Notes from the Abyss

The musings of geographer, journalist, and author David M. Lawrence

Review: Busted

Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker
Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love
New York: HarperCollins, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-06-208544-3. 256 p. $25.99 (US)

MECHANICSVILLE, Va.—If you’re too busy to read my entire review of Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker’s book, Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love, I can sum up all you need to know in four words:

Buy it.

Read it.

You still here? You must want to know why I write this.

It is not because I’ve known Wendy for [cough] nearly 20 years since our days at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

It is not because I was massively impressed with Barbara when I met her at their appearance at the Newseum in Washington to discuss the book.

It is not because I got a free copy from the publisher or authors—because I did not get a free copy. I bought mine from a bookstore in Richmond, Va.

Instead, I recommend this book because Wendy and Barbara tell a good story about public servants gone bad.

Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love

Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love

Busted is based on Wendy and Barbara’s Philadelphia Daily News series about rogue members of the Philadelphia Police Department’s narcotics squad. They uncovered evidence of officers getting into overly cozy personal relationships with informants; officers filing falsified evidence to obtain search warrants; officers abusing drug paraphernalia laws to create pretexts for raiding—and ultimately looting—bodegas and other small neighborhood shops; and, in what is arguably their most disturbing discovery, an officer dubbed the “boob man” who sexually assaulted women during drug raids.

In the course of their reporting, they made some not insignificant personal sacrifices. They went to some of Philadelphia’s sketchiest neighborhoods. They were threatened—and at least once, assaulted—by sources.

But the worst part was they could not trust the police otherwise paid to protect them. They frequently received harassing phone calls they believed came from colleagues of the officers in the embattled units. Likewise, they often worried they were being followed by some of those colleagues in an effort to intimidate them. At least once, they had creepy encounters with some of those colleagues.

The story is all too real for me. When I was a teenager growing up in Shreveport, La., my father, George Lawrence, was involved in a Shreveport Times investigation into city corruption. In our case, Shreveport’s Commissioner of Public Safety George D’Artois was caught with his hand in the public’s cookie jar, paying for $5,000 worth of political campaign expenses with a check drawn from city funds.

Just in case you’re not sure whether, in these days of Fox confusion, that is bad or good, I can assure you such shenanigans are a definite no-no, both in terms of law and of good governance.

As you might imagine, D’Artois did not take the news well. He used some of his less morally upright officers as muscle to intimidate newspaper staff—even families of newspaper staff. The intimidation was sometimes physical, at other times it came in phone calls at the oddest hours. Unmarked cars followed staff and their family members (including my dad and mom) from home to work and back. Those being followed could never be sure if the followers intended to inflict harm, or were sent by honest cops (of which there were plenty, as there are in Philadelphia) or by a private detective agency to prevent harm.

One dark night in Baton Rouge there was no uncertainty as to the intentions of those in the shadows. Jim Leslie, a former Times’ reporter turned public relations executive—and the man who provided irrefutable evidence of D’Artois’ corruption—was murdered in a hotel parking lot.

The commissioner conveniently (for himself) died of a heart attack before he could be tried for his crimes.

Wendy and Barbara were spooked plenty of times. They did not let the creeps get the best of them. They kept following leads, writing hard-hitting stories, and on April 12, 2010, learned they had won the Pulitzer.

So far, no one has been tried or disciplined for their roles in the crimes detailed in Busted. But investigations are being conducted by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as the Philadelphia Police Department’s internal affairs unit. One can only hope they will bear jurisprudential fruit.

In Busted, Wendy and Barbara clearly have an interesting story to tell. And, in Busted, they tell it well.

The book is no mere repackaging of stories. It is a coherent narrative told from Wendy’s point of view. And it reads like a thriller.

I have a bit of expertise with detective and thriller fiction. In my library, I have complete collections of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe series and Ian Fleming’s James Bond series. I have most, if not all, of the novels of Dashiell Hammett. I have a good collection of Tony Hillerman’s work and James Lee Burke’s work as well as all of the published paperbacks (so far) in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series. I have classics, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue and a complete collection (or two) of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. Furthermore, I have read a lot of what I have.

Given that substantial basis for comparison, I think I can offer informed testimony that Busted holds its own against such stellar fictional competition. It holds its own against nonfiction competition such as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men and The Final Days, Gay Talese’s Honor Thy Father, or James Stewarts’ Den of Thieves and Bloodsport.

Busted is that good a read.

But don’t just take my word for it. Follow my initial advice. “Buy it. Read it.” Find out for yourself.

And maybe, find out why you need people like Wendy and Barbara keeping watch on the watchers. Find out why you might shell out a few dollars a month subscribing to your local newspaper—assuming it still exists.

Trust me, bloggers who don’t get paid can’t afford attorneys to vet hard-hitting reporting that might trigger lawsuits. They aren’t going to fill the void left when the newspapers are extinct.

Neither are the loudmouths who yell at you constantly from 24-hour news channels.

When newspapers are gone, you will be defenseless against rogue government officials. Not even the stack of weapons in your paranoid neighbors’ basements can do the job of a couple of determined journalists freely roaming the streets.

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