New York City in 1971 might seem seedily romantic today, but in reality it was a battlefield. That year, almost 1,500 people were murdered, including a dozen NYPD officers.
Fast-forward to 2010, when there have been only 486 homicides. So far, for the third year in a row, not a single officer has been killed by an assailant. Only two were wounded, compared with 1971, when 47 were hit by bad-guy gunfire.
This is partly because of lower crime rates. But it is also because police are shooting less, and so they get shot at less. This despite the fact there were 6,238 gun arrests in 2009 (the last year when full stats are available). In situations where cops drew a gun and fired, more dogs were killed than humans.
The NYPD has a few issues, like questionable crime statistics and aggressive frisking policies. But when it comes to deadly force, the NYPD should be justifiably proud of its record. We don’t really take note when a year passes without a Sean Bell. But we should. “You want the cops to be extremely restrained, but you also don’t want to create a situation where they would freeze at a critical moment,” says Eugene O’Donnell, who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “You want them to feel they can defend their lives and the lives of other people. We give them a gun for a reason.” Of course, New Yorkers are more likely to know the name of Amadou Diallo, who was gunned down by cops in 1999, than they are to know the name of a single officer killed in the line of duty.
In 2009, the NYPD responded to 4.4 million radio-received assignments. Of those, 206,000 calls involved weapons of some kind. Despite those massive numbers, there were only 47 cases in which an officer intentionally fired a gun in a conflict.
Part of that means learning from mistakes. NYPD spokesman Paul Browne says the department examines every police-involved shooting in detail. For example, he says that past examples of so-called contagious shooting, when an officer shoots because others begin firing, have caused the department to introduce that scenario in training. “Restraint is drilled into instruction,” he says.
Even though firepower has increased since 1993, when the department switched from revolvers with six rounds to semiautomatic pistols that hold sixteen rounds, police are firing fewer shots. Including “unintentional discharges,” police fired 296 bullets in 2009, compared with 2,113 bullets in 1971. When they did fire, officers squeezed the trigger fewer than five times in 90 percent of the incidents.
Police actions are examined after each incident. The officers are interviewed. “It’s not like TV, where the cops just shoot and drive off,” says O’Donnell. “That’s not the way it works in the NYPD. If you shoot even one round, you have a lot of explaining to do.”
Feris Jones just wanted to get her hair done. So Jonesy, as she’s known to most everyone, went to her favorite hair salon, Sabine’s Hallway, on Franklin Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, on a Saturday evening in October. The place gets its name for a reason: Only 150 square feet, it’s long and narrow, with a bathroom at the far end. Jonesy, 50—who has the self-assurance and calm of an experienced cop and a smile that seems to fill her whole face—was having a conversation with her stylist, another customer, and owner Sabine Bellevue when something suspicious happened. A woman came in asking questions and repeating herself, and then didn’t shut the front door when she left.
“As I go to close it,” says Bellevue, a 19-year-old named Winston Cox “was hiding in a blind spot.” He burst into the room with a .44 Magnum. “He’s just waving a gun in my face. He was like, ‘This is not a joke, it’s an effing robbery.’ He’s cursing and carrying on, ‘It’s a robbery, it’s a robbery.’ ”
This is a moment when most New Yorkers are happy to find that Jonesy is a twenty-year veteran of the NYPD. It’s easy to get upset when cops make bad decisions and hard to remember that police, at times, need to draw a gun and fire to defend themselves—and often, us.
Police said Cox moved the women into the bathroom in the back, so they weren’t visible from the street, where he began going through their purses. “I really thought he was going to grab the money and run out the door,” Bellevue says. “It didn’t happen really quickly. It seemed really long and drawn out. We got into the back, there was the talking and screaming. It was like, ‘Just take the money and leave already.’ ”
Jonesy’s holster was hidden under the cape that covered most of her body as her locks were being twisted by the stylist. Two of the women were behind her, in the bathroom, while Bellevue was in front. The moment stretched. Jonesy pulled out her handgun and held it behind one leg as she told the other women to get down.
“The people who know me know that I’m a calm person,” says Jonesy. “You listen to his instructions to gather yourself as to what you’re going to do and assess the situation at that point.” She had never fired her gun in conflict, but she didn’t see much of a choice. As Bellevue puts it, “I thought someone was going to die. I thought I was going to die.”
So Jonesy stood tall, looked at Cox, and told him she was a police officer. “He shot,” Jonesy says. “And I shot back. That’s where my training came in. It all kicked in. In your head, you’re listening to your instructors. You’re breathing. You’re trying to stay as calm as possible. You’re trying not to jerk the weapon.”
Cox missed on all four shots before Jonesy blew the gun out of his hand. Literally. Of course, Jonesy says she wasn’t trying to do anything out of a Wild West film, but it worked out.
“All of us in here were parents,” Bellevue says. “For you to come in and try to take that away from us. He could have left our children motherless.”
Instead, Cox got arrested and Jonesy got a promotion. Sabine’s was shut down from the shooting, so Jonesy had to get her locks twisted by the stylist on Monday, at home. —J.S.