Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Untangling the Lines of Communication

The biggest thing to learn about police work is not the laws, not police procedures, it's not how to fire a gun (case in point - I've only fired mine twice a year at the NYPD Firing Range for the last 16 years), it isn't boxing or wrestling moves... all of that doesn't mean shit if you can't deal with people. Or, maybe even more importantly, by knowing how to deal with people, how to relate to them, you need to rely on the other stuff less.  You learn to correct a situation before action needs to be taken.

It was late spring and we had one of those warm spring nights.  The advantage to those types of nights when you have a foot post is that you know won't be freezing your ass off,  like you tend to do on the cold spring nights.  The disadvantage is that every skell and their mother is out on the streets, enjoying the same beautiful weather you are.

This night in particular went bad shortly after sunset.  Two young wanna be gangsters decided to stick up the Taco Bell on the 44 Precinct side of Webster Avenue.  I think I previously mentioned the dearth of fast food establishments in and around the 42 Precinct, my command at the time.  We had a White Castle /  Church's Chicken on our side of Webster, the 44 had the only Taco Bell in miles.  At the same time these two knuckleheads were holding up the cashier, one of the South Bronx Narcotics Modules were entering Taco Bell in order to get dinner.  Needless to say, things went downhill from there.

Apparently, the proper response to "Police!  Don't Move!" is to fire in the direction of the voice while simultaneously attempting to flee the location.  The gun battle proceeded to the street, and ended with one perp dead and one perp fleeing the scene to be apprehended later.  No cops were inured, score one for the good guys.  Except they couldn't find the shooter's gun.

This is where me and my fellow rookies came in.  There were two of us walking the 42 side of Webster Ave and another two walking Park Ave as their posts.  Our sergeant rounded us up to assist with the crime scene, as all shootings become such.  The other three rookies were assigned to assist in the search of the missing fire arm.  My job?  Crowd control, as a bunch of curious onlookers and other assorted locals were milling about in the street on the 42 side of Webster Ave.

At this point, I need to paint a picture.  The picture is this:  Webster Ave at the location we were was approximately seven lanes wide.  One parking lane and two lanes of traffic going north and the same going south.  In between was a marked off area of pavement just about a lane wide giving us a total of seven lanes.  My gawkers on the 42 side, the lanes going north, were not just standing in the parking lane, they weren't just blocking the right lane of traffic, but a handful were wandering into the left lane of traffic.  I counted easily over 30 people when I glanced over after being given my assignment and the numbers were increasing even as I walked over.

I approached the crowd, which wasn't hard, as the fringe was basically meeting me nearly halfway.

"Folks, I need you to get back onto the sidewalk."  Calm, polite, respectful... I was all that and more.  The fringe backed up to clear one lane of traffic, the right lane, but there seemed to be a constant stream of people to add to the mass in front of me.  I turned back to look at my sergeant.  He had a shooing motion with his hands.  Obviously my single lane of victory was not enough.

"Excuse me!  Folks, i really need you to step back onto the sidewalk!  Please!"  A few heads glanced in my direction, but the events going on across the street were more exciting.  Crime scene tape, big trucks with huge lights, lots of cops scrambling around looking for something.  It all meant more then the lone rookie cop in front of them.  I was being ignored.

I was getting frustrated.  I was doing everything by the book, engaging the populace in a polite yet authoritative tone, and it was getting me nowhere.  A simple assignment, and I was fucking it to pieces.

In a panic, I tried something that was against every bit of academy training I had received.  I improvised.

"Yo!  I needs you to get off the street!  The street belongs to the PoPo!  The sidewalks belongs to you'se! Gets off my street!  I won't step on your sidewalk and you don't step on my street!"  And they did it.  Slowly at first, but with further words of encouragement reminding them who the street belonged to, and who the sidewalk belonged to, they actually cleared the street in less than a minute. Parking lane too!  I was dumbfounded.  What shouldn't have worked not only worked, it worked beyond my greatest hope.

I was still a bit stunned when an even more surprising event happened.  Four young male blacks (as was 90% of the crowd) came upon the crowd, and desiring to see what was transpiring across the street, stepped in front of the crowd that was now wholly on the sidewalk.

Before I could say a word I heard from the front of the crowd: "Yo!  Get off the street!  It belong to the PoPo.  We got's the sidewalk."  The newcomers obeyed the instructions and joined the crowd on the sidewalk.

Policing was never the same for me after that.  I had learned that to talk to people, you had to talk their language... even if you both technically spoke the same language.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Simple Cup of Coffee

I'm not a coffee drinker. Never have been, never will be. I can count the cups of coffee I've drunk in my lifetime in one hand. Strange, I know, with the stereotype of cops, coffee and dounuts.

It was a cold night in March of '97. My partner and I had a footpost on Fulton Street and it was cold and we were underdressed.

The Job, in it's infinite wisdom, had changed the approved uniformed winter jacket. They went from a longer, heavier jacket to what was referred to as an RMP jacket, that had elastic at the waist. If you came on before my academy class, you were grandfathered in for the old jacket, but for new jacks like us, this POS didn't keep us very warm, so we improvised.

Temperatures were in the low teens, and we both were wearing thermals, a turtleneck, a commando sweater and a neck warmer. We had the rain cover for our hats inside the uniform cap to keep some semblance of warmth on our heads, small ear muffs so our ears wouldn't drop off and we wore our white dress gloves inside our black leather gloves. We were still fucking cold.

Our beat was about 5 blocks long, running North to South along Fulton. To break up the monotony, we would go a block East or West of our post. There is only so much to see in a 5 block stretch.

By the time it hit 1130 at nite, the temperature was down to the single digits, and the thin snot from my runny nose was freezing at the tip. We stood in doorways where we could, but there wasn't a single store front on the stretch of our post.

Then we met out angel. Looking like a church lady taken from any movie's stereotypical Black Southern Baptist Church, she came out of one of the private houses from one of the side streets we were patrolling for the umpteenth time that night. If she was a day under 80 I'd be very surprised.

"Officers, that's my house over there. I seen you walking and I'm so happy to see you. The neighborhood needs folks like you."

My partner grunted something in embarrassment, and I said something to the effect of "that's why we are here", but to tell the truth, all I could think of was the bitter cold and how much worse it felt when we were standing still talking when we should have been walking.

"I'm up late every night. When you are out here, ring my doorbell and I'll buzz you in. I'll have a pot of coffee and some cups for you in the hallway. Warm yourselves. Don't worry about locking the door, it closes and locks on its own."

I must have given her a queer look, as she called me on it real quick.

"Don't look like that. It's the least I can do. We're happy your here. We need you here."

With that, she said her goodnites and walked back to her home across the street.

"Don't be expecting me to serve you. Now help yourselves to coffee."

So we did. It was good and hot. I put way too much sugar in it, but that helped me forget it was coffee. The woman, our angel, said goodnite again and walked upstairs, locking a door behind her.

There are good people everywhere, and if I ever doubted why I did the work I did, faced the dangers and dealt with angry members of the community, I remembered this woman. This angel.

With a cup of coffee she opened my eyes, and allowed me to see. The cold never seemed so bad after that.