Meet the Former NYPD Chief Who Made a Career Out of Putting Dirty Cops Behind Bars
Charles Campisi didn't want to be a rat, but someone had to at least try and keep tabs on the worst of New York's finest.
In the early 1990s, when Donald Trump was still basically just a loud real estate tycoon, New York City had a policing problem. But this one had nothing to do with panhandlers or squeegee men or the Central Park Five, the preferred boogiemen of tabloids like the New York Post. The NYPD—or at least a number of its officers—was dirty; a mayoral commission claimed to expose widespread corruption in America's largest police force, including allegations of cops stealing drugs and protecting high-level traffickers. Still, it was practically an article of faith among rank-and-file cops that anyone associated with Internal Affairs—the police department's own watchdog—was the enemy.
Enter Charles Campisi, who served 41 years on the force, and was drafted into Internal Affairs against his will by NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly in 1993. He initially hoped to get out of there as fast as he could, but the hard-nosed cop became Internal Affairs chief a few years later, and ultimately made a career of going after bad guys who wear a badge.
In his forthcoming book, Blue on Blue: An Insider's Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops, Campisi details how the old Internal Affairs division evolved into a legitimate—if far from perfect—check on rogue cops. By stressing basic integrity and trying to incentivize the best and brightest to join what is now the Internal Affairs Bureau, Campisi thinks he helped turn things around. From the horrifying case of Abner Louima—a black immigrant the NYPD sodomized with a broomstick in 1997—to the "Cannibal Cop" in 2012, Campisi tried to keep tabs on the worst of New York's finest.
We chatted with the former chief by phone to find out how he went about probing corruption in such a massive police force, what he thinks of the Blue Wall (or Code) of Silence, and the possibility that gang members or even terrorists might make their way inside police forces like the NYPD.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
VICE: What was the climate like when you were first thrust into Internal Affairs work in the 1990s?
Charles Campisi: When we first started the new Internal Affairs Bureau, we did a series of focus groups, interviewing cops from all over New York City—different precincts, ranks, positions, and assignments. What became clear was there was a distrust of the old Internal Affairs division. That distrust manifested itself in the belief that if you were in Internal Affairs, then you weren't a good police officer. Cops back then looked at it like only three types of people go into internal affairs—I don't know if it was true or not, but this was their perception, so you have to take it into consideration.
Number one on the list was that IA officers were cowards. They were afraid to go on the street and be real police officers, so they went and hid in Internal Affairs. Or they were rats—people who were caught with their hands in the cookie jar or caught dirty, and in exchange for not going to jail, being arrested or losing their job, they would exchange information on other cops and become IA investigators. The third type were zealots who thought that they could go out and change the world by just going after cops, despite being cops themselves, whether it was for some personal reason or professional one.
If any of that was true or not wasn't important. What was important was that was what many cops they believed. What we did was ask: How can we get around that? How can we not have [the perception be that it's all] cowards and rats and thieves and zealots in the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau?
OK, so what was your approach?
We tried to institute a policy where you could no longer volunteer to become a member of Internal Affairs. You had to be selected and drafted. Now, when people were drafted, they didn't want to be in the Internal Affairs Bureau—they tried to resist it as best they could. They had similar feelings to the ones I had, when I was drafted. I really didn't want to go there. But I had no choice. We looked at people who had exemplary records, people who had excelled in other investigative units, and we drafted them into the Internal Affairs Bureau, slowly but surely.
But even if you have great investigators, you still need to build cases against cops. What role do whistleblowers play in helping uncover abuse?
A whistleblower is a great thing, but it's tough on the individual and tough on the organization. The organization must protect its whistle blowers, and the rationale of why the person is blowing the whistle is not as important as the facts that they are giving. If those facts are true, the reason for them coming forward is secondary. You can't dismiss an allegation of corruption just because the person who's reporting it seems to be an offended person. You have to take it on its merits.
Right, but there's been a lot of talk in the press since the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement about the Blue Wall or Blue Code of Silence. The idea is that cops just look the other way when their fellow officers do wrong. And some extensive reporting suggests lying is sort of baked into the cake of many police departments. That seems like an enormous obstacle.
