Blue on Blue
Chapter 1 THE KIND OF COP I DIDN’T WANT TO BE
Three stories about the kind of cop I didn’t want to be.
Story One. It’s an early-summer evening in 1977, in Brooklyn’s 73rd Precinct, the Seven-Three, and I’m chasing a kid down a cracked and cratered sidewalk lined with stripped cars and boarded-up and burned-out apartment buildings. There’s another Seven-Three cop with me, and we’re both yelling—Police! Stop! Police! Stop!—but of course the kid’s not stopping. He keeps running—and the funny thing is, we’re actually gaining on him.
Ordinarily we wouldn’t have a chance with a kid like this. We’re both wearing full NYPD gear—blue uniforms, hats, belts, guns, extra ammo, radios, nightsticks, handcuffs, flashlights, clunky Knapp shoes—while the kid, a teenager, is wearing a white T-shirt and dark pants and black Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers; he ought to be leaving us in the dust. But the kid’s problem is that over his right shoulder he’s carrying a big black plastic garbage bag filled with swag from a burglary, and it’s holding him back.
Stop! Police! Police! Stop!
We’re almost on him, and now the kid makes a decision. He lets go of the plastic bag and takes off like a shot. Without the bag slowing him down, it’s like he’s turned on the afterburners. No way we’re going to be able to run him down.
And then something dangerous happens—something dangerous to the kid and, as it turns out, dangerous to my future as a cop.
Of course, dangerous occurrences aren’t unusual in the Seven-Three; in this precinct, dangerous occurrences are just another day at the office. The Seven-Three, which covers the Brownsville and Ocean
Hill neighborhoods of Brooklyn, is what’s known as an “A” Precinct or an “A” House, meaning it’s a high-crime precinct—and for cops, it’s a hard-luck precinct as well.
There are a lot of good and dedicated cops in the Seven-Three in 1977, but it’s also fair to say that the vast majority of them wish they were somewhere else—almost anyplace else. A few Seven-Three cops like the action, but most wound up there either through bad luck of the draw, like me, or because they’d gotten jammed up with their bosses in another precinct and had been sent there as a kind of unofficial administrative punishment. A precinct like the Seven-Three has a certain end-of-the-line quality to it. The attitude is: So what if my shoes aren’t shined at roll call? So what if I duck that radio run? What are they going to do, send me to the Seven-Three?
Still, even as they wish they were elsewhere, cops in an “A” House like the Seven-Three often take a perverse pride in working in a high-crime precinct. They look down on cops in lower-crime “B” and “C” precincts as something less than real cops, shirkers almost, and they give their own precincts nicknames that reflect the seemingly besieged and forgotten nature of their existence. The South Bronx has the 41st Precinct, the Four-One, which is called “Fort Apache”—later made famous in the Paul Newman movie Fort Apache, The Bronx—and to the west of us, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, there’s the 77th Precinct, the Seven-Seven, known as “The Alamo.”
At the Seven-Three, we are “Fort Zinderneuf,” or “Fort Z” for short, named after the far-flung and doomed French Foreign Legion outpost in Beau Geste. In the movie, the Legionnaires propped up the bodies of their dead comrades in the parapets to make the hostile tribesmen think the fort was more strongly defended than it really was. And that’s what we are in the Seven-Three: bodies propped in the parapets, trying to hold crime at bay.
And crime—murder, rape, robbery, drug dealing—is the one thing Brownsville has no shortage of. Once a thriving immigrant community, with a commercial section of furniture stores and greengrocers and kosher butcher shops along Pitkin Avenue, over the preceding decades its population has dropped by half—and what’s left is a mile-square portrait of urban catastrophe. Half of the apartment buildings are
abandoned, and half of those are blackened hulks, victims of arson or squatters’ cooking and trash fires; the rest are boarded up in a hopeless attempt to keep out the skells and the junkies. Garbage pickup is haphazard at best, stripped cars sit for months without being towed, most of the fire hydrants don’t work; in 1977 the city is still in a financial crisis, and Brownsville, which is almost exclusively black and Hispanic, is the last place the city is going to spend any money it doesn’t have to. The remaining shops along Pitkin Avenue—drugstores, shoe stores, pizzerias, small grocery stores, most of them white-owned—struggle to hang on, but they hide behind heavy steel grates and shutters, even in the daytime, and at the end of the day, ideally before darkness sets in, the owners close up and scurry away, fearing for their lives.
It’s not that there aren’t good people in Brownsville, and in Ocean Hill, too, another neighborhood in the precinct that’s gone to rot. They’re poor people—in 1977, except for the bigger drug dealers, every single person who lives in Brownsville is poor—and they’re good people. But sometimes even the decent people look at us as if the disaster they’re living in is our fault: You’re the cops. Why can’t you do something? As for the bad guys—the players, the dealers, the cornerboys, the gang members—they look at us with pure, undisguised hatred.
The hatred isn’t always passive. Some years earlier a guy had lunged out of an alley near the corner of Saratoga and Blake and virtually decapitated a Seven-Three police officer with a butcher knife. Gunfire is a nightly occurrence, and you constantly have to watch out for “air mail”—bricks or bottles or chunks of concrete or other debris being thrown from a rooftop or a window onto your head. Seven-Three cops even have a little jingle they sing about it: Bricks and bottles rain down on me / Because I work in the Seven-Three!
Sometimes the missiles thrown at us are less dangerous but more disgusting. Once, earlier on, I’m in a sector car with a Seven-Three veteran when we get an Aided call at an occupied three-story apartment house—“Aided” means someone is having some kind of medical problem. When we roll up to the address I start to get out of the car, but my partner grabs my arm and tells me to hold on a second. He’s looking through the car window at the building, up at the roof, and either experience or some sixth sense tells him something’s wrong.
This is a piss-bag, kid, he tells me, and sure enough, a few seconds later—splat!—a waxed brown paper lunch bag full of piss hits the sidewalk next to the car and bursts apart. Someone had telephoned in a phony Aided call just for the sheer joy of throwing a bagful of human urine at us. And it wouldn’t be the last time, either.
Piss-bags raining from the rooftops. Welcome to Fort Z.
Like I said, in 1977 there are a lot of good cops in the Seven-Three. But if you aren’t careful, if you take the crime and the misery and the hatred and the piss-bags personally, there’s a good chance you might start thinking about throwing the piss-bags back.
Which maybe explains what almost happens to the kid with the black plastic garbage bag.
I’m not a complete rookie, I’ve got a few years on the job, but I’m new in the Seven-Three, so I don’t have a “seat,” a permanent assignment; I show up at roll call and I go where they tell me. On this particular early-summer evening I’m assigned to a foot post on Pitkin Avenue between Rockaway and Stone, and the adjoining streets—about six blocks in all. It’s been a quiet tour so far, and when I get to the boundary of my post I see another Seven-Three cop who’s working the adjoining post.
I don’t really know this guy—we’ll call him Officer Romeo—but he’s got a few more years on the job than I do, and he’s been in the Seven-Three longer. I’ve heard some vague talk that he’s got an attitude, and that some cops don’t like to work with him. But it’s just that, vague talk. So I walk across the street to his post to shoot the breeze for a minute.
Hey, what’s goin’ on?
Nothin’ much. You?
Then, while we’re talking, a citizen leans out of a second-story window in the building next to us and calls out: Officer! Officer! They’re robbing the beauty parlor around the corner!
So Romeo and I take off running, and as we round the corner we see the kid clambering out of a first-story window with that big plastic bag. We see him, he sees us, and the chase is on.
There are a couple of things I notice at this point. One is that while the guy in the second-story window had said it was a robbery, which is the taking of property from a person by force or intimidation, it
actually looks more like a burglary, which is criminal trespass with intent to commit a crime, in this case larceny. There’s a “Closed” sign on the beauty parlor door, and the kid with the bag came out a window, so there’s probably nobody inside the beauty parlor, which means it’s not a robbery. Burglary and robbery are both felonies, but in practice burglary is a less serious crime.
And the other thing I notice is that after the kid drops the black plastic bag and starts to pull away from us, Officer Romeo draws his gun, stops running, and takes a combat stance with his .38 revolver pointed at the running kid’s back. He’s taking careful aim.
And I’m thinking: He’s going to shoot this kid.
No way. I stop, too, and I reach out and push Romeo’s gun toward the ground, yelling, Don’t shoot! DON’T SHOOT! And Romeo gives me a look that’s first surprise, and then pure rage.
What the fuck are you doing? he yells at me.
What are you doing? I yell back. We can’t shoot! He’s just a kid!
Fuck you! He’s getting away!
In the old days it might have been different. Back then, under the law, a cop could in some circumstances legally shoot a suspect who was fleeing the scene of a dangerous or violent crime such as an armed robbery. But in the early 1970s both state law and NYPD policy began changing. Now the Department allows cops to shoot only if the suspect poses an imminent threat of death or serious injury to the cop or someone else. The short form is that in most cases you can’t shoot a perp who’s running away.
Still, there are gray areas—there always are. If Romeo shoots that kid, maybe he can claim that he thought the kid had reached for a weapon in his waistband. If he tells a good enough story, maybe the shooting will fly, especially if his partner, meaning me, backs him up.
Fortunately for the kid, and for Romeo, and for me, it doesn’t happen that way. As Romeo and I are arguing, out of the corner of my eye I see the kid duck into an abandoned apartment building a half block down the street. Argument temporarily forgotten, Romeo and I run down the street and into the building.
Like the hundreds of other abandoned buildings in Brownsville, this one is a mess. The mongo men, the scrap metal scavengers, have already
been through it, stripping out everything they can get a few cents on the pound for—plumbing, electrical wires, kitchen sinks, doorknobs and hinges, radiators. The skells and the junkies have camped out in it, throwing their garbage in the corners, sleeping or shooting up in one room and taking their dumps and pisses on the floor in another room—assuming they had the initiative to go to another room. The smell in the building is beyond belief—so bad, in fact, that even the junkies and bums have abandoned it.
With our flashlights out—guns out, too, just in case—Romeo and I start a room-to-room, looking for the kid. In a second-story apartment, in a trash pile with a hinge-less door dragged on top of it, I see a black Chuck Taylor Converse sneaker poking out—and the foot inside it is shaking.
All right, buddy, I call out, we got you. Come out of there, and let us see your hands.
