A PRECINCT UNDER FIRE
I was nervous as we walked along Richmond Terrace. I had been a cop for ten years. I always worked in patrol precincts and had always felt comfortable in uniform until now.
The promotion ceremonies at the Police Academy were the last time I was to know the camaraderie of being a cop. I had been ordered to report to the 120th Precinct on Staten Island.
NYPD sergeants wore a
gold-colored cap device and braid on their service caps. The braid could be seen from quite a distance. Shame on any street cop that didn't spot a boss coming form a mile off.
For that reason, I always wore my cover when I was on patrol. Any cop that didn't see that insignia was brain dead. There was never an excuse for not knowing who I was.
Military and police training had ingrained the habit of wearing cover.
The veterans never had a problem wearing their uniform caps.
Most of the younger cops, who had never suffered under the withering verbal assaults of an Army or Marine drill instructor, often went bareheaded.
I reported to the 120th Precinct on May 18, l973 with
Sergeant John Hanley.
We had become friends during our "captivity" as fellow-sufferers in the Communications Unit at 240 Centre Street. He and I had car-pooled to work as 911 operators in the snakepit of the old converted lineup room. Sharing the misery of manning the turrets at 911 caused us to grow close.
The 120th Precinct, located in the St. George section of Staten
Island is the busiest of the three precincts within that Borough of the City. Its location overlooking New York Harbor affords an outstanding view of the Manhattan Skyline. Real estate concerns
have greedily coveted the site where the three-story stone building stands. Increasingly, in recent years various civic groups have proposed relocating the Precinct elsewhere. It doesn't take a
genius to realize why. A new baseball stadium is being built for the Staten Island Yankee minor league team directly across the street.
As we walked into the muster room, we immediately noticed a tall lieutenant dashing into the sitting room full of cops. We waited behind the massive oak desk while he turned out the day tour platoon.
Lieutenant Jeremiah Clark seemed a little harried as he came out of the crowd of cops. The late tour platoon coming into the muster room mingled with the cops from the day tour rushing to get to their
patrol cars. The Lieutenant was being bombarded with questions as he tried to get behind the desk. He glanced at the two new sergeants and I could see a small sign of relief on his face. He was the only
supervisor on duty in a busy precinct. The job of Desk Officer was enough of a task, but turning out a platoon of sixty cops and conducting roll call was a bit much for one man. Jerry shook my hand as I
looked up at him. He was probably the tallest member of the command. He was a good street cop as well as a good boss.
I grew to like and admire Jeremiah Clark. He was still a cop at heart. The rank hadn't changed him. In
all too many instances, I saw how the attainment of higher ranks seemed to "change" lesser men. In
reality, the rank hadn't "changed" them. They just never had the opportunity to show their true colors.
Show me a cop who abuses his prisoners, and I will show you a cop that will abuse his subordinates. Show me a cop who cheats and avoids doing his job, and I will show you a lousy boss. Arrogance in a
police officer will be increased tenfold with promotion to upper ranks.
I always remember one veteran cop's admonition when he heard that I was to be promoted. "Always
remember, kid, you will meet the same people on the way down that you meet on the way up." I never forgot that piece of sage advice.
Captain William LaTour was the Commanding Officer. I knew him from my service in the 123rd Precinct to be a fair and honest man. He was a big guy too. He smoked cigars and looked like he had
come out of central casting for the role of captain of police. He was a gentleman and greeted us warmly. He retired shortly after my arrival in that command and I was sorry to see him leave.
What I did not know was that I had walked into a hornet's nest.
It didn't take me long to find that out. At this time, cops weren't permitted inside the stationhouse
unless they were assigned to duties there, or to drop off reports. Meals were taken in the street. Bosses did not take kindly to cops loitering inside the precinct. The recent revelations of the Knapp
Commission were still the topic of conversation throughout the command. I had no idea that the 120th Precinct was to make headlines also.
