Requiem for the Centre Street Mafia

New York — A police commissioner who refers to his Lafcadio Hearn first editions as “my collection of Hearnia" cannot be all bad, as a former deputy commissioner makes clear in this affectionate remembrance of the band of Irish Americans who used to run the show. Mr. Dougherty is now New York bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

by Richard Dougherty

AROUND police headquarters in those days the cops called it “the powerhouse.” Later on it was “the Irish Mafia,” and still later it was, in the words of John V. Lindsay, “the power brokers.” I was a charter member of the thing that Lindsay, bless his Anglican heart, regarded as such a dark and dangerous conspiracy when he first took office as mayor of New York in January, 1966. I had watched it grow from the first days of the Wagner Administration in 1954, and I watched it receive the last rites with the departure of Vincent Broderick and the advent of Howard Leary as police commissioner.

There was nothing very sad about the demise, if demise it was. Can there be a gentler way of doing in an Irish Mafia than to call in an Irishman from Philadelphia as supposed executioner? Of course Leary made Sandy Garelik chief inspector, and Sandy is Jewish, but as Sandy has learned in the three years since, a chief inspector is only as strong as the commissioner wants him to be. Besides, Sandy didn’t do so badly under the years of the Mafia: he got to be an assistant chief, which is the next highest rank to chief in the uniformed force.

There was a change, but you could argue about how radical a change. The Leary-Garelik combo ended the active influence of Frank Adams, the man who started it all, but the Department still bears the strong stamp of Adams and will for a long time to come.

It was in January of 1954 that the fates in their wisdom made me a deputy commissioner in the Police Department of the city of New York. How ironic! My grandfather Anthony Dougherty, a native of Knockmoyleen, County Mayo, who never in his life made more than $1.10 a day as a section hand on the Pittsburgh, Shawmut & Northern Railroad, must have turned in his grave, because he had warned all his sons: “Beware of the Law, for the Law is crooked.”

I thought of the old man’s warning the first day I walked into 240 Centre Street—that gloomy, intimidating pile that has been headquarters for the cops since the turn of the century. And there were other ironies to savor. I was no cop-type Irishman. At thirty-two—young yet seasoned by slight adversities—I had already climbed out of my upstate Irish origins. I was a snob in the way those Irish are who think of themselves as children of the Duke left as foundlings at the doorstep of the simple couple who subsequently raised them. But I was an egalitarian as well—concerned almost as passionately about social injustice, prejudice, and reaction as I was about advancing in the world and having a good time in the process.

So it was with mixed emotions that I reacted to the welcome accorded me when I entered the press and community relations office which was to be my bailiwick. What courtesy, what deference on the part of the small group of cops who made up my staff! “Good morning, Commissioner. Welcome, Commissioner. Would you like some coffee, Commissioner? Thank you, Commissioner.”

I thought for a moment that they were pulling my leg. These were big, tough-looking cops, some of them a good many years my senior. I said right away they should knock off the “Commissioner” business. I said I had no idea what the usages had been prior to my arrival on the scene, but there would be no need for such formalities now. “Thank you, Commissioner,” they chorused.

Awash with a Whitmanesque affection for the human race, myself included, I made my way down a long high-ceilinged corridor to the office of the police commissioner. He was Francis W. H. Adams, another Irishman in spite of his finesounding Brahmin name and—I had already begun to perceive—perhaps an even more exotic presence in these parts than I was myself. Some days before, while interviewing me for the job, he had asked me if I could give him the name of my bank as a reference. My circumstances being what they were, I had said: “You must be out of your mind.”He had laughed a big, booming laugh, and we went on to talk of other things. He was an admirer of Lafcadio Hearn, and he had shown me a bookcase full of first editions. He referred to it as his collection of Hearnia.

He was fifty, a towering man of six-three or so who wore expensively tailored double-breasted suits. His hair was graying and unruly, and a shock of it tended to hang over his forehead. He wore steel-rimmed glasses, which were always slipping down to the end of his nose. He had huge hands and feet. You could tell he had money and that the money was inherited. He was a personal friend of Robert Wagner’s, the new mayor, and you could see them as members of the same club -upper-drawer R.C.’s whose self-made fathers had made sure their sons went to Yale (Wagner) or Williams (Adams) rather than to Notre Dame or Holy Cross or Georgetown. It is hard to realize now, but at that time the Kennedys—the upper-drawer R.C.’s par excellence—were only slightly known outside Boston.