So the kid crawls out, covered in trash, hands up and still shaking. Later I find out he’s sixteen. He’s probably expecting some street justice for having run from us—not a savage beating, but at least a few thumps. And maybe under other circumstances, with another cop, his expectations might be justified. Remember, this is 1977. And this is the Seven-Three.
Please don’t hurt me, the kid says.
I don’t feel sorry for this kid. He’s old enough to know better, and chances are this isn’t the first crime he’s committed, and it won’t be the last. But I don’t take his running away from us personally.
We aren’t going to hurt you, I tell him. But you’re under arrest.
So we search the kid—no weapons—and then cuff him and start marching him back to the precinct. On the way we grab the black plastic bag, and inside it there’s a bunch of old hair dryers and brushes and scissors and half-empty bottles of shampoo—junk. The whole score probably isn’t worth ten bucks.
At the precinct, Romeo takes the arrest—it was his post, so it’s his collar—and starts processing the kid into the juvenile justice system. I go back to walking my post.
And that should have been the end of it. Except that over the next couple days I notice that some of the other cops in Fort Z are looking
at me sideways. Like I said, I’m pretty new in the precinct, and they’re looking at me like they’re wondering what kind of cop I am.
It turns out that after we brought the kid to the precinct, after I had gone back on post, Romeo started bad-mouthing me to other cops. I didn’t back him up, he said. I was weak, he said. I was a pussy, he said, a coward.
Calling a cop a coward is the second-worst accusation you can make against him, especially in a precinct like Fort Z. If other cops think you don’t have the guts to fight when fighting is necessary, or that you won’t back up a partner, they won’t want to work with you, or even talk to you. You’ll be shunned, ostracized. The only way you could be more shunned and ostracized is if the other cops think you’re a cheese-eating rat, an informer, a guy who squeals on other cops.
But what am I going to do? I can’t go around saying: Hey, I’m no coward! That in itself would seem pathetic and weak. All I can do is keep my mouth shut and do my job.
The next day the Seven-Three delegate to the PBA—Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the cop union—catches me in the locker room. He’s a veteran, been there forever. He’s heard the talk. So he asks me: Hey, kid, what really happened out there?
Talking to your PBA rep is a little like talking to a priest. He isn’t going to tell the bosses what you say; you aren’t ratting anybody out. So I tell him the whole story, and when I’m done he pats me on the knee and says: Well, kid, you probably saved yourself a trip to the grand jury—meaning that if Officer Romeo had shot that kid in the back, I probably would have been called before a criminal grand jury to testify.
I don’t tell the PBA rep this, but if that had happened, I know what I would have done. I would have told the truth—that the kid was running away, that I hadn’t seen a weapon, that in my opinion there was no reason to shoot. Even if it ruins my career as a working cop, even if in other cops’ eyes it makes me a cheese-eating rat, I’ll tell the truth.
After that I don’t hear any more about it. The PBA rep doesn’t really know me, but I guess he knows Officer Romeo, and he must have passed the word that I’m okay. I don’t get any more sideways looks.
As it turns out, I don’t stay in the Seven-Three that much longer—and neither does Romeo, although for different reasons. A few years
later I hear that he’d gotten jammed up for shooting and wounding a family member during a domestic dispute and was kicked out of the Department.
Of course, in the context of the Seven-Three, this incident with the running kid was no big deal. Romeo hadn’t actually done anything illegal, nobody got shot, we made the arrest.
But it made me realize something about myself. I knew that no matter how many piss-bags rained down from rooftops, no matter how much crime and violence and hatred I saw, I wasn’t going to let the job turn me into the kind of cop who would shoot a running teenager in the back over a two-bit burglary. And if I saw another cop do something like that, no matter what the consequences, I wasn’t going to cover it up.
That wasn’t the kind of cop I wanted to be.
* * *
Story Two. It’s the spring of 1974 and I’m fresh out of the Academy, assigned to Manhattan Traffic Area, which covers Manhattan south of Ninety-Sixth Street from the East River to the Hudson. I’m standing in a coffee shop on Second Avenue, arguing with the owner about whether I have to pay for a cup of coffee.
It’s not what you think. I’m arguing that I should pay. And the coffee shop owner is arguing just as strongly that I shouldn’t.
This little drama had started just a few minutes earlier. It’s a rainy day, so my partner and I are in an RMP—Radio Mobile Patrol, a marked patrol car—in uniform, riding around and responding to radio calls. At one point, my partner, Ed, a classmate from the Academy, and I decide to get a cup of coffee.
Well, it’s coffee for Ed. For me it’s hot tea, milk no sugar. Yeah, I know. Cops are supposed to drink coffee, the blacker and more viscous the better; if your spoon won’t stand up straight in it, it’s not really coffee. But I like tea.
Anyway, we pull the car in front of a coffee shop on Second Avenue. It’s my turn to buy, so Ed, who’s driving, stays in the car while I go in.
It’s a small place, half a dozen stools at the counter, a few booths along the wall; there are maybe ten customers in there. I walk up to the counter and give the counterman/owner my order—large coffee, black,
extra sugar, large tea, milk no sugar, to go, please—and he turns around and walks over to the coffee machine. A minute later he comes back with two steaming Styrofoam cups.