Law enforcement officers depend on one another for their very survival. And even further than that, there's a socialization process in law enforcement where there are events and parties that, if you're not considered trustworthy, you won't be invited to, you will be shunned. The concept that the blue wall of silence or an occupational wall of silence exists within the police agencies of the world only is a grave misconception because we've seen it in other professions. There was a case where two firefighters got into an argument and one firefighter hit the other with a chair, causing very serious injuries that led to that firefighter being hospitalized. By the time the police responded, the crime scene was completely cleaned and sterilized, and no one had seen anything.
Many times doctors make honest mistakes, and people are injured and not often do other members of the medical profession come forward and say that the doctor or nurse or caretaker did something wrong. Do you call that the White Wall of Silence? Would another lawyer say that one of their fellow attorneys did something wrong? That can be the Pinstriped Wall of Silence. My point is just that in any profession, there's a camaraderie, and it [does] exist in the police profession. But, I mean, how many people come running forward in the sports worlds to tell about their colleagues taking steroids? What is that—the Locker Room Wall of Silence? It exists in in all walks of life. It's a human thing.
Sure. But the public perception of police these days among many Americans is that, way too often, they open fire on unarmed African Americans and, in the Eric Garner case, for instance, choke people to death in public. What's your sense of the scope of this problem, having worked at weeding out bad apples?
Within the African American community, there's a distrust and in some cases a fear of the police. And that's something that police agencies around the country have to get over. They have to sit down and meet with the community and work with them to solve crimes. People need to know that police are here to help protect and work with them. If the police and community come together under mutual understanding and mutual respect, things will be so much better.
What the police departments across the country need to do is be as transparent as possible. If we can just focus on our similarities, which outweigh our differences, we can bring our similarities to bear on that problem. There have been great strides in New York, where they are reaching out to the community as much as possible and getting them involved.
Watch Carmelo Anthony reflect on protesting police brutality in his home city of Baltimore.
What individual episode of police brutality stands out to you, looking back on your history as a watchdog?
The most horrifying case I've been involved in is the assault on Abner Louima, because it was such a horrific thing for anybody—not just a police officer, but for any human being—to do. Many people did not believe that it occurred, and they didn't believe it occurred because it was so horrific and completely out of the norm of what you would expect to happen. People would see me and say, "Hey, come on, tell me the truth, did that really happen?" And naturally I'm sworn to secrecy and all I can say is, "Give me the time to do what has to be done and keep your eyes on the newspapers, because things will be public as soon as we can." And then they would take from that that, Oh my God, maybe this really did happen.
That was a very tough case, and I was very pleased how quickly we were able to identify people and how quickly we worked with the Brooklyn District attorney's office and then later with the United States attorney's office to the Eastern District of New York, to bring those cases. We were working on the case like three or four days before it hit the paper, and the thing that annoys me about it is that some members of the press said that we were sitting on our hands when we couldn't speak about it.
Do you think the NYPD fails on the job application side—that gang members, criminals, or terrorists might somehow make their way onto the force?
I'm sure that like any other large organization, there were people who entered the NYPD for the purpose of infiltration—whether they were a gang member or a relative of someone involved in a gang and corrupt behavior—and tried to gather information to be an intelligent source for them. It's not unlikely that someone has infiltrated the NYPD from the terrorist stand point. These are people who have radicalized leanings toward the overthrow of our government. They've joined the NYPD just like they've joined the military or any other organization with the intent of causing havoc from within. It's a very real fear that infiltrators might get in and cause a lot of trouble and damage.
Stepping back for a second, how has policing—and the responsibility and gravity of the job—evolved since you joined the profession decades ago?
When I first started, we were understaffed, underfunded, and undertrained. We did the best we could under the circumstances with the limited resources we had, but policing has made great advances. I've seen a big change in the attitudes of the police officers who often felt that they had no effect on what was happening. Remember that with police officers being the most visible part of government, sometimes we are treated as if we are the cause of the many problems like poverty, under-education, drug abuse, and people living in poor conditions. And those things are way beyond one single agency. All the city government has to come together. We have housing issues, we have healthcare issues, we have childcare issues, we have education issues. The police are not responsible for some of the conditions, but they are held responsible for some of the solutions.
Learn more about Campisi's book, which drops February 7, here.
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*Correction 02/04/17: Because of a transcription error, an earlier version of this article referred to Amadou Diallo's fatal assault when the horrifying incident in question was actually the attack on Abner Louima.