More Than the Usual Suspects: The Complex and Colorful NYPD

NYPD: A City and Its Police , by James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto. Henry Holt, 368 pages, $27.50.

On the southeast corner of the 13th floor of One Police Plaza, the headquarters of the New York Police Department, the Chief of Department, the highest-ranking uniformed officer, has both his office and his private conference room. The walls of that room, where the Police Department’s major strategic and tactical plans are reviewed by the heads of the various operational bureaus, are adorned with the portraits of the 49 men who have held the post since the department was founded in 1803.

On the 14th floor, there are two more conference rooms: one for the First Deputy Commissioner and the other for the Police Commissioner. Both of these rooms have portraits of the previous incumbents, although they date back only to 1901, several years after the city had incorporated the outer boroughs to establish New York as we know it today, as well as a consolidated NYPD.

Taken together, these portraits constitute a veritable rogue’s gallery of police bosses. And they come to life in James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto’s new book, NYPD: A City and Its Police , a history of the NYPD from its establishment to the present. The book is a compendium of cop stories that bridges the generations of these mostly Irish Catholic policemen.

Ethnicity and religion have played an important part in shaping the culture of the country’s largest police agency. The term “blue wall of silence,” for example, has its origin in Irish history. This was clear as long ago as 1894, when the Lexow Commission was investigating corruption in the department: The commission’s chief counsel, questioning a police officer who refused to inform on fellow officers, commented sympathetically, “That is your nature, a distinct feature of your race. The word informer carries a terrible significance there.” The Irish distaste for traitors runs deep and is imbued in every schoolboy, as I can attest from experience.

Similarly, the book of rules and procedures (often referred to as “the Bible”) that determines the day-to-day operations of the NYPD is as detailed as those found in any cloistered monastery. There are lots of “do’s,” but many more “don’t’s.” And in the best tradition of the British bureaucracy that ruled Ireland for so long, there is a protocol for every eventuality, including (naturally) how to handle a hostage situation and even how to deal with “aircraft violations” (huh?). In the latter instance, the officer is required to record a whole host of information, make appropriate notifications and, if possible, serve a summons.

NYPD will give pleasure to the general reader, but will be of particular interest to cop buffs and those interested in the history of New York City. Among the more memorable characters are Alexander (Clubber) Williams, born in Canada, who, when assigned as commanding officer to the West 29th Street station house, told a reporter, “All my life I have never had anything but chuck steak. Now I’m gonna get me some tenderloin.” Thus, the “tenderloin district” of Manhattan’s West Side. Then there’s Lt. Charles Becker, who was arrested, tried and convicted of a 1912 murder by District Attorney Charles Whitman. Sentenced to die in the electric chair, his wife appealed his case to the Governor but was turned down–by then, the Governor (newly elected) was the same Charles Whitman. We are later introduced to Detective Johnny Cordes, the only officer to win two departmental Medals of Honor–one for having been shot numerous times while foiling a holdup, only to be shot more times by a drunken off-duty sergeant who came to stop the already stopped holdup. The last of the great colorful characters–and near and dear to my heart–is Jack Maple, the subterranean cop who took his successful crime-fighting tactics (such as the crackdown on turnstile-jumping) above ground with equal success and to even greater public acclaim.

In addition to the great characters, there are witty explanations of police nomenclature such as “sluggers” (muggers), “Shit Houses” (bad precinct headquarters), “holler guys” (look-outs), “sees” (as in: Stay at your post until your superior officer comes by and you get your “sees”), “rabbis” (influential friends inside or outside the department), “contracts” (favors extracted from rabbis), “coops” (off-street locations for sleeping in radio cars)–as well as other exotic terms.

The book also deals extensively with the influence of politics on the NYPD. So, for example, when the corrupt Mayor Jimmy Walker was sent packing to Europe with his girlfriend, he was replaced by Tammany Hall’s man, Surrogate Judge John P. O’Brien, who, when asked who his new Police Commissioner would be, replied: “I haven’t gotten the word yet.”

