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July 10, 1967, 10:00 PM—Connecting Highway, Astoria, Queens
I braked my ’67 Mustang to a screeching halt under the first overpass, engine rumbling. To my left was my opponent, behind the wheel of a ’64 Mercury coupe. He looked to be about my age, with a head of greasy hair slicked back into a pompadour that seemed to defy gravity. He revved his engine, and I did likewise as we waited for the “go” handkerchief to signal the beginning of the race.
The road we were on was a straight quarter mile trench situated between twenty-foot walls, an overpass on each end. A crowd of at least a thousand onlookers looked down on us from both sides of the road, waving and screaming. How much money was being wagered on this race and the dozens like it that would take place on this sweltering summer night was anyone’s guess.
Most of the drivers were racing for the glory; a few older guys with investments in their cars might be betting on their machines and their ability to win, but at eighteen I was lucky to have had enough money to buy my car to begin with. I had socked away cash from the several jobs I’d worked and bought the Mustang to race it at local tracks. I also raced at established tracks like National Speedway and West Hampton Raceway. My parents knew I had the car but had no idea about the racing, and I wasn’t about to share.
The buildup to the race was almost as thrilling as the race itself. Our track was a length of well-paved highway that connected (hence the name “Connecting Highway”) the eastbound lanes of the Grand Central Parkway (GCP) to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). You couldn’t ask for a better road short of a professional speedway.
It took coordination to run these races. The road was heavily traveled around the clock, and this was a holiday weekend. People were going places. Race participants and fans would walk out onto the off-ramp of the GCP and stop traffic while the next two cars set to race would line up. It had to be done quickly to avoid pissing off the wrong driver.
The races would go on all night. Where were the cops? you might ask. They didn’t have the manpower to control the hordes of racers, aggravated commuters, and thousands of fans who lined up on both sides of the trench to watch. The police would ride the road every so often, but as soon as they left the races would resume. Occasionally, the police would embarrass themselves by trying to chase a participant, getting left in the dust every time. Eventually, someone had the bright idea to call the fire department and have them hose down the highway, which stopped the races cold as soon as the drivers learned they could hydroplane their prized autos into the high concrete walls that braced the road. But it took years to come up with the hosing solution, and for many years, the Connecting Highway was the place for speed buffs to race cars on a weekend night.
The races went very quickly. But it was a bitch waiting to start, sitting in your car with the air-conditioning turned off to add off-the-starting-line thrust and with your windows rolled up to reduce the drag coefficient. July 10, 1967, was a scorcher. At 10 PM, the sun was down, but it still had to be in the mid-90s.
When we finally blasted off the starting line, I was sweating profusely, both from the heat and nervous energy. I fishtailed a bit and took the lead immediately, ramming through the gears in my custom Bang shifter automatic transmission in a blur, leaving my opponent in the midst of a burnt-rubber cloud. I won handily, my time fifteen seconds for the quarter mile, and basked in the glow of cheering spectators.
Anyone could race the Connecting Highway. While winning was about bragging rights, the thrill from throngs of spectators cheering you on was its own reward. Therefore, it wasn’t odd to see the occasional six-cylinder heap going for the gold. Involvement was all about having fun and experiencing the adrenaline rush of competition and speed. If someone would’ve told me that night that I’d be policing the hellish world of the South Bronx in two years, I’d have thought him crazy.
* * *
We lived in the middle-class Fordham section of the Bronx on Kingsbridge Road, a mostly white, cohesive neighborhood of Italian, Jewish, and Irish families. My mom, Fay, was a stay-at-home mom, like most mothers I knew back then. My dad, David, managed the San Carlos Hotel in Manhattan. My brother, Stu, was four years younger than me, and we were very close. Because of the age difference, we had different friends, but I still looked out for him. That was my job as the older brother; it was my obligation under the unwritten rules of life on the street.
Boys get into the occasional fight, and we were no different, but if I felt Stu was getting unjustly persecuted, bullied, or outnumbered, because of his age and size, I came to the rescue. These incidents didn’t happen often, but when they did I wasn’t shy about kicking some ass. Such was life on the street in the Bronx. We learned from an early age that family is sacrosanct. Ambush my brother, and you’d be dealing with me. I was detained a few times by the local police for fighting but never arrested. Years later, I would work with two of those police officers.
It was a good neighborhood, and I couldn’t imagine having better parents. My father was very involved in our lives, something I didn’t see much of in some of my friends’ families, where their fathers worked their asses off, came home, ate dinner, had a few cocktails, and went to sleep. I can’t recall a day passing without my father asking questions at the dinner table about our day and involving himself in our lives every chance he got. Dinner was always a treat. The hotel where my father worked was connected to the Black Angus Restaurant, and so he was always bringing home the best cuts of meat.
I began seriously lifting weights in my early teens, and with the massive amounts of food I was consuming—I could put away an entire pie and quart of milk in one sitting, not to mention those rich, meaty dinners—my scrawny body was transforming into a powerhouse. I worked hard at it.
The Vietnam War was in full swing, and while most guys my age were smoking weed and drinking any cheap form of booze they could find, I never touched either. I viewed that crap as poison and abstained from it totally because I regarded my body as sacred. I don’t drink alcohol, and getting high to me means standing on a chair.
My main concern—and that of my parents—was what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I’d had a fierce work ethic since I was twelve years old and had an after-school job delivering clothes for a neighborhood dry cleaner. There were times when I had two jobs, one in Manhattan delivering packages for a few hours and then back to the Bronx, where I’d finish off the day working for a butcher. After graduating high school, my dad got me a job as a furniture mover for the princely sum of $4.50 an hour, the minimum wage back then being $1.15 an hour. I saved my money and bought my first car, a 1959 Cadillac, which was as big as an aircraft carrier with Godzilla fins.
I wasn’t lacking for drive; direction was another story.
I contemplated joining the army, but the three-year enlistment commitment didn’t thrill me. When you’re that age, three years doing anything seems like a lifetime. A few of my friends were joining, and most wound up in Vietnam.
Also, my father was vociferous in his objection to my enlisting. “You know there’s a war going on, right?”
My father, a World War II–wounded army combat veteran, had a point, so I crossed the military off my list. But perhaps I’d have no choice: there was a lottery system back then based on birth dates, and, when the numbers were drawn, I was way down the list with little chance of being called up. Probably the only time in my life I’d ever win a lottery.
Time went by. I was eighteen and still pretty much aimless, but that was about to change. On a Friday night, I was hanging out with two friends when the subject of what we were going to do with the rest of the weekend came up. Rain was forecast; therefore, I didn’t consider drag racing.
“Taking the police test,” one guy said, which was quickly echoed by my other friend. “It’s a walk-in, over at Clinton.” I’d graduated from Clinton, an all-boys high school in the neighborhood.
I knew nothing about any police test. “What’s a walk-in?” I asked.
They explained to me that in an effort to attract more applicants to the police department, the usual mountain of paperwork that accompanied an application to be a cop had been waived. This was 1967, when the Vietnam War was kicking into high gear and there was a general fuck-the-government sentiment in the country. Cops weren’t popular, and the city’s recruitment effort to fill the ranks that were rapidly depleting due to retirement and the draft was going nowhere. Eliminating some of the paperwork seemed like a good idea, and the test might attract people who didn’t have anything better to do that day.
“What time’s this test?” I asked. I was curious but not really interested.
I considered this. On the one hand, I’d been working all week and wanted to sleep in tomorrow morning; on the other hand, I was hauling other people’s furniture for Neptune Movers for a living and there was nothing to look forward to in that line of work except a bad back.
I decided to give my future half a damn. “Tell you what … come by and ring my bell when you’re on your way. If I’m up, I’ll go with you.”
Well, I was up, and I took the test along with thousands of applicants in other schools throughout the city.
I didn’t know what to expect, but the test was made very easy to get the 3,500 cops the city needed. I was sure I scored high and expected to be called up when I turned twenty-one. The moment I completed the test, I began to get psyched about the job. The day before, I couldn’t have cared less about the NYPD, but after the test I was envisioning what seemed to be a bright future.
I was half right: I scored in the top 5 percent, but instead of waiting to turn twenty-one before I went on the job, I was offered the position of trainee in the interim. A trainee is a civilian member of the NYPD who is basically in the civil service equivalent of purgatory. Too young to be a sworn officer, you languish in a non–law enforcement job until you hit the magic age. So on January 28, 1968, I was appointed an NYPD trainee.
