A ROOKIE'S RUDE AWAKENING TO REAL WORLD POLICING
By Peter J. Heron
In 1979,my parents still lived in a housing project named the Vladeck Houses on Manhattan's Lower East Side, within the confines of
the 7th Precinct. In the beginning of November 1979, I drove them and my older sister to Kennedy Airport. They flew to Florida to visit family.
Days later, I entered the Police Academy, the first new blood
the NYPD had seen in years. As I stood there in dark blue slacks and a light blue shirt, I felt excited. I would learn to be a cop-a city cop. Cops were good. Cops were tough. Cops were the men who often drove my bartender father home at night when I was a kid. Cops like Patty
O'Connor, Emergency Service, who flipped on the loudspeaker of his truck and serenaded a largely Puerto Rican and Jewish housing project with Irish ballads as my father walked up four flights of stairs-at 5am!
I recalled these cops as I listened to a lieutenant introduce our instructors.
He introduced Sgt. Al Gotay, a legendary figure in the NYPD. He was
someone I wanted to learn from. I volunteered for a special class after our normal tour was over. Composed of fewer than 20 recruits, Sgt. Gotay and Sgt. Freeman (an Olympic runner-up in Judo) taught us
Judo, then fought us, four nights a week. When I graduated, I would weigh 167 pounds, six pounds lighter than the tough training the Marines gave me a t Parris Island - they could only get me to 173 pounds.
I also keyed in on the firearm instructors. I already understood the concept of 'sight picture' and 'squeeze, not pull'. I would leave the Academy having fired a 98 with my service revolver. The
Academy forbid us from carrying off-duty weapons, so I wouldn't qualify with a Chief until months later. When I did, I hit the moving target 33 out of 36 times as I crouched behind a hydrant at Rodman's Neck.
On the night of April 2, 1980, I strode out of the Academy. I fought a silly grin that kept struggling to mount my face, self-consciously aware of the big 4-Inch in my waistband. Still not graduated, the
Academy nevertheless decreed that today we could carry guns off duty. By coincidence, my parents had returned earlier in the day from Florida. I rushed to visit them.
I entered the Vladeck. At my building, I looked up to see my sister, Katherine peering from the window. 35 years old, mentally retarded, she had manned that fixed post day in, day out, year after
year, waving at every passerby. One floor above Katherine, in the hallway window, I noticed a crowd of men. None looked familiar to me. I bounded into the building, up the stairs and walked into the arms
of my mother, Vassa. Disabled for years, she nevertheless always wore a smile. I then kissed my father, John. Once a 6'3", big bartender of a man, he sat hunched in his chair, paralyzed on his right
side by a stroke two years before.
They sat me at the kitchen table while my mother prepared tea. In an enthusiastic voice, I started to
talk when a crash of glass shattered the night air outside. "Ma, what was that"?, I asked her. Some one
threw a beer bottle from the fifth floor window, she told me. We grew silent, listening to the raucous laughter from the hallway; another bottle crashed below. "Let me call the Housing Police", she said to
me. I saw my father watching me, nonchalance written on his face, yet sizing me up with his eyes.
"No, Mom, I'm a cop", I told her in a quiet voice, one I prayed didn't expose the fear I felt. "I'll take care of it".
I walked out our door, pausing to pat the 4-inch Smith&Wesson on my right hip. It felt very wobbly. I climbed the stairs, counting four Hispanic men by the window. When I reached the landing, I saw
three other men to my left. I smiled and pulled my tin. I felt very small displaying the awesome power
of an NYPD shield. "Hey, guys, do me a favor", I asked them, "please tone it down a little, okay"? None of them responded; I took it as an affirmative answer and walked back down to my parents.
I assured my mother it was okay. We remained silent. Then the phone rang. My mother listened for a few seconds and said, "It's the lady in 5B; she said someone's juggling her doorknob". I murmured,
"relax, Mom, I'll take care of it".
This time I put my back to the wall when I stood in front of them. Pulling my tin again, I announced in
a weak voice, "you have to leave or I'll lock you up for disorderly conduct". They stared silently at me. They edged closer. I felt I could be in for a brawl.
I pulled my gun, leveling it at them, keeping my finger off the trigger, and holding it parallel to the gun. I felt sort of sick.
"Fuck you, man, we don't care if you are a cop", a thin guy with long black hair shouted at me. He lunged at me. I reacted instantly, stepping to meet him, thrusting my left hand into his throat. He went
by the name 'Apache', I found out later, and he led this group.
I threw him down the stairs, watching him tumble about halfway before being stopped by a heavyset
man coming up the steps. Below and behind them, I saw the wide eyes of my mother staring up at us. Both men now rebounded up the stairs, Apache leading the way. I hit him on top of the head with my gun.
I didn't hit him very hard. He continued, so I backed up a foot, and with all the strength I had, I smashed it down on his head again. I didn't anticipate the clenching of my hand as I gripped my gun. I
had pulled my trigger finger from the side of the gun, where it then slid into the trigger guard, and pulled the trigger as I struck Apache.