One problem with NYPD is that it focuses almost exclusively on Manhattan. This is no fault of the authors. They have relied on primary sources, mostly newspapers whose reporters have never liked to stray from the bars and night life of Manhattan. In any squad room in the outer boroughs, even today, you’ll still hear the lament, “Manhattan detectives get all the ink!”

The last quarter of NYPD deals with events with which many readers will already be familiar. Frank Serpico and David Durk, among others, tell their stories. While the devastating impact of the Knapp Commission is discussed, its deleterious effect on the operations and morale of the department is not fully examined. There is acknowledgment of a change in attitude to “twenty [years] and out,” but there’s less appreciation of the negative impact of the post-Knapp notion that police officers should not be in the business of tackling vice, narcotics and other “quality of life” offenses for fear of their corrupting influence. Thus the regulatory and enforcement powers of the average police officer on the street were limited in favor of a centralized model where decisions about such enforcement had to be referred to headquarters. Added to the above was the decision to lay off 5,000 police officers in 1975 and the attrition of an additional 5,000 over the remainder of the decade. The results were predictable: 1980 marked the highest level of crime in the history of the city until that point. The fact that not one major police official publicly expressed outrage speaks volumes about the caliber and character of the people at the top. It wasn’t until 1979, under Mayor Ed Koch and Police Commissioner Bob McGuire, that things began to change with the first hirings in a decade. Unfortunately, in policing it takes years of expanded hiring to catch up.

The foundation for the present success of the NYPD in fighting crime was laid by Ben Ward, who was Police Commissioner between 1984 and 1989. Under his leadership, the department began to tackle drugs and guns by expanding its Narcotics Division. What is less appreciated is the impact of Ben Ward on policy issues such as deadly physical force and less-than-lethal weapons (tasers and stun guns, for example). Taken together, these policy changes contributed to the lowest police- civilian fatalities in many decades.

NYPD does well with the Crown Heights events of 1991, correctly pointing out that the prior decision to effectively remove the First Deputy Commissioner from operations by allowing the Chief of Department to report directly to the Police Commissioner kept then-First Deputy Ray Kelly “out of the loop,” as he put it. But by force of personality, Mr. Kelly put himself back into the loop and began to bring the situation under control within a matter of hours.

What is not fully developed is the extent to which Mr. Kelly set the table for the future ability of the department to fight crime. He did this by developing the operational and political rationale for hiring 6,000 additional officers; restructuring a completely ineffectual and bifurcated internal affairs system; and developing, with the help of Lou Anemone, the recently retired Chief of Department, the NYPD’s first effective public-disorder and civil-unrest response plan. It is largely thanks to that plan that New York has not had any significant disorder since Crown Heights.

As Police Commissioner Bill Bratton took office, he was confronted by emerging police scandals in a number of precincts. Unlike some of his predecessors, however, he did not become paralyzed by these and was never distracted from the department’s main mission of fighting crime. One of the secrets of Mr. Bratton’s success was to choose the right people and let them run with the ball. He epitomized the leader as risk-taker and visionary, and the results speak for themselves.

Howard Safir succeeded Mr. Bratton and, to his credit, kept the Bratton crime strategies in place–and so crime continued to go down. However, like many of his predecessors, Mr. Safir’s administration was plagued by controversy, this time involving police brutality and alleged civil rights violations of racial minorities. While big-city police departments have been successful in fighting crime, they have not succeeded in dealing effectively with the issue of race–and specifically, race in policing. This is the great challenge for all police administrators.

Whenever a reporter or cop has a question regarding a police incident, he or she will reach out to Tom Reppetto, a former police commander who is now the president of the Citizens Crime Commission, to find out whether it is unique. Most times, Tom will tell you that there have been similar incidents in the past–as well as when, where, how and why. He has taken his encyclopedic knowledge of policing and, along with James Lardner, a former policeman and an accomplished journalist, produced an entertaining and witty history of the NYPD. I recommend it highly.

John Timoney is the Police Commissioner in Philadelphia. He served in the NYPD for 29 years.