This is 1974, remember, so a cup of coffee costs a dime, and the same for tea. I don’t have any coins, so while the counterman is getting the coffee I fish a dollar bill out of my wallet. But when I try to hand him the dollar, he puts his hands in the air and steps back like the dollar bill is radioactive.
Oh, no, Officer, he says. For you, no charge. Free.
Thanks, I tell him, but I’ll pay. Just give me the change.
No, no, no, he says. Free. No charge.
Thanks, but no, really, I want to pay.
Hey, like I said, no charge.
I know this coffee shop owner isn’t trying to bribe me with the free coffee. He’s not trying to give me free coffee because he’s afraid if he doesn’t I’ll start hanging summonses on every car that’s parked in front of his shop. He wants to give me the free coffee because he likes having uniformed cops in his shop. It’s like an insurance policy against crime. Even the most brain-dead mope isn’t going to try to rob a place that has cop cars parked out front and a steady stream of guys in blue going in and out. And for most cops, free coffee or a discount on a meal is just part of the job; they don’t give it a second thought.
But I still want to pay. So we keep going back and forth like this, until the counterman, a short Greek guy, starts getting a little hot about it, like it’s a point of honor or something. He’s waving his arms and saying in a loud voice: Officer, for you, free! Finally he walks over to the far end of the counter and won’t even look at me.
Now, as a cop, you’re always watching people, but when you’re in uniform you know that people are also watching you. As I’m standing there at the counter with that unwanted dollar bill in my hand, I can feel the eyes on my back, and I can imagine what the other customers are thinking.
Half of them are probably thinking: Whaddaya, nuts? Take the free coffee already. And the other half are probably thinking: A cop who won’t take a free cup’a coffee? Gimme a break. What kind of scam is this cop running?
It’s getting embarrassing. So finally I hold the dollar conspicuously up in the air and say, in what is probably a too-loud voice: I’m leaving the dollar on the counter! I slap the dollar on the counter, grab the coffee and the tea, and get out of there before the counterman can chase me down. I jump in the patrol car and we take off. And when I tell Ed what happened, about leaving the dollar on the counter, he starts laughing.
Of course, the story gets around. The veterans, the old-timers, start saying things like, Hey, kid! Are you the one who paid a dollar for a ten-cent cup’a coffee? And then they laugh like crazy. Naturally I don’t tell them that it wasn’t just a cup of coffee, that I got a cup of tea as well. That would have only made them laugh harder.
And they probably would have laughed harder still if they’d known that the incident at the coffee shop on Second Avenue—which I never went back to—wasn’t the only time I’d had trouble paying for hot tea or a sandwich while I was in uniform. It happened all the time—although in most cases, when I insisted on paying, the owner or cashier would eventually shrug and say: Okay, if that’s the way you want it.
The fact is that in my entire career as a cop, I never took a meal or a cup of coffee—or tea—on the arm. Never.
Maybe you’re wondering why.
It’s not just because the Patrol Guide, the NYPD cop’s bible, prohibits accepting gratuities of any kind, free coffee and sandwiches included, and I’m afraid I’ll get caught. The Patrol Guide prohibits a lot of things, from wearing white socks with your uniform to using a blue-ink pen instead of a black-ink pen to write a parking ticket. The Patrol Guide is about four inches thick, and even the most conscientious, by-the-book cop in the Department probably can’t get through a shift without violating some obscure section of it. Besides, who’s going to turn you in? The restaurant owner who, without being asked, gives you the free coffee or the discounted meal in the first place? Or your partner? C’mon.
And I don’t refuse to accept free meals because I really believe all those cautionary tales they told us in the Academy, about how taking even a single cup of coffee on the arm would inevitably put you on a slippery slope that will end up with you stealing wallets from DOAs (dead people) or ripping off drug dealers. I never thought a good cop turned into a bad cop because of a ten-cent cup of coffee.
And it’s not because I’m some kind of naturally saintly guy. I never lack for things to talk to the priest about when I go to confession.
No, the reason I turn down the free coffee is because I figured out early on that, except for the occasional argument with a cashier, it just makes the job easier. If I take a free sandwich, it makes it harder to say no if the coffee shop owner wants me to give him a break on double-parked delivery trucks, or if he wants me to drop what I’m doing and scatter some teenagers who are loitering in front of his shop. I might bounce the teenagers or give a break on the delivery truck anyway, but it won’t be because I think I owe the guy something. I’ll do it because it’s good police work—nothing more, nothing less.
And when you do your job that way, the word gets around. Oh yeah, you’re the one who paid a dollar for a cup’a coffee. You develop a reputation among other cops as a straight shooter, a guy who follows the rules and puts in an honest shift—a straight eight. As long as they don’t suspect you of being a rat, other cops, even the less than honest ones, don’t hold being an honest cop against you. They figure, hey, that’s just the way he is.
The point is that despite what some people may believe, in the NYPD being an honest cop doesn’t hurt you with other cops. In fact, a reputation for being a straight shooter protects you.
Which is why I can also say that during my entire time as an NYPD police officer, with the exception of a cop taking an occasional free cup of coffee or a discounted meal, I never once personally witnessed an NYPD cop engaging in an act of financial corruption.
