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©1999 - 2005
Edward D. Reuss
All rights reserved. Including the right of reproduction in whole or part in any form

 

CHAOS IN THE DARKNESS

The President of the United States takes an oath of office when sworn in by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

With this oath, the new President becomes the one person ultimately responsible to execute the laws of these United States as specified in the United States Constitution.

Every school child knows that the federal government was designed by our Founding Fathers to have a system of checks and balances.  The three branches of our federal government are known as the Executive, the Legislative, and Judicial.   This division of government was intended to provide separation of power.  It is said: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The patriots who led us though the War of Independence distrusted power in human hands. Absolute monarchs ruled as tyrants throughout history.  King George III was no exception to the rule. The powers that are specifically granted to the three separate branches of government are listed by article and number in the Constitution. 

The President of the United States is the chief executive officer of these United States and therefore carries a heavy burden.  He is the Commander-in-chief of the armed forces as well as the person ultimately responsible that the Constitution of the United States is defended.

The Preamble to Constitution of the United States begins with these words:
We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

That being said, there is an immediate threat to the domestic tranquility of these United States.  That threat needs the full attention of the President.  The loss of electrical power to large areas of this Nation has occurred in California and states.  The specter of blackouts has been raised by certain public utility firms. 

What has been the experience of these United States when "blackouts" occur?  We in New York City have experienced two instances of widespread loss of electrical power. The first occurred in November of 1965.  The entire City of New York with the exception of Staten Island endured a night without electricity. There were other areas of the Northeast United States that were effected, but I am only concerned here with the effects on a large metropolis with millions of people depending on electrical power. 

Back in 1965, I was a cop assigned to the old 4th Precinct in Lower Manhattan. I was working late tours and as was my habit, I had slept the entire day and when I woke up in the early evening, I noticed that the TV was out of service.  I commented about it to my wife, Laurel, who was busy with our first born son, Edward.  Another bill for TV repairs was not what we needed at that time.  I happened to put the radio on and the broadcasts were filled with the news about the citywide loss of electrical power.  Staten Island was not effected. Somehow, out power sources were not connected with the rest of the City. I called the 4th precinct and spoke with the cop on telephone switchboard duty.  The background noises in the muster room made it hard to understand him as he excitedly told me to get into work as fast as I could. 

The power outage effected every type of transportation in the city.  Hundreds of passengers were in darkness in stalled subway cars throughout the city. The trains had simply stopped in their tracks when the power failed.   Elevators in the tall buildings had stopped between floors with panicked passengers calling for assistance. All traffic control devices were also out of service.  In the darkness, only the headlights of the vehicles lit up the streets. 

I didn't think that I would have a problem getting into Manhattan from Staten Island.  I would just take the Staten Island Ferry.  I was mistaken. Electrical power was needed to dock the boats in the ferry slips. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge had been completed in November of 1964 and that was my best bet to get into Manhattan. 

I worked my way onto the Gowanus and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge.  I arrived in the 4th Precinct and reported to a sweating and harried desk sergeant.  With two phones in his ears, he yelled for me to get into uniform and report back to him. The phones and switchboard was jammed with calls for help. The precinct cops were busy with the traffic problems and calls for assistance while Emergency Service cops tried their best all night with calls of people trapped in the subway or in elevators stalled in the office buildings. What was surprising to most of us was the lack of violence or looting in the streets. We expected all hell to break loose. The burglar alarms in the commercial buildings needed electrical power.  When daylight came, we were relieved to find that our precinct was still intact.  The commercial businesses hadn't been vandalized, nor were we deluged with reports of crime during the night.

We were lucky. Power was restored and the frightening aspects of the blackout was quickly forgotten.  The incident became a story source for writers who romanticized the "Great Blackout of 1965".  If you were sitting on a barstool when the lights went out, there was no problem. You just called home and explained that you would be staying overnight in Manhattan.  Warm beer and no ice for the drinks didn't seem so bad.  It could even be fun watching the cops responding to radio calls amid the traffic filling the streets. It was a happening man!  New Yorkers could handle it.  No problemo.

Wednesday, July 13, 1977 had been a hot and sultry day.  The evening promised to be equally as uncomfortable. The air-conditioners in the skyscrapers of Manhattan were working overtime to keep the buildings cool.  At about 8:30, it happened again. Afterwards, engineers at Con Edison would explain the technical reasons for the power loss, but for those who found themselves sitting in terror in the darkness of a subway car beneath the streets, or in a hot and stuffy elevator, those explanations didn't matter.

This time, the fears of the police became a reality. When the lights went out this time, it wasn't a cool night in November.   American society had changed in those 12 years since the Great Blackout of 1965.  This time, things would be very different for the citizens of New York City.  As the sun set, and darkness descended, the fabric of civilization was torn. With the darkness, came disorder and chaos. As the NYPD responded to the thousands of calls for assistance, groups of looters began to tear open the storefronts of thousands of businesses in neighborhoods all over the city. Bushwick, Fort Greene, Flatbush, and downtown Brooklyn were plagued with roving bands. The South Bronx and along the Grand Concourse and Upper Manhattan saw the same groups shattering the plate glass windows and defying the badly outnumbered cops.  The disorders seemed to be everywhere and fear ruled the night.

