THE SPIRIT OF THE TIMES
No crime shattered the complacency of the City of New York
like the murder of Kitty Genovese.
She was killed in such a frightening manner that the effects of that homicide would haunt the people of that great town for decades to come. I was still a rookie cop in March of l964, the year that Miss Genovese met her fate.
What made her death so heinous, was the fact that after being attacked repeatedly in the streets of a residential area in the Borough of Queens, and despite repeated calls for help, her attacker returned to
finish her off when he saw that nobody would come to her aide. She died as scores of residents in the surrounding apartments peered from behind curtains and blinds. They watched in silence as Kitty was
continuously attacked until she died. Her cries for help went unheeded. No calls were made to the police at the time of the attack. She bled to death in the alley. No fellow human comforted her as she
Criminologists and sociologists studied the facts surrounding that murder and many reports were released that attempted to explain why no one came to her assistance. Nobody wanted to "get
involved" was the oft- stated reason. In German, the term "Zeitgeist" means the "Spirit of the Times". When we think back to the '60s, a spirit of alienation and detachment was
reflected in the facts surrounding the death of Kitty.
She wasn't the last to have her life taken from her. Her name became well known, but as the years passed, many more victims who are not as well remembered, were slain in like manner.
Many of the young
cops of those days were effected by this perceived attitude of the public. They felt that nobody seemed to care. They felt that we belonged to a group of elite men and women who served as the "Thin Blue
Line" between chaos and civilization.
We were proud of our role in the defense of law and order. Yet, we felt alienated from the rest of society. We became completely immersed in the world of the police. We assumed a sort of siege mentality and felt ourselves alone in a struggle against the forces of evil. We trusted few in the criminal justice system. Attorneys and judges were part of the problem as we saw it. The revolving door of plea- bargaining made a mockery of our efforts to deal with the crime that was overwhelming our streets.
A few months before Kitty Genovese was murdered, President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. The shock of his death created a sense of fear and foreboding. That summer of l964, the City of New York was
the scene of street disorders in Harlem. For three nights, that section of Manhattan resembled a battle zone as hundreds of cops were sent to suppress the disturbance. The shooting death of a young black boy by
police had sent unanswered rumors throughout the community that led to the unrest. On the first night of the disturbances, the division radio fell silent for hours and we weren't aware of the problems in
Manhattan North until at 5 AM when all sector cars were ordered to report to the stationhouse. The sergeants took all the old civil defense helmets out of the trunks of the radio cars. Those helmets were
leftovers from the Second World War that were painted white with the letters "CD" on the front. They were the same type of helmets worn by the doughboys of the First World War. The helmets were for the
cops who were "flying" to Harlem.
Photo Courtesy of ret Det Bob McFeeley with this comment:
“The photo above was taken in front of the 24th pct. during the Harlem riots
in 1964. This is a group of cops from the 9th that were assigned to Harlem. I'm the one directly to the left of the Captain holding the hard hat in both
hands. It was a sad day for the 9th because it was the day my friend Patrolman Henry Wallberger got shot and killed responding to a burglary.”
We wore those helmets for the first few tours that we were sent to Harlem. When things
quieted down, we reported to Mount Morris Park in the 28th Precinct for the details. When the streets returned to normal, the details were downsized, but they continued until the end
of the summer of 1964. But that was the beginning of the "long, hot summers". Other cities had disturbances as well. In Los Angeles, the Watts Section erupted in 1965. Large areas of
that City were burned. Detroit also had large sections burned during civil unrest. The violence of that period was also characterized by the assassination of political and social
leaders. The deaths of President John F. Kennedy, former Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and others of equal prominence, reflected the
climate that permeated those years. The spread of disorder within our society would test the mettle of the new cops. What many did not realize was the fact that most of the members of
the NYPD in those eventful years were veterans of World War II and the Korean War. The majority of the police officers who trained me and my fellow recruits in l963 had been
appointed in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War. They were a group of cops that had grown up in the '30s in the tenements of the Lower East Side, the
Bronx, Brooklyn, and other neighborhoods of the City of New York. They had served in infantry companies and armored reconnaissance units in both theaters of the war. They had
seen more in their lives than most of us would ever witness. They had their youthful years taken from them as they marched across Europe fighting against the greatest evil that the
world had ever seen. Many of their buddies still lay in the fields of France, Belgium, Italy, and the islands of the Pacific. Those veterans served as an example for younger cops to
emulate. The lessons that they taught us were invaluable. I don't think we will ever see the likes of them again. The wartime experiences that had hardened them to adversity made them
uniquely qualified to serve as police officers in the tumultuous years of the '60s.
