Behind The Nypd's Blue Wall Of Silence


A City and Its Police

By James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto

Henry Holt -- 368pp -- $27.50

In New York City, like most big American cities, the police force produces more than its share of tabloid fodder. And nothing excites the public like police misdeeds, actual or alleged. Violent crime in the Big Apple is at a 30-year low, but this achievement has been largely overshadowed by the 1997 station-house torture of Haitian Abner Louima and the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant cut down in a hail of police gunfire on the steps of his apartment building. After the four plainclothes cops who shot him were acquitted of murder charges, Bruce Springsteen stoked a furor-within-a-furor merely by performing a new song about Diallo--the as-yet-unrecorded 41 Shots.

But if cop stories burn hot in New York City, rarely do they scar the memory. "For all the to-do that is made over police scandals, the city has generally been quick to forget the bad as well as the good..." assert James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto in NYPD: A City and Its Police. Indeed, the New York Police Dept. proves the dictum that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. Since the NYPD's founding in 1845, great police scandals have convulsed the city every 20 years, like clockwork. Each has conformed to the same pattern: Popular outrage sparked an official investigation that culminated in a trial or public hearing and a series of ineffectual reforms. "Time passes, the crisis fades, and...something like the same drama is enacted all over again," note Lardner, an ex-cop who now writes for U.S. News & World Report, and Reppetto, a former police commander and head of New York's Citizens Crime Commission.

It is indicative of the charms of their book that they offer this observation in a tone more of wonderment than cynicism. It comes as a pleasant surprise, given the authors' police backgrounds, that NYPD is neither indictment nor apologia, but bona fide history, thoroughly researched and engagingly written. Readers looking for fresh dish on Mayor Rudy Giuliani's campaign to monopolize credit for his administration's much-ballyhooed reductions in violent crime will be disappointed--only one of the book's 16 chapters deals with recent events. But who cares? The authors succeed at the more ambitious task they set themselves: unearthing the largely buried past of the pre-Giuliani NYPD and fashioning from it a compelling account of the evolution of America's oldest and largest police force.

It is not as parochial a story as a non-New Yorker might imagine. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the NYPD effectively functioned as a national police force (the U.S. Secret Service was not formed until 1865). New York cops took the lead in investigating threats to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln and ranged as far afield as Ohio to arrest Confederate sympathizers. During World War I, it was the NYPD detective bureau--not the fledgling FBI--that formed the nation's front line of defense against German sabotage. Despite numerous successes, the NYPD failed to prevent the detonation of 2 million pounds of munitions awaiting shipment on an island in New York harbor. The blast--still the largest act of sabotage ever on U.S. soil--was felt as far south as Philadelphia.

New York's cops and criminals also added to the American lexicon, with such notable contributions as "plug ugly," "yegg," and "tenderloin." This last term is credited to Alexander "Clubber" Williams, a notoriously corrupt and brutal cop. In 1876, Williams was transferred to a station house in a part of the city infested with vice and thus rife with opportunities for graft. This district was known as "Satan's Circus" until a delighted Williams told a newspaper reporter: "All my life I have never had anything but chuck steak. Now I'm gonna get me some tenderloin."

NYPD also is enriched by an epically colorful cast, Clubber Williams not the least among them. It includes Theodore Roosevelt, the only man ever to ascend from police headquarters to the White House, albeit circuitously. In his brief tenure as a police commissioner, the future roughrider was ineffective, in large part because he outraged public opinion by strictly enforcing laws limiting operating hours of taverns. "The police job had gotten the better of Roosevelt," Lardner and Reppetto conclude. "Running the country was, comparatively speaking, a breeze."

But it is the forgotten figures who carry the book. Who remembers Giuseppe Petrosino? But when the detective was killed by a Mafia assassin's bullet in 1909, 250,000 New Yorkers lined the streets to view his funeral procession. The powerfully built Petrosino was only 5-foot-3, well short of the NYPD minimum, but he became the first Italian American to make it big on the force as head of its "Italian Squad." Petrosino was said to have "knocked out more teeth than a dentist," but he also excelled at more cerebral crime-busting methods and liked to relax by playing the violin alone in his apartment.

Then there is Monk Eastman, a turn-of-the-century gangster who emphasized his ferocious appearance by wearing a derby several sizes too small. Eastman was a great animal fancier who ran his own pet store for a time. It failed, largely because its owner could not bear to part with his merchandise. Monk was both a killing machine and a one-man society for the prevention of cruelty to animals. "I'll beat up any guy dat gits gay wit' a kit or a boyd in my neck of de wood,"' he once warned.

NYPD is stronger on anecdote than analysis, but there are cohering themes that emerge from the parade of personalities and events. One is struck by how New York mayors of all personalities and political stripes have been compelled to politicize the NYPD. During the long heyday of the Tammany machine, of course, party loyalty was job qualification No. 1, even for street cops. It has been a long time since City Hall has used the NYPD to suck up votes and graft. But the book's account of the ouster William Bratton, Mayor Giuliani's defiantly independent first police commissioner, makes it clear that political loyalty still counts for more than job performance at the NYPD.

At the same time, graft has proved stubbornly persistent if not as prevalent as before. The locus of corruption within the NYPD has shifted over the decades from the top brass to the street cop, as the main source of ill-gotten gains moved from gambling and prostitution to narcotics. Lardner and Reppetto do not address the issue directly but imply that misbehavior in the NYPD is deeply rooted in the ambivalence of government leaders. "From the beginning, their democratically elected masters have been reluctant to tell the police just which laws to enforce, against whom, or by what means.... More than other municipal agencies, then, they are governed by unwritten and, in some cases, even unarticulated rules."

Behind the NYPD's Blue Wall of Silence

Lardner and Reppetto argue that too often police history is pendular, swinging between scandal and reform, villains and heroes. They have tried to flesh out the moral middle ground by documenting the police officer's "inner life," which they define as "the traditions, the fears, the lore, and all the lessons, spoken and silent, that cops pass along from generation to generation." Although the authors make effective use of a number of police memoirs, NYPD is essentially pendular just the same. It's just as well. NYPD more than makes up in drama and historical sweep what it lacks in moral and psychological insight.

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