When the sun came up, New Yorkers listened to the reports of the looting and lawlessness during the night. Storeowners complained about the conduct of the NYPD and some accused the cops of doing nothing to stop the roving bands of looters. The streets of some neighborhoods looked more like smoking war zones. The statistics of the NYPD reported over 3,000 arrests and more than 500 cops injured during the night of disorder.  There were also hundreds of fires during the night. The 25,000 member NYPD prepared for another night of looting as Con Edison worked to restore power to the city.  There were those who said that the marauding bands of looters had taken everything and there was nothing left for them to steal.  I can only say such a thought was truly naive.  Many areas of the city were not effected by the disorders. There was plenty more to take if the chaos had continued.  Fortunately, the lights began to come on in many areas and by 10:30 PM Con Edison had restored power to the whole city.

During the night of July 13, 1977, I was a Sergeant assigned to the 123rd Precinct in a suburban area of Staten Island. Thousands of cops live within the confines of that command.  When the looting broke out throughout the city, all off-duty members of the NYPD were mobilized.  The commercial radio stations repeatedly broadcast messages directing all off-duty members to report for duty.  It must be noted that at any given time, only a portion of a police force is available. The tours of duty may differ, but most police agencies divide their uniformed patrol forces into three platoons. The late tour, day tour, and evening tour.  Also, there are squads of officers on their regular days off as well as those on sick report or on vacation. The NYPD had 25,000 members in 1977. Those on duty at the time of the blackout were only a fraction of that number with only a few thousand officers were on patrol in uniform in their precincts. 

The rapid mobilization of many thousands of off-duty cops requires a knowledge command and control. This is an area of police work that will become increasingly important in the years ahead. As a police manager becomes experienced in commanding large numbers of uniformed officers, principles such as Unity of Command, Delegation of Authority, and Span of Control become paramount.

As I write this, I do not wish to heap criticism on the management of the NYPD at the time of the Blackout of 1977.  I am trying to help to identify the problems that I saw as a young sergeant at the time.

Hundreds of cops reported to the 123rd Precinct when the rapid mobilization was ordered. The 123rd Precinct was only one precinct where cops reported for duty. The Bronx had one command designated for those who resided in Rockland, Orange, Putnam, and Westchester Counties.  Queens had another command for those responding from Long Island. Those hundreds of cops were from many different precincts and bureaus of the NYPD.  They were not in uniform. They did not have any of their equipment with them.  The sergeants and lieutenants were from various assignments also. As they reported to the 123rd Precinct, they were merely listed in a Temporary Headquarters Logbook. Operations Unit in Headquarters and the Borough Command had ordered city buses to report to the 123rd Precinct to transport the cops into the effected areas of the city. 

When the word came down to send the cops into the various precincts in Brooklyn or Manhattan, we prepared detail roster sheets with the names of a sergeant for every ten cops. We loaded them onto the buses for transport to the rapid mobilization points.  They would be met by high-ranking officers and assigned to street patrol duty in civilian clothes.  The bands of looters knew that the cops arriving in the battered streets in civilian clothes would be ill equipped to deal with the marauding bands.  The looters knew their neighborhoods.  The cops were assigned without regard to their precincts. Some Manhattan cops found themselves in Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx. They were assigned with fellow cops who they did not know. There was no unity of command. Most of the cops didn't wear their shields. They had no nametags. There was no insignia of rank on the supervisors.  With no equipment such as flashlights, handcuffs, or extra ammunition, they were ill prepared to deal with hundreds of law-breakers who were committing crimes in their very presence.  A five shot off-duty revolver didn't cut the mustard. Many of the cops didn't know the location of the precinct stationhouse. It was not unusual for civilians or non-members of the NYPD to take their own actions against the looters. This only added to the sense of chaos in the streets.  This led to much criticism of the NYPD.  They were accused of inaction.  "The cops just stood there and did nothing" was often heard. It was a mess.

Now that we have had the experience in the past, are we condemned to repeat those mistakes?  Can we expect our police to have procedures in place that will prevent a repeat of the confusion and lack of coordination that was seen years ago?  I can only say that we better get off the dime. Because when the next "Blackout" hits, we may not be so lucky as to have power the next day.  What if we are subjected to an extended blackout period?  Do we have the planning in place to cope with that eventuality? We now have over 40,000 members of the NYPD. Can we mobilize that number of cops effectively?

That brings us back to the ultimate responsibility of the Federal Government.  If funding is needed to ensure that rapid mobilization of the police can be accomplished in an efficient manner, then let's make sure that the police get it. The domestic tranquility of the United States of America is threatened by the loss of electrical power to our cities.  It doesn't take much imagination to realize that with the threat of international terrorism, we are extremely vulnerable during blackouts. The hour is late. We must act now.

Copyright © 2001 Edward D. Reuss

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