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.


  1. Another fascinating insight into your career, Erik. Thanks - as always - for sharing.

  2. what did your sarge say ?

  3. heh - he didn't say anything. he was involved in the recovery of the missing firearm. one of my fellow rookies found it with a buff (high intensity) flashlight in a sewer. Emergency Service opened the sewer and brought the gun out.

    As far as my sarge was concerned, I did my assignment. You get no props for that ;)

    1. I'm sure he already knew how proud you were and didn't want to get a rookie's head any bigger ;)

    2. I did door work in my younger days. Your mouth is your biggest asset. People skills, not combat skills.

  4. Excellent blog. I love the 1970's NYC documentaries - but it's also great to read these experiences of yours. Thanks.