There was a man with Adams when I was ushered into the PC’s office. He was a stocky, handsome, overwhelmingly gray man-gray hair, gray skin, blue-gray eyes, and a gray suit. He had a very reserved, suspecting manner. Adams introduced him as Steve Kennedy. The two of them were discussing a speech which the freshly appointed commissioner intended to use as a kind of inaugural address next day to the assembled brass of the Department. Adams had sent me a copy the night before, and now he asked me what I thought of it.

“Badly overwritten,”I said, realizing too late that Kennedy had drafted it. Adams said crisply: “That can be corrected easily enough.” Gray daggers darted out of Kennedy’s eyes.

The burden of the speech was that the cops had better stop taking payoffs from bookmakers and policy operators, stop shaking down merchants and saloonkeepers—put an end to all playful larcenies, in effect—or the new police commissioner would make it hot for them. At the beginning of the speech was the line: “I have ordered you here ...” I suggested that it might be more diplomatic to say: “I have asked you here . . .”

Kennedy shook his head. “A sign of weakness,” he said. “You’ve got to let them know who’s boss.”

Adams nodded agreement. I decided this was not going to be my day. We went on page by page. At one point I tentatively suggested that a paragraph could come out. Kennedy jumped on me again. “We need that as a bridge,” he said, “from one paragraph to another.”

I said: “What are we doing? Putting together a speech or conducting a writing seminar?” It was my score this time. Adams nodded and pretended to have a coughing fit. We got through the rest of the draft peaceably enough, and Kennedy left, still leading me two to one. When he was gone, the commissioner asked me what I thought of him. “He seems to lack humor,” I said. Adams said: “He’s going to be my chief inspector.”

I’d set that as the time the thing began, the birth, if you will, of the group, the club, the fraternity, the loose-knit confederation—the Irish Mafia, if you insist—which was to perpetuate itself as the dominant power over the country’s biggest police department for a dozen years.

STEPHEN P. KENNEDY was one of those scrupulously honest mavericks that surface from time to time in big-city police departments. Somehow, mainly because his reputation made him ideal for filling commands that had fallen into bad odor, he had risen to the rank of inspector, two notches up from the permanent civil service rank of captain. But even so, he was way down in the hierarchy when Adams named him chief inspector. It was as if a colonel had been moved up to Army Chief of Staff and bypassed scores of generals in the process.

Since sweetness of personality was not a conspicuous characteristic in Steve, and since he was known to regard most of his former superior officers as thieves, this prompted a sizable flurry of retirement papers. With this came the opportunity to advance people who were more to the KennedyAdams liking.

Ultimately, as things worked out, the inner circle of the Adams administration was a mixture of career men and civilians. There was Steve as chief inspector, Tom Neilson as chief of detectives, and Jim Kennedy—no relation to Steve—as first deputy commissioner. These three were veterans who had worked their way up from patrolman. Another career man, but much younger, was Robert Mangum, a Negro whom Adams had raised from lieutenant to deputy commissioner in charge of Youth Activities. The pure civilians, in addition to Adams himself, were Vince Broderick and me.

Broderick, another upper-drawer Irishman, was out of Princeton and Harvard Law. I, thanks to the GI Bill, was out of Columbia College. Jim Kennedy had never finished grade school and took considerable pride in the fact. Steve, studying nights over the years, had put himself through college and law school while working. Neilson, who spoke only when he had to, had had no college anyone knew about. Mangum was a City College graduate who had also gone through law school via night sessions.

As a staff, which was the way Adams used us, it made a highly disharmonious mix when we gathered around Adams’ desk (the same desk Teddy Roosevelt used when he was police commissioner). Steve was given to pontificating on any and all subjects, but he was very smart and made his points well. Broderick was also an effective advocate. He was tall and quiet-mannered and had a round altar boy’s face, but he was a first-rate lawyer and extremely stubborn and opinionated for all his mild exterior.

Jim Kennedy, a lean hatchet-faced man, was a forceful, colorful, ungrammatical talker. The oldest of the lot—well into his sixties, with over forty years “in the job,”as the cops say—he was an honest man who had survived innumerable scandals and shake-ups. His job as first deputy was to keep an eye out for police corruption, and he worked eighteen hours a day at it. He had only eight men in the squad he used for that purpose, because, he said, “Eight is all I can watch.”

Some cynics doubted he could watch all of them. Jim had enormous contempt for his municipal brothers in arms, the firemen. “What do you have to know to stand at the end of a hose?" he said. Once when Adams expressed dismay at a bad murder case in which a man had killed his landlady, her husband, and a couple of children, Jim said: “Many’s the happy home’s been broke up by an idle roomer, Commissioner.”

Bob Mangum, when he first sat in with the group, was shy and quiet. He not only had the problem of being black in the company of such scholars as Jim Kennedy, but he was also fresh out of his lieutenant’s uniform and extremely conscious of rank. But that changed. Tall, good-looking, and the color of light coffee—he always said he wasn’t black enough to get anywhere in politics—Mangum was soon sounding off like the rest of us.

Tom Neilson was the quiet one. He was a profoundly religious man in spite of the wickedness he had seen during a long career and was known to go to Mass and communion every day of the year. There was a certain serenity about him that Adams came to value as much as the plain toughness of his judgment. A powerfully built man, with a big head and well-formed features, Neilson sat and puffed away at his cigar while the rest of us hollered at each other. The way things usually broke down, matters having to do strictly with the force were argued out between the two Kennedys, matters having more to do with public policy were argued out among Broderick, Mangum, and me. The trouble really came when it was impossible to draw a distinction between the two areas.

Then voices and tempers rose all around, until finally, Adams would turn to Neilson and say: “What do you think, Tom?” Neilson would take a draw on his cigar and think a moment and say: “I agree with Steve . . .” Or Vince, or Jim, or Bob. That was usually the end of it. I don’t want to leave the impression that all we did was argue. We laughed a lot too. The humor was the humor of insult, and none of it stays in the memory.

IT DIDN’T take me long to get used to the cops calling me “Commissioner” and bowing and scraping. But it didn’t take long either to become aware of what lay behind these extravagant courtesies, and that wasn’t so pleasant. It was fear—fear among my own staff that if I took a dislike to them, I could hurt them. I could have them transferred out of a nice inside “detail” and back to some precinct for foot patrol. I could ignore them when it came time to make recommendations for promotion. Outside my own office there was tear within the middle-to-upper echelons that I might knock them to Adams and block their advancement to higher rank or some more prestigious duty.

I had never thought of cops as being fearful. I had always thought they went around scaring other people. Nor was this fear entirely centered on cop ambitions. Everything alien scares them. If you have wondered, when a traffic cop has stopped you for speeding, why he approaches you in a way which suggests you may be public enemy number one, it’s because he is afraid that you may very well be.

From police academy training and from lore that is handed down from their elders any policeman can recite tales of unsuspecting cops gunned down by Grant Wood couples in old Buicks, run over by society matrons, stabbed by small Latins, blown to bits by colored men, set upon by beatniks. If you must get stopped by a cop, better make sure you are not (1) young, (2) Negro or Puerto Rican, (3) poor. Experience has shown that all of these are more dangerous than the rest of us. But all of us civilians are potentially dangerous.

Adams, as the new police commissioner, was not a wholly alien creature to cops. As a young lawyer he had spent several years in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Foley Septate. He had prosecuted a lot of cases, and he knew police. Still, he did his best to seem alien. In line with Steve’s “let them know who’s boss,” he set about shocking and scaring the troops. At least initially, Adams seemed to think, it was better to have his 18,000 cops afraid of him than fond of him. Even if cops understand nothing else, they understand power.

Adams went at the task with great zest. He abolished the Department band and ordered its fiftyodd outraged musicians back on the beat. This led to a continuing and merry snap between him and the powerful Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which charged him in the public prints with being a dictator. He sent shooflies (men in plain clothes who spy on patrol in the precincts) out into the field. He yanked hundreds of cops out of soft “details" in various offices around the city government and put them on the streets.

He went on television and violated a hallowed tradition by using honest crime statistics and admitting that the Department at its current strength was inadequate to the task of protecting the citizenry. He snubbed Senator Joseph McCarthy when the departmental Holy Name Society invited the senator, then at the height of his witch-hunting fame, to speak at the annual communion breakfast. He broke a Brooklyn deputy chiel inspector to the rank of captain when the chief began acting like a minor league General MacArthur over enforcement of the gambling laws, the chief’s target being bingo games in the Catholic parish halls. He established a genuine civilian complaint review board to investigate charges of police rudeness and bullying made by ghetto residents. (This same board became an issue in Lindsay’s mayoral campaign, and it was amusing to see the P.B.A., which had opposed it originally, fight for its preservation, and against the one proposed by Lindsay, ten years later.)

Meanwhile, on less controversial fronts, Adams lobbied for higher police salaries, improved education and training, and new facilities. The affiliation of the police academy with the University of the City of New York and the start of what is now the John Jay College of Criminal Justice were products of the Adams regime. Over 2000 cops are now studying for degrees at John Jay. The big modern police academy on Twentieth Street and the new headquarters which is in construction now at the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge were initiated by Adams.

Adams didn’t win them all. One morning he got sore when he saw a newspaper picture of a detective outside Madison Square Garden holding an umbrella over the head of Rocky Marciano. “Since when do ve protide private bodyguards to fighters?" Adams wanted to know. In minutes the detective-one James McShane—was ordered out of the Detective division and a nice assignment on the East Side and packed off to the Bronx and uniform patrol duty.

The press got wind of the story—a man busted for holding an umbrella—and had a field day with it. It turned out that McShane, known as “Shifty” from his days as an amateur boxer, was a personal friend of Marciano’s, who had stopped by at the Garden to see the fighter weigh in. There was the possibility, too, that McShane was on a day off. And beyond this there was the undoubted fact that McShane, a great big Irish charmer, had friends in every saloon, fraternal order, church, synagogue, and newspaper office in town.

Criticism rained down on Adams from all quarters, and he was quick to see he didn’t have a prayer. He started trying to think of a way out. Finally he issued a statement admitting that he had acted hastily and restoring McShane to his rank as a first-grade detective. Adams concluded the statement with an old Norman phrase which translated to the effect that no horse is so well shod that it never slips. The next day the papers made almost as much of the fact that a police commissioner had employed French in a press release as they did about McShane’s return to the detectives. Adams said it all proved that a Romance language major at Williams was the best possible training for the job of police commissioner.

McShane, who later went on to Washington to become Chief United States Marshal and cover himself with considerable glory in the civil rights struggles in the South, was kept on in the Bronx in the meantime. Adams refused to give in on that.

I ran into McShane some weeks afterward and asked him how things were up there. “Great,”he said, “I’m chasing rustlers.”

They told a grisly story in the Department to illustrate McShane’s quickness of win It seems that once he was interrogating a man who had killed a woman and then chopped her up in small bits and flushed her down the toilet. The interrogation went smoothly enough until the poor man began to tell of the trouble he had breaking up the corpse’s head. Suddenly the horror of it overwhelmed him, and he grew hysterical. McShane, alarmed that the fellow might go totally insane and ruin the confession, quickly patted him on the back, and said reassuringly: “It’s all right. It’s the sort of thing could happen to any of us.”People all over New York mourned McShane when he died last winter, even though it had been more than ten years since he moved to the nation’s capital.

JUST outside the Adams inner circle, or in an adjoining inner circle, was Francis J. M. Robb, an inspector and the head of what was then called Central Office Bureaus and Squads, a unit of the Detective division. Robb was an old pal of Tom Neilson’s, who was responsible for having brought Robb up from a district command to the headquarters job. This had not been too easy for Neilson because Steve Kennedy took a dim view of Robb and considered him a kind of dilettante at best. However, Steve finally gave in to Neilson and Robb came up, and soon, to Steve’s patent displeasure, Adams concluded that Robb was the best company in the world—as indeed he was.

In his early fifties, Robb looked more like a prosperous business executive than a cop. He was not a big man, but he was well made, and he had a fine, sharp face and eyes that were full of mischief. He was Scottish rather than Irish and became a convert when he married a Catholic. He was a bit vain about his appearance, being particular that his steel-gray hair should not be too closely cut.

Robb was all cop, but at the same time he was an observer of cops. He regarded them all as rascals, not excluding himself. He took delight in stories like the one he told about a police commissioner of some years back who, delivering the annual warning to the force about soliciting Christmas gifts from merchants, made the mistake of saying: “Now by that I don’t mean if somebody wants to give you a hat you shouldn’t accept it.”As Robb told it: “The next day there wasn’t a hat left in town—and all with fifty-dollar bills under the brim.”

Robb, however checkered his past might have been—and I doubt it was very checkered—was strictly “legit" (that is, honest) by the time I knew him. But he was still not above dining “on the arm,” which is to say for nothing, at any number of New York’s better restaurants. I had an on-thearm evening with him once at a very expensive East Side place, and when we walked out, he said: “That was very below par. That’s the last business those guys get out of me.”

Once at lunch he asked the waiter: “How are the oysters today? I had a dozen here the other night, and only one of them worked.”

None of this comedy went over well with Steve, and for the rest of his time as commissioner, and in the years thereafter, Adams had to plan things so that he never saw the two men together.

There was one other career man who would in time become a key member of the group. He was Michael J. Murphy, a young captain of about forty who was, it happened, admired by and on good terms with both Steve and Robb. Big and beefy, Murphy had reached captain via competitive examination faster than anyone else in the Department’s history. It wasn’t long before Adams promoted him to inspector and put him in command of the police academy.

In terms of dollars and cents . . . private and public expenditures on security services and law enforcement equipment should top the billion-dollar mark this year, up from roughly $930 million in 1967. And by 1972, Equity sees these expenditures climbing to about $1.54 billion.

A major plus for the industry, according to Equity analyst Henry James, is the injection of Federal money into the law enforcement picture, spurred by growing civil disobedience and rising interest in crime control. Mr. James estimates that $75 million in Federal tax funds will be made available to police in fiscal 1969, with appropriations jumping to $300 million by 1973.

Mr. James says the chief beneficiaries of government spending will be companies that provide equipment useful in riot control, notably portable radios, special vehicles and nonlethal weaponry. He notes that suppliers of computer-based command-control-information systems will also see a large market opening up as a result of the Federal spending.

— Dan Dorfman, the Wall Street Journal December 5, 1968

So Murphy was really the last man to enter the temple of the “powerhouse,” or Irish Mafia. And here is how things worked out thereafter.

Adams, having ranted and roared and accomplished more than any other commissioner on record, went back to his law firm after eighteen or twenty months. But before he left, he got Bob Wagner to agree to make Steve Kennedy commissioner, which the mayor did. Steve thereupon made Tom Neilson chief inspector. After Tom retired a couple of years later, Steve named Mike Murphy to the post.

Steve, after five or so years, had a falling out with the mayor about something or other, and resigned, at which point, again on Adams’ recommendation, Wagner appointed Murphy commissioner. Murphy then made Robb chief inspector. The Murphy administration was, like Steve’s, one of five or more years. When Murphy decided he had had enough, he and Adams conferred with Wagner, and this time the man selected was Vince Broderick. Broderick only lasted about six or seven months. He finished up the five-year Murphy term, and John Lindsay moved in to end the whole business by appointing Howard Leary.

That was that for the Centre Street Mafia. And maybe it was a good thing. Maybe it had served its purpose. There was never any doubt about the purpose. It was to make the Department good and strong and as free of corruption as possible. In twelve years of what was, in effect, a reform administration the force was increased, by some 10,000 men, to a quota of nearly 28,000. This is a trend that continues under Lindsay and Leary. It’s worth noting, too, that this more than 50 percent expansion was undertaken while other big cities continued to starve their police services.

Just as important was the emphasis on police training and education and discipline. If Adams scared the cops and kept them in line, Kennedy and Murphy, both tough men, kept them scared. Broderick hardly had time to show what he could do, but he would have been tough too. As to cop thievery, you can’t ever stop it all, but you can keep a lid on it, and that was done. As to political “contracts”—that’s a joke. The only influence on Adams was Adams, and, to the credit of Bob Wagner, the only influence on Kennedy, Murphy, and Broderick was also Adams. Now, since Adams would never handle a contract, and since if he had, neither Kennedy nor Murphy nor Broderick would have honored it for him, the result was a Department free of clubhouse favors and pressures. Not a bad record all in all.

A lot of the Mafia, of course, dropped by the wayside over the years. Bob Mangum moved on and is now chairman of the state Human Rights Commission. I, among other things, wrote a novel about the cops and called it The Commissioner. Everybody assumed it was a roman a clef and that I based my commissioner on either Adams or Steve. In truth, I based the character on myself, realizing it was the only way I’d ever get to enjoy the job. Murphy always said I never would make it because I couldn’t “pass the personal.” This meant because I was divorced and never went to Mass and was therefore unfit. Murphy also had a fine comment on the novel: “It’s a great book for the Fire Department,” he growled.

Jim Kennedy is dead now. So is Tom Neilson, and so is that life-loving man Frank Robb. Broderick is practicing law and making money but still toys with the notion of somehow getting back into public life.

Steve is in retirement and lives out in Bayside, and nobody sees much of him except at funerals. I last saw him at Robb’s, and he looked sad, and I wondered, as I often had, if he had not really liked Robb more than he would admit. Murphy, still too young for retirement, now heads the National Auto Theft Bureau, an investigating agency subsidized by the insurance companies. So he’s still a cop, really.

Adams is unchanged. He is sixty-four. He is thinner. The shock of hair, white now, still falls down over his brow, and his glasses continue to slip down to the end of his nose. But his spirits are gay, and the things he remembers about his reign as head of the Mafia are the funny things. Last fall Broderick, Murphy, and I spent a weekend with him at his place in the Berkshires, and it was a great party. When it came time for us to leave, he came out to the car.

As is his custom, he said, quoting Alcestis, “How can I forlorn of thee live on?” I knew I was expected to finish the couplet and said: “Time healeth, and the dead are dead and gone.”