That may not sound believable. After all, I came on the job just after the Commission to Investigate Alleged Police Corruption—better known as the Knapp Commission—had held hearings and released its final report. After hearing testimony from honest cops like Frank Serpico, later portrayed by Al Pacino in the popular film, and from dishonest cops who’d gotten caught, among others, the commission concluded that corruption was “an extensive, Department-wide phenomenon,” ranging from cops shaking down tow-truck drivers and prostitutes to cops selling drugs. According to the commission, corruption in the NYPD was rampant and systemic.
So how can I not see it? Am I blind? Or just stupid?
I’m neither. What you have to understand is that especially after
Knapp, when the anticorruption heat was on, no bad cop with half a brain is going to rifle a cash register after a burglary call or roll a well-dressed drunk at a bus stop in front of you unless he’s absolutely certain you’re a corrupt cop, too. If you have a reputation as an honest cop, he would no more steal money in front of you than he would steal money in front of the police commissioner himself.
And your reputation will follow you. Even in a Department with thirty or forty thousand cops (the number varies) there’s always somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who knows you. Calls will be made and the word will get around—and if you’re an honest cop, the bad cops will leave you alone.
So yeah, I was the cop who paid a dollar for a ten-cent cup of coffee—and a tea. If I hadn’t paid, if I had accepted that free cup of coffee, it wouldn’t have been any big earthshaking deal.
But that wasn’t the kind of cop I wanted to be.
* * *
Story Three. It’s 1978, a couple weeks before Christmas, and after a twenty-month layoff caused by the city’s 1975 financial crisis—more on that later—and another stint at the Seven-Three, I’m back in Manhattan Traffic Area, assigned to the Scooter Task Force. On the Task Force we ride around in two-wheel Lambrettas or three-wheel Cushmans, mostly handling traffic and security and crowd control for special events—demonstrations, parades, VIP visits, and so on—but also taking other radio jobs as well. It’s a good assignment for me. The hours are regular, and since I’ve just gotten married, and have been studying for the sergeant’s test, that’s important.
True, it’s not as exciting as being in the Seven-Three. Positive side? In 1978 Manhattan South still has its share of crime, but you generally don’t have piss-bags raining down on you from the rooftops.
On this particular day there’s a demonstration scheduled at City Hall by tow-truck drivers, who are mad about something—in New York, somebody’s always demonstrating about something—so I’m at the corner of Church and Dey Streets, on Scooter No. 3830, getting ready to divert traffic away from the demonstration area. Then at exactly 9:10 a.m.—the timing is important here—a cab pulls up next to me.
Hey, Officer, the cabbie says, a fare left her briefcase in the backseat. She was gone before I saw it. What should I do?
The Patrol Guide has the answer. It has the answer to almost every conceivable circumstance, including “found property” in the back of a yellow cab. I radio my patrol sergeant that I’ve got some found property and then I take the briefcase out of the backseat—it’s nothing fancy, just a plain hard-leather briefcase—and put it on the trunk of the cab. I take out my memo book and start writing down the t/p/o—time, place, occurrence—and the cabbie’s pedigree: name, address, phone number, medallion number, and so on. The briefcase isn’t locked, so we open it together and look inside. There’s not much, just a single credit card and some business papers that have a woman’s name, address, and phone number on them. I inventory it all in my memo book, and I give the cabbie a receipt with my name and badge number. While I’m doing this the sergeant shows up, and I tell him what happened and he “scratches”—signs—my memo book with his name and the date and time: 12/13/78, 9:20 a.m.
The cabbie leaves, and I’ve still got the briefcase. I don’t want to carry it around with me in the scooter, so I ask the sergeant if I can take it over to the First Precinct house and voucher it. He’s says okay, but be back by ten a.m.
No problem. I drive over to the precinct, and the DO—the desk officer, a lieutenant—enters my name and the date and time in the Interrupted Patrol Log, which records why I’m off my post. The lieutenant checks the briefcase contents and hands me the voucher, which I put in my memo book. I go over to a typewriter and start pecking out the found property report, in carbon-paper quadruplicate. Then I call the phone number on the business papers and reach the woman who lost the briefcase. I tell her where she can pick up her briefcase, and what was in it when I opened it, and she agrees that there were just some papers and the one credit card. She’s grateful—the papers aren’t valuable, but they are important—and she keeps thanking me. No problem, ma’am, all part of the job. I hang up, log out at the desk, and I’m back on my post at 9:50.
And then I don’t give the incident even a second thought until just after Christmas, when I’m at roll call and the sergeant hands me a
letter ordering me to report to the Manhattan South Field Internal Affairs Unit the following week, and to bring my memo book for December 13.
Internal Affairs. The cops who go after other cops.
Before the Knapp Commission, most police corruption and misconduct allegations were handled—or, some would charge, not handled—by precinct or borough commanders. After Knapp, the Department created the Internal Affairs Division, with a central office on Poplar Street in Brooklyn, and Field Internal Affairs Units stationed in every borough command. In the late 1970s there are about a hundred cops assigned full-time to Internal Affairs and another two hundred to the borough FIAUs.
And with the possible exception of their mothers and their wives, everybody hates them.
Sure, most cops acknowledge the need for some kind of internal anticorruption effort. As Knapp made clear, the old system obviously hadn’t worked. But that doesn’t mean that you have to actually like the IAD guys—and even the most honest and by-the-book cops don’t.
