misconduct in their commands.

The proposed independent oversight agency would be headed by three to five unsalaried commissioners. The investigative and monitoring work would be conducted by a full-time staff of about 20 lawyers and investigators. The Mollen Commission has five unpaid commissioners who determine policy, and since it was organized in the summer of 1992, the commission has spent $1.4 million. At its peak, it had a staff of 20.

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