One finding of the Knapp Commission that has caused unrecognized problems for both the cops and the public was that police officers took free meals while on patrol. This was viewed as a corrupt act
on a par with taking bribes. For police officers that patrolled the streets of this city, the acceptance of a cup of coffee or a sandwich from a grateful shopkeeper was a traditional part of being a cop. The
rationale for this tradition is not a hard concept to understand. Police officers who patrolled the streets had to become familiar with the businesses and residents of their assigned posts. Today,
advocates of community policing recognize this as extremely important. It is not well-known by those outside the NYPD or by cops who never worked in a patrol precinct, that before the changes
brought about by the Knapp Commission, precinct sector cars never took a meal period. The roll call
gave each member of the sector car a different meal period, usually with a half-hour overlap. In effect,
the cops in the patrol cars just didn't take an hour for meal because that would leave only one officer in the car. The cops just ate their meal in the car. A piece of pizza, or a sandwich was wolfed down
between jobs. When a call came over the radio, the cops would oftentimes just fling the food away and race to the call. That could get quite expensive. The public in busy precincts knew that the cops
did this. The coffee shop and deli owners knew that those same cops would come quickly if they had a problem with a patron or they needed police assistance. A cup of coffee or a baloney sandwich was
a small price to pay for the service that dedicated cops rendered a community. Some will retort that some cops abused this. They are right. But the overwhelming number of patrol cops didn't.
With the Knapp Commission revelations that cops took free meals, new procedures were implemented in the precincts. To deter corruption, the cops would be permitted to take their meals
inside the precincts. This resulted in many problems that continue to plague the NYPD. A special lunchroom needed to be provided for the cops who took their meals inside the stationhouse. A special
"Interrupted Patrol Log" needed to be maintained at the desk to control the flow of cops that entered
the precinct. The policy of having a sergeant or lieutenant on the desk in the precincts was stopped.
Police officers were assigned as "Stationhouse Officers". Veteran patrol bosses knew what would result.
The cops on meal were not in the street, so the sector cars that remained on duty carried the extra load of jobs of the cops on meal in the precincts. Sector cars on meal were no longer available for
assignment. Many times, the meals of sector cars had to be changed due to assignments. Often, half the cars on patrol would be parked in front of the precinct. The workload placed on those on patrol
led to problems between the cops. Those who didn't like early meal periods would deliberately avoid taking their meals assigned. It was not unusual to find almost the entire platoon of cops sitting in the
lunchroom of the stationhouse. Only sergeants and lieutenants who closely monitored their radio could control this. They were motivated because if no cars were available, those sergeants would be
responding to the police calls. This in fact happened. When a sergeant or lieutenant isn't supervising, he or she is just another sector car.
This problem continues to this day. The sacrosanct meal period takes precedence over an emergency call. We can thank the Knapp Commission and a generation of police bosses who didn't spent too
much time on patrol for this headache. A sergeant or lieutenant in a busy patrol precinct spends far too much time monitoring who is eating in the stationhouse. The cops should be taking their meals in
their assigned sectors and posts. The presence of police officers in restaurants will add to the sense of police omnipresence. The Central Dispatcher will be advised of their location during the meal period
and the desk officers will know their meal locations also. Active cops never had a problem with this. The PBA could also make a good case for a pay increase.
The Office of the Special Prosecutor had been created to investigate corruption in the entire criminal justice system. The head of that office was Maurice Nadjari. Most of the famous scandals that the
Knapp Commission had uncovered involved specialized units such as the "PEP" squad of Harlem or
the "Special Investigating Unit (SIU) of the Narcotics Division". I had no hint that the glare of public attention would be focused on the 120th Precinct.
Nadjari, was conducting a secret investigation of the 120th Precinct. He had set up his staff in the United States Army National Guard Armory on Manor Road and his investigators were busy running
down leads on a so-called "120 Precinct Sergeant's Club". The recently assigned sergeants such as Sergeants Joseph Polly, William Mulvey, and John Gibbons, gave us a warm welcome. Veteran
sergeants like John Hotchkiss, Frank McDonough, and Andrew Rerecich also welcomed us to the precinct. The men eyed us with caution when we began to conduct roll call and go on patrol with
them. We would have to earn their respect. Needless to say, our conduct was under close supervision by the Special Prosecutor's Office. The entire city was undergoing one scandal after another in the
wake of the Knapp Commission Hearings. The political pressure on Nadjari's Office was enormous. Arrests and convictions of corrupt cops were of top priority. This then was the atmosphere in the
120th Precinct during my first days as a sergeant.
The muster room of the 120th Precinct was a massive room. The telephone switchboard operator was
stationed to the immediate left of the Desk Officer. The TS operator was usually a police officer who maintained a record of all calls to the precinct. A new log had been added to his duties. There was
now a special log. that I will call the “Louise Log” had to entered verbatim in the log by the TS operator on all tours of duty. "Louise” was the wife of the subject of the massive investigation by
Nadjari. She was married to a police lieutenant assigned to the 120th Precinct who was due to take his New York State Bar Exam. She had somehow obtained his alleged "little black book" and called
Nadjari's Office and offered her assistance in exposing corruption in the 120th Precinct. The lieutenant
and two sergeants were implicated in the so-called "club". The allegations were that the lieutenant and the two sergeants had attempted to start a pad of payments by various merchants. They allegedly
were planning to involve all sergeants in the scheme.
I remember reading the entries in the “Louise Log”. They appeared to me to be the ravings of an
emotionally disturbed person. All calls were diligently entered into the log. The sad part of this was that the entire private life of the lieutenant was revealed for all to see. The brass had ordered that this
log be maintained. I still can't understand why this was done. Every cop in the precinct was privy to the private life of the lieutenant.
The notoriety and press attention given to this investigation put great pressure on the members of the precinct. Police work is difficult under normal circumstances. Under the glare of a scandalous inquest,
the 120th Precinct was a tough place to be assigned. Wearing the stripes of a sergeant and 120th Precinct numerals sometimes resulted in wisecracks from the public and other cops.
When I was promoted to the rank of sergeant, there had been a hiring freeze in place for some time. The age of the average police officer was about 36 years. There were quite a few old-timers in the
precinct. I was still very young looking at the age of 32. Luckily for me, moustaches were in style. I quickly grew one, and it added a few years to my appearance.
I remember preparing my first roll call and looking into the sitting room where the platoon was assembled. There was a lot of experience in that room. Cops working in radio cars with names like
Merrill and Brady, Sutherland and Delpino, Anderson and Jessup, Tobin and Knapp, Eddie Esposito, Vito "Darkcloud" Madeloni. (Vito used to tease me about still having pimples), Neal O'Reilly, and a
host of other guys, fell into ranks to stand roll call. My ten years on patrol served me well in those first days as a supervisor. I must give credit to those veteran cops for shaping me as a patrol sergeant.
Officer Harry Tyson had over thirty years of service and was frequently assigned as my driver. He and other old-timers guided me in those first tours on patrol. I owe much to them for their maturity
and balanced view of the tasks of a good police supervisor. Sergeant Andrew Rerecich was what I called the "Sergeant Major". He was a tough looking character with a good heart. With a cigar stuck in
the corner of his mouth, he would call me "the kid". I never resented him for that title. He had earned that right by decades of service in the rank of sergeant. He passed away suddenly a few years later,
and is still missed by many that worked with him.
The 120th Precinct covered an area the size of Manhattan South. The response time for radio calls was
longer than in other areas of the city due to the immense size of the precinct. The inefficiency of the 911 system made the situation worse. 911 or Central was concerned only with the assignment of jobs
to sector cars regardless of their location. As a result, Sector Adam that covered the South Beach Area could be assigned an aided case in the Mariner's Harbor in Sector X-ray at the opposite end of the
precinct. Sector cars could be out of their assigned sectors for the entire tour answering calls for service in other areas of the precinct. Little or no preventive patrol was possible. Criminals familiar with the
police radio purchased police "scanners" and monitored the assignments of police cars. Some sophisticated types would wait until the sheer volume of calls left no cars available for assignment, or
would time their crimes to the changing of the tours when most of the sector cars were at the precinct.
False reports of officers needing assistance or signal "10-13" would then be called in when there were few cars available and send them to the opposite end of the precinct while the crime was committed. It
was an effective technique to sucker the cops out of the area. (Note: For more on the problems of computerized dispatching, see the story "Slaves to 911" in the archives of NY Cop Online Magazine)
The 120th Precinct was a busy shop. We always would be amused when new cops would be transferred from busy inner city precincts such as the 7th, 9th, 71st, 79th, or 77th. Many thought
they had come to Staten Island for early retirement and with a condescending attitude, but it didn't take long for them to change their minds when they were handling job after job with no let up. Those
experienced cops from busy houses became the cadre who trained other cops by their example and professionalism. Eventually, the 120th precinct became a training precinct for the thousands of new
recruits that flooded into the job after the end of the hiring freeze.
The majority of the police officers assigned to the 120th Precinct resided on Staten Island. Being
residents of the same borough that they worked in, those officers had a vested interest in the quality of their police work. In other words, they cared.
In the end, the much publicized "120 Precinct Sergeant's Club" wasn't what the Special Prosecutor’s
office had hoped for. It turned out to be a disorganized attempt to make some merchants "good" for
gratuities and bribes. There never was a club established. The honest sergeants never joined. The damage was done however. Without the prospect of a major scandal, the attention of the media turned
to other areas of the city.
Copyright © 2000 Edward D. Reuss
CLICK HERE FOR MORE STORIES