Freeze Frame on a Bad Cop

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

Word soon got around the station that Phillips was a "good guy," which really meant the opposite. An older cop he was riding with offered him $5, half the payoff from a bar the cops protected. He stuffed the bill in his shirt. He was now one of them.

From there, the money flowed from all the businesses "on the pad." Construction sites would pay beat cops $5 to $10 a week apiece and more to the precinct because police were in charge of code enforcement back then. Bodegas paid $2 apiece to stay open on Sundays despite the old blue laws. He could expect another $5 or $10 a week from a particular bar. If there was trouble in the place, an arrest report protecting the license by stating that a fight occurred outside instead of inside was worth a couple hundred.

His slide, he now says, was like eating chocolate: You take a bite, put it down, hmm, that was good, just one more bite, "and before you know it you ate the whole fuckin' thing."

photo: Jason Torres

Phillips didn't consider meals on the arm and a few fivers or a bottle of whiskey from a bar owner a big deal. Back then, he says, there was a universal understanding among cops, crooks, and "taxpayers" that a few bucks tossed in the right direction could make problems go away. Burglars carried big rolls just in case they got caught. He estimates that eight out of 10 motorists he ticketed tried to bribe him.

Selling arrests was another thing. Even now, Phillips takes a great deal of pride that he was always an "active cop." That meant in the best and worst ways. "I had this enormous energy," he recalls. "I used to do good police work, and I'd do the other with just as much energy. A lot of people don't understand how you can be a good cop and be on the take at the same time."

Over the years he has repeated a story about his first arrest in the 19th Precinct many times. He told it at the Knapp Commission; he's told it to newspapers and magazine reporters who've interviewed him; he's told it to the parole board. He told it when he was interviewed for this story:

It's a rainy night and Phillips has ducked into a building doorway to stay dry. He looks across the street and sees two men breaking into a plumbing-supply store. Phillips calls for backup, but before it arrives he pulls out his gun and arrests both guys. "A good fuckin' collar," he says. A radio car takes the guys to the station house. But by the time he arrives on foot to do the paperwork, a lieutenant tells him, "The two guys you arrested, we sent them home." The father of one of the suspects is a local hood paying protection money to a colleague, but Phillips doesn't know that at the time and talks to his lieutenant: "I said, 'They were my fuckin' prisoners. How did you send them home?' So the lieutenant goes, 'Here's $10.' They sold my first fuckin' arrest right from under my nose. Can you believe that shit?"

Even nearly 50 years after it happened, the anger, the betrayal, the disillusionment are etched on Phillips's face as he tells this tale. It's easy to imagine that this was his crossroads, the place where the honest cop was turned irrevocably bad. Until Phillips tells the lesson he learned that day: "I said, 'Take that $10 and stick it up your ass. You're not going to see me again. I'll take care of my business on the street from now on.' "

A fairly happy hooker: Hollander
photo: Courtesy Xaviera Hollander
Bill Phillips was eventually transferred to the Central Office Bureaus & Squad— these were the cops, Phillips says, who were supposed to "suppress gambling and prostitution." Just saying that makes him laugh out loud.

What they really did was line their pockets.

After six months of squeezing gamblers like Spanish Ray, the Gimp, the Gout, Johnny Cigar, Joe Cuba, Tampa Charlie, and Crappy, Phillips had the down payment for his house.

Every once in a while, just to make things look legit, they had to make an arrest. So the "KGs" (NYPD lingo for "known gamblers") would designate a fall guy. Then the cops would write up the arrest report in such a way that the charges would never stick—for example, they'd say they found the betting slips on the ground next to the guy. The cops called this an "accommodation arrest" or a "dropsy pinch."

Other detectives—not him, Phillips insists—would take it a step further and plant policy numbers on innocent people or rivals of the gamblers paying them. This was known as "flaking."

In July 1962, Phillips made detective. The gold shield was a license to roam the precinct and steal more. The graft became almost "fun and games." With more than a hint of pride, Phillips says, "You have to have some fuckin' imagination to come up with some of that shit." One of the all-timers, he recalls, was when a lieutenant demanded $1,000 to make a drunk driving arrest go away. When the man could come up with only $200, the lieutenant marched him to a bank and made him take out an $800 loan for the rest.

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