The IAD guys have a terrible reputation among the cop rank and file. As far as most cops are concerned, other cops go into IAD for only three reasons: one, they’re cowards or shirkers who are too afraid or too lazy to work on the street; two, they’re rats who got jammed up by their own corruption or misconduct and agreed to work for IAD and rat out other cops to save their own skins; or three, they’re zealots who simply get a sick and twisted pleasure out of persecuting cops.
It might not have been so bad if IAD also had a reputation for rooting out serious corruption and misconduct. But it doesn’t. In the rank-and-file view, IAD seems more interested in busting cops for administrative violations—not wearing their hats when they get out of a patrol car, calling in sick so they can go to their daughter’s dance recital, that sort of thing—than in spending the time and effort to go after really bad cops.
Of course, the stereotype of IAD guys isn’t accurate in every individual case. Some cops went into IAD so they could get the necessary investigative experience to qualify for a detective’s gold shield, and IAD was one of the few avenues open to them. Some guys went into IAD because they honestly wanted to help rid the Department of bad cops.
Still, the stereotype is accurate often enough that it is the stereotype.
The regular cops are us, and IAD is them. They’re the “rat squad,” and nobody wants anything to do with them.
But even as cops despise the IAD guys, they also fear them. Cops figure that even if they’re innocent, the IAD guys can always find something. So a summons from Internal Affairs isn’t something to be taken lightly. For a good cop it’s a source of concern; for a cop with problems, it’s a source of mortal dread.
They never tell you what you’re being called in for, what the allegation is. But the date of the memo book pages they order you to bring can give you a hint. So I go back and look at my memo book for December 13. There weren’t any really unusual incidents, no arguments with a citizen that could have generated a complaint, no use of force, no complicated reports that I might have screwed up.
The only thing that stands out on that day is that briefcase in the back of the taxi.
I know I’d done everything by the book, and then some. But who knows? Maybe the woman changed her mind and decided that there had been some cash in the briefcase that was missing. Maybe the cabbie had used the credit card to make a quick purchase before he turned it in to me, and when the woman got the card statement she filed a complaint. It doesn’t seem likely, but it’s possible.
Still, I have everything documented, so I’m not worried—or at least not too worried. Per SOP (standard operating procedure), I call my PBA rep and tell him I’ve been summoned, and he says he’ll meet me there.
So the next week at the appointed time I show up at the Manhattan South FIAU offices, which are on an upstairs floor at the 17th Precinct. I meet my PBA rep outside, and I ask him what’s going on, why have I been called in? He shrugs and says, I dunno, something about a Christmas tree.
Huh? What? A Christmas tree?
Now I’m really confused.
Two Internal Affairs guys in suits and ties are waiting for us. One of them is a regular police officer, a young guy who’s the case officer, the other an older IAD sergeant. They aren’t smiling, and they don’t shake our hands. They usher us into a small, windowless, bare-walled room with a plain wood table and some chairs. It’s exactly the sort of room
in which squad detectives interview suspects—except in this room the suspects are cops. In police jargon it’s called a “GO” room—“gee-oh”—an outdated but still used reference to General Order 15, the old NYPD regulation concerning administrative disciplinary hearings.
On the table there’s one of those old reel-to-reel tape recorders, and when the PBA rep and I sit down the IAD guys turn on the tape, identify themselves, state the date and time, and then tell me to state my name and shield number. Then they inform me that this is an official administrative hearing under PG Section 118-19, and they read me what’s known as my Garrity rights.
“Garrity” was a 1960s Supreme Court case that grew out of a police ticket-fixing investigation in New Jersey. Basically it held that a public employee can be ordered to give a statement in an administrative disciplinary hearing and can be fired if he refuses to answer or lies. But it also held that since it’s a compelled statement, made under threat of termination, under the Fifth Amendment anything the employee says cannot be used against him in a criminal proceeding.
Do you understand your rights, Officer Campisi? the IAD guy asks me. Are you satisfied with your representation? Are you ready to answer questions?
I tell them I am.
Officer Campisi, he says, were you on duty with the Manhattan Traffic Area Scooter Task Force on December 13 at approximately 9:30 a.m.?
What was your scooter number?
Officer Campisi, the IAD guy says, were you aware of a Christmas tree lot situated at the corner of Greenwich and Seventh Avenue?
Well, I know the intersection, I say. But I didn’t know there was a Christmas tree lot there.
And then comes the money ball.
Officer Campisi, the IAD guy says, at approximately 9:30 a.m. on December 13, 1978, did you drive your NYPD scooter number three-eight-three-oh onto the Christmas tree lot at Greenwich and Seventh and intentionally remove from the premises without paying for it one approximately six-foot-tall noble fir Christmas tree?
The question is so unexpected, so out of left field, that it takes me a moment to answer.
Later I get the story. It seems that a citizen had filed a complaint alleging that an NYPD cop on a Department scooter had driven onto the lot, hoisted a Christmas tree onto the back of his scooter, and taken off. The only description he had was that the suspect was wearing a blue NYPD uniform and that the number on the scooter started with three-eight; the last two digits had been obscured by the branches of the Christmas tree. So Internal Affairs is calling in every scooter cop with a three-eight scooter series number who had been in the area—about a dozen of us—under suspicion of having stolen the Christmas tree.