A loud noise filled the hall, sounding hollow and far away. The top of Apache's head spurted blood. He slipped to the ground moaning, "why did you shoot me, man, why did you shoot me"? The other
man disappeared, as did everyone else; my mother, too. Did I shoot my mother? She had stood directly in the line of fire. I gripped Apache's neck and dragged him towards my parents' door.
She stood in the doorway. "I called 911, Peter", she said. "Okay, Mom, thank you", I said in a low
tone. I turned Apache onto his belly and stepped on him with my foot. The hall remained eerily quiet, quickly shattered by the sound of people, about twenty, charging down the stairs. I didn't utter a
word. I pointed my gun at a muscular Puerto Rican man in a white T-shirt. I could see a small red circle in the middle of it, about the size of a bullet hole. How I saw it, I can't explain, because it was in
my imagination. But the look on my face was real. Another step by this man who led this crowd and I would have fired. He opened his arms wide, stopping the crowd in its tracks.
I heard my father's cane. He had gotten off his chair to stand at my side. If someone jostled him, he'd crash to the ground. He had no feeling on his right side. From below, another crowd came charging. My
father looked at them and bellowed at the top of his voice, "give me the gun, Peter, I'll shoot the motherfuckers". This stopped that crowd cold as well.
A quiet standoff began. In the distance, I heard sirens. Both crowds melted away. Where there had been a crowd below me now stood a gray-haired cop with a gun. He shouted, "drop the gun". In a
clear, calm voice, I said, "I'm on the job. My tin is in my left rear pocket". About this time, the elevator by our door opened. I saw black shoes and uniformed pants. The cop below again shouted,
"Identify yourself". I slowly pulled my shield, and the cop in the elevator shouted down in a friendly voice to the gray-haired one, "It's okay".
After that, all I remember is cops everywhere. I arrested two men: Apache and the heavy guy-who resisted, getting bulldozed into a wall by the gray-haired cop. I left the building with the uniformed
cops. No one remained behind to protect my family. For the next hour, a mob of people shouted at
their window. Threats like, "we're gonna kill your son", "your whole family's gonna die". Finally, my
mother, all 5'3" of her, walked out her door and into the mob. My mother had a soft, well-spoken voice. She said, "You all know me. Most of you have been our friends for decades. You've been in my
house. If you wish to remain my friend, you'll come in my house now; if not, don't ever speak to me again". She told me later that one by one the neighbors and looker-ons that knew us came to her door
until, eventually, only a small group of strangers remained outside. The taunting stopped.
Over the course of the next few weeks phone calls and neighbor warnings told us of death threats. On
one of those nights, as I walked into the Vladeck Houses, a large soup tureen smashed inches from my feet, thrown from above.
I went to the 7th Precinct. Unofficially, cops on patrol had been stopping me. The word was out, they said. Cruise past the kid's building; keep up a show of force. Housing Police did a lot of driving by as
well. I remain grateful to this day. The detectives gave my parents a radio to contact the NYPD unit that dealt with threats and attacks on officers. Thankfully, my parents never had to use the radio.
Two things happened to bring the curtain down on the whole affair: My eldest brother visited one day. He confronted two men with masks in the elevator. After telling them to remove the masks, they
said, "you ain't got nothing on us, we ain't doing nothing". My brother James promptly pulled a knife
and held it to a throat. "I'm not my brother and I'm not the Man. I'll cut your fucking throats", he told them. For years afterwards, we saw very few strange men in our parents' building.
My mother helped provide the closing touch: a neighbor had overheard two teenage women talking about a plan to 'hit the cop'. My mother insisted on the names. She told me and I called the 7th squad.
A detective told me, " we'll talk to your mother and calm her down". I responded, politely, "bullshit,
you'll call them two girls in and talk to them". He took it in good grace, perhaps realizing a very frightened rookie dwelled within me. He brought them in and scared the hell out of them. The word got
out and eventually, considering we had lived there for decades just like everyone else, it all blew over.
On Graduation Day, I stood in a large auditorium with 500 other new cops. We listened to the Commissioner. We listened to the Mayor. We saluted on command. Then I turned
to stare proudly at my parents, seated behind us. I saluted them. Real cops could have provided no better backup than my parents did on that frightening night. Afterwards, my father
took the three of us to P.J. Clarkes on 55th and 3rd where he once worked. We celebrated.
Copyright 2000 Peter J. Heron
When I retired from the NYPD, my retirement party was held in a small Knights of Columbus hall on
Staten Island. My family and I had much to be thankful for. I still had all my marbles, was in good
health, and wasn't in danger of indictment. I was sad to leave a career that had been my life for three decades. During that party, I thought of the many cops that I had known during my time on "The
The class of October 1963 that graduated from the Police Academy was long gone. Many of my fellow rookies never made it to retirement. I was lucky.
Peter Heron wasn't as lucky as I was. He was involved in four shooting incidents during his career with the NYPD. One of those shootings was a bad one. He paid the price. He was dismissed from
the NYPD and was sentenced to prison for his actions.
Yet, he still has a pride in having been a member of the NYPD. He plans to write a book about his experiences as a police officer.
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