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September 25th, 2006

Police Culture

blakeyp.jpg This is a picture of G. Robert Blakey, the principal author of the RICO Statute. I enjoyed watching and learning about police culture. It was a whole new world to me. One thing I noticed early on was: bosses hate organized crime cases. The following is an excerpt from my book. Steve Kaplan is one of the detectives I wrote about and Vito Spano was the commanding officer of the squad when I wrote the book.

“Cops are used to looking at murder this way: someone is killed, they figure out who did it, the DAs prove it, that person goes to jail. They’re accustomed to working with one partner alone, someone they’ve gotten to know and trust, and together they focus on a murder case like detective-guided missiles. In 1967, the NYPD established a homicide desk in the Central Investigation Bureau to “collect, analyze and evaluate all information available in connection with homicides arising from or connected with, organized crime.” Three years later Congress enacted RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Detective Steve Kaplan had cleared a few mob-related cases, but he wasn’t exactly an organized crime expert when the Ronald Stapleton case fell in his lap. Deputy Inspector Vito Spano doesn’t even like these kinds of cases. Organized crime cases are complicated.

In a RICO case, they can’t just look at a murder as a murder. it’s a piece of an entire operation. The suspect is not a murderer, he’s a mobster, and murder is just one part of his job description. The focus is never on a single crime. A RICO investigation has many different goals, find the murder, find the money launderer, gambler, drug seller, etc., find the bosses, shut down the operation, and it’s not just you and your partner anymore. More than one law enforcement agency is involved. It’s like going after someone in the mail department at Enron, but you can’t pick him up and haul him in because he was just following orders and someone else needs him to testify against a guy in the sales department on the third floor, who has some information about someone in accounting, who’s been saving a memo the President quietly sent to the guy running one of their largest subsidiaries.

It requires a new way of looking at crime and its investigation that took prosecutors themselves a long time to understand. “It was ten years before I found a prosecutor who was willing to try a RICO case,” G. Robert Blakey, the principal author of the RICO Statute, remembers.

RICO forces the NYPD, this notoriously territorial group, to look at the big picture with other notoriously territorial groups groups they don’t always get along with, and can’t control and they’re not too happy about it.

“RICO is a good tool,” Spano concedes. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to prosecute a lot of these cases.” But not only do RICO cases force the squad to proceed differently with all these other agencies, it turns out putting mobsters in jail is not even particularly satisfying. “These people were involved in high risk behavior, they know what they’re getting themselves into” Spano explains. “They get themselves into some sort of crisis, they start killing each other, fuck ’em. I’d rather work on senior citizen murders, random murders. Some fucking predator eyeballed and attacked and murdered someone, a person working in a store, a woman who is raped and murdered during a burglary, those I want to work on. I understand we gotta work on these other cases, I know their murder is important, I gotta clear a number and the only way I’m going to clear it is this RICO thing. I’ve gotta kiss everybody’s ass, every federal agency’s ass, just to get them to give me the privilege of bringing the case folder over.”

Due to their difficulty and sheer volume, a lot of the cases that go cold are organized crime cases. And because there are a lot of organized crime cases, clearing them produces the numbers the NYPD craves and rewards, the numbers by which the entire New York Police Department is judged. No one has ever helped their NYPD career by fighting the numbers. “Whether I like them or not, they have to get done. And if we didn’t have RICO, we wouldn’t have the handle on organized crime that we do,” Spano finishes. “There were 5,000 family members in 17 cities in 1963,” Blakey, who is now a law professor at the Notre Dame Law School, says. “And only 1,500 in two cities in 2004.”

But it’s not real detective work. “The detective’s not doing anything,” Spano says. “It’s people giving up information to save their own ass. It’s a big jerk off.”

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