Trainees wore gray uniforms and attended the police academy on East Twentieth Street in Manhattan. The uniforms, which displayed the NYPD shoulder patch, were also worn to and from the academy because the city wanted us to be visible and, as such, a deterrent to crime. I thought nothing about traveling the New York City subway with a uniform that clearly identified me as belonging to the NYPD. No gun, no shield, no nightstick, just a blissfully content trainee riding in the belly of the beast with no fear of being slaughtered by a cop hater. True, I wasn’t a cop, but I was on my way to being one and was identified with the job by the uniform. Only when I think back on it now does it strike me as strange. Anyone with a score to settle or a political statement to make could’ve taken me out with no fuss. Those were different times, however, and while cops were unpopular—that never changes—they weren’t being ambushed for no other reason than that they chose the wrong profession, like they are today.
Trainees were taught nonlethal skills, learning how the job worked on an administrative level. The NYPD, like any law enforcement agency, documents everything, and has a form to fit any police contingency. We learned them all, plus some technical expertise like how to fingerprint civilians who needed prints taken for a variety of city licenses and permits.
After training, I was assigned to the 44th Precinct, located near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, pretty close to home. I was no longer required to wear the gray uniform and came to work dressed pretty much in anything I wanted. The cops were glad to have me; whatever I was assigned to do meant they didn’t have to, which in this case was fingerprinting civilians.
Tedious and frustrating, fingerprinting people who weren’t used to the process often screwed up the print cards by unnecessary movement or failure to listen to directions to remain relaxed and let me roll their fingers. Still, being around real cops every day made me even more anxious to get my shield and hit the street.
I wasn’t comfortable working indoors, but I had little choice. The cops had a lot of freedom, did their jobs, and had leeway as to how they performed their duties. The job was proactive; the bosses wanted their troops to make arrests and stir up the pot. Cops were respected by their bosses, if not by the community, but it made little difference. Cops liked being cops; I could see it on their faces, their interaction with each other, and their respect for the sergeants who supervised them. The sergeants backed their cops, and cops wanted to please their sergeants. Morale is everything in police work.
* * *
I fully expected to spend my trainee time in the Four-Four, but after seven months was abruptly transferred to police headquarters at 240 Centre Street in Manhattan with the advent of the new 911 emergency system. New Yorkers could now dial three digits in the event of a police emergency instead of calling an operator, who would then direct the call to the appropriate precinct or dial seven numbers to a borough emergency line.
Initially, I took incoming phone calls from those needing police assistance. It was a bit of a learning curve—not for me, but for the good citizens of the city who didn’t seem to know what an emergency was. I’d get calls for literally everything, from the proverbial lost cat to people who needed directions. I gained a respect for anyone who has to deal with the public, particularly over the phone.
Luckily, I got moved within the 911 system to the action desk, which is where ranking members of the job got informed regarding important or high-profile occurrences throughout the city. Details of violent crimes, multivictim accidents, fires, floods, etcetera got relayed to the people who made the decisions.
There were no personal computers back then; information was passed the old-fashioned way, by writing it on an index card, putting it on a conveyer belt, and sending it on its way. I did this for fourteen months until the day I turned twenty-one. This is a milestone in anyone’s life, but for me it was like being reborn.
I was going to be a police officer—finally.
* * *
I was sworn in on February 2, 1970, and went back to the police academy, this time to learn the job of being a New York City cop.
I took to the training immediately, particularly the physical portion. I’d been weight training for years and was in top shape, still following my no-booze, no-cigarettes, no-drugs policy. My fellow recruits, especially those who smoked, had a difficult time keeping up with the daily runs. We ran inside the gym, circling it numerous times until we were ready to drop. These runs had been conducted outside at one time, with hour-long jogs through the neighborhood, until people who didn’t like cops very much started to throw stuff from rooftops at the rookies.
As part of our physical training we also had to become CPR certified. While we were taught how to resuscitate someone, using the technique wasn’t mandatory. Locking lips with an unconscious stranger while trying to breathe life into him can be hazardous to your own life. I know quite a few cops who contracted diseases, mostly hepatitis, doing just that. The unwritten rule adhered to by most of the rank and file was that we would use CPR only on someone we knew (read: family). Soon enough, I would come to discover how important CPR training would be, but for now it was just another skill we were adding to our résumé on a daily basis.
What the recruits most looked forward to was firearms training, which was conducted at the outdoor range at Rodman’s Neck in the Bronx. The facility was under the command of Lieutenant Frank McGee, a former World War II submariner who ran the range like a military installation. Rodman’s Neck was a self-contained operation with dining facilities, expansive firing ranges, and numerous Quonset-hut classrooms. The place was kept orderly by trusted prisoners from nearby Rikers Island, who roamed the sixty-acre facility with landscaping tools.
I initially questioned the wisdom of having convicts mingling with cops, but that apprehension proved to be unfounded when I became aware of the numerous incidents where the prisoners would turn in guns found in bathrooms, classrooms, and the mess hall, left there by negligent police officers. I guess that’s why they called the cons “trusties.”
We learned our sidearm, the .38 caliber pistol, through live-fire exercises and classroom tactical instruction. I’d never fired a gun before but became proficient quickly; however, I never became a “gun guy” like many other police officers.
Most cops, whether they had a predilection toward guns before they came on the job or not, naturally developed an interest in them because of the proliferation of firearms on the street. Most cops research firearms over the course of their careers and purchase them occasionally. By the end of a career, a cop could accumulate quite a collection, ten or more firearms being a modest number.
I remember when the Dirty Harry movies were popular that a lot of guys I worked with bought Harry’s gun, a .44 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, wielding thoughts of kicking ass and shooting bad guys like Clint Eastwood. The same thing happened with the James Bond movies, only in that case it was the .380 Walther PPK.
Both were strictly fantasies; the NYPD had a strict policy of what guns we could carry, and the two celebrity pistols weren’t on the list. One of the firearms instructors at Rodman’s Neck told us, “You can carry any gun you want, just as long as it’s either a Smith & Wesson or Colt .38.” That didn’t leave us much room to comparison shop. I chose the Colt because it carried six rounds, an improvement on the Smith’s five.
I considered the gun a tool and treated it with respect. I had no idea at the time that proficiency with my gun would save my life on numerous occasions. I’ve been retired for more years than I was on the job and I still carry my six-shot, snub-nosed Colt Detective Special revolver, while some other retirees opt for semiautomatics with large magazine capacities. I was good with my revolvers—I carried two while on duty—so why learn an entirely new weapon? Surviving a gunfight is about shot placement, not throwing numerous rounds at a target and hoping a few hit their mark. Training is the key, not necessarily large-capacity weapons.
The academic part of the training was tougher, especially if we had the gym in the morning and class in the afternoon. Staying awake after running countless miles, swimming, boxing, and eating a massive lunch was its own learning curve. The academy ran Monday through Friday, and the weekends were a much-needed respite. On Friday, March 13, my plans for a weekend away from studying were dashed by the blizzard that came to be known as the Great March Superstorm.
All days off were canceled when the snow began to fall. Accompanying the snow were winds of forty to sixty miles per hour that made those pretty flakes feel like darts when they struck your face. I was assigned to Midtown with six other rookies. We were told to “keep the peace,” even though the city probably hadn’t been this safe since the last super snowstorm. Nary a soul was on the street except for us rookies. Manhattan resembled a New York version of the movie The Omega Man, in which Charlton Heston is the lone survivor of the human race in a postapocalyptic Los Angeles.
As luck would have it, we were making New York safe from bad guys about half a mile from the San Carlos Hotel, the very same that my dad managed. After freezing our asses off for a few hours and not once seeing a sergeant (or any other cop, for that matter), we decided we needed a break. New York would have to fend for itself until we warmed up.
When we arrived at the hotel, we looked like survivors of an avalanche. Our uniforms were frozen solid and we had icicles hanging from our noses and eyebrows. Our hands were cold to the point of futility in the event we had to draw our weapons.
My father took one look at me and said, “Maybe you should’ve gone to Vietnam after all. At least it’s warmer over there.”
I grunted in agreement.
“You guys hungry?” he asked rhetorically.
Cops are always hungry.
Within minutes we were seated in the deserted adjoining Black Angus Restaurant. I knew prices in this place were steep, and I had a feeling we were about to get a free meal.
