The floor of the Chinese food take-out joint in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen was covered in blood. The victim, a big, strapping young man, lay on his back with numerous stab wounds. I looked at the guy and said, “What did you do, just lie down and let someone keep stabbing you?” He didn’t find that funny. Further questions were not necessary; I could complete the report without asking anything: drug deal gone bad.
The wounds were not life-threatening. I called for a bus, cop speak for an ambulance in New York City, while my stomach reminded me it was my mealtime.
Someone once told me, “A good cop doesn’t get wet, cold or go hungry.” Well, I can’t say the first two are accurate based on my experiences, but hungry? No, it doesn’t happen. I was not going to miss my meal. So, standing in blood as EMS worked on the victim, I went to the counter and ordered my dinner.
The medics put the guy in the bus and off they went to Bellevue Hospital while I collected my order, leaving with General Tso’s and deep-fried plantains with hot sauce.
The average person couldn’t think of eating when faced with a similar scene. Cops, well, we’re different. And that’s just a result of what we deal with. Not that we are cold, insensitive or uncaring. I am sure, if any citizen had witnessed my actions, their retelling would be of a disinterested, cruel cop.
The things we do create a lot of head-scratching by those who don’t understand the life of a cop, certainly a misunderstood profession. For example, the sight of two radio cars parked driver’s side to driver’s side often creates negative comments questioning why those cops aren’t doing their jobs. What the questioners don’t understand is that the radio car, in this instance, is the cop’s office, a place of work. What is being viewed may be two officers sharing information, a sergeant discussing with an officer incidents particular to the officer’s patrol and, yes, they could just be chatting. But doesn’t everyone talk with their co-workers, go on coffee breaks or maybe take a bit of downtime? The difference is that cops are always in the public eye and on the public payroll. So, what is good for the average citizen is, in their mind, not allowed for cops. That attitude leads to many misconceptions.
How many times have you heard someone say, “Why couldn’t they just handcuff him?” after viewing a news report of a suspect violently resisting arrest as cops try to control him? Obviously, that person never tried to handcuff someone who doesn’t want to be handcuffed. They should try it sometime; their criticism will quickly change with a better understanding of their ignorance.
And then there is deadly physical force. No cop comes to work intending to kill someone. No cop wants to kill anyone. They just want to do their job, go home and enjoy their family and friends just like everyone else. Yet, a small percentage of cops will find themselves in the horror of having to use deadly force. In a split second, an officer may have to decide to save lives and end another. To many, that officer is a murderer. There is no thought given to the life saved. The public narrative will keep the incident in drive, excoriating the officer.
What is worse than the second-guessing, media attention and investigations is that the cop has to live with knowing they took someone’s life. That is never part of the public discussion. What may happen, though, is that a district attorney more interested in political outcomes than the fair application of the law will lead a grand jury to indict. If that happens, the officer will not get what is guaranteed to every citizen: a jury of their peers. No, the officer may be judged by people who know nothing about being a cop. What is a reasonable standard to a private citizen differs greatly than a cop’s in the performance of their duties. That’s why a bench trial makes sense to a cop standing trial.
Cops answer to civilians — if they didn’t, we would not be living in a democracy, not a viable alternative. As a longtime police union representative, I have a bit of insight into how cops think. I believe cops accept civilian control of law enforcement. What they long to see is the public’s understanding of what a law enforcement officer is asked to do and how they are trained to do it. It is believed many cops are killed taking those few extra seconds to think of the possible outcome. Advantage perp, who has no similar concern. Unfortunately, law enforcement has become a “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” career.
One evening, I was standing at the entrance of a New York City subway line, watching hordes of people in their rush-hour frenzy to get home. I witnessed a man assault another, slugging him in the face. So, just doing my job, I stopped and questioned them. As it turned out, they were friends and told me all was OK. I asked a few more questions, wished them well and sent them on their way. Some time later, I was summoned to the Civilian Complaint Investigations Unit to be questioned about a civilian complaint filed by the two men. The lieutenant questioning me read me the complaint. The two stated, “The officer was doing his job.” Of course, that left me baffled, causing me to ask why I was even there. He was somewhat flustered and reread the complaint, to which I again asked, “Why am I here?” It became apparent the complainants were outraged that I stopped and questioned them — that’s it. The point here is, no matter how frivolous a civilian complaint against a cop is, it will be investigated. There is no room for common sense when it comes to questioning a cop’s actions. Imagine if I took no action and the assault was intentional. Damned if I did, damned if I didn’t.
Sometimes the public’s perception of a complaint against a cop takes on a false narrative, following the cop throughout their career. Consider this scenario: A person walks into a stationhouse and reports to the desk sergeant that a certain officer is currently in another city sexually abusing a minor. The sergeant takes the complaint, an investigation begins and it concludes the complaint is unfounded, finding the officer was never in the city reported and, most importantly, the reporting person was previously arrested by the officer and held a vendetta. End of case? Not really. Fast-forward a few years, and the officer is involved in an incident of some notoriety. A tenacious reporter is digging into the officer’s background and finds the officer was once investigated for allegedly committing an unthinkable crime, but also discovers the complaint was unfounded. That evening, the reporter appears on TV reporting on the current incident and ends the report by stating that three years ago, this officer was investigated for allegedly sexually abusing a minor. End of report. Did the reporter tell the truth? Yes. Did the reporter tell the entire truth? No. To the thousands who saw the report, that officer is a monster and always will be.
Unfortunately, that’s how it works in our business. The actions you are sworn to take may come back to haunt you. Could it be better to accept “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” and find a quiet place to enjoy your General Tso’s and deep-fried plantains with hot sauce?