In response to my prior post on Schenectady cops that mentioned a TV show, "The Wire," a correspondent brings up another police drama, "The Shield," which I have never seen, and points me to a 2002 article by Times Union television critic Mark McGuire, which begins:
"When a rogue cop slips an informant some crack in the new FX drama 'The Shield,' you can't help but think of Schenectady.
"'A good man with good intentions went astray,'' said Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg West, describing one of four cops from that city recently convicted on corruption charges.
"That phrase fits the protagonist of `The Shield'' ... , Michael Chiklis' brutally effective Detective Vic Mackey.
"He's a character who may cause you to calibrate your moral barometer. Mackey can rationalize breaking laws for the public good: If dishing out a little rock to a hooker - who would have plied her trade for it anyway - gets a drug dealer off the street, that's a fair trade."
But, McGuire says, it's a slippery slope for the fictional cop, who winds up rationalizing cold-blooded murder.
In real life, cops have been convicted of murder, including a couple who moonlighted as Mafia hit men in New York City. But that's nothing like what the four Schenectady cops McGuire mentioned did. A 2001 New York Times article described two of them thus: "The other two implicated officers are among the most decorated and well regarded in the department: Michael Hamilton, who is charged with tipping off an informer to a police surveillance, and Nicola Messere, who is accused of paying an informer with crack. Both men maintain their innocence."
Messere was convicted of one offense, giving cocaine to an informant, a drug-addicted prostitute. A co-defendant, Officer Michael Siler, testified that Messere did this, and so did the prostitute, who said: "I was sitting on the steps and Nick came up on the sidewalk in the police car. He came out of nowheres, and he would drive up and ask me who got it good. You know, where is the good crack at, and I told him I don't know. I don't know, you know, and he threw me a bump and told me to get off the streets."
For that, he got 27 months in prison. Hamilton got a longer sentence for trying to protect his informant. Unlike Siler, they didn't make a deal and testify against each other or other cops, which meant the system dealt with them more harshly.
In response to my original post, commenter Molly said: "So what's your solution? Make it legal for cops to distribute drugs to informers? You can't turn a complete blind eye, because it opens up the possibility for serious corruption within the department. Say you support cops distributing drugs to informers, because it provides good information and enables the arrest of violent criminals. What if those same police officers start taking the drugs themselves? Or if one or two become corrupt, and start selling the drugs? Such a process would have to be heavily monitored, and thus endorsed by the state."
She's absolutely right. In 2007, another Schenectady cop admitted stealing drugs from the evidence locker for his own use. There surely have been scandals in the department, continuing up to the current one of an officer who keeps getting arrested on various charges.
But the problems are compounded by politicians, prosecutors and pundits who consistently lose all sense of proportion, treating decent officers who cut corners for informants much more harshly than overtly corrupt ones like former Chief Greg Kaczmarek, and failing to give street cops the benefit of the doubt over criminals in chaotic violent situations. When cops and residents alike suspect that justice is not achievable because the powers that be are not interested in it, that's a recipe for continuing trouble in the department and on the streets.