ARRESTS IN THE FIELDS OF MUD
The headlights blinded us as the car careened through
the heavy downpour.
As we passed on the narrow roadway, a wall of water struck the side of the radio car as the force of the speeding car sliced through the puddles of pooled rainwater. Angelo struggled to keep the police car on the pavement. Both sides of the road was a quagmire of mud due to the construction of the new clover leaf intersection where the new West Shore Expressway merged with the Richmond Parkway. He managed to make a quick U-turn and we began the pursuit with lights and siren. Patrolman Angelo Pisani Jr. handled a car well and he came alive during these chases. I think we only wrecked two or three radio cars in the time that we were partners. Once we put the engine block right through the radiator when we went off one of those old back roads in the sparsely populated 123rd Precinct.
In the 123rd Precinct, they gave us eight cylinder radio cars and calibrated the speedometers. Like Highway Patrol cops, the sector car teams in the patrol precinct were expected to issue
There was even a special car called the "Speed Car" for speeding enforcement on Hylan Boulevard. There was many a "souped-up" car back in those days. Every kid was an amateur mechanic and racing was a common practice. On weekend nights, they used roads like Arden Avenue or the end of Hylan Boulevard to mark off a quarter mile track. The roadways had blackened marks where they "laid down rubber" at the start of the races. Every time we saw young bodies torn up in vehicle accidents, we were motivated to give speeding summonses. I always remember the feeling of anger that I felt at the waste of life.
In those days, the legal age for consuming alcohol in New York City was 18 years of age.
The same age for obtaining a driver's license. The taverns in this part of town were filled with young teenagers who weren't exactly "two-fisted drinkers". Staten Island was a watering hole for teenagers from New Jersey where the legal age was 21. The Outerbridge Crossing that linked Perth Amboy, New Jersey with Tottenville was clogged with cars on a Friday or Saturday night. The taverns would fill up quickly and it wasn't long before the fistfights in the bars and deadly vehicle accidents would start.
Life as a cop in rural Staten Island in the 60's and early 70's was much like that of a country sheriff.
Before you laugh, think about a few things. Police officers, who were transferred from a Manhattan or Brooklyn Precinct to Staten Island, had to quickly become accustomed to the idea that when they went on a job such as a large fight in a tavern, they most likely would have no backup or assistance. The fight could possibly involve the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club tearing up the Breed Motorcycle Club. Both groups frequented the bars on Staten Island in those days. Or, the tavern could be crowded with young, drunken revelers from Staten Island who numbered in the hundreds. Many times, the locals would be fighting with the New Jersey drinkers. When cops in the 123rd Precinct would call a "signal 10-13" assist patrolman, there was rarely any help available. The 123rd Precinct covered nineteen square miles of suburban and undeveloped areas. You would never know you were in the City of New York. The cops in the adjoining 122nd Precinct had the same problems. They covered an area of over twenty-two square miles. When cops were sent on a job, they knew they were on their own. They also never got the respect that they deserved. Police officers throughout these United States who work in solo cars and in rural or suburban areas are very familiar with such police problems.
Patrolman Charles Guthrie was a veteran of the busy 77th Precinct in Brooklyn and transferred to the 123rd Precinct when he moved to Staten Island.
He was working solo patrol duty on a late tour when he noticed cars parked all over the sidewalk in front of a notorious tavern. Just when he started to drop a few parking summonses on the cars, a passing drunken driver slammed into the cars on the sidewalk. The loud sound of the accident alerted the patrons of the bar who came stumbling out to see their cars damaged. The owner of the bar slammed the door shut behind the crowd and locked the door. The cold January air was filled with angry and obscene shouts from the crowd of drunken patrons. Needless to say, I heard Charlie call a "signal 10-85 forthwith". We had two other cars on the way.
When a cop calls a "signal 10-85 forthwith" on himself, it usually means he's in a world of trouble. Usually, cops will use the "signal 10-85 forthwith" when they need help rather
than the "signal 10-13 assist patrolman". That call was reserved for the most serious incidents. Charlie learned what it meant to work in "Tottenville" as the rest of the NYPD
condescendingly called the 123rd Precinct. The mob of intoxicated patrons surrounded Officer Guthrie as he waited for the other cops to arrive. As I pulled up to the scene, Charlie had his hands full
with a prisoner. He was surrounded by a large crowd. Things quickly got out of hand when the disorderly group saw the small number of cops that responded on the call.
