EVENINGS IN CROWN HEIGHTS
August of l991 was an eventful month in what was to be my
last summer on patrol as a Captain of Police. I was the Executive Officer of the 120th Precinct and was hoping for a command of my own.
Captains who weren't precinct commanders worked around the clock on a rotating shift schedule. All other ranks had regular working hours. I was still working the same shift-work that I had worked almost thirty years before as a rookie cop. Our home life was suffering as a result. Holidays were still difficult to get off. Laurel had just about had it with "The Job".
That summer of 1991, Crown Heights, located in the confines of the 71st Precinct, was the scene of violent street disorders when a black child was struck and killed by a vehicle driven by a member of the
Hasidic Sect. Crown Heights was a section of Brooklyn with a large Hasidic community. It also had a large black population.
When a Hasidic man was murdered in the street in what appeared to be an act of retaliation, the neighborhood became a cauldron of heated violence. For three days and nights, there was a running battle between both groups of citizens. Television coverage showed cops being bombarded with bottles and retreating before angry groups of both sides. There seemed to be no coordination or control of the police officers. It was a sad thing to watch. I would soon get the opportunity to see the reasons why.
After three successive nights of the disorders, I "flew" to the 71st Precinct. I reported to a school located at 333 Crown Avenue that was a short distance from the precinct stationhouse. Captain
Joseph Mennella was assigned with me to the same detail. We reported to the Temporary Headquarters Vehicle that was parked in front of the school. Hundreds of police officers were standing in the street, sidewalks,
and schoolyard. All ranks were mingled together with no effort to establish order or discipline. The cops were exchanging pleasantries with each other as was usual when cops got together. The high-ranking
bosses in the headquarters van were sitting in the rear of the vehicle chatting with each other. Captain Mennella and I stood together and commented on the lack of control of the detail. We had a private joke
Joe turned to me and whispered, "The Ship of Fools".
I laughed and remembered his story about the painting of
"The Ship of Fools" and how he saw a correlation between that painting and the NYPD. It was a painting of a ship with the crew in complete riot with nobody at the helm. The crooked and meandering wake of the ship showed that the vessel had no direction. Joe had grown a little cynical over the years. He was a no-nonsense boss from the old school of supervision. In the summer of l991, the homicide statistics were frightening. The crack cocaine epidemic was destroying whole neighborhoods in many areas of the City. The rank and file of the police seemed hopelessly demoralized by recent events.
For three successive nights, Crown Heights had rocked with street disorders. We watched the evening sun sink ever lower in the sky as the hundreds of cops stood clustered in a disorganized mass. No roll call
had been conducted. No assignments had been made. Lieutenants, sergeants, and police officers chatted, smoked cigarettes, and waited for their assignments. Precious time elapsed with no call to order by those in the
Temporary Headquarters Vehicle.
Finally, as the sky darkened, some of the detail was assigned to duties. I eventually was handed a detail roster sheet and assigned a number of men. After what seemed an
eternity of indecision, I now had my detail assembled and assigned. We patrolled the area surrounding the headquarters of the Hasidim on Eastern Parkway. We dispersed disorderly groups and luckily for us, the tour
ended without any great disturbances.
The next night, Joe and I again "flew" to the same Crown Heights Detail. This time we were prepared. The importance of "Unity of Command" is an axiom
in police work. Any military or police commander worth his or her salt has been instilled with this cardinal rule. When we reported to the Temporary Headquarters Vehicle, we grabbed detail roster sheets. We picked
lieutenants from patrol precincts that we knew to be seasoned veterans of the street. We gave them the roster sheets and instructed them to select ten patrol sergeants. All the sergeants arrived with at least ten
cops from their precincts. They had all reported with police vans which could hold at least that many officers.
The lieutenants commandeered the sergeants and cops in the vans as they reported to the detail. Within a short time, we had ten detail roster sheets in hand with a complete list of names and vehicle numbers. We told the lieutenants to take the men and vehicles to the schoolyard and to stay out of sight. We feared that others of higher rank would grab our men and separate them. I had seen that happen many times over my career. Usually, a captain or higher officer would arbitrarily select men and supervisors and randomly assigned them to posts. They would be assigned with cops or supervisors who were from other units. This would result in the loss of unit cohesiveness. The sergeants were not familiar with the men assigned under them, and the cops didn't know the sergeants. There was no mutual confidence in each other. The New York City Police Department was comprised of over thirty thousand cops of all ranks. In an ongoing street situation or large disorder such as in Crown Heights, cops needed to act as a unit. This was very different from the normal duties of a police officer. They were trained to act independently and to take the initiative. Unity of command was needed under the threat of violent disorders. Joe and I noticed that many of the other captains were also assembling their details on their own initiative.
This time, as it grew dark, Joe and I watched the confusion at the THQ vehicle with interest. Our details were assembled and ready. As we stood in front of the THQ vehicle, we were approached by one of the
ranking supervisors who were in charge of the detail. In a challenging tone of voice he asked what we were doing. We responded that we were awaiting our assignments as we handed our detail roster sheets to him. He
turned without comment and climbed back into the THQ vehicle.
When we were given our assignments, we were much more confident of our mission. Our details were intact under their own sergeants. The
mobility provided by the police vans enabled us to quickly respond to reports of disorders anywhere in the precinct. We seemed to be everywhere. By now, the entire force of cops was a cohesive unit. At a signal from
the detail commander, we would converge at each new scene of unrest. The presence of disciplined and well-commanded officers in sufficient numbers quickly restored order to Crown Heights.
learned that First Deputy Commissioner Raymond Kelly had personally taken command of the entire operation in Crown Heights. It was his leadership and initiative that had filtered down through the ranks.
©Copyright l999 Edward D. Reuss
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