Freeze Frame on a Bad Cop

Still stuck in prison for three decades: the once famous, now forgotten, Bill Phillips

Or maybe there's another way. Pending in Manhattan federal court is a constitutional challenge to Governor George Pataki's parole policy, or lack thereof. The lawsuit claims that Pataki has imposed an "un- official policy" that murderers don't get out. In recent years, an average of only eight to 10, under 4 percent, of the 250 or so of the A-1 felons up for parole have gotten out, compared with about 25 percent who were paroled under Mario Cuomo.

Phillips isn't a named plaintiff on the case, but he would be part of the suit's defined class, a dubious lot consisting of hundreds of murderers and a handful of kidnappers and arsonists.

Lawyer Dan Perez, who is appealing Phillips's most recent parole denial on similar grounds as the lawsuit's, isn't expecting a groundswell of public support for efforts that could lead to convicted killers being set free.

photo: Jason Torres

Perez says that in Phillips's case, Judge Harold Birns could have given him consecutive sentences, meaning Phillips, then 44, would have had to serve at least 53 years, a virtual death penalty. But because Phillips was sentenced to 25 years to life, Perez believes that Birns (who died in 1982) intended for Phillips, probably because of his work on Knapp, to one day have a shot at parole.

Perez said he's not asking anything extraordinary from Pataki; Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, whose office has successfully fought Phillips's past attempts to challenge the board's decisions; or the parole board, "just that they follow the law."

Phillips still has to contend with the fact that his work for the Knapp Commission seems not to matter. "OK," said one parole board member in 2001. "Now this was the culmination of some corrupt practices that you were involved in as a police officer, is that right, sir?"

Two years later, after Phillips related his story, another board member gushed, "Wow. That's incredible. That's really incredible."

At another hearing, the dialogue went like this:

A board member asked, "So, when the movie came out, they didn't use you?"

Phillips replied, "There was no movie made about this."


"Not that I knew of."

Another board member interjected, "That was Serpico . . . I don't think it was about this."

Phillips added, "Yes, Serpico was a whole different thing."

At one time, Patrolman William Phillips didn't have to retell his story. It was front-page news for two solid weeks, so compelling in 1971 that when Channel 13 stopped live coverage of his testimony before the Knapp Commission the station received hundreds of calls demanding it be put back on.

Nearly two years before the Water- gate hearings captivated the nation, New Yorkers sat glued to their TVs during the Knapp hearings, especially during the three days that Phillips, a typical hardass Irish cop from Queens, took them behind the NYPD's blue wall of silence. His story had it all: corruption, sex, betrayal, intrigue, and high living—much of the tale recorded undercover.

For the most part, it is now a story for the ages and the aged.

As Phillips breaks a 15-year silence with the media—he got burned on one broadcast and turned his back on subsequent requests—to discuss the case with the Voice over the past few weeks, he starts by saying, "How you gonna write this story? Everyone is fuckin' dead."

Wearing a neatly ironed yellow golf shirt for one interview and a pressed maroon one for another (to go with a stiff- looking pair of prison-issued green Dickies), Phillips, despite all his physical ailments, looks a good 10 years younger than his age. He has a ramrod-straight posture, a flat stomach, and forearms thickened by the several hundred push-ups he does a week.

Phillips became a cop almost as an afterthought. After spending four years as an Air Force mechanic in the Korean War, he took a job at a tool-and-die factory. In his book, On the Pad (written by Leonard Shechter with Phillips's help), Phillips recalls sitting on "the throne" one day reading the newspaper when he saw an ad to become a city cop. The big enticement then, as now, was a pension after 20 years.

On June 28, 1957, Phillips entered the police academy. At 27 he was a man among a bunch of pimply-faced kids, but he insists he was just as naively enthusiastic.

His father and namesake had been a detective before him, one who wasn't above taking a few bucks to turn a blind eye to barrels of beer being delivered to speakeasies during Prohibition or to not arrest gamblers when he was on the Policy Squad. And though the two had a tumultuous relationship—Phillips says his father used him as his "whipping boy"—he hung around Dad enough to know that a cop could make a few quick bucks on the side.

He had no idea how pervasive corruption was on the force, but it didn't take long to find out. After Phillips landed at the 19th Precinct, on the Upper East Side, the seduction that transformed him from gung ho rookie policeman to cop on the take was subtle. For the first six months, none of the veterans as much as talked to him or the other newbies. Then one day, an older cop mentioned that if he was hungry there was a restaurant that took care of cops. His first time there, Phillips tried to pay, but the owner told him to keep his money. "You might say the doors opened up," Phillips later testified at Knapp.

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