We were badly outnumbered. I called a "signal 10-13" and the other cars also made repeated calls to Central. What we did not know was that there were no cars available. Even the adjoining 122nd Precinct had no cars to send. The nearest police car was in the 120th Precinct, almost twenty minutes away. I cuffed my first prisoner and put him inside my patrol car. I turned as other officers were tussling with other prisoners as the drunken crowd milled around and shouted support for those struggling with the cops. The mob refused to disperse. As the few cops on the scene placed prisoners inside the radio cars, they still hoped for a response of more police cars to the "signal 10-13". These drunks weren't dumb; they could hear the calls on the police frequency. No help was coming. There were no sirens heard in the thin cold winter air.
As we struggled with the prisoners, groups of drunks went to a railroad overpass of the Staten Island Rapid Transit located a short distance away and proceeded to bombard us with large stones from the
railroad trestle. As Patrolman Jim Carlino and I struggled with another prisoner, the mob freed the prisoner sitting in the rear seat of the radio car.
He fled from the melee with my cuffs on his wrists. That was an insult of the highest order. He surrendered a few days later, but I took a lot of kidding from the cops for the loss of my cuffs. Every cop had at least on prisoner in custody as I shouted over the radio to take all prisoners into the precinct. We never did get any backup. I would like to pay homage if I may to whoever designed the holster for the NYPD. That much-maligned holster saved the life of many a cop. The .38 caliber service revolver just couldn't be ripped out of that holster. I recall incidents where the entire leather holster was torn from the gunbelt of cops, but the revolver stayed safely inside. God bless the designer of that piece of equipment. In incidents such as this, it became very important. When a cop was down and struggling with multiple suspects, efforts to rip the weapon from the officer was a common occurrence.
If there was one cop that we liked to have around during one of those bar fights, it was Patrolman Carl Johnson. Carl was a tough cop.
He was really a one-man army. His very presence would strike fear in the hearts of aspiring cop-fighters. I saw many such miscreants humbled in his presence. If you didn't know Carl, you would think he was a weightlifting, motorcycling, "good old boy". He resembled the actor,Charles Bronson. Carl grew up in the South and spoke with a southern accent. He was in the service and married a girl from New York. He liked the rural atmosphere on Staten Island and after a few years working as a cop in Manhattan, he transferred to the 123rd Precinct.
Angelo and I had been partners for some time, and we were able to react together in most instances. We had discussed tactics and had become a good radio car team. The importance of steady
partners in patrol cars was a concept well understood by experienced police commanders.
For the patrol cop, it could make the difference between life and death. Angelo was a young cop who had recently been in the Tactical Patrol Force (TPF). The duty in the TPF had required living out of the trunk of his car. The TPF was organized to respond as a unit to any precinct in the City that required large numbers of uniformed cops to deal with unusual street problems. The cops assigned to the TPF were usually over six feet tall and were recruited right out of the Police Academy or soon thereafter. Because they didn't have a home command with a locker, they would carry their equipment in their private cars. They never knew where they would end up at the end of a tour of duty. They could be relocated from a command in Manhattan to Brooklyn at a moment's notice. They were a proud bunch of cops, though. They wore the letters "TPF" on their uniform collars with pride. They were the shock troops of the NYPD when things got out of hand in the street. Angelo had broken in as a new cop in the TPF, but the unusual hours together with the constant "flying" and living out of the trunk of his car was not the life for a married man. He transferred into patrol and was assigned to the 123rd Precinct on Staten Island. I met him soon after he came to the 123rd and we asked to be assigned to the same sector. We worked well together.
We continued the pursuit along the service road that was a detour through a vast section of highway under construction.
The bulldozers had plowed up the area for a cloverleaf intersection of two connecting highways. There was a sea of mud on each side of the roadway. It had been raining heavily recently, and any car that pulled to the side would run the risk of being mired down. There were only a few temporary streetlights on the service road, and the windshield wipers were laboring to keep the rain off as we strained our eyes to keep the receding taillights of the fleeing car in sight. The radio car fishtailed as we sped along the narrow roadway.
As we closed the distance between us, we saw the stoplights of the car. We strained to see through the rain-spattered windshield as the wipers shook in the driving wind.
Dimly, we could see that the driver and a female passenger were changing seats. The female was pulling away again as we came behind and I flipped the toggle switch for the constant siren. The startled driver pulled off the roadway into the mud. We got out of the radio car into the downpour and felt our shoes sink into the rain-soaked earth. The raindrops whipped past the beam of the headlights as we approached the car. The male had already opened his door and was shouting obscenities at us. The female also got out and glared at us. Even in the wind and rain, the male reeked of alcohol and his aggressive attitude indicated that we had a collar.
Angelo and I had a code that we used to indicate that an arrest was to be made immediately.
