Grateful and Wary, East Siders Embrace Their Finest
The first thing you notice these solemn days when you walk into the 19th Precinct station house-a landmark building, though not one known for adornments-is the beautiful arrangement of flowers on the front desk. It wasn’t there the day before the disaster. And then a second arrangement. And, by the arrest-processing room towards the rear of the station house, a dozen white roses on a groaning board filled with coffee tureens and piles of sandwiches and layer cakes and a pasta salad of epic proportions.
“This is all donated by the community,” explained Steve Petrillo, the 19th Precinct’s community-affairs officer. “There have been people on Fifth Avenue hugging us.”
The most palpable difference between life at the 19th Precinct before and after the events of Sept. 11 is a sense of purpose, even indispensability, that seems to shadow everybody who works there-not just the cops, but also the civilian employees who input the crime reports and mop the floors, and the retirees who greet visitors at the front door and tell them to have a seat.
And that sense of purpose comes not just from the cops’ role in responding to the horror downtown. While the precinct dispatched officers to the scene and several were injured during the stampede to escape the collapse of the towers, much of their work now involves maintaining order on the Upper East Side and guaranteeing the safety of dozens of potential terrorist targets in the neighborhood-”houses of worship, embassies, American allies,” as Detective Petrillo puts it.
It also comes from knowing the public is rooting for you after years of suspicion in light of incidents like the Amadou Diallo case. The food on the table by the arrest-processing room turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg. The community-affairs office and the hallway outside the office of Captain Howard Lawrence, the precinct’s commanding officer, are filled with so many bags of stuff that it becomes apparent the donations-from local delis, from the Stanhope hotel, from sixth graders at the Brearley School-are an almost atavistic response to calamity: an effort first to restore order and then to rebuild, to fill with good deeds the gaping void where the twin towers once stood.
There are bags and bags of sandwiches, and boxes of gauze, and surgical gloves, and bunches of bananas, and cases of bottled water, and the Brearley girls’ home-baked chocolate-chip cookies and, curiously, four giant watermelons.
The attitude of the cops toward the type of everyday crime that normally preoccupies them seems well summed up by Sergeant Benny Carbone as he stands behind the elevated sergeant’s desk in uniform. On an average day, Sgt. Carbone and his team of cops would be trolling the streets in plainclothes in search of con artists and pickpockets. Instead, the sergeant and one of his men, Police Officer Sal Catapano, were dispatched to New York Hospital the day of the attack.
“I was taking in all the burn victims and working with the chief physician at New York Hospital,” said Sgt. Carbone as he kept one eye on the news being broadcast on a wide-screen TV that sat atop the soda machine opposite the desk. It had been moved downstairs from the officers’ lounge on the third floor.
He added of the pickpockets he loves to hate and who constitute his daily source of professional sustenance, “They will give us work next month.”
Capt. Lawrence isn’t quite prepared to say that the city’s criminal element is chipping in to help the relief effort. However, the crooks don’t seem to be making any concerted effort to take advantage of the public’s vulnerability. “I can tell you, crime’s not up,” the commanding officer said. “We’re maintaining the daily crime analysis we always do. We don’t want to see anything radically change. We want to be proactive.”
If there’s an upward blip in any crime category, it’s probably bomb scares. On Sept. 12 at around 1 p.m. the police received a report of two suspicious boxes delivered to the post office at 85th Street.
“They were addressed to the President of the United States, and they had no return address,” explained a police official. “We had to close off and evacuate the area.” The official said he didn’t know what was in the boxes, but that they weren’t bombs.
“You might expect an increase in crank calls,” the captain said. “But we’re treating every one like they’re real unless we know otherwise.”
In fact, as the commanding officer sat behind his desk at 3 p.m. on Sept. 13, his own TV tuned to the networks’ continuing coverage, an officer came in to report the results of an investigation of a second bomb scare-this one at the Dalton School that required the school itself and surrounding apartment buildings to be evacuated. A thorough search of the school had been conducted and no bomb found.
Despite the fact that things seemed well under control, there was still a palpable sense of adrenaline, almost the way the air feels electrically charged after a summer storm. Ghastly as the crisis was, it seemed to lend the cops a sense of purpose that might be less clear in good times, a level of self-respect that arose from seeing their own reflection in the appreciative eyes of a community searching for reassurance-people like the man who walked through the front door at around 4 p.m. on Sept. 13 and announced that his organization was canceling an event they had planned for the weekend.
“We had a permit for a stickball game,” he explained. “I want to cancel it because of the tragedy.” He didn’t want to proceed, he added, because the police officer the NYPD had agreed to assign to the event “could be somewhere else.”