Sunday, January 29, 2012
I walked into the community affairs office at the 68th Precinct and approached the cop behind the desk.
“You fuck!” He roared before I had a chance to open my mouth. “You didn’t bring us any coffee!”
I stood there in shock, trying not to wet my pants or run out the door. I didn’t know what to expect when I entered this place, but I surely wasn’t expecting this.
It was sometime around 1986 and I was working as a reporter for a weekly paper in Bay Ridge. I had been sent there to get some stories for the police blotter and this cop, Larry, was the guy to see.
I don’t think I had ever been in a police station prior to that day. I hardly had anything to do with cops at all. Shucks, I was a good Catholic boy living in a quiet neighborhood. Why would I get involved with the police?
It turned out Larry was just breaking my cojones, something cops the world over like to do to reporters. I later learned that if cops yank your chain it usually means they like you. If they’re curt and professional, it’s probably a sign that they don’t trust you and you should find another line of work.
And Larry wouldn’t have turned down that coffee if I had thought to bring some along. Cops, I discovered, like freebies.
While some people dream all their lives of being reporters, I kind of backed into the profession. I was lacking direction and other than the fact that I wanted to write for a living, I didn’t know any definitive career plans.
The weekly paper was a good place to start. I covered all kinds of local stories—including crime.
We got a call one day from a woman in Park Slope. That was pretty much the fringe of our coverage area, but this woman said that she had looked out her window and seen “a cop on the ground.”
She didn’t know any more than that and, since we didn’t have a scanner in our newsroom, neither did we. But it sounded serious, like maybe a cop had been shot. So off I went in the pouring rain looking for mayhem in a neighborhood I barely knew.
I drove all around the street where the cop had supposedly gone down, but I didn’t see any serious activity. I didn’t see any activity, just wet streets and dark skies.
But I wanted to be thorough, so I drove to the police precinct in downtown Brooklyn. This was an older building, a holdover perhaps from the Forties, and bore no resemblance to the modern-ish design of the Six-Eight.
I was still a little tense about being in a police station, but I approached the desk sergeant and asked about an incident involving a police officer being injured.
And he started laughing.
Closer Than You Think
It turned out that the cop in question had indeed gone down—after slipping on the wet sidewalk and falling on his butt.
However, he quickly got back up--something our tipster failed to notice--and he and his partner arrested their man.
The sergeant brought me back to speak with the two officers.
“Here they are,” he said loudly, “the hero cops.”
The cops filled me in on what the suspect had done, and honestly it was so long ago, I don’t remember, except that it was incredibly minor, compared with what I had been expecting.
And please understand I wasn’t wishing that someone had gotten hurt; I just wanted a decent story.
“Where’s the suspect now?” I asked.
“He’s right behind you,” one of the cops said, nodding over my shoulder.
I whirled around and saw this morose young man handcuffed to a radiator pipe.
“You may want to step back,” the cop casually added, “in case he tries to grab your keester.”
I did exactly what I was told, got the rest of the facts and scooted back up to Bay Ridge.
It turned out that I would be spending a lot of time in police stations over the next several years and doing all sorts of crazy things.
The police scanner would be my constant companion as I ran to fires and car accidents on freezing cold nights, got cursed at by criminals and their families, and worried constantly about making a mistake or being scooped by competing newspapers.
I remember hanging out with a bunch of Pennsylvania state troopers at a traffic stop on my birthday just to shoot the breeze. I even helped carry a body bag away from a fatal fire scene one time.
I also had to fight to keep alleged “colleagues” from helping themselves to my stories. It never fails: when there’s a four-alarm fire in the dead of winter, you can be certain that you’ll be on your own.
But when you come across some juicy scandal, you’ll find that you have dozens of little helpers just itching to get a piece of the story.
I didn’t know of any this back, of course, and if I had I would’ve found something else to do. But I can look back upon this experiences fondly now.
Police reporting can be stressful, miserable work, but it can also be thrilling, where you see people at their very best and their very worst; where you speak to people who have lost their loved ones or been burned out of their homes and where your whole day can be turned upside by the codes coming out of the scanner.
It forced me to do things I would never thought I’d be capable of doing and I know I’m the better for it.
And despite all the high pressure, long hours and strange people, I’m happy to say that no one ever grabbed my keester.