At the use of the code expression "It looks like it's going to be another one of those nights!" we would cuff up the prisoner to prevent resistance. We never would telegraph a punch. We would cringe when we would hear other cops in arrest situations inform the prisoner that they were under arrest. Then, the forewarned prisoner would resist and the cops would have all they could do to subdue the suspect. Lots of cops got hurt that way, and lots of prisoners were injured during the arrest. Quick, decisive action by arresting officers prevented unnecessary problems in arrest situations. When cops took action in the 123rd Precinct, they knew that they were on their own. There would be no assistance coming. You couldn't afford to lose a fight. I chose my radio car partners carefully. Angelo was a good choice.
The drunken male was the operator of the car so we proceeded to effect the arrest.
He wasn't a big guy, but he was what they called "wiry". When we tried to cuff him up, we found out just how strong he was. The strength of his arms surprised us as we tried to bring his arms behind his back. We all fell into the mud as we struggled to control him. There is no easy way to get cuffs on a violent prisoner. In those days, we would use a hold that today would be forbidden. When an extremely violent and strong prisoner was determined to overcome the police, the only way to quickly overcome him was to use the "choke hold". By cutting off the prisoner's airway, injuries were kept to a minimum. Those were the days before police were equipped with alternatives such as Mace and other chemical devices. When the police could not overcome resistance, they had no choice but to resort to more violent methods that involved the use of nightsticks and firearms. Suddenly, his girlfriend jumped on my back and pulled at my head as Angelo and I used all our strength to subdue the prisoner. I turned and shoved the female into the mud but she jumped back onto my back as we continued trying to get the cuffs on the male. We rolled in the mud and twisted his arms behind his back as he tried to kick us in the groin. He turned out to be one of the toughest prisoners that I ever dealt with. His strength had caught us by surprise because he wasn't a large man. Slipping in the mud in the downpour didn't make things any easier. I used up all my energy reserves until we finally got the cuffs on him. We were covered with mud as we put both of them in the radio car for the ride into the precinct. Both of them were screaming and kicking in the backseat.
We sped into the precinct with the prisoners and booked them. We were a little embarrassed by our physical condition.
We were soaked and covered with mud. Cops have a keen sense of humor and the jokes were flying by the time we cleaned up. One of the cops we worked with was a guy named Patrolman Irwin Rutman. Angelo and I always liked Irwin. Irwin could intimidate a stranger very easily. He had what looked like a saber scar on the side of his face. He had a great sense of humor and his demeanor could be deceptively stern. We often joked with him about the jobs in the 123rd Precinct. He was Jewish and had worked in the 69th Precinct in Brooklyn. He was made of good stuff. Years later, when he retired, he went to work for a security firm. He was on his way home to his family when he was shot and killed during a struggle with a male who had been threatening passengers on the subway. There should be a section on the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C. for retired cops who die "in the line of duty". Irwin Rutman's name should be on that list.
For what seemed like hours, I was unable to regain my breath. I labored to fill my lungs with air. My eyes blurred and I was dizzy from lack of oxygen. I hadn't been exercising regularly
and I smoked cigarettes. I had made attempts to stop smoking, but I never had enough motivation.
Now, I was learning a lesson that I would never forget. I didn't tell Angelo, but by the time we had finally put the cuffs on the prisoner, I was totally exhausted. I almost blacked out during the fierce struggle. I never expended all of my reserves before. I knew then that I had to stop smoking. That arrest in the mud was a turning point in my life. I began a program of regular exercise. I began jogging and over the next year, I prided myself on my new lifestyle. Smoking was an easy habit to give up when I knew that my very life and the safety of my partner were at risk.
A short time after this incident, Angelo was transferred back to Manhattan. They had created the new Midtown Precincts.
The crime in the midtown area had resulted in big changes. The old 16th Precinct was closed. The 14th Precinct on West 30th Street became a Traffic Unit. There were now two new precincts called, Midtown South, and Midtown North. The old 18th Precinct stationhouse on West 54th Street would house the new Midtown North Precinct.
It was January 1972 and I remember it being a very cold winter.
Angelo went from a sector car to foot patrol with half a block for a post. They flooded the area with foot cops. For Angelo, it was a hellish winter. The precinct patrol sergeants and staff supervisors galore signed his memorandum book repeatedly as he stood freezing on what really was a fixed post. The O.W. Wilson concept of "Omnipresence" of police was followed to the letter. Headquarters was determined to drive crime out of the mid-town area. Of course, it worked. The crime was displaced into bordering precincts, but for now, the mid-town area saw a visible improvement in street conditions. Angelo was fortunate in that he was on the list for appointment to the Fire Department. He was called for that job and elected to transfer from the Police Department and became a Firefighter. He went on to become a Fire Marshal and eventually became a professor of criminal justice at St. John's University. The NYPD was not so fortunate. We lost a good cop and I lost a good radio car partner. Within a year, I was promoted to Sergeant and transferred anyway.
©Copyright l999 Edward D. Reuss
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