'The Brass Wall' -- cops can't police cops

October 05, 2003|By Del Wilber | Del Wilber,Sun Staff

The Brass Wall: The Betrayal of Undercover Detective #4126, by David Kocieniewski. Henry Holt. 320 pages. $25

Police have historically been miserable at investigating corruption within their own ranks. Cops, many of whom view the world in us-vs.-them terms, stick together. Hence the expression the blue wall of silence.

In The Brass Wall, David Kocieniewski plays on that theme by delving into one corruption case that likely led to the death of an informant and endangered the life of a brave undercover detective.

Drawing on years of experience from covering the New York Police Department for Newsday and The New York Times, Kocieniewski tells a gripping story that illuminates the historic fabric of the nation's largest and most prestigious local law enforcement agency.

Well written and thoroughly researched, the book is part crime drama and part investigative expose, and is sure to appeal to a wide range of readers, not just those who love a good detective yarn.

Comparable to Peter Maas' 1972 book, Serpico, Kocieniewski's work also comes with a good guy: an undercover detective identified in the book only by his badge number and a pseudonym, Vincent Armanti.

On the streets, Armanti impersonates a criminal named Vinnie "Blue Eyes" Penisi, who is trying to infiltrate a lair of gangsters believed responsible for killing a veteran firefighter in a 1992 arson.

But Armanti -- wearing a hidden microphone -- soon runs into a terrifying snag: a drug dealer begins to repeat the exact words the detective had written in his internal progress reports. Armanti knows immediately that someone in the NYPD is leaking information.

Yet every time Armanti comes close to nailing the traitor, internal affairs detectives throw up roadblocks. It becomes apparent that the corrupt officer's father, one of the top internal-affairs bosses, is stymieing the probe.

Some true-crime authors would ruin the story by taking shortcuts in their research or relying on well-worn cliches drawn from movies and hard-boiled detective novels.

In contrast, Kocieniewski clearly conducted hundreds of interviews and spent many hours peeling away the shells of his subjects, some of whom had spent years blurring the true nature of their identities to survive undercover. Kocieniewski knows the lingo of the street and how detectives prepare for an investigation. At one point, he describes how Armanti -- hoping to look more like a hardened felon -- does push-ups and pull-ups to build the muscles that are most likely to be trained by inmates stuck for long hours in their cells.

Such details provide clear windows into the motivations of those enforcing and breaking the law. Kocieniewski's explanations about the NYPD's failed approach to cleansing its ranks provides a case study in how corruption seems to spread among those who are responsible for fighting crime, adding another dimension to the book.

Those looking for a happy ending will be totally satisfied by The Brass Wall. But that is another of Kocieniewski's points: Even when the good guys succeed, bad cops sometimes hide behind their shields.

Del Wilber covers the Baltimore police and fire departments for The Sun. An award-winning writer about law-enforcement issues, he was one of the lead reporters on the paper's coverage of the Washington-area sniper attacks, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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