We were a group of rookies who’d been inundated with numerous lectures in the academy on how to avoid corruption, and here we were about to be fed a few hundred dollars’ worth of prime beef. We exchanged glances, not knowing what to say when my father recognized our dilemma.
“Look, guys, the meal’s on me,” he said with a broad smile. “I’m paying.”
We immediately began to protest, insisting on paying, but my dad persisted. “I run the hotel. I can do whatever I want. C’mon, eat; I’ll take care of it.” He looked at me. “A father can’t buy his son and his friends a meal?”
We knew damn well that he was covering our asses and that the food was a freebee. We relented. Famished, the cook didn’t even have to broil the steaks as far as we were concerned. All these years later, I still can taste that meal.
Out the window we could see the snow was accumulating at a rapid pace. There had to be at least ten inches, and now sleet was mixing in and the wind was roaring through Fiftieth Street like a freight train.
My dad called me aside during dessert. “Listen … roads are impassible, subways are frozen to their tracks. You and your buddies aren’t going to be able to get home.”
I wondered where this was going.
“So come back here when you’re done. I’ve got rooms set aside. I’m staying here too. Your mother already knows we won’t be home.” At that, he patted me on the shoulder and walked away before I had a chance to protest.
I went back to the table and told the other rookies about the accommodations. No one bitched; they knew we had little choice other than walking home. They called their families. We were the guests of the San Carlos Hotel.
We went back out on the street for the remainder of our tour, mostly huddled in doorways to avoid the biting winds. At midnight we made it back to the hotel. My dad had already turned in.
Quite a guy, my father.
* * *
After a week of classes and more snow duty, I looked forward to kicking back, seeing friends, being with my family. On the evening of March 21, 1970, a Saturday, my dad and I had a talk about my new job. My father was always interested in what his sons were doing.
“So, you like it, Ralph … the police?”
“Yeah, I really do.” I laughed. “Who knew I’d be doing this? I can see a future here, get promoted someday, maybe make detective or go to a motorcycle unit.” Of course, I still had no idea what the job was going to be like once I got assigned to a command. What we were learning in the academy was The Book—the laws, rules, procedures—and we were whipping ourselves into great shape.
I’d talked to a veteran patrolman one day—we didn’t get the unisex title of “police officer” until a few years later—outside the 13th Precinct, which shared the building with the academy. He told me two things: “You know all that stuff they crammed into your head in the academy? Well, forget it. It’s not the real job; that you’re going to learn when you hit the street.” And the other pearl: “This is no job for an adult … you get your twenty years in, take your pension, and get the fuck out.”
He was right about the first one, but I would never make it to the twenty-year milestone.
My father had said, “You’re going to see a lot, Ralph. Don’t let it get to you.” He shrugged. “I can only relate to the army … the war, but I think both are similar in some ways.”
My dad rarely spoke of his wartime experiences, like most combat veterans, and when he did he was vague. But I did know he was shot in the leg and that he’d dug out the bullet with a knife rather than be evacuated to a field hospital, where his chances of getting his leg amputated were high because of the lack of adequate medical care. He still had the knife after all these years, and the scar from his handiwork.
“What I’m saying,” he said, “is be your own man. You lead a clean life and I’m proud of you. Don’t be swayed by what others do. Think for yourself.”
We talked a while longer, then I left to see my friends. My dad was still up when I got home after midnight, and we spoke some more before I went to bed. I think back on that night often and cherish the time we had spent together. It would be our last.
* * *
I awoke with a start when my brother burst into my room screaming. “Ralph, it’s Dad!”
I heard my mother shouting my father’s name in the living room.
I shook the sleep from my head and leapt to my feet. Racing to the living room, I saw my father prone on the floor wearing just shorts and a T-shirt. My mother was on her knees bending over him, crying.
I hit the floor next to my dad. He was very pale and was unresponsive when I called his name and grabbed his shoulder.
I was close to panic; my arms felt weak and I began shaking him, calling out “Dad!” numerous times.
No movement, no response.
All of us were crying, but tears weren’t going help my father. I began CPR, which I’d learned just weeks before. Between breathing into my father’s mouth and chest compressions, I told my mother to dial 911. She ran for the phone.
A team from the emergency services unit (ESU) was there in literally less than two minutes; they must’ve been driving past my building when they got the call. ESU cops are the elite of the NYPD. Highly trained, they respond to everything from potential suicide jumpers on bridges to hostage situations. They are also experts in stabilizing sick and injured people until medical personnel arrive.
They worked on my dad feverishly while my mom, brother, and I stood back and watched. I felt utterly helpless. As minutes passed with no signs of life, I came to the realization that my dad wasn’t going to regain consciousness. He was dead. We were devastated.
My father had succumbed to a massive heart attack. As is Jewish custom, he was laid to rest before sunset the following day. I couldn’t comprehend how swiftly he left us. He was literally here one day, buried the next. The void in my life, as well as my mom’s and brother’s, was incalculable.
The NYPD excused me from duty, not necessarily out of compassion, but to comply with a contractual stipulation allotting four days off for the death of an immediate family member. Despite my overwhelming grief, I was ready to go back to training. I needed to get my mind on something else, and relieving my sorrow on a daily four-mile run proved cathartic. Four decades later, not a day goes by that I don’t think about my father.
* * *
Just before graduation from the police academy in April 1970, we rookies got to request our desired precinct. We prepared a form appropriately called a “dream sheet” because if you thought you were going to be sent to the precinct you requested, you were dreaming.
I didn’t care where I went, just as long as it was a high-crime command. I wanted to go where the action was—the more crime, the better. Most cops want this because you get to learn the job quicker and make quality arrests. For those of us who entertained ideas of becoming detectives, high-crime precincts were the way to go. I hadn’t thought about my career path; at this point I was open to anything.
Much to my surprise I got my wish; I was assigned to the 41st Precinct in the South Bronx, which would become known as Fort Apache given the untamed territory that it covered and the propensity for the station house to get attacked—and in more than one case, overrun—by rioters. The Four-One had the city’s highest crime rate and arguably the worst working conditions of the city’s seventy-seven precincts. It was with great anticipation that I set out on the Monday morning after graduating—uniforms and gear slung over my shoulder—to what would be my home for the next five years.
* * *
The precinct station house was located on Simpson Street, right in the belly of the beast. A lone oasis surrounded by urban squalor, the station house was opened in 1914 and hadn’t been refurbished since.
I entered the three-story building amid mass confusion. It was a little after 3 PM and the place was a whirlwind of cops coming and going with handcuffed prisoners, EMS attendants assisting a patrolman with a bandage around his head into the back of an ambulance, and a drunk on the front steps of the building asking cops for money. Most of the cops ignored him but a few made disparaging remarks about his mother. At least he got some recognition. I got none.
Someone once told me that one of the most stressful days in anyone’s life is when they get married. Apparently that person never experienced the first day in a precinct as a rookie cop. Cops walked past me as if I didn’t exist. I’d been told by instructors in the academy to expect this sort of greeting, or lack thereof, but it’s unnerving when you experience it firsthand. All newly assigned rookies are treated like nonentities until such time as they prove themselves to be capable police officers.
I presented myself at the desk, which in every station house looks like an elevated alter with a sergeant or lieutenant presiding behind it. The desk is the nerve center of the station house, the first stop for cops and civilians as they enter the building. The desk officer is in charge of … well, everything. He’s responsible for the entire shift and for running the command in the absence of the precinct’s commanding officer.
There is protocol when dealing with the desk officer, in this case a blustery old lieutenant who looked as if the station house had been built around him. As procedure dictated, all superior officers were to be saluted, the desk officer being no exception. I whipped a sharp salute and introduced myself.
“Probationary patrolman Ralph Friedman reporting for duty, sir.”
The good lieutenant had just hung up the phone and it’d started ringing again. A patrolman standing next to him with a pile of paper in his hands was vying for his attention, but the lieutenant stopped what he was doing and stared down at me as if to say, “Whogivesafuck?”
“Well, isn’t that nice. I’ll alert the media. And what can I do for you, Officer Friedman?”
“I, uh … just got assigned here. From the academy.”
He shuffled some papers looking for my name “Yeah, here you are. You’re in the Fifth Squad. Go upstairs and find a locker. Then report to the 124 room to fill out some paperwork.”
Finding an empty locker was easier said than done. Every cop was supposed to be assigned one locker, the essential word here being “one.” Cops in the Four-One must’ve never gotten the memo, because here every cop had at least two lockers, sometimes three. The spares were for civilian clothes and what other stuff they didn’t want their wives to see. The occasional case of beer usually found its way into one of those lockers. I checked every locker on the floor; all were taken, and so they were to remain for the next four months. I worked out of my car until I grabbed a locker from a retiring cop. I stood over him while he removed his belongings from his three lockers and made sure another cop didn’t grab them. I only claimed one, taking pity on the next rookie.
After I got settled I went to the clerical office, or the 124 room as it’s known on the job (no one knew why it was called that, just part of a new language I needed to learn), and filled out a pile of forms. That completed, I reported back to the desk.
The lieutenant I’d spoken to before was on his meal hour, and I had to reintroduce myself to his replacement, a sergeant who was younger and less harried.
“Okay, Friedman,” the sergeant said after he consulted the roll-call sheet, “you’re on a foot post, post eight.” He gave me the location and boundaries; two blocks of stacked tenements with a few mom-and-pop businesses located four blocks from the station house. “Stick around a few minutes, I’ll get you a ride over.” He looked around for a stray cop.
“Nah, that’s okay, boss. I’ll walk,” I said. “It’ll help me get the lay of the land.”
He pondered that. “Well, okay.” After what seemed to be an afterthought he added, “Take it easy out there; might be a little time before you get acclimated to what goes on around here. You think you got a potential problem or an arrest situation, get to a phone and call for backup. And be sure and sign out before you go home.” He gestured to a table where the roll call would be. “Got to account for all you guys at the end of the tour. You wouldn’t want to be lying in an alley somewhere with an ax buried in your head and us not aware, right?” He smiled.
I thought that had to be a rhetorical question, as he turned away from me before I thought of an answer.
* * *
I heard the crowd before I saw it: an uproar composed of a mix of laughter, cheers, and jeers. There were about thirty people clumped in a tight circle about a block away. I jogged to the scene and pushed my way through the mob.
They’d cleared an opening for a man gyrating and spewing gibberish. He was about forty years old and naked as the day he was born. It might’ve been April, but it was chilly; I was wearing my brand-new job-approved winter overcoat, a snappy-looking garment called a choker. It was high and tight around the neck and it did just what the name implied. Meanwhile, Naked Man was sweating. Probably high on something, I surmised.
The crowd was having a great time taunting him. When they saw me they stepped back, as if to say, “What’re you gonna do about this guy, Dick Tracy?”
Good question. I must’ve missed the class at the academy regarding naked lunatics, but figured there had to be a law against this behavior. So I whipped out my shiny new handcuffs and pounced on the guy. He resisted, but not much. Some of the pack of onlookers jeered, some applauded, and some cursed me. Cops got injured often by unruly mobs, but this crowd didn’t strike me as violent; they seemed more bent on having a good time.
We didn’t have portable radios back then, and I couldn’t see myself jammed into a phone booth (providing I could even find one with a functioning phone) with Naked Man, so I decided to march him to the station house. Aside from gawking pedestrians, my trip to the house was without incident. Naked Man had calmed down and was now downright docile, although mumbling incoherently. As I approached the station house, a group of cops good-naturedly broke my chops.
“Hey, you looking for the pool? It’s on the roof.” “Talk about a fuckin’ holdup! They left this guy with nothing.” “Taking strip searches a bit far, aren’t you, rookie?”
I stood before the desk. The older lieutenant was back, but he had his head buried in the command blotter, a huge bound book that was used to record the events of the day and acted as an ongoing history of a precinct. It could also double as a doorstop. Or as a handy weapon if the situation called for it.
He finally looked up from whatever he was writing. I expected a look of shock, dismay, inquisitiveness … something. What I got was a bored expression and a line I’d come to hear thousands of times in my career, “What’ve you got, kid?”
Almost everyone on the job under the age of fifty gets called “kid” from time to time; nothing derogatory about it, just cop talk.
During my short stroll back to the station house I thought about what I’d do with this guy. An arrest? I didn’t think so. More likely just a nut case, better known on the job as a “psycho.” Years later, the job changed the designation to “emotionally disturbed person,” or EDP.
“Looks like a psycho, Lou,” I said, using the accepted diminutive for his rank. I could do that now. Hey, I’d brought in my first miscreant—broken my cherry so to speak, my first day on the street.
He shuffled some paper and mumbled, “I see you didn’t waste any time making the streets safe.”
I didn’t respond.
The lieutenant who had assigned me to the post had a cop call an ambulance for Naked Man, and I accompanied him to a hospital mental ward. I was informed my “nut case” would probably be cut loose the next day after he came down from whatever he’d ingested, if that was in fact his problem. He could’ve been just plain crazy. Bottom line was I discovered that no one really cared. After preparing a mountain of paperwork, I went back to the street.
As minor as this incident was, I hadn’t waited to take a watchful, cautious approach, as I’d been advised. I felt confident I could handle anything the street had to throw at me. Looking back, I knew just a little more than I did the day before meeting Naked Man (when I knew nothing), but my raging testosterone told me differently: I felt that I was ready for anything. I was also certain that I’d found my calling.
* * *
During the next few weeks I tore through the streets of the command. I was a cop on a mission—the mission being to lock up everyone who needed arresting. There was no shortage of targets. Fort Apache was replete with drug dealers, robbers, burglars, and any other criminal you could think of.
On one of my first days on patrol, I glanced through the window of a bodega (a small mom-and-pop grocery store) and spotted a thirtysomething male taking money from an older male and giving him a small slip of paper in return. I took off my uniform hat so as not to draw attention and observed the scene for a few minutes. The procedure was repeated several times with men and women of varying ages. The guy taking the money glanced around every so often, but didn’t seem overcautious.
I didn’t know what was going on, but whatever it was screamed “illegal!”
I entered the store and came up behind the guy when he was alone. Before he could react, he was cuffed and read his rights. His only response was “You’re fucking kidding me, right?” After that, he took his right to remain silent seriously.
I searched him on the spot and found numerous policy slips. I figured I’d collared a numbers runner, which is a rare catch for a uniformed member of the job. Gamblers were usually arrested by the plainclothes cops of the Public Morals Division, whose job it was to enforce vice laws. But this guy was mine, and I took him on the now-familiar stroll to the station house.
I found myself back in front of the desk before the same lieutenant I’d dealt with when I brought in Naked Man. Behind the desk with him was a deputy inspector who was signing the blotter when he saw me with my prisoner.
“You know what you’ve got there, Officer?” the deputy inspector asked. He was in his fifties and looked every inch a high-ranking NYPD boss—pressed uniform and rack of departmental medals.
I snapped to attention, deferring to his rank. “Yes, sir. A policy runner.” I waved a fistful of policy slips. “I got him…”
“You’ve got more than a policy runner there, son,” he interrupted. He said to the desk officer, “Lou, secure this prisoner while I speak to the young officer here.” He came from behind the desk and pointed to the muster room, where the platoons turned out for each shift.
Where was this going?
It was between tours so the muster room was empty. The DI went directly to a glass-enclosed bulletin board that was secured to a wall. Concealing it was a dark-green shade, the kind you’d find on a window, with a pull string on the bottom. “You know what this is, Officer?”
I’d obviously seen the shrouded bulletin board every day but hadn’t given it much thought. In those first few weeks, my only interest in the station house was getting out of it as soon as possible.
“No, sir. Just got here, actually.”
He looked at me quizzically. “From where?”
“Police academy, sir.”
He grunted. “What’s your name?”
I told him.
“Well, Officer Friedman, you just locked up one of the precinct’s KGs,” at which point he ceremoniously pulled down slightly on the shade, then released it.
The shade shot up to reveal a hierarchical chart, with pictures of all the known gamblers (KGs) operating within the confines of the Four-One. There were about ten men on the chart. All were members of organized crime and, as such, were police enforcement targets. Very elusive targets I was to find out. My prisoner was near the top of the chart.
“You should be proud of yourself, Officer. You not only bagged one of the slipperiest KGs around, but you made the command and yourself look good. And you know what else?”
“You made me look good.” Turned out this particular inspector had been looking to go to the Public Morals Division. One of his cops taking a KG off the street would help him get there.