On Friday, October 18, l963, our Police Academy Class graduated in the armory at East
25th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York City. The armory was the home of the "Fighting 69th Regiment. That regiment had been comprised of Irish immigrants who fought with distinction in the Army
of the Potomac during the Civil War and during World War I in France. The traditions of the job had been shaped to a great extent by those of Irish descent who were well represented in the higher ranks of the
Department. . It was no accident that the pipes and drums of the Emerald Society performed at all funerals of slain police officers.
Today, social scientists and criminologists write critically of traditional policing methods. They rightly emphasis the need for community support of the police. When we look back
three decades to those days when Kitty Genovese was brutally stabbed to death in full view of citizens frozen with fear, we should be thankful that the cops of that period were equal to
the task. Without community support and involvement, the police officers of those days faced the challenge of a disordered society and served as the "thin blue line". Many times, it
appeared to those officers that the entire society had lost its soul.
The period of the l960s was one in which the Sexual Revolution, the Drug Culture, the Civil
Rights Movement, and the War in Vietnam dominated our lives. The streets of New York City became the battleground for the hearts and minds of the people. New York was the site
of the United Nations which rendered it ideal as a location for demonstrations. The sight of members of the clergy marching in demonstrations carrying placards with slogans that
referred to the police as "pigs", or well-known celebrities present at the burning of American flags added to the confusing values of that era. It took discipline and training to stand in
silence as insults were shouted into the faces of cops manning the barricades. National television and members of the media always seemed prepared to report any unprofessional
responses by the disciplined cops of the NYPD. The police in many precincts wore sweatshirts with a new logo that had the words: Pride, Integrity, and Guts under the cartoon
image of a smiling pig. They wore the sweatshirts under their uniformed blouses.
The takeover of Columbia University was an event that most cops of that era will never
forget. Dissident students took over the campus of the University and held rallies of protest over the administration of the school. They occupied the offices of some of the halls and
destroyed some of the academic work of faculty members. The ultimate confrontation involved the use of the NYPD Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) to clear the campus. For those
cops, it was inconceivable to see American college students locking arms and actually charging into a line of police officers. It was a tough time to be a cop. But then, when was it ever easy?
It is said that films are very much like the books of years ago. They reflect the attitudes of the period and also influence the thinking of many. In the classic western films the marshal
or sheriff would take on the bad guys and restore order to the frontier town. Why did the townspeople always turn on the marshal when order had been restored? Gary Cooper in
"High Noon" or even the "Lone Ranger" would always ride off into the sunset at the end of the drama. Later, motion pictures would continue that theme with Clint Eastwood in "Pale
Rider". It seemed that once law and order had been restored, the marshal or cop would be seen as no longer so necessary. Such is the lot of the lawman.
When the quality of life in New York City had deteriorated to such an extent that
thousands were voting with their feet and fleeing the City, the citizens voted for leadership that promised to restore law and order. What we needed was tough law enforcement. We got it.
We have seen how community support of the police can bring about a superior quality of life. Today, New York City has undergone a renaissance. The men and women of the NYPD
have played the major role in that comeback. In the summer of l985, I took my family to Madison Square Garden to attend the graduation of the Police Academy. Our son, Edward
was in the class of new officers. We decided to take public transportation. New Yorkers must remember how the conditions of the mass transit system of the City of New York were a
disgrace. The windows, seats, door, and ceilings of the subway cars were filled with graffiti. It was literally impossible to see out of the windows of the subway cars. Signs of disorder
were everywhere. The odor of urine and feces filled the subway platforms. We were confronted by aggressive derelicts as we traveled to the graduation. The dreary platforms
and shabby surroundings rubbed off on the passengers who sat in silence with their eyes on the floor. Tourists must have been shocked by the conditions. The streets of the city
reflected the same sad scenario. After his training in NSU (Neighborhood Stabilization Unit), Edward was assigned to the famous 9th Precinct. Luckily for him, he met cops like Police
Officer Donald Muldoon who taught him lessons in police work that no school could teach. He would learn much during his five years assigned to the 9th Precinct.
Someone has said that those who do not know the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. Now it seems that we have come full term. Recent events have again placed the
NYPD under the spotlight of worldwide media attention. The new generation of cops who maintain "the thin blue line" must endure. They must turn their faces like flint into the winds
of the coming tide of turmoil. They must know that the police officers of yesteryear know and appreciate their task. They must run the race. They must fulfill their role on the stage of
history. God be with them.
©Copyright l999 Edward D. Reuss
CLICK HERE FOR MORE STORIES