A Police Story: Bushwick Burning

In May, 1975, I became a Patrolman again when I was evicted from Police Headquarters in Manhattan, transferred to the 83rd Precinct in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The occasion was Operation All Out, aptly named for the filling of empty police cars in Precincts all over the City as 5,000 patrolmen were laid off by a City facing bankruptcy. Rigged budgets, the flight or collapse of neighborhood-based manufacturing, and reluctance of Mayors to say no to the pay and benefit demands of Civil Service unions were some reasons. Then one day in February, 1975, the banks refused to lend another dollar, to underwrite another bond sale, as the City sank beneath a debt in the billions. State Civil Service law dictated: Last in, first out. Spared by eight years seniority, I got my blues out of mothballs, said goodbye to the Police Legal Bureau, and motored over the Williamsburg Bridge and four miles up Broadway to the Eight-Three Precinct on Wilson and DeKalb Avenues, to take up the lance again.

Bushwick was predominantly Puerto Rican, alongside an older Sicilian section along Knickerbocker Avenue, a main commercial street, bordering Ridgewood, Queens in the north. A block away sat the 83rd Precinct Station House, a Victorian-era stone structure, turreted, with a corner tower and crenellated parapets, a medieval castle or fort. Instead of a moat, it had six steep stone steps leading up to a pair of massive oak doors barring entry. (In six years at the Eight-Three, I would participate in repelling all manner of invaders on those very steps: gypsy cabdrivers outraged at vigorous enforcement of traffic laws, local gangs seeking to spring their arrested hermanos inside, hordes of community agitators demanding entry for one thing or another.) In the 1960s, the 40th Precinct in the South Bronx took to calling itself “Fort Apache” but it couldn’t hold a candle to the Eight-Three which had more crime at the time than any other precinct in central Brooklyn. Impressive for a neighborhood that was just 24 blocks long by not quite as many blocks wide. The Precinct had 130 cops assigned, now including me.

And it was being burned out by its residents, block by block. Most of the houses were made of wood, covered in asphalt siding that burns fast and hot. Most were “old law” structures with air shafts over the toilets and stairwells, efficient chimneys for fires that burned like furnaces. There were three types of arsonists: landlords, for insurance or to clear a building of undesirable tenants; tenants themselves, looking to relocate at the expense of the City Welfare Department; and rejected paramours who’d start a fire in the first floor stairwell to show her. Of course, I didn’t know all this when I arrived in May, 1975, but I saw whole streets that were virtually vacant lots except for the burnt-out hulks of buildings, reminiscent of the city of Dresden. Then, shortly after arrival, I logged my first line-of-duty injury, getting struck over the head with my own nightstick, waking up in a bed in Wyckoff Heights Hospital.

It was like this. My partner, newly arrived from the Community Relations Division, and myself were sitting in an RMP in front of St. Barbara’s Church on Central Avenue. St. Barbara’s is Cathedreal-size, but you needed a ticket to get inside on Christmas Eve. It was Sunday morning and Mass was letting out when we noticed two males, a father and son as it turned out, rolling around in a bear hug in the middle of the street, god-damning (and worse) each other, not twenty yards from us and the church-goers. Despite having patrolman’s reflexes that had atrophied some during my peaceful years inside (likewise for my partner, it turned out), I leaped into action. I had detached dad from his son and as I succeeded in pining him underneath me as I fumbled with my handcuffs, son picked up my ‘nightstick’ (a 2-1/2-foot long club made of ‘cocubola’ wood from a Jamaican forest) and clobbered me over the head. End of story; also for my assailant who was apprehended a short distance away and occupied a bed in the prisoner’s wing on the floor below. I vowed there and then never to let go of my nightstick again, and, in future, to give rather than receive.

In the next few years, the cop reflexes returned and sharpened. I owe my renaissance to a Sergeant (call him Fred) and his ‘Precinct Conditions Car’. Fred and I had been patrolmen together in the 9th Precinct on East 5th Street, in Manhattan’s East Village in 1968 and ’69 before I went to SPRING 3100. We had been neighbors, dressing next to each other in the Precinct Locker Room on the top floor. In the way of things in the NYPD, Fred added me to his Conditions Car roster in December, 1976. ‘Conditions Car’ was a bit of a euphemism. His squad of three patrolmen and himself patrolled the Precinct, in uniform in an old ‘unmarked’ brown Plymouth—locking up drug dealers, gunmen, extortionate gang members, counterfeiters, and arsonists, of course, and raiding ‘chop shops’ (auto yards specializing in selling off stolen cars in pieces). The Conditions men, bemedalled, experienced cops, accepted me as one of them since “Sarge” had vouched for me.

And I did bring something to the table: I had just graduated with a J.D. degree from Fordham University Law School (Evening Division). I would be drafting their Search Warrants on an old Underwood in the Unit’s cubicle. Arrests came from reliable information, spelled ‘registered confidential informants’ (CIs). Conditions had a dozen CIs: men and women arrested in the past and now ‘working off’ their prospective sentences in the street where they could do themselves the most good. Their fingerprints and pedigree and status were on file with the NYPD. The Brooklyn District Attorney was on board, too, with the proviso that we would not bother Him with inconvenient details. (He needn’t have worried about that.) I drafted all our Search Warrants, bypassing the young assistant district attorneys at Night Court, going direct to the Judge, with my informant in tow to swear to the truth of his affidavit (a/k/a ‘probable cause’). I always tried to go to that same Judge in Night Court.

Even today, I remember our two most memorable CIs, code-names ‘Primo’ and ‘Blue Hat’. Primo, a canny old Puerto Rican, owned an auto yard off Flushing Avenue in the industrial section of Bushwick. He delighted in giving up his erstwhile competitors, and would, on occasion, throw in as added bonus the names and addresses of gun-sellers, counterfeiters and wanted fugitives. Whether a life of crime was truly in Primo’s past, we tactfully never enquired further. ‘Blue Hat’ was our go-to gal for drugs. Yes, a woman. And a bold one. She’d be on the ‘set’ at a street drug spot and go into her act—gesticulating wildly with her hands while dancing a little merengue for her audience, thereby telling us, watching with field glasses, by a prearranged signal like doffing her blue hat that the dealer was holding. Primo and Blue Hat went way beyond the call of duty, you might say. Because they enjoyed feeling like The Man, I believe, being a valued member of an informal civilian auxiliary Force. I remember them fondly.

Robert Knightly