He gave me a day off on the spot for a good arrest. Time off was a common reward for quality arrests, the job being very proactive back then. This system of rewards was abandoned in the 1980s when administrators decided a reactive police force was more desirable than a proactive one; rather than seek out good arrests, the police would now be reacting to crime. The rationale was that if cops less actively looked to make collars, there would be fewer potential problems (such as cops being too aggressive). As a result, the number of arrests diminished, as did job morale. Cops are just like any other worker in any other field: reward them for quality work and they’ll produce. It isn’t all about pay raises; it’s about recognition for a job well done.
But this was the 1970s, when getting a day off and an “attaboy” from an inspector meant I was appreciated. The incident with the DI may well have given me the impetus to make me the cop and detective I was to become. As for the KG, he got time served—a day in the can before being arraigned—and a small fine. I was learning that the police had little if any impact on sentencing.
* * *
Within a few months I found myself in a radio car. Every rookie’s goal was to get a “seat,” a permanent assignment to a patrol sector in a marked radio car. The Four-One had nineteen sectors, a large amount for a command that was only 2.5 square miles. The first step in the process of getting the coveted seat was proving yourself on foot patrol. In my first few months in Fort Apache, I’d made enough good arrests to catch the attention of the precinct commanding officer, Captain Tom Walker, whom I remember as the best CO of my career. He was tough but fair and backed up his cops. In 1976 he wrote the definitive book about the precinct, appropriately entitled Fort Apache. He was also a Sherlock Holmes expert and won the Holmes category on television’s $64,000 Question, a popular quiz show back then.
Traditionally, radio-car assignments begin on a fill-in basis and are not a daily occurrence. I’d be assigned a seat where one partner was on vacation, in court, or out sick. Every few days I’d get lucky and land in a sector, but I was still mostly walking foot posts. The downside of filling in sector cars was that I didn’t have a steady partner; I’d bounce around from sector to sector wherever I was needed.
In police work, particularly in a high-crime command like the Four-One, having a steady partner was reassuring because you worked as a team and always knew how your partner would react in any given situation. Partners worked out strategies and tactics well before they were needed. A cop relied on his partner to save his life should the shit hit the fan. It’s often said that a cop’s partner knows more about him than his significant other. The street breeds intimacy, and there’s no one you trust more than your partner. No one.
The upside of being the fill-in guy was that you got to ride with many cops, so when the time came to get a permanent seat, you might seek out someone you once rode with, who also might be looking for a new partner because of his current partner’s retirement or transfer. Sometimes, however, filling in can lead to disaster.
One such time was when I was temporarily partnered with patrolman Gus Paulson, who had a steady sector. This was my first time working with Gus. He had five years on the job, a veteran by Four-One standards. His regular partner was on vacation and we were to ride together for a week. Gus was a decent guy and he seemed to know what he was doing, but otherwise I knew nothing about him.
After a brief handshake, Gus explained how things were going to work.
“You’re new to a sector, so maybe you should be the recorder for the tour so you get the paperwork down.”
Partners usually switched jobs halfway through the tour so each got a turn preparing reports as the “recorder” and driving as the “operator.” But since we weren’t really partners, and I was a rookie, perhaps Gus had the right idea: get a trial by fire by being bombarded with forms and learn how that part of the job worked. While I didn’t relish writing for eight hours, I went along with it because I had little choice. Gus and I may have been the same rank, but as a rookie I had no juice when it came to anything procedural. Seniority rules. Welcome to the world of civil service.
It was July and the Four-One was jumping. Even though the sector was composed of only a few square blocks, those streets were crammed with tenements and the crime and calls for service that went along with too many people in close proximity.
We were constantly rolling from one job to the next: fights, shots-fired calls, burglaries and robberies in progress, and crimes of lesser consequence, but just as time-consuming.
One thing about Gus, though, he always found the time to stop cars.
Car stops are a cop’s reservoir for arrests. Most good collars come from car stops. The law dictates that a police officer can stop a car only if he has reasonable cause to make the stop. A traffic infraction is reasonable cause. Once the car is stopped, it can be determined if the driver’s been drinking or perhaps wanted on a warrant, if there’s contraband in plain view, or any number of other violations that could land the driver in jail.
I was always looking to make an arrest so I was up for stopping cars. Since I was the recorder, my tactical position would be behind the stopped car and off to the right while Gus spoke to the driver. I could observe what was going on through the rear window and be ready to take action should the stop go sideways. We stopped around six cars per tour, a pretty high number considering all the 911 calls we were responding to.
On a day I’ll never forget, Gus and I were on a tour when the radio dispatcher advised: “Four-One Sector Mike, ten-two the house forthwith.”
We were in Sector Mike. A “forthwith” was just shy of “you should be here already.” Someone wanted us in the station house immediately. My initial feeling was one of mild curiosity—why were we being summoned ASAP?—followed by one of dread. When I had more years on the job, I’d know that a “forthwith” to the command was usually a bad thing, but even then I knew this couldn’t be good.
I looked to Gus for clarification. “What do you think this is about?”
Gus looked forlorn. “I think I’m about to be locked up.”
“What? Arrested?” I couldn’t have heard him correctly.
Gus reached into his pocket and pulled out some neatly folded bills. “Here,” he said, dumping them on my lap. “Hold on to this money for me.” We turned onto Southern Boulevard, a few blocks from the station house.
I was confused. “Why? What is this?” I scooped up the bills and gave them a fast count; sixty dollars in fives and tens.
He stared straight ahead, driving calmly. “Ralph,” he said, almost inaudibly, “just hold on to the money … No questions, please.”
The bills were folded in half separately, one bill on top of another. I put them in my wallet. There was no more conversation. As we parked in front of the station house, Gus handed me the car keys, gave me a wan smile, and we went inside.
Lined up in front of the desk was a gauntlet of bosses of varying ranks, all above the rank of lieutenant. They were staring at us, which brought us to a halt. A grim-looking inspector came forward.
“Which one of you is Paulson?” These were the days before name tags.
Gus stepped forward. “I am, sir.” He had turned a sickly shade of pale.
The inspector extended an open palm. “Your gun and shield, Officer.” His eyes were sad, almost fatherly with evident pity. The rest of the bosses looked uneasy; a few slid their hands over their holstered guns. Cops have been known to do strange things when arrested, and the bosses’ movement to their revolvers was cautionary. Suicide was not unusual, shooting one’s arresting officer rare, but being prepared for any outcome is just good tactics.
Gus was being arrested for shaking down motorists. I was to find out later that there had been complaints from motorists that Gus was shaking them down for cash after being stopped for traffic violations. He’d been doing this during our car stops and had been doing it for quite a while. The shakedowns were unobtrusive and deftly conducted. I had no idea what was going on from my position at the rear of the stopped cars. All I knew was that I had the proceeds of the crimes in my wallet. Was I about to be searched? Was any of the money marked? I felt my throat close; my palms began to sweat. The inspector turned to me.
“Resume patrol, Officer. You’re excused.”
I turned and made for the door on wobbly legs, hoping they would get me to the radio car. I wanted to get as far from the station house as possible.
I fell into the driver’s seat, my head spinning, the tainted money burning hot in my wallet. As I started the motor, I realized that I had no partner; mine was on his way to jail. All the radio cars in the NYPD are manned by two cops, but the last thing I wanted to do was go back into the house and ask for a partner. I had visions of one of the bosses saying, “Hey, Friedman, while you’re here empty your pockets.” The neatly folded single bills were obviously the proceeds of the shakedowns, and while that couldn’t be assumed in a court of law, this was the NYPD, where a cop is guilty until proven innocent. What’s more, I was a probationary police officer and, as such, could get canned for any reason or no reason until my probationary year was over.
I considered stashing the money in the car—between the seat cushions seemed like a good place. Then paranoia kicked in. Was I being watched? I was parked directly in front of the house, after all. I saw my job slipping away and I’d done nothing wrong. Sure, I knew I should’ve handed over the bills, but the unofficial code of the job forbade turning on a fellow cop. To do so would brand me as a rat. I’d live in my own hell for the rest of my career, unable to work anywhere in the city without my unsavory reputation preceding me. Gus, a crooked cop, would have better standing than me. Nope, I was going to set a precedent; I was going to be the first cop in the hellhole that was the Four-One to go on patrol in a one-man car. Did I have a death wish? Perhaps, but death seemed a better alternative than returning to the house.
I handled calls alone the rest of the day, with everyone from street junkies to cops in other radio cars giving me funny looks. Nothing of consequence occurred and I had plenty of time to think.
