Police in the Streets

Author: John Rudolf

Steven Mattioli is telling me a cop story. Mattioli is a lieutenant in the New York Police Department, a platoon commander in the 48th precinct in the South Bronx. He’s class of ’85 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and one of a handful of Notre Dame graduates on the force. Over 23 years, he’s worked patrol, narcotics, organized crime, internal affairs and counterterrorism. He was born and raised in the Bronx and works in the same precinct where his parents grew up, where the demographics have shifted from Irish and Italian to Dominican and Puerto Rican. He’s come full circle back to patrol, where every cop begins their career, but as a supervisor now. He likes patrol. It’s the variety.

Together, Malin (left) and Mattioli have more than 40 years with the NYPD, photo by Antonio Bolfo

The story starts with a homicide last fall. Mattioli was working the midnight shift, 12 to 8, and around dawn a 911 caller reported shots fired. He and his driver raced to the location and found a man shot seven times, DOA, his body sprawled on the sidewalk and no shooter in sight. Mattioli secured the area and sent a team to notify the victim’s next of kin. The dead man had drugs on him. He also had a long rap sheet, and the killing looked drug-related, like a good deal of homicides in the South Bronx.

Officers canvassed for witnesses and looked for shell casings. Evidence technicians arrived and began processing the scene, which was right next to a park and an elementary school, with onlookers on both ends of the block. It was a weekday and the sun was coming up. Mattioli pushed back the yellow tape to keep the kids walking to school from seeing the body.

After a few hours the evidence guys started to wrap up. Mattioli’s shift was just about over. He stood chatting with another lieutenant when they heard screaming. They looked across the park. It was a pregnant woman who’d just had her bag snatched. The thief had failed to notice the huge crime scene or the platoon of cops two blocks away. “We’re both just staring and going, is that what I think it is?” he says.

“I know he wasn’t moving, this buddy of mine,” Mattioli says. “So I grabbed my driver and we jumped in the car and sped down, hoping to find people pointing.”

Sure enough, people were pointing at the thief. It was a teenager in a white T-shirt. The bag was in his hand. The kid stopped and stared.

Mattioli stared back. He assessed the situation. Was the kid going to run? Would he chase him if he ran? And, of course, the kid ran. Mattioli jumped out of the car. Instinct. He sprinted after the kid and immediately felt both hamstrings tear. Pop, pop. He put his location and the kid’s description over the radio and kept running. Slower and slower. Out of breath. Hurting. “I think there might have been a woman in a wheelchair about to pass me,” he says. The kid ducked into an alley. Mattioli grabbed his foot. Caught him. Slapped the handcuffs on. Mattioli was 51 years old. The kