When Police Officer Robert Ellis took the witness stand to testify in a recent Manhattan robbery case he said he saw a fellow officer from the Ninth Precinct who was in the courtroom run a finger across his throat, threatening retaliation.
The chilling gesture did not surprise Officer Ellis. He had known what he would face by breaking the “code of silence” and telling superiors about the corrupt activities he saw being committed in the precinct. On Friday, Officer Ellis was promoted to the rank of detective, but he is leaving the department due to a congenital heart condition.
All of the cases involved the officers’ theft of $15,000 from two young drug dealers, who they ultimately arrested.
The Ninth Precinct is on the Lower East Side, encompassing the area from 14th Street to Houston Street, and from Broadway to the East River. It is a neighborhood in which Hispanic, black, Jewish and Polish residents live in poverty. It has one of the highest crime rates in the city, and in the last five years four policemen assigned to the precinct have been shot to death while on patrol.
According to Detective Ellis, the lives of “honest cops” were being endangered by the dishonest ones who fostered rancor toward the police by flouting the “street rules” by which the pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and addict live.
“These guys cut it both ways,” he says of the convicted officers. “According to the street rules, if you take their money you don’t lock them up.”
Internal Affairs told him to make the men believe he was interested in joining the corrupt activities. He was outfitted with a tape recorder which he wore beneath his clothing. “There were times when I wished I could have thrown the wire into the river, but I couldn’t do it,” Detective Ellis said. “One night, for example, Manisera probably saved my life by fighting off the guy that attacked me. And this is while I was wearing a tape to collect evidence.”
“The victims here were all poor and uneducated people to who we have a particular responsibility,” said Robert Morgenthau. “We have to be careful to protect all citizens from criminal activity, whether they are criminals themselves or pillars of the community.”
“I don’t want my friends in other commands to think that for eight years they were dealing with a spy,” he said. “I want it simply to be said that I am an honest cop.”