It wasn’t rare for cops in the NYPD to shake down motorists in the 1960s and before, but in the ’70s the tide began to turn. An increase in blue-ribbon commissions investigating the matter had a lot to do with it, but mostly it was the caliber of new cops that changed the way the job was done. Many recruits were returning Vietnam vets, who thirsted for action and had enough indoctrination in the military to care about their honor. In my case, if it ever crossed my mind to do such a thing, the incident with Gus swayed me forever. The humiliation that getting arrested would bring to me and my family would be incalculable, and I vowed that day to resist temptation, do my job, and sleep well at night. No amount of money, especially the paltry sum Gus lost his job and freedom over, was worth it. When I think back on that incident today, I realize that I’d learned a valuable lesson. I like money and I made my share working overtime, but a dirty dollar wasn’t part of my future. I would look to get assigned to units that had reputations for incorruptibility because being associated with police officers who were less than honest depressed me.
If a cop is going to go bad, it usually occurs in increments: taking small amounts like Gus, then steadily increasing the scores. A cop might shake down motorists one day and graduate to extorting money from drug dealers down the line.
* * *
I sought Gus out at his new job at a construction site about six months later. He’d been given a pass on jail time and was just fired. Gus’s arrest occurred during the Knapp Commission hearings, a board of inquiry convened to root out corruption in the NYPD. The last thing the job needed was to broadcast that it’d found yet another corrupt cop. He was lucky; you don’t want to be a cop in prison. Survival is highly doubtful.
Most fired cops can’t get a decent job. Not too many employers want to hire a terminated police officer, the reason they lost their job being inconsequential. A cop who didn’t make it to retirement and left the job was viewed with a jaundiced eye by most employers. Most cops in this predicament gravitate toward construction work, where anyone with a strong back can get scooped right up (and laid off just as quickly when weather turns bad). It’s a tough way to make a living.
I spotted Gus before he spotted me, and I decided to approach him and say hello. Besides, I still had a chore left undone …
He was leaning on a shovel by a fifty-five-gallon drum that was burning wood, embers flying in the mid-January wind. There were several other workers getting warm, and when Gus saw me, he gestured for me to follow him, which I did at a discreet distance.
He had aged: the not-so-great outdoors in the dead of winter and the physical labor not agreeing with him. He forced a grin and shook my hand.
“How’re you doing, Gus?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I’m doing. You?”
“I’m okay,” I said.
And so it went for a few minutes—small talk that trailed into minutiae. Finally, I said what I came to say. “You know, I still got that money you asked me to hold.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Money?”
I removed the bills from my wallet. They were in the same configuration as when he’d passed them to me six months ago, stacked atop each other like business cards. He took a half step back and held up his hands. “Hey, I don’t know nothing about any money.” He was shaking his head, feigning bewilderment. “I never asked you to hold any money for me.”
I realized Gus thought he was being set up—for what, I had no idea. His case had already been adjudicated; he was done with the criminal justice system, both as an employee and a temporary guest. He was paranoid. Most cops are, and we never lose it, but we choose to call it “healthy skepticism.” Gus, however, was overestimating himself as a target. He was an ex-cop, a fired cop. No one gave a shit about him anymore.
I was going to explain to him that it was me he was talking to, not a rat. He wasn’t being recorded, there were no Internal Affairs bogeymen hiding in dump trucks. I opened my mouth to speak and then reconsidered. I didn’t need to defend myself. I didn’t even know why I’d stopped to talk to him in the first place or why I’d held on to the money. Maybe I just felt sorry for him. In the coming years, I’d hear about other corrupt police officers. Most of them were excellent cops … some genuine heroes.
“Forget it, man,” I mumbled, then I did an about-face and started back to my car. Before reaching it, I tossed the stacked bills into the burning drum, much to the astonishment of the huddled masses.
* * *
I picked up a steady seat with Rafael Torres, a bright cop but not the most active in the arrest department, which was fine with me. I would take all the collars he didn’t want. Torres had a working wife and a platoon of kids. One parent had to be home with the kids while the other one worked, and arrests got in the way of their finely tuned schedule.
There were quite a few cops in the same situation. I believe my annual salary was around $9,600 back then, and I had a hard time just supporting myself. I couldn’t imagine trying to take care of a family on that kind of money. A lot of cops also had second jobs, and it was a hassle to go to court, so they would seek out a partner who would take the arrests.
I could depend on Rafael, and that’s all I cared about. His family came first, and that’s the way it should be. I learned a lesson from him and other cops in a similar financial squeeze: I intended to stay single for as long as possible. I liked my creature comforts, my Harley, my leisure time at the gym, and dating up a storm. Many women gravitated toward cops because they assumed we weren’t serial killers, and I was taking full advantage of my single status.
We were cruising up Southern Boulevard late into a day tour with Rafael driving when he elbowed my arm. “Holy shit, Ralph, get a load of that fucking guy!”
He was pointing to a big man—had to be at least six foot four—pistol-whipping a girl half his size. He was wailing on her face and body, rapidly pounding at her with the gun. Blood was spewing everywhere, and she was trying to protect her head. A few passersby glanced at the mayhem but kept on walking. This was New York, and, to take it down a notch, the South Bronx.
Our sector car was in middle of the street, stuck at a red light. I jumped out, yelling to Rafael to pull around as I ran toward the one-sided battle.
The thug saw me racing toward him and screaming for him to stop. I had my gun drawn. Apparently, he didn’t give a shit who I was because he kept brutalizing the woman.
I kicked him in his rib cage with everything I had, and he toppled off his victim. His gun went flying, and I holstered mine. He let out a stream of curses, jumped to his feet, and came for me. He had a good five inches and fifty pounds on me, but he was heavy and out of shape. I pummeled his face with roundhouse punches and kneed him in the balls, which brought him down.
He was done but still gurgling and made an attempt to get up. By now, I had a cheering section; there must’ve been fifty people urging me on. Rafael tried to jump in, but I waved him off. “Look after the girl!” I told him and went back to subduing the guy. I broke his right arm; he would be hospitalized for a week. His victim was also admitted but released before he was.
When his yellow sheet (criminal record) came back, I discovered he was a Mafia associate, a street scumbag who thought his intimidating size gave him carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted. The incident was a boyfriend-girlfriend “dispute” that could’ve turned into a homicide had we not happened by.
We recovered a .45 semiautomatic pistol, an expensive piece and a rarity in those days. Guns seized back then were usually of the Saturday-night-special variety, cheap stamped metal pieces of garbage that shot inaccurately, were manufactured mostly in the South, and were sold on the street for fifty bucks.
This was my first incident where I used excessive force, but it certainly wasn’t going to be my last. The NYPD of the 1970s didn’t frown on force, excessive or otherwise. Bringing a prisoner in dead wasn’t advised, but anything just short of it was usually overlooked and considered good police work. The job has changed, and most police officers today aren’t apt to exert the amount of force we did, whether because of more training or the proliferation of smartphones with cameras. For us cops it was a fight for survival in a borough gone rogue: if a cop showed fear or went easy on thugs, he was viewed as weak. If that happened, your career, at least in the shithole of high-crime precincts, was over. I wanted to be respected and feared.
I wanted to be the last man standing.
A battle-weary Fort Apache cop, a survivor of many street encounters, once told me, “We use violence to implement justice.” In the Four-One, these were words to live (and survive) by.
* * *
Not every incident, however, ended with victory.
A few weeks later, my partner was on vacation and someone was filling in. I don’t recall who I was riding with, but a routine car stop we made will be forever etched in my memory.
We were working a four-to-midnight tour. A few hours in, we observed two males in a brand-new Lincoln cruising casually through a section of the precinct known for street drug sales. Even by Four-One standards, this was a reckless area.
We decided to pull them over strictly on gut feelings. These guys hadn’t done anything illegal, but that indefinable sense cops get when they know something’s wrong was nagging at us. Profiling? It wasn’t the fact that the men in the car were black—the precinct is predominantly black and Hispanic—it was the new expensive car, which was rare for the area, plus, after following them for a while, they didn’t seem to have a destination. Our judgment told us they were trolling for a drug dealer.
The car pulled over as soon as we gave it a short blast on the siren and momentarily flipped on the roof lights. We got out of the car and approached the Lincoln from two sides, which was tactically correct. We did, however, forget something that would have us fighting for our lives shortly: we left our nightsticks in the radio car, a big tactical error.
This is how cops get hurt. The constant repetition of stopping cars made us sloppy; it was just another car stop that might result in an arrest, or a few issued summonses. If there was cause to arrest and they resisted, we thought we could control the situation—people who resist arrest always lose the battle. Cops come out on top, right? Not this time.
Both men were large. Later we would find out they were hired muscle for labor organizations and had no fear of cops.
The driver was sullen but handed over his paperwork. The car and license were legit, but we decided to search the vehicle anyway. Both driver and passenger objected and got out of the car. This was a bad sign; exiting a car during a police stop is forbidden, and we told them so. They didn’t give a shit, and before we knew it the battle was on.
They pounced immediately, the driver on me, the passenger on my partner. They had caught us unaware and unprepared. These guys were professional enforcers and knew if they were going to win this battle with the police, their attack had to be overwhelming and brutal … and it was.
Both of us were putting up a good fight, but we were outclassed; their fists and feet pummeled us with lightning speed. If I can be thankful for anything, it’s that neither of them had any weapons.
Speaking of weapons …
I reached for my nightstick—oops! That’s when I realized our error. The nightstick could’ve evened the odds. Known as a “baton” on the job (sounds more user-friendly than “nightstick”), it’s made of cocobolo wood, which is very dense, heavy, and durable. Cocobolo makes for a devastating weapon, but of course you have to have it to swing it.
To make matters worse, our nearest radio was the hardwired one in the car. I was on the ground trying to remain conscious and knew that the radio was our only chance to get out of this mess alive. I was being kicked like a football as I started crawling toward the car. It was twenty feet away, which might as well have been twenty miles. I prayed I could reach it before being beaten into a coma or shot with my own gun.
I finally reached the car and called in a 10-13 (officer needs assistance) while still getting the shit kicked out of me. Almost immediately, I heard sirens. A signal 10-13 is the most urgent call a police officer can broadcast. It is not overused but saved for desperate, life-threatening situations. If the position my partner and I were in didn’t fit that definition, I don’t know what did. Cops drop what they’re doing and respond, and not necessarily from the parent command; they come from everywhere.
The sound of that familiar siren whine helped me hang on; it was the sweetest music I’d ever heard.
Cops were there in less than a minute—lots of them. And as hard as it is to believe, the two guys who had been beating us didn’t take off; they continued to beat us until the responding cops arrived and then they took on the reinforcements! These guys weren’t even winded.
Cops met them head-on, nightsticks swinging. You have to give those two guys credit; they stood their ground and fought against overpowering odds. The word “tough” didn’t begin to describe them, but within seconds they were down and cuffed. While I would have loved to take part in the victory, I was too exhausted and injured to do much except breathe, and doing that made me wince.
I was the arresting officer; don’t ask me how I did the paperwork, because to say that I was hurting was a gross underestimation. My two prisoners were transported to the Four-One station house and placed in a holding cell until they were to be driven to court the next morning.
When someone assaults a police officer, retribution is swift and severe. While the two prisoners got their bruises on the street, it was nothing compared with what was about to happen.
Every cop working that night got a “forthwith” to the station house. You remember what that means? Drop what you’re doing and get to the house yesterday.
Every team got five minutes alone in the cell with these two tough guys. There were probably at least twenty cops on duty that night. Those guys took a hell of a pounding. Sure, they fought back but not even those two could put up with the hammering they received. Within an hour, they were beaten so bloody their own mothers wouldn’t have recognized them.
My two prisoners hobbled into court the next day. When asked by the judge what happened to them, they just shrugged. They had played the game, hurt some cops, and got their asses kicked as a result. To them it was the way the system worked, and they weren’t about to complain. And on top of that they each got a year in jail.
About five years later, I got a call from an FBI agent regarding the two enforcers we’d collared that night. The mere mention of the incident made my ribs hurt. The agent was conducting an investigation into organizations promoting employment of blacks in the construction industry in New York.
“It’s a scam,” the agent said. “The group demonstrates at construction sites calling for jobs for black men who they say are underrepresented in the trade. They block deliveries, start fights, and wind up shutting down the site until they get positions for their members. Your guys—the two assholes you locked up—assault construction workers and bust up equipment. So when the construction companies relent and say, okay, they’ll hire a few black guys, they find out it’s for no-show jobs. None of these guys want a job. It’s a shakedown.”
None of this surprised me. “What do you need from me?”
“No one’s willing to complain so we’re trying to pin something on them. What can you tell me about the guys that attacked you?”
“The driver had a helluva right hook, and I’d say a size thirteen shoe. Other than that, the last I saw of them was when they were being led away to do their time, nothing since then.” I wished the agent luck. “If I never see those two mopes again, it’ll be too soon.”
* * *
I got my first tattoo when I was twenty years old and still a police trainee. It was of an eagle and located on my right bicep. I never thought about getting any more ink, but over the years my body became a tapestry of my life and career. I memorialized or commemorated all that was important to me. As of this writing I have well over a hundred tattoos.
I frequented Big Joe’s Tattoo Parlor in Mount Vernon, New York, right over the Bronx line. Back then it was the Mecca for quality work and I became one of Big Joe’s best customers. Members of the New York chapter of the Hell’s Angels were also regulars at Big Joe’s. There, I met the president of the chapter, Chuck Zito, and we became friends; we’re still in touch today. Chuck was tough and very smart. He’d later become an actor and was featured in dozens of TV shows and movies.
The Angels and law enforcement weren’t exactly buddies. After all, they were about as antiestablishment as you could get. But I got along well with Chuck. His crew varied with their acceptance of me, but for the most part we were cool. I rode a Harley, so that helped. I also treated them with respect, and they reciprocated, some of them being Vietnam veterans who commiserated with cops because they knew what it was like to be a target.
I was filling in a sector on a day tour when we got a radio run of an assault in progress inside a building. The building housed a social club on the ground floor, and, while not an Angel hangout, that day there were about five bikers from the New York chapter present. Chuck Zito wasn’t among them.
Some drunk had wandered in from the street wanting to shoot pool. The Angels had both pool tables occupied and told the interloper to wait his turn. The drunk, not knowing with whom he was about to tangle, began to get belligerent and said something that pissed off the bikers. He was roughed up and tossed out. It was the drunk who had called in the radio run; he was the victim.
The club was dim with a cloud of cigarette smoke hovering over the tables. I spotted the complainant right away; he was the bloody guy. The Angels acted like me and my partner weren’t there at first, and to me that wasn’t a good sign. I mentally mapped out escape routes, fields of fire, and methods of cover should things go bad.
The drunk started acting like an asshole as soon as he saw us—cursing, waving his arms, threatening to sue everybody. He figured he could spout his bullshit with relative impunity since two cops were there to protect him. I guess he still hadn’t learned whom he was pissing off, because the Angels would just as soon beat the shit out of cops as revisit the complainant with another beating. These guys weren’t afraid.
I looked for a familiar face from Big Joe’s, but with the dim lighting and most Angels looking similar anyway, I couldn’t spot anyone. While my partner was containing the drunk, I started over to talk to the bikers.
As I neared them, a mountain of a man said, “Hey, ain’t you that cop from Big Joe’s? Chuck’s friend?”
The situation was defused in a few seconds. The biker, known as Tiny (he would be killed in a motorcycle wreck a few years later and have a spectacular funeral procession on the Lower East Side of Manhattan) introduced me to the other Angels. My partner and I talked the drunk out of pressing charges, and everyone was happy.
With a mixture of regret and relief, I can’t help imagining the situation if someone had a smartphone back then. It would have been nice to preserve such a sweet moment, but then again a video of me with five outlaw bikers might have wound up on YouTube.
* * *
I was making numerous arrests for drugs, illegal possession of guns, assaults, robberies, burglaries, rapes—you name it. As a result, precinct supervisors were recommending me for departmental recognition—medals—for the best collars. I took a few of the most violent criminals into custody in walking condition, unusual for the times. Normally prisoners were transported directly to the station house for processing. Most of mine went to Lincoln Hospital.
I was getting a reputation as someone who didn’t take shit from the street. If criminals cooperated during the arrest, they were fine; if they raised their hands to me, I raised mine to them. My goal was twofold: make it home in one piece and get the word out on the street that if you fucked with any cop, particularly with Ralph Friedman, you were going to pay for it.
The rules of the job, as dictated by the NYPD Rules and Procedures—a mammoth guidebook that would increase in size every time a cop did something that wasn’t covered in the previous edition—said that a police officer could use only the amount of force that was necessary to control a situation. Any more could lead to charges, both departmental and criminal. The problem was defining what was “enough” and what was “too much” force. How should a police officer stop to evaluate in the middle of subduing a felon who is putting up a fight?
Did I use just enough force to stop him? Does he pose a threat or is he down for the count? Or is he faking, and is he about to rebound and kill me?
I always wanted to err on the side of caution when it came to my safety and that of my partner.
It’s my belief that many cops today are inactive (forget proactive or reactive) for fear of being disgraced or losing their jobs on account of what the public deems excessive force. I’m in touch with many police officers through social media and Internet police forums, and the general feeling currently is that there are not too many cops who are going to put their careers and lives in jeopardy because some elected official wants to make a political football out of Monday-morning quarterbacking a cop’s arrest.
The use of the chokehold is a good example. The press, politicians, and others consistently use the term “illegal chokehold” when describing this perfectly legal takedown method. The chokehold is against NYPD policy, but it’s not illegal. This is why police officers who use this method of subduing a prisoner don’t get arrested for it—departmental charges may result, but no one’s going to jail for applying it. Unless, of course, it’s used to excess and results in a fatality, which is a whole different deal.
As of this writing, a bill has been introduced in New York to make the chokehold illegal, meaning possible jail time for a police officer who uses it. Picture a police officer in a life-or-death struggle on the street with a criminal, during which the cop uses a chokehold to subdue the guy. If this bill passes into law, that cop is going to be arrested, whether he was making a good arrest or not. I’m wondering if a better law would require lawmakers to ride along with patrol officers for a week and then make an educated judgment about what should be against the law.
There isn’t a cop out there who wouldn’t use a chokehold if his physical safety depended on it, rules or no rules. A cop will take the fine or loss of vacation days, but he’ll be alive.
* * *
I was constantly on the prowl to make quality arrests, the important word being quality. I doubt there’s a police officer in New York who couldn’t lock someone up thirty minutes into a shift. There’s always someone doing something wrong, but most infractions are trifling, and police officers are given discretion when deciding whether to make arrests for minor transgressions. These include simple assaults (particularly when the offender and complainant are friends), personal marijuana use, and misdemeanor criminal mischief when the offender is willing to make restitution. The NYPD allows discretion.
I was after felons. They don’t get the luxury of discretion, and, even if they did, they wouldn’t get it from me. This meant both on duty and off.
I remember one off-duty arrest vividly. It was a blisteringly hot August day and I was with a date at Orchard Beach, otherwise known as the Bronx Riviera. While the Bronx had quite a few beaches abutting Long Island Sound, Orchard Beach was the only one where you could enter the water and come out pretty confident you didn’t contract typhoid. It was crowded, noisy, and not the cleanest beach in America, but it belonged to us denizens of the Bronx and I went there often.
I was never off duty, as the term is defined. Constantly looking for bad guys, I didn’t care whether I was on a date, as I was that day, or in a gym, or on my motorcycle; I was always looking for something out of place. When I watch boxing on television, I’m looking more at the spectators than I am at the fighters. Same goes for everywhere else people congregate: movies, subways, funerals—you name it.
Station houses have wanted posters in a big-ring binder behind the desk. I didn’t know many cops who perused these posters. I did, although I was beginning to view this as an exercise in futility, because after months of sifting through them, the pictures and names were beginning to blur and I doubted I’d ever apprehend a wanted felon based on a wanted poster. There are literally thousands of wanted criminals in New York City; what are the odds that I’d ever remember a specific poster?
On that hot summer day at the beach, I was walking with my date on the boardwalk when I spotted a guy wanted for a burglary in Brooklyn. I’d seen a poster the previous week, and the picture displayed looked exactly like the man I’d almost bumped into, who was walking in the opposite direction.
I was going to go up against this guy without a weapon or handcuffs and no way to call for backup, so my normal policy of “don’t hurt me, I won’t hurt you” was on the back burner. If I were armed, my approach would have been to draw my weapon, identify myself, get him on the ground, and cuff him before he had a chance to run or retaliate.
I whirled and got up behind him. “Yo, bro,” I said, and tapped him on the shoulder. I didn’t recall his name from the poster. He turned with a pleasant expression on his face, which was quickly erased when I punched him in the jaw with everything I had. He hit the ground like a load of wet laundry.
People began screaming, running, falling over each other. The woman I was with stood wide-eyed. Someone yelled for the police. There was a summer police detail at Orchard Beach, and it didn’t take long before two cops came running over. I identified myself and explained what I had. They called for an ambulance for my still-comatose prisoner.
One cop, an old-timer, looked at me skeptically. “You recognized this guy from a wanted poster? You sure it’s him?”
Doubt engulfed me. What if this guy wasn’t who I thought he was? Had I seriously injured a look-alike? The bad guy’s twin brother?
There is a happy ending to this story: he was the guy on the wanted poster and the arrest earned yet another medal recommendation to be added to the several I already had pending. And in an unpredictable twist of fate, it turned out to be a happy ending for the perp, too.
About five years later, a man approached me as I was leaving the station house and asked me if I was Officer Friedman. I was immediately wary, as any cop would’ve been, particularly because I wasn’t in uniform and I had no idea who this guy was. How did he know me? I casually turned sideways to avoid that unpleasant kick to the testicles. My hand rested on my gun. “Yeah, that’s me. I know you?” This man could’ve been someone I’d arrested, now out of prison and looking for revenge.
I was half right. I had locked him up, and he was fresh out of the joint, but he didn’t have revenge on his mind.
He introduced himself and extended a hand for me to shake. I was still leery, but I shifted my weight and shook his hand. I had leverage if I needed to defend myself, though my gut told me I wasn’t going to have a problem.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” he said.
I had no idea who he was and told him so.
Now he broke into a wide grin. “I’m the guy you knocked out at Orchard Beach. I was wanted on the burglary beef in Brooklyn, remember? I just wanted to thank you. I needed to get that shit behind me, but most of all I needed a real lot of dental work, and I got it for free in prison.” He smiled again, flashing a nice set of choppers.
We bullshitted awhile; he said he went straight, had a great job in construction. We parted with another handshake.
And people ask me why I love police work.
* * *
I was spending an inordinate amount of time in court because I was making arrests in record numbers, the arrest process being long and frustrating. It isn’t rare to spend an entire tour in criminal court preparing paperwork and being interviewed by an assistant district attorney.
A few other active cops and I came up with a streamlined system that would get us in and out of court in under an hour. We would type up the ADA’s criminal complaints in the station house, using court forms. This saved us hours since the ADA interview process was the chokepoint in the system. Sometimes ADAs would be backed up for hours with a line of very antsy cops waiting their turns to get their criminal complaints prepared. We’d just present the prepared complaint to the ADA without the wait. Initially, the ADAs balked: we never went to law school, what the hell did we know about legalese and the accepted formatting of a criminal complaint? Turns out we knew plenty from our numerous arrests and could write these things in our sleep. The overwhelmed ADA’s original skepticism morphed into gratitude; we were doing their work for them, and they knew it. After a while, they just skimmed through and signed them.
With the accepted system of processing arrests, cops were only permitted one arrest at a time. With our new take on speeding up the process, we could now take multiple arrests through the system because all the paperwork was prepared before getting to court. All we did was plop the paper in front of an ADA, and we were good to go. I would later make three separate gun collars in one night, and I was back out on the street in as little time as it took to walk one arrest through the system.
If the Guinness World Records book had a category for quickest prep time for a criminal case in the Bronx, we would’ve won. Our goal was to get back on the street as quickly as possible, and we accomplished that. So what if we broke some administrative rules? It gave the term “revolving-door justice” a whole new meaning; we were the ones out on the street in record time rather than the bad guys.
* * *
It may seem odd to anyone who’s not a cop, but I was having the time of my life. I was doing a good job and being recognized for it. I loved going to work every day. In retrospect, I was living in a cocoon, because I hadn’t yet felt loss or very much stress. I felt as if I could handle anything, but I would soon emerge from my reverie when two tragedies woke me up to the realities of police work and how uncertain life really is.
Copyright © 2017 by Ralph Friedman and Patrick Picciarelli