Looking Back

Of Cops and Careers

My foot was staining the snow red with blood when a lone police officer pulled up in his patrol car.  It was New Year's Eve in Park Slope and I had just been in an accident that embedded a lot of glass in my right leg. The cop was gruff and not very gentle as he tightened the sock I was using as a tourniquet. His repeated radio calls for an ambulance got no reply. The snow was coming down harder around us and the cop seemed worried.  

“Listen you're losing a lot of blood, I gotta get you out of here, OK?” And with that he scooped me up, placed me in the back of his car and rushed me to a Methodist Hospital emergency room bursting with the casualties of a wild Brooklyn night. 

The officer cornered a doctor he apparently knew and I was prepped for surgery immediately. I remember him walking away, his uniform drenched with my blood, and I never saw him again. Prior to that incident the only cops I knew were the ones who constantly rousted me and my brothers as teenagers, throwing us against walls and seizing our beer.

So when my Wall Street job was downsized a few months later, I applied to be a police officer. My score on the civil service test wasn't exceptional, so it would be a year before they reached me on the list. Then there would be medical and psychological exams, physical endurance tests and a background investigation.

In the meantime, I answered a small newspaper ad for “federal public health investigators” in July 1972 and was quickly assigned to cover clinics in Central Harlem and Washington Heights. My job was to draw blood from new arrivals suffering from syphilis, wait for the diagnosis and treatment, and then interview them to get names and locating information for their sexual contacts. I then had to find those contacts and convince them to come into the clinics to be examined. I wound up leaving a lot of notices with bartenders and filling blood vials in locations that were far from hygienic.

Decades later, at a party attended by the Center for Disease Control executive who ran this program, I learned that the decision to hire me and my fellow investigators was based on only two qualifications: a bachelor's degree and former employment as a cab driver. After suffering a year of very high attrition among its new recruits, the CDC reasoned that if you could drive a cab in New York, you could probably get people to talk and had enough street smarts to survive the tough situations that would inevitably occur. This executive called it “the conviviality factor”.

When one of my convivial co-workers told me the City was hiring probation officers, I figured a job in the criminal justice system might speed up my entry into the NYPD. My two years with the CDC was accepted as the social work experience required for the position, perhaps because I worked in “Social Disease” clinics, so I was appointed within weeks of applying.

It was January 1974. The law enforcement veterans I began working with seemed a bit overwhelmed. Over the previous decade, the murder rate had tripled, arrests soared, court dockets became unmanageable, and probation caseloads quadrupled as under-staffed crime fighters in crumbling infrastructures tried to cope. Old timers would wistfully recall days when order reigned supreme.

I was assigned a caseload consisting of drug offenders receiving methadone who lived in Bushwick. I spent my time visiting apartment houses along Knickerbocker Avenue, testifying in Supreme Court, and interviewing inmates at the Brooklyn House of Detention (Inmate: “I was just standing there cleaning my nails with my knife when that fool just ran up and threw himself on my knife” Me: “So he threw himself on your knife 19 times?”). I also had to collect urine specimens for drug testing and took some small satisfaction in perfecting ways of getting guys to fill the cup (dipping fingertips in a cup of warm water proved very helpful).

In the Spring of 1975, after I had finally satisfied all of the NYPD entry requirements, including grueling physical tests that my right foot barely passed, I was slated to enter the Police Academy. I was given a date in May to report and started taking swimming lessons at night since I heard swimming proficiency was a must. Then the City's fiscal crisis reached full bloom and the Academy class was canceled. A month later I was laid-off as a probation officer. My career in law enforcement had suddenly come to a screeching halt.

But it was to resume a year later and last for decades, taking me from make-shift classrooms on Rikers Island to pitch-black stairwells on the Lower East Side and from rackets disguised as businesses, to corrupt politicians slobbering at the trough of greed. I spent 20 years on the line and 20 years in management. I testified against terrorists, white collar bamboozlers and murderers. I watched policies get shaped and abandoned and helped break some new ground. I got sued by subordinates I fired and sweated out internal investigations for bending some outdated rules. 

When I finally retired in 2014, I looked back with fondness on all the hard-working detectives, probation officers, special agents, prosecutors, analysts and technicians I had worked with along the way. But I couldn't help but wonder how everything would have turned out if long ago a cop whose name I never caught had taken off on a snowy New Year's Eve. I can tell you one thing – if he hadn't shown up, someone else would be typing this sentence.

No comments: