- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & NobleHeroes and Villains
"Forget everything you learned in the academy, kid," a venerable legend has a weathered police veteran telling an impressionable rookie on his first night on the beat. Like this anecdote, this history of the country's oldest municipal police force carries a certain irony: It is a portrait of people who have kept order in America's largest city -- but who have abandoned their sworn duty to serve and protect with alarming regularity. Policing New York, we learn in Thomas Reppetto and James Lardner's NYPD: The Inside Story of New York's Legendary Police Department, has always offered countless opportunities for both heroism and disgrace. New York's love-hate relationship with its police force is a time-honored tradition.
In its earliest days, the city's police force was only a part-time night watch that helped fight fires, quell disturbances, and arrest criminals caught in the act, with no emphasis whatsoever on solving mysterious or violent crimes. As the city's criminal element grew bolder, however, the force's limited function began to seem inadequate. The rise of the penny press, notably the New York Herald, put additional pressure on the city to combat the growing rate of violent crime. The gruesome death in 1841 of a cigar shop clerk named Mary Rogers and the discovery of her body in the Hudson River triggered the Herald's call for a professional police department. "For months on end," Reppetto and Lardner report, "the Herald led the charge with diatribe after diatribe against a 'petty officialdom' preoccupied with 'petty crimes' while the 'blood of Mary Rodgers [sic] is crying out for vengeance from the depth of the Hudson.'" In 1845 a full-time round-the-clock police force was finally established, including 800 officers.
Not ten years later, the first controversial police shootings occurred, "complete," write Reppetto and Lardner, "with charges of ethnic discrimination." The authors explore the department's relationship with New York's many ethnic groups in a fascinating chapter titled "So Many Races Up Against You." Although it would soon include great numbers of German- and Irish-born officers, the department did not welcome New York's influx of immigrants with open arms. The department did not hire its first Hispanic officer until 1896; its first black officer was appointed in 1914 (but not fully accepted by his peers until years later). The Italian-born Joe Petrosino, a legendary detective who started at the bottom of the ladder in 1883, proved the wisdom of hiring officers from varied backgrounds: He made himself invaluable in infiltrating organized crime circles until he was gunned down in Sicily on an undercover mission. But Petrosino's success seems to be an anomaly. On the whole, according to Reppetto and Lardner, the NYPD was an organization that has never truly embraced the value of racial harmony, internally or in its dealings with the community. Mentions of Crown Heights, Abner Louima, and Amadou Diallo later in the book make this point even more emphatically.
Equally troubling is the seemingly cyclical nature of police corruption in the department and subsequent reform. From its hand-in-glove relationship with the notorious Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall to the alarming numbers of cops on the take from local businesses which operated outside the law, the NYPD has from its earliest days been weakened by its own illegal leanings. Establishment reformers like Teddy Roosevelt, one of New York's flashier commissioners, and civilian watchdogs like Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst tried to eradicate police corruption, but changing political winds and the consequent shifts in power upset their efforts time and again. Reppetto and Lardner suggest that every period of reform is finite, followed by a period of rampant police lawlessness. Can racially motivated brutality be the department's current mode of wrongdoing?
Reppetto and Lardner resist the temptation to focus solely on the NYPD's failures (though they do explore those unflinchingly). Their stories of turmoil are balanced by accounts of the department's successes and by tales of heroism on the part of individual officers. We meet early super-cops like Petrosino, legendary detective Thomas Byrnes, and George Walling, whose journals provide a rich and full picture of the department's early years. We relive the years of World War I, when the police fought a band of German saboteurs. We meet a few early policewomen who were undercover successes. And later we're introduced to Frank Serpico, the corruption fighter immortalized on screen by Al Pacino. The authors never romanticize the exploits of these extraordinary cops, creating a fair balance between their good works and the department's less laudable moments.
Reppetto and Lardner's book devotes more space to the department's formative years than to its recent past, and this seems appropriate when we consider that any institution as venerable and storied as the NYPD develops a character based largely on its history and the legends attached to it. NYPD gives New Yorkers and interested onlookers the rare chance to understand that character, as complex and conflicted as the city's itself.