Well, if it had happened the way the complainant said it did—maybe it did, maybe it didn’t—it was a pretty stupid thing for a cop to do. Maybe the cop thought it was just a prank, something to show the boys back at the precinct—Hey, look, I got us a Christmas tree for the lounge! But what it was was petit larceny, and if that same cop had seen someone else do it he would have collared him for theft. It was the sort of thing that made cops look bad, so if it happened, I halfway hoped that IAD would catch the guy.
But I want these IAD guys to understand that it wasn’t me.
I wasn’t anywhere near Greenwich and Seventh, I tell them. And I certainly didn’t steal a Christmas tree.
Can you prove that, Officer Campisi? they say.
Yes, in fact, I can. So I show them my memo book, with the notes on the found briefcase and the patrol sergeant’s scratch by the time and date. I tell them about the DO’s time and date entry in the precinct’s Interrupted Patrol Log, and about the call to the briefcase owner, and the sergeant seeing me back on post. It’s all there in my memo book. Unless I’m in two places at once, there’s no way I could have been stealing a Christmas tree at the corner of Greenwich and Seventh at 9:30 a.m.
But while I’m telling them all this, I notice that the two IAD guys are exchanging looks. They’re almost yawning. They’re bored! It’s pretty obvious to them by now that they aren’t going to crack the Great Christmas Tree Caper of 1978 with me. They’re done with me.
That’s fine, Officer Campisi, the young IAD guy says. You can go
now. We’ll let you know—but we’re pretty sure this will come back unsubstantiated.
There are several ways an Internal Affairs investigation against a cop can come out: “Substantiated” means the cop did it; “unsubstantiated” or “unsub” means the cop may or may not have done it but there’s insufficient proof either way; and “unfounded” means the cop is innocent.
Maybe the young IAD guy thinks he’s doing me a favor by telling me it would be unsubbed, so I wouldn’t worry about it. But I don’t see it that way. An “unsub” is like being found not guilty in a criminal trial; you might actually be guilty as hell, but they just couldn’t prove it. An “unsub” stays on your permanent record, and it carries a taint. An “unfounded” doesn’t stay on your record; it’s like the allegation against you had never been made.
Well, I’m not going to have an unsub on a theft allegation hanging around my neck for the rest of my career. Hey, I’m the guy who paid a dollar for a cup of coffee! And I’m especially not going to take an unsub when all it would take is a phone call or two for the IAD guys to determine that it was a solid unfounded. And I tell them so.
No way, I say. I don’t want an unsub. This is an unfounded. Call the patrol sergeant. Check with the precinct DO. Call the lady with the briefcase. Call the cabbie. The phone numbers are all right here.
Then the young IAD guy gives me another bored look and says: We really don’t have time for that, Officer. We’re very busy around here.
I’m of Sicilian heritage; all four of my grandparents were born in Sicily. And while I don’t want to shock anybody, people of Sicilian extraction are occasionally capable of displays of temper.
So when this IAD guy tells me they’re just too busy to make a couple of lousy phone calls to protect the record and reputation of another cop, I go Sicilian on them.
You’re too busy? I say, standing up from my chair. You’re going to give me an unsub because you’re too busy to do your jobs?
Now see here, Officer, the IAD sergeant says. You can’t talk to us like that.
I don’t care who you are! I say, waving my arms in the air—the Sicilian thing again. Make the calls! Do your jobs! If you unsub me on this I’ll sue you! I’ll see you in court!
And so on.
At this point, the PBA rep is tugging on my arm, saying: C’mon, kid, we’re outta here. He’s gone pale. A PO doesn’t talk to a sergeant like that. And no sane cop gets up in IAD’s grill.
The IAD guys, meanwhile, look shocked, even a little afraid. It’s as if they’ve got an EDP (emotionally disturbed person) in an NYPD uniform on their hands. But I don’t care. It’s a matter of principle.
Finally the PBA rep drags me out of there. A few weeks later I get another written notice from Internal Affairs about the theft investigation of me.
It’s marked “Unfounded.”
I don’t know if the IAD guys actually made any calls, or if they just marked it unfounded because they were afraid I’d go crazy on them again. I guessed it was the latter. And as far as I know, they never cracked the Great Christmas Tree Caper of 1978.
But even months later, it still rankled. It was bad enough that the Internal Affairs guys went after other cops. But what was almost incomprehensible to me was that when they’d had a chance to prove another cop innocent, those IAD guys hadn’t wanted to lift a finger.
One thing the experience taught me: No matter what happened, I would never work for Internal Affairs. Never.
That just wasn’t the kind of cop I wanted to be.
* * *
In March 2014 I retired from the New York Police Department after almost forty-one years on the job—the last seventeen of them as chief of the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau. In fact, I was the longest-serving Internal Affairs chief in NYPD history.
A lot had happened during those forty-one years. By the time I left the NYPD it was a far different police force than the one I’d known when I was walking a foot post in the Seven-Three. And Internal Affairs was a far different unit than it had been when I got into the beef with those IAD guys in the 17th Precinct. During those four decades, both Internal Affairs and the NYPD had been fundamentally transformed.
And I strongly believe that the transformation in Internal Affairs was a major contributing factor to the transformation of the NYPD.
