Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Heart of Gold

I first met Rebecca Buck in 2000 at the 28th Precinct.  I had just gotten out of field training and sent to evening shift. She was a 30 year old newly pressed Sergeant in the NYPD and she had come to evenings.  Specifically she had come to the best squad on evenings, C-2.  As a bit of an explainer, there are three Platoons in a precinct (Midnights "A", Days "B", and Evenings "C") In each platoon there are three squads that rotate five days on, two off, five on, three off. I had found myself placed in Squad C-2, the second squad of the evening shift.

New Sergeants are an interesting breed.  They just came from humping a radio car like you and so they understand all of the scams and the work, but they also have been told over and over in BMOC (the Basic Leadership class of the NYPD) that officers are not your friends anymore and they will get you in trouble or fired.  And C-2 was a hot mess of officers who had lots of years on working in a busy precinct and a short, young attractive blonde sergeant was going to be tested.

Right after she became our Sgt, she invited us all to this Brazilian steakhouse in Queens.  The whole squad, which was like 12-14 people. And some of them were misfits.  My favorite quote was a more senior guy asked her "Do we have to invite Satan?" referring to one of the more disgruntled guys we had.  She insisted.  So we went and ate and drank and she paid for the whole thing.  I imagine this happens to Teach for America kids who get to their first school in a bad neighborhood and decide to give peace offerings as a first act.  We even told her that she shouldn't do this because it wasn't necessary.  But she insisted.  And she spent a lot of money on us losers.

As she grew into her role as our boss, there were some tensions.  I remember we went on strike with our activity for some reason.  Jose, a Dominican guy, thought it was a good idea and just kept yelling "STRIKE!" in a heavily tinged accent, which seems as good a reason as any to not write tickets.  I'd ask him if he remembers why we went on strike. but he's currently on an 18-year vacation.  You have to turn in your activity sheets at the end of the month and as each guy handed in their sheet, her face dropped more and more, until she ran out of the room and went to the Lieutenant to try and figure out what the hell was going on.  Fair question.  We had no idea either and activity returned to normal as soon as Jose stopped yelling.

What I remember most about Sgt. Buck was her kindness.  I remember asking her to come to one of my calls to see if I had enough to make an arrest.  And then we got into a discussion like this:

Me: So, Boss, here's the details, is that enough for an arrest?  

Her: You looking to make an arrest today? 

Me: I'm totally fine taking the arrest and staying on overtime, I just don't know if this is an arrest or not.

Her: You got plans tonight?  You want to go to court tomorrow? 

Me: Listen, Sarge, if I wanted to shitcan this (NYPD parlance for making things go away) you would never even know this address existed, but I called you and I embrace whatever decision you make,  You have the stripes.  

Her: Lock her up.  

Me: Thank you.  

She also smoked like a chimney, which meant that when she took me as her driver, it made for interesting times.  Point of reference, since all NYPD patrol units are two-officer cars, they give the patrol sergeant's a driver (operator in job speak) so they can respond to calls as well.  Normally, i could just roll down the windows, but on the days I drove her and it rained, it was a scene out of a comedy.  She would be smoking with her window barely cracked while mine was down.  My left side would be soaked, and she would ask "Campbell, does this bother you?  I can put it out." To which I always replied, "No Sarge.  I just like the feeling of rain."

Sergeant Buck went on to become Lieutenant Buck and retired from the job after 20 years of helping people and somehow not becoming a terrible, disgruntled person counting down their time like a prison sentence.  Rebecca passed away last week after suffering from 9/11 related illness.  Former colleagues turned out on Facebook to express their sadness and happiness at having known her.  And out of those posts, an odd pattern started forming.  Many peopl
e said that she had reached out exactly two weeks before she passed and they had a great conversation where she said she was doing well and asked about their kids and lives.  The theory is that she was gravely ill and wanted to reach out to talk to those she cared about to say goodbye without burdening them with her health.  Even to the end she was selfless.

She is being laid to rest today in the Hudson Valley in New York.  I can't be there as I have a crazy work week and it hurts.  As I've mentioned before I learned you always make the funeral and I simply can't.  But she is in my mind all day and has been since I heard the terrible news.  I am reminded again sadly that 9/11 has killed more officers (84) than were killed on 9/11 (24).

Rest easy Rebecca Buck.  Hope there's a smoking section in heaven. I'll miss you calling me "Big Bird."  Don't spend any money buying people dinner to make sure they like you up there, because they won't be able to help themselves.  Even without a green paddle for more prime rib.

Fidelis Ad Mortem.  Squad C-2 forever. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Arrests Vs. Murders

Caveat Emptor
Greetings.  For some of you, this is your first time stopping here after you found me from my Buzzfeed article.  Recently, my posts have been more police-centric, but this blog was a journal or outlet for me for many yeats and so if you spend time going back in time here, it could get pretty random, so be warned.  I had to decide whether or not to start a whole other blog, just on law enforcement stuff, and in the end decided that this blog really is who I am for better or worse as 
I've travelled through my life, and this focus on policing is simply the next chapter for it.  So I just wanted to set that out up front for any new people.

So Baltimore has had a terrible May. They are currently at 35 homicides for the month and it's not yet over.  They currently stand at 108 homicides for the year, while Philadelphia at more than double the population (1.5 million to 600K) stands at 88.  And these are just the murders.  Shootings are up 78%, and that's people shot.  Not people just shooting.  Those numbers are anyone's guess.  At the same time as this terrible spike in violence, the news has trumpeted stats saying that arrests are way down.  Some 45% over last year, our friends across the pond are saying.  Some are saying that the police are simply letting these murders happen as some sort of retribution for the indictment of the 6 officers for Freddie Grey's murder.

Now, let me say up front, that I've never worked or lived in Charm City.  I do very much enjoy their food and their people, but I am no expert on Baltimore.  But I do know that we're talking about apples and oranges in many ways.

Let's take the murders and the shootings.  Again, I am no police mastermind, but the shocking amount of violence in a concentrated area (Western District) would lead me to believe that a lot of this is retributional.  That is to say that people didn't just decide to embark on their shooting career in May.  They are trading bodies for bodies.  If this hunch is right, then these are incredibly hard murders and shootings to solve.  As evidenced by the fact that after the initial ones, people turned to guns to solve them and not to the police.  This is nothing new.  There is of course a huge "stop snitching" culture.  I've had crime scenes where the victim could tell me exactly where the guy was who shot him down to the foot, but couldn't tell me anything about their height, weight or clothing. This is how it goes.  The cops know this.

This is not to excuse it.  Yesterday in Baltimore, a 9-year old boy was shot.  These are people being killed with familes and mothers and sisters and kids, regardless of whether they're in the game or not. It's inexcusable and must be stopped, but it's hard when you don't have witnesses.  It doesn't mean you don't try, but its hard.  There is a tremendous impact to the psyche of this community.

As for the arrests, I would wager to say that this represents proactive arrests.  These aren't the arrests for people calling about getting hit by someone and pointing out the suspect, or people stealing from stores and being caught on video camera.  These are the arrests that come from cops seeing guys pissing on the street, drinking in public, gambling, or looking suspicious and then later finding drugs or guns on them.  Bear in mind, that last category fit Freddie Grey to a T, except he was only carrying a knife of questionable legality, depending on who you're listening to on Twitter.

These are the arrests that people hate.  Eric Garner, arrested for selling loose cigarettes.  Michael Brown, stopped for walking on the street.  However this kind of policing can also be good policing.  Brian Moore, the NYPD officer who was killed weeks ago, saw a guy with something in his waistband.  When he asked the guy about it, man turned and shot him in the head, a wound he later died from.  It was a good stop.  And clearly it was for cause.  But they're not all going to turn up guns, which is where it gets grey again.

There is not a true connection between the drop in arrests and the rise in shootings.  For that, you would have to know what arrests were not being made this year.  You also have to ask a community weary of police helicopters and aggressive tactics how they can earn that trust again. So when someone gets stopped wearing a trenchcoat in summer and gets patted down, they understand it isn't heavy handed tactics, but officers looking to literally stop the bleeding.  

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

I Guess We Get Wet

The forecast was 90% rain, but warm.  This posed a problem.  A new problem for us as it turned out.

"So what do we do?  Raincoat?"

"I didn't bring mine.  Umbrellas are out of the question"

"I guess we get wet."

It was Sunday morning, the day of NYPD Officer Wenjian Liu's funeral.  Rain was scheduled which meant you were going to get wet.  The whole point of a dress uniform is to look sharp, which is defeated when covered by a raincoat.  Also, you can't carry an umbrella, so that meant it was going to be a long, wet day, which seemed fitting in many ways.

The ceremony was held in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn in a residential neighborhood.  There were thousands of police officers milling around.  There were canteens that had been sent from the various unions, local jewish religious organizations, and outside departments.  There was plenty of coffee and hot chocolate, along with cookies and I even saw fresh empanadas.  Line of Duty funerals are the strangest mix between laughter and tears.  The laughter comes at the empanada part when people from all over who haven't seen each other for years or since the Academy are hugging and shooting the shit.  It's like a bizarre state fair only for cops

"Where did you get the empanadas?"

"Over by the plumbing supply store.  I think the DEA (Detectives Endowment Association) one has pizza." 

Thousands of officers from all over the country.  Large contingents from LA, Chicago and all parts in between.  Normally, the men and women of the NYPD's Ceremonial Unit are buzzing all over the place putting people in formation and barking orders, but they had to make do with yelling at us over loudspeakers they hung from cranes.  Giving directions without seeing any of us.  There were too few of them and far too many of us.  It was a little bit of chaos.  But like any crowd, people started moving towards 65th Street and that got everyone else moving and quieting down.

This ceremony, like Ramos's the week before, was unique for me because the wake and the funeral were held at the same place.  Normally, the wake is at a funeral home and then the body arrives and you salute as it enters the house of worship, along with the bagpipes, etc.  Officer Liu was apparently a semi-practicing Buddhist, so they held the service in the funeral home he was waked in.  So it was weird to just be standing around and hear people start talking.  Another unique thing that showed the difference in how these officers were killed, asides from the sea of blue, was the video monitors they had placed along 65th St.  Normally. once the service starts, they'll have a sound truck but the officers who can't fit into the church usually go find coffee or smoke a cigarette or connect with old co-workers.  Not this time.

The speeches came first.  FBI Director Comey spoke on behalf of the federal government (Biden spoke at Ramos's), The Governor was unable to speak as he was handling the death of his father, though he did attend the wake.  The Mayor spoke, and most of the people I saw turned their back. I didn't, because I didn't think it was appropriate at a funeral but not because I have any respect for the Mayor.  The Police Commissioner spoke and spoke from the heart, giving the best "official" speech of the day.  He spoke of how when he learned more about Ramos and Liu he wondered why it was always the good ones who were killed.  He said it was simply the law of averages because the vast majority of cops are good, kind and well-meaning human beings.

Then the family spoke,  First came Wenjian's younger cousin to talk of how kind he was.  Mr. Liu, Wenjian's father spoke next.  Let me tell you that though he spoke in Mandarin, I understood every word he was saying.  Grief is a universal language and it was clear to all those standing along that street, how much pain that man was in.  I noticed many officers getting choked up by a language they didn't know.  Wenjian's wife of three months spoke last in English, thanking the officers outside for coming and talking about how much he meant to her.  This is why you come to cop's funerals.  To show the parents and the loved ones that they do not grieve alone.  That they are not alone.  That from now until the hereafter, the department will look after them.

And then there was a break for a personal Buddhist ceremony.  I think.  It was hard to tell because the camera feed stopped and there wasn't an announcement of when the procession would start.  So with a light rain falling, Maslov's hierarchy kicked in.  Officers started moving towards the restrooms and the 7-11 to get coffee and to shake hands and meet each other.  I on my third sip of coffee when "DETAIL...." rang out. Cut to a scene of officers throwing coffee cups and running to get back in formation while putting back on their white gloves.  "ATTENTION!" Officers now forming up ranks 4 deep, some 12-15 deep in places, standing at ramrod attention.  Remembering not to lock the knees, having done this before.

And silence.  Dead silence.  We were blocks away from the actual funeral home.  Standing straight ahead, looking at the neck roll of the guy in front of you.  Waiting for the next command.
"PRESENT......ARMS!" The command echoing down the Brooklyn block as the fluttering of thousands of gloved hands come up to the brim of the dress cap.  Taps is played by two trumpets.  And as the last few notes of taps goes into the ether, here come the helicopters in the missing man formation.  No more than 60 feet off the street, the beating of the rotors making your chest vibrate as you hold the salute.  I catch officers from smaller departments looking up at the helicopters as they pass by.  Amateurs.  You never look.

"ORDER......ARMS". Hands snapping back to the right sides of bodies all up and down the street. Total silence.  Then come the motorcycles, hundreds of them.  They seem to go on forever.  Here's an awesome video shot from a motor showing the incredible turnout.  If you get to 2:47 and look right past about 8 guys, that would be me.

They were followed by the flower car and then the NYPD Emerald Society Honor Guard and Pipe Band.  It was interesting because given the ancestry of Officer Liu, they didn't play the pipes.  Just beat the drums as they marched slowly in front of the hearse.  As the hearse arrived, this wave of salutes started from my left and carried down to follow his body.  Salutes held for the family members in vans, and then it was over.

Well, not really over.  They kept us standing there for a bizarre amount of time to the point that after 40 minutes, when the pipes came back past going the other way playing, people just broke and dismissed themselves, many walking a mile back to their cars.

People said the turnout was less for this one, perhaps being that it was two weeks after the shooting and on a Sunday.  I honestly couldn't tell you because literally all I could see was cops in both directions and I know I only saw less than half of those there. I do know that this day reinforced my belief that you always make the funeral.  I was disappointed in the low turnout from DC, given that its only a train ride away.  Given how much it means to the family, you need a damn good reason not to make it.