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Show of Force


One of the cops told me, "Every cop I know believes Louima got violated, but not one believes that shit about Giuliani Time."

"Cops think about who the fuck is on the desk tonight," says Maple. "They think about the captain and is he the kind of guy who says, 'Take care, I'm going home.' And all of a sudden he's sneaking around checking up on them. The leadership that really affects the cop is the captain, the lieutenant, and the sergeant of the precinct. That's his whole world. The mayor is somebody they see on TV."

It is true, however, that young black men in this city have a legitimate grievance about being harassed. Cops spend a lot more time and energy hassling, and stopping and searching, young black males than they do anyone else. "I'm just playing the numbers," one cop told me. "It's just mathematics. If I see three young black guys with their baseball caps turned sideways in a Lexus or a BMW, is it possible that the black kids are just out for the evening in their father's car and not guilty of anything? Sure, but it's a lot more likely they're gonna be involved in something than a couple of white kids in a Honda Civic. The fact is that young black males and Hispanics commit most of the crime in the city."

Though it is never easy to be a police officer in New York City, a cop's life is more complicated, more frustrating, and more precarious right now than it has been in a long while. The Louima case has ruined what should have been a sustained moment of triumph for the Police Department. New York is officially the safest big city in America. There are enough would've-been-dead people walking around—if the murder rate had not been cut by 60 percent over four years— to nearly fill Carnegie Hall. Yet there is no warm public embrace for a police force that has had greater success in reducing crime than any force in any city in modern history. Rather, the department's reputation, which had already frayed in some communities over charges of brutality, is now seriously shredded as a result of the Louima case.

Morale is probably the lowest it's been since the Dinkins years—when cops felt they didn't have the mayor's support—and some of the satisfaction has been stripped from the job, cops say. One potential danger is a police slowdown. Not an organized, politically motivated kind of action but one born of each individual cop's concern for his own well-being. The active cop might now think twice before making an arrest: Well, the guy's black; is he going to resist, am I going to have to hit him, will he say I called him a nigger, and is this going to be a CCRB complaint while they're looking to hang people?

"When cops begin their shift," one says, "we often say to each other, 'Don't get hurt—either way.' This means physically or getting jammed up because of complications. It's something that's always on a cop's mind, even when things are more or less normal."

Cops see the debacle at the Seven-oh as merely the latest, albeit the most severe, blow struck against them. Ironically, the other blows have come at the hands of Mayor Giuliani. Despite the fact that Giuliani is regularly criticized for his unflinching support of the police, the overwhelming sentiment among the cops I talked to is that they will still vote for him—who else could they support?—but not happily.

The police are angry because they believe they put out for Giuliani, both during the last election and in reducing crime; yet when it has really counted, he's let them down: on their new contract (no raise for two years); on overtime (it's been drastically cut); on promotions (cops doing investigative work for months are not made detectives because it would mean giving them a raise). And on the way the mayor has reached down through the department for appointments all the way to the detective level (it's all about who you know who knows the mayor, many officers told me).

The cops see Giuliani as a kind of George Steinbrenner figure: a man who has to make every decision and who by forcing out Commissioner William Bratton, an independent, popular-with-the-players, Billy Martin kind of guy, signaled that it wasn't enough to have a winning team; it had to be his team.

"There's all this lip service from City Hall," one longtime veteran of the department says, "all this we-love-the-cops stuff. But that's just what it is, lip service. From 1974 to 1979, there was a freeze and nobody got hired. So there's a whole group of people hired after the freeze who're coming up on twenty years, and many of them are just waiting now to get out. There's a real brain drain coming if things don't change."


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