From the time I joined Internal Affairs in 1993 as an inspector in charge of the Corruption Prevention and Analysis Unit—I was named chief of the Internal Affairs Bureau three years later—I and the men and women in my chain of command did everything we could to fundamentally change the way we policed the police. We fought for and got new authority, new methods, new equipment and resources, new people, with new attitudes. We transformed Internal Affairs from a demoralized, ineffective, and widely unrespected unit of the NYPD into a modern, efficient, successful anticorruption force, one that has been emulated by police departments around the country and around the world. If the new Internal Affairs Bureau was not loved within the NYPD—it never will be—it certainly was feared, by corrupt and brutal cops and those thinking about becoming corrupt and brutal cops. And fear is simply respect in another form.
In creating the new IAB, did we wipe out corruption and misconduct within the NYPD? Of course not. There was corruption and misconduct before my time at IAB, there was corruption and misconduct while I was IAB chief, and there is corruption and misconduct now.
It’s different than it used to be, though. The old-style, systemic corruption of the pre–Knapp Commission days, when entire precincts were on the pad, is probably gone forever; so is the kind of almost casual brutality applied to suspects who ran or were uncooperative in an interrogation room. The new corruption and misconduct is more opportunistic, more secretive, more limited in scope, and thus harder to detect.
But it’s there. And any mayor or politician or high-ranking police official who says he’s going to completely eliminate corruption and misconduct from any big-city police department is kidding himself. As long as police departments continue to recruit human beings, as opposed to cyborgs, they will have to deal with the same problems among cops that other human beings have: greed, hatred, violence, jealousy, drug and alcohol abuse, mental instability, laziness, incompetence.
Sure, you can try to reduce corruption and misconduct, to control it, manage it. And we did that at IAB. While I was chief we reduced corruption and misconduct cases by more than 50 percent, even as the NYPD expanded in size. Even the harshest NYPD critics, if they’re honest, would have to admit that in terms of honesty and professionalism, the
NYPD is a far better organization than it was in the 1970s and ’80s and early ’90s.
But it’s not perfect—and it never will be. It’s a simple question of numbers.
Whenever there’s a police corruption or misconduct scandal, people who support cops will always point out that 99 percent of cops do their jobs honestly and correctly. Actually, based on my experience in the NYPD, I think it’s a little higher—99.5 percent.
But do the math on that. In a Department with thirty-six thousand cops, one half of one percent is one hundred eighty cops. Which means that as chief of IAB, at any given moment, I had a hundred eighty seriously bad cops out there on the streets of New York City, armed with guns and shields and the enormous power of the law, who were willing to rob, cheat, abuse, and even murder people.
They were the ones who kept me up at night.
During my years as IAB chief more than two thousand NYPD cops were arrested for various crimes, and we investigated thousands more for other serious misconduct. Some of those cases made national and even international headlines: the cops who fired forty-one times at a man who was standing on his front doorstep, and who turned out to be unarmed; the sadistic cop who savagely assaulted and sodomized a man with a broom handle; the so-called Cannibal Cop who fantasized about cooking and eating women. There were others, less sensational but still deadly serious: cops who stole millions of dollars from drug dealers; cops who trafficked in illegal guns; cops who beat up suspects after the cuffs were already on; cops who “flaked”—planted drugs on—innocent people; cops who sold their souls to make a few hundred bucks ripping off Manhattan street peddlers; the cop who stalked young girls online until he made the mistake of stalking an IAB undercover; the cop who robbed banks on his lunch hour. And on and on.
This book is partly about them, the one half of one percent. But it’s also about the hard realities of being a cop on the streets of New York City, about the challenges of enforcing the law while at the same time obeying it, about how hard it is for some cops to maintain their honor when others around them have abandoned theirs. It’s about battles
won and lost on the street corners in Brooklyn and the Bronx, and battles won and lost in City Hall and the top floors of One Police Plaza. It’s about politicians like Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg and the disastrous—in my opinion—Bill de Blasio, and how they handled crises, and it’s about police commissioners like Ray Kelly and Howard Safir and Bill Bratton, and how they shaped the vast, diverse, and often fractious standing army that is the NYPD. This book is about judges and prosecutors, lawyers and reporters, bureaucrats and union leaders; it’s about killers and drug dealers, undercovers and informants, about good cops posing as bad civilians and bad civilians posing as bad cops.
It’s about all that and more. But the real heroes of this book are all the good cops of the NYPD—and the small group of men and women who stand between those good cops and a few criminals in uniform who would bring them down.
It’s often said that police are the “thin blue line,” the narrow bulwark standing between the public and uncontrolled chaos and crime. And that’s true. Can you imagine New York City, or any city, without police? But within that thin blue line there’s an even smaller, thinner line of cops whose job it is to protect the public from bad cops, and to protect the good cops from the bad ones. They’re the men and women of Internal Affairs.
Their work is often misunderstood, by the public and by other cops. It is racked with uncertainties and ambiguities, not simple black and white but varying shades of gray. Even their successes are in a sense failures, because every time they catch a bad cop, that bad cop represents a betrayal of the public and of the Department’s values.
And yet, without them, without that small group of cops who operate in the shadowy gray corners of the cop world, the thin blue line would rot from within and ultimately collapse.
They are the police who police the police—the brave, honest, dedicated cops of the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau.