Public Morals Stars Count the Ways Being a Police Officer Has Changed Since the ’60s

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NYMag, Vulture + TNT Celebrate The Premiere Of "Public Morals"
Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images

Public Morals, TNT’s new ’60s-set cops-versus-gangsters show premiering August 25, follows vice crimes in the seedy streets of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. With writer-director Ed Burns starring as an officer in the NYPD Public Morals division, the show centers on the crimes his office investigates — and sometimes participates in — as well as conflict within factions of the neighborhood’s Irish-American mob. But, this show isn’t the dreamy, pop-culture obsessed ’60s of Mad Men, but an attempt to capture the gritty atmosphere of a time when vice crimes could be witnessed on the streets.

Daily Intelligencer caught up with the show’s stars at TNT’s premiere screening last night — also hosted by New York and Vulture — and asked them to weigh in on how New York has changed since the ’60s, and how Bill de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg would have fared as mayors back then. 

How has New York changed since the ’60s, in terms of vice and crime?

Edward Burns

Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images

The things I was fascinated by, when doing the research, was that New York, Manhattan specifically back then, was filled with all these working-class ethnic neighborhoods. You had the Irish West Side, Greenwich Village was Italian, Lower East Side was Jewish, Yorkville was German. The idea [is] that the cops were guys who grew up in those neighborhoods. So back then, these working-class guys, there was like a line down the middle. You either became a cop or a civil servant or you went the other way. I met an old cop who said the fascinating thing was on a Saturday thing you’d be at the local corner bar. And you’d be at the bar with the guys that you grew up with. But Monday through Friday, you were chasing them through the streets, but Saturday nights you’re hanging out at the bar and all bets are off. And then Monday morning, I’m coming after you.” 

Michael Rapaport

Photo: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

I think you can get away with a lot more. The laws and the rules were understood a little more. And I don’t think people went totally crazy with the violence. And technology. You couldn’t videotape anything. So criminals could move around. One of the big things, probably the most obvious thing of now, really today and where we are in the world and back, is the technology. There’s no technology. There’s no cameras, there’s no phones. So you can get away with more on both sides.”

Wass Stevens

The answer to that is how has New York not changed since the ’60s. I think the street names are primarily the same, but everything else is different. The vibe, the energy, the level of morality, the laws themselves, the way police officers police the city. Everything. Regulations, rules, morals. It’s a time that I much prefer to current day. Back then, if you were a police officer, especially in the public morals division, you kind of managed vice and crime as opposed to arrested people and locked them up. They were not laws that really hurt anyone. They were victimless crimes for the most part. It was a little bit more a wild west show in New York back in those days.

Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images

I believe that less regulation is better. Let people kind of make their own decisions. It’s not like that right now. I don’t want to get political, but I just like the idea of being in charge of my own destiny as opposed to being told when and where I can do anything in this town. So the ’60s were a cool time.” 

Ruben Santiago-Hudson

Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images

It’s just the way we do things a little different. But the decadence, the crime, the excitement of New York City, the good and the bad, it’s still evident. They just do it a different way. The police are still the police, and we still have to do our jobs.” 

Brian Dennehy

Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images

Well I’m a lot older. It was a lot more fun back then for me. New York has changed a lot. Traffic is worse. It’s a lot more expensive to live in, which is one of the reasons why I don’t. It’s harder to get a table at a restaurant or tickets to the theater. So that’s what happens when it gets successful. The fact of the matter is the real-estate guys have been the guys who have really eliminated crime in New York. Because it’s too damn expensive for thugs to live in New York anymore, so they have to move out to Jersey. And they’re not going to commute into New York to stick somebody up. They’ll do it out there. I’m only half-kidding. 

White-collar crime is a whole different story. You still got a bunch of crooked bastards running Wall Street and every place else and they’re making a fortune. But as far as getting stuck up on the street in the city itself — other than the suburbs, Bronx, Brooklyn, so forth. And even Brooklyn now. Brooklyn’s more expensive than New York. So real estate has changed New York a lot. It’s safer. You can make more money here, and it’s not as much fun.”

Keith Nobbs

Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images

What’s interesting is that you look at a vice squad that exists in the show, they’re really policing sin, in a way, they’re not policing crime. They feel that it’s their responsibility to be these moral arbiters. And the police officers knew that was ridiculous. The police officers of New York knew that people are going to do whatever they’re going to do. People are going to go to prostitutes. People are going to gamble. What Eddie is really trying capture is that city. It’s a love letter to the city.

These things still, of course, happen in the city, but I don’t thing that we police them in the same way at least in New York. In other parts of the country they do. That’s the good thing about living in New York.”

Michele Hicks

Photo: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Well Hell’s Kitchen is now a cool neighborhood to live in and not a gangster ridden neighborhood or dangerous neighborhood. I think New York is a lot safer now. A lot more high-rises, the real estate value has gone up. I think [vice is] always going to be there. Maybe it’s just more underground. You don’t see prostitutes on the street in Manhattan.”

Tony Danza

Photo: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

It’s a world of change. We’re all different. This is the greatest place to grow up. I grew up here in the ’50s and the ’60s and the ’70s. But in the ’60s when I was a young guy in the city, it was the greatest place because it was dangerous and exciting, but not deadly. For the most part, you could make a mistake and get away with it. It’s much different. Maybe that’s the big difference now. I’ll say one, though, we’re losing a lot of mom-and-pop stores that were here in the ’60s.”  

How do you think de Blasio or Bloomberg would have fared if they were mayors during the ’60s? 

Michael Rapaport

The city was different. I don’t know how they would have fared. I don’t know. I feel like the last of the old mayors like that was Koch. Ed Koch felt like a ’60s mayor. Dinkins, de Blasio, Bloomberg, they didn’t feel like they could be mayors of the city. The last one who I felt like a throwback like that was my man Ed.”

Wass Stevens

Uh, they would have never gotten elected. There’s no chance. If they had the same ideals, no way. Maybe in the ’70s or post-Serpico when people tried to take a holy than thou attitude. But back when in the time that we shot the first season, they wouldn’t have had a shot. 

He [de Blasio] would not have been welcome in our station house. That’s for sure. We don’t need him looking over our shoulders. We do what we do.”

Katrina Bowden

I think anyone would have had a hard time then, because there was a lot going on that wasn’t morally right that people wanted to do anyway. I think our culture now is a little looser. I don’t know.” 

Austin Stowell

Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images

I think New York City is a tough city to run, doesn’t matter when you’re the mayor.”

Public Morals Stars Talk Policing and the Past