A Police Story: Spring 3100

I was a New York City policeman for 20 years: from 1967 to 1987, seminal years in the modern history of the NYPD, during which I rose from Probationary Patrolman to Lieutenant of Police. When I look back on that time, see again the faces and events, I remember how a writer-friend once described my career as “intersections with history.” Maybe, he had a point.

It was August, 1969 and I’d been a New York City Patrolman just two years and three months. I was working nine-to-five in a suit, Monday to Friday, with an occasional Saturday substituting for one of the weekdays (my choice). I was assigned as a reporter/writer on SPRING 3100, the official Magazine of the New York City Police Department, which boasted on its masthead that it was The Magazine Written For And By Patrolmen. That was true: the Editor who brought me on was a Patrolman who’d spent his career on the Magazine; there were two other writers like myself and the Art Director who laid out the magazine and handled production—all of us lowly Patrolmen, except for the old photographer who’d been there even longer than the Editor and somehow had managed to rise up one rung to Detective 3rd Grade, the lowest of the detective ranks, without having ever detected anything except a good photo ‘opp’. (In the NYPD, like Life, it was who you knew.)

SPRING 3100 was a choice assignment, a secret closely guarded and not spoken of outside ‘the City Room’, what we called the large open room that accommodated our desks, the Art department and files, on the top floor of 400 Broome Street, a/k/a The Police Annex. Police Headquarters then was just across Broome at 240 Centre Street in a grand old building done in the monumental Beaux Arts style with a Dome, pediments and marble columns over the entrance facing on Grand Street. I once believed that I’d gotten to SPRING 3100 by pure chance, but don’t any longer.

I was a beat cop walking foot posts by myself (the custom then) in the 9th Precinct on East 5th Street in the East Village. As a rookie with just fifteen months on the Job, I was usually assigned to patrol on the down-and-out Bowery or on the battleground streets of ‘Alphabet City’ (Avenues ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’) when I read in SPRING 3100 that there were openings on staff for Patrolmen-Reporters. I applied, out of curiosity, although I was still caught up in the romance of being The Man on the Mean Streets of the City. I had been a professional reporter and editor for business magazines for the three years prior to taking the Police Test. I applied and The Editor of SPRING hired me on the spot, thinking he’d gotten a bargain in me, I’m sure, although he was to learn over the next three years that I was definitely a mixed bag.

240 Centre Street
My first assignment as roving reporter was to do a feature piece on the Police Aviation Unit that was celebrating its 40th Year in the air in 1969. I drove out to the Base in Floyd Bennett Field at the ass-end of Brooklyn in an “unmarked” Department car (That’s what we called the Chevys and big-ass Plymouths that were garaged in the basement of 400 Broome. We’d just call ahead and the car was gassed up and waiting.) My partner on the assignment was Charlie (I’ll call him that), the new photographer, my age. At the Base, they took us up in a Bell Jetranger helicopter. Flying over all the boroughs of the City, under the Brooklyn and Queensboro Bridges, up and down the East River out to the Harbor, I sat in the copilot’s seat behind the glass nose of the copter so that passing over the Statue of Liberty I felt that if I stepped out and down I’d set foot on Her Torch.

Spring 3100 was a 50-page, 8-1/2x11-inch, professionally-written—abundantly illustrated with photos, occasional art and a dab of color on the front cover—slick magazine that had come out every month since 1929. Its size was purposeful: folded lengthways, it fit snugly in the rear back pocket of its readership, the uniform cop on the street. Distribution was a stroke of genius: bundles delivered by Motor Pool trucks to every Precinct, Headquarters and Administrative Command in the City. Every cop paid $1.80 per month for the magazine which was included in “House Tax,” a small sum he had to kick in monthly at his Precinct, that also underwrote the shoe shine machine and store of polish available to him in the Muster Room. If the New York Journal-American had had a setup like ours, it might have survived.

I earned my spurs with ‘Cops In the Blue’, the Aviation story, one of the longest SPRING had ever run, dramatic photo spreads showcasing the old biplanes and their heroic pilots. I’d researched the hell out of the story for a month; the photos came out of the magazine’s archives or The New York Daily News’s morgue. In recognition, the Editor assigned me to write ‘All In the Day’s Work’, a dramatic log of street heroics by cops all over the City—starring rescued animals, people, and perpetrators’ arrests ripped from the pages of the daily papers, illustrated by photos from their morgues, written from an omniscient third-person point of view with commentary (mine). Each month, I’d open the column with an apt quotation, like: “Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.—Amelia Earhart Putnam.”

My other assignment was the column, “The Retired Ring In” (‘Ring In’ is a term of art referring to the foot patrolman’s duty to call in to the Precinct Switchboard from a Police Call Box on the street at a designated time each hour). Retired cops living in places all over the country would “ring in” their doings with ample photographic documentation. And sprinkled throughout: news of the Departmnent’s doings with plenty of headshots of the Top Command (Bosses loved SPRING where their Over-Bosses would see their pictures and, hopefully remember they existed), a Law column, an Inquiring Photographer, a Cop Captions Contest, Obituaries, Want Ads, and the clincher, ‘Looking Them Over’—reports of arrests, personal foibles, meaty tales (the doer’s name in boldface type) by the Precinct Reporter, a Patrolman in that Precinct, in every Precinct in the City. Liberally illustrated with photos, of course. Pure genius.

Then, one day our Patrolman-Editor retired (frustrated that after all those years he’d never been promoted to Detective 3rd Grade), a tone-deaf Sergeant replaced him and the clock ran out on the rest of us.

© 2013 Robert Knightly
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