American police officers’ reputations have taken a public beating over the past few years thanks to a string of notorious incidents, peaking with the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin. Homicide isn’t the only crime that cops commit, however, and Vice TV’s new Betraying the Badge (premiering July 19) shines a spotlight on some of the most infamous instances of individuals abusing their positions of law-enforcement power for their very own unjust benefit.
An eight-part docuseries each episode of which tackles a separate story, Betraying the Badge boasts a timely hook and a straightforward structural approach, using interviews with principal players, archival news clips and photographs, and copious stock footage—not to point out the occasional dramatic-recreation sequence—to recount its tales of police malfeasance. There’s absolutely nothing daring or exciting about the form assumed by Vice TV’s latest, and some of its imagery is all too familiar, be it wads of cash flipping through fingers, shadowy figures congregating in doorways, or flashing patrol car lights illuminating the urban night. Clichéd and corny, the show’s aesthetics aim low, leaving everything feeling a bit superficial and sensationalistic.
Nonetheless, that functional approach doesn’t interfere with the proceedings’ basic objective, which is to highlight shameful sagas of cops breaking bad. Betraying the Badge’s premiere episode certainly does that efficiently, focusing on the late-’90s scandal that engulfed West New York, a small town (spanning only one sq. mile) that sits directly across from Manhattan on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. It’s a quiet and close-knit enclave of 50,000 residents who hail from diverse backgrounds—Cubans, Colombians, Central Americans, and Italians are all a part of its melting-pot stew. While they may have originally come from different parts of the world, though, West New Yorkers are by and large a working-class lot, and as Rich Rivera states early on in his episode, it was the sort of place where everybody knew everyone else.
Rivera became well-known to West New Yorkers in 1998, when the federal government arrested 12 of his fellow police department officers—including police chief Alexander Oriente Sr. and his son, Alex Jr.—and charged them with a variety of serious infractions, including racketeering, taking bribes, and partaking in illegal gambling and prostitution operations. Those indictments rocked the community (and the state), and as Betraying the Badge makes clear, they were partly accomplished because of the efforts of Rivera, who after joining the West New York force in 1994, chose to do something about the corruption that surrounded him by violating the “Blue Code of Silence” (i.e. the unspoken rule that says cops don’t rat out their comrades) and cooperating with the FBI as an undercover informant.
As anyone who’s seen a crime film knows, this is the sort of decision that puts an honest police officer directly in harm’s way, and it didn’t take long for Rivera to find himself knee-deep in possible danger. The feds tasked Rivera with getting to the bottom of West New York’s mob-like mess by posing as an on-the-take cop. That, in turn, entailed interfering with the financial transactions between his badge-wearing compatriots and Jose Grana Sr. and Jose Grana Jr., a Cuban father-son team who had a monopoly on the Joker Poker gambling machines whose electronic bells and whistles could be heard emanating from the backroom of every neighborhood bodega. The fact that these illegal casino machines were allowed to operate freely was a tip-off to Rivera that law enforcement was getting a piece of their action, and his suspicions only increased when he saw detective Carmine Gaeta exit a shady storefront one day, paper bag in hand.
Rivera chose to target the Joker Poker machines as a means of solidifying his (phony) underworld bona fides, and he soon became close with Jose Grana Jr. In an extended interview that forms the backbone of Betraying the Badge’s maiden episode, Rivera says that Grana Jr. came to believe that Rivera could be his potential long-time police department partner in crime. Oriente Sr. cared far less for Rivera, however, since he was screwing with the kickback money the police chief coveted. For a time, Rivera was able to amass a wealth of recordings about the illicit conduct of his colleagues, who were running organized rackets involving betting houses and brothels. And while he would eventually bail on the operation when Oriente Sr. suspended him from the force—and the FBI responded by asking him to go fully undercover with the Cubans, with no apparent safety net—Rivera still wound up being one of the central figures in the 1998 case that earned Oriente Sr. four years behind bars, this after the chief turned state’s witness against the very cops who’d done his dirty work.
“For a time, Rivera was able to amass a wealth of recordings about the illicit conduct of his colleagues, who were running organized rackets involving betting houses and brothels.”
Rivera speaks about his ordeal in over-the-top soundbite-y fashion, so that lines like, “I went from a Boy Scout to a kingpin” and “I lost it all” are recurring features of his commentary. More entertaining is the barely concealed anger and disgust directed at Rivera by Stacy Oriente, the daughter of the disgraced police chief, who does her best to argue that her father was given no choice but to play along with cop corruption at an early point in his career, and then merely perpetuated a system that had existed long before he arrived, and about which he could do very little. That’s a pretty weak defense, as is her suggestion that Rivera wasn’t a Serpico-style informant but, instead, a crooked cop who struck a deal with the feds to save his own hide—a notion that goes nowhere in the series, presumably because it’s untrue.
Later episodes of Betraying the Badge will concern similar stories about bad cops doing terrible things—and, in many cases, paying a deserved price for them—and thus Rivera’s experience is presented as merely emblematic of a larger scourge that plagues the nation’s law enforcement ranks. In an era in which police misconduct is frequent fodder for the nightly news, its portrait of the boys in blue will no doubt find a receptive audience.