Kefauver Investigation and Knapp Commission

views updated


The pervasive reach of organized crime in the United States has made it a target of investigations and legal action since the nineteenth century. Two of the most noteworthy attacks were the Kefauver investigation in the 1950s and the Knapp Commission hearings in the 1970s. Both investigations brought a new focus to this fight; the Kefauver hearings gave it national prominence, and the Knapp hearings underscored what can happen when corrupt law enforcement officials ignore the criminal element.

Estes Kefauver, a U.S. senator from Tennessee, introduced Senate Resolution 202 in January 1950, which called for a national investigation of organized crime. The rapid growth of crime syndicates in major cities across the United States meant an increase in illegal gambling, drug trafficking, extortion, and prostitution. Many of the syndicate leaders had set up legitimate business fronts to hide their illegal operations. Kefauver believed that the syndicates had grown so strong that local law enforcement was unable to exert any control.

In May 1950 Kefauver and four other senators were named to a Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce. Because the committee's focus was interstate commerce, the hearings were held across the United States—14 cities in 15 months. Suspected and known organized crime leaders in these cities were interrogated by the five senators, which generated local interest. In Detroit, a local television station broadcast part of the hearings in that city. The Kefauver committee voiced disapproval of legalized gambling operations in Nevada and that disapproval was credited in part for helping defeat legalized gambling proposals on the ballot in Arizona, California, Massachusetts, and Montana.

When the Kefauver committee began hearings in New York City on March 12, 1951, a local station provided live broadcast feed to the major networks. The hearings were televised in 20

cities, ultimately generating an audience of 30 million. The Kefauver investigation marked the first time a major Senate hearing had been covered on national television, and it made a strong impression on the public. One of the most dramatic broadcasts was the testimony of syndicate leader Frank Costello. Costello, arguably the most important organized crime figure in the United States, did not want his face shown on television. The broadcasters complied and showed his hands instead. Costello's nervous hand movements were ultimately much more telling to viewers than his facial expressions would have been. While the hearings did not eliminate organized crime, they did weaken its hold; a number of syndicate figures were ultimately prosecuted by state and local authorities, many of whom were convicted and sentenced to prison.

Because many of the organized crime syndicates had ties to local Democratic politicians, many Democrats wanted Kefauver (himself a Democrat) to conduct a less ambitious investigation. Kefauver refused, and many well-known Democrats (including Senate majority leader Scott Lucas) were defeated in their bids for reelection during and even after the hearings had ended. Television made Kefauver a popular and easily recognizable figure, and he ran (albeit unsuccessfully) for president in 1952 and 1956.

Meanwhile, organized crime continued to flourish through the 1950s and into the 1960s. Part of the organized crime establishment in New York was thought to be bribing members of the city's police force, and in April 1970 the New York Times ran an article that alleged police corruption was widespread among the officers. According to the article, members of the force were accepting bribes from gamblers and illegal drug dealers and extorting money from local businesses. Almost immediately, New York mayor John V. Lindsay organized a five-member Commission to Investigate Alleged Police Corruption. Whitman Knapp, a federal judge, came on board to replace a departing member, and he became the group's chairman. It soon became known as the Knapp Commission.

The Knapp Commission took testimony from numerous police officers and civilians and discovered that there was systematic corruption throughout the force. The bribes, kickbacks, and extortion reported in the New York Times was indeed widespread and went through the ranks. Although clearly not all police officers were corrupt, some of those who were not nonetheless knew corruption was going on but chose not to do anything about it. The testimony of Detective Frank Serpico in particular drew considerable attention both inside and outside the police department. Serpico, who had been a member of the police force since 1960, had reported incidences of corruption to his commanding officers on numerous occasions, but no one had acted on them. He told the Knapp Commission that he had even met with key city officials, who also ignored his reports of corruption. It was Serpico and a fellow officer, David Durk, who had provided the Times with the information that led to its April 1970 story.

Serpico, who would later become the subject of a book and a motion picture, was ostracized by the police department because he was considered a "rat." Others believed that his charges were more a means of seeking publicity than exposing police corruption. Nevertheless, it was clear by the time the Knapp Commission made its final report that there were serious problems in the New York Police Department. Knapp blamed not only the police hierarchy but also the administration of Mayor Lindsay. Although Lindsay himself was never blamed for corruption, key officials in his administration who had the power to step in had done nothing.

Police Commissioner Frank Leary stepped down and was replaced by Patrick Murphy, who brought major reforms into the department. He made supervisors and inspectors more accountable for their officers, and he implemented preventive measures to ensure that corruption could be thwarted before it was allowed to take hold. Murphy, who stepped down in 1973, was credited with turning the police department around, improving morale among the officers, and regaining the public's trust in the police.

further readings

Burnham, Frank. 1971. "Serpico Tells of Delay on Police Inquiry." The New York Times. (December 15).

——. 1971. "Knapp Says Mayor Shares Blame for Corrupt Police." The New York Times. (July 2).

——. 1970. "Graft Paid to Police Here Said to Run in Millions." The New York Times. (April 25).

Halberstam, David. 1993. The Fifties. New York: Villard Books.

Moore, William Howard, 1974. The Kefauver Committee and the Politics of Crime. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.


Congress of the United States; Organized Crime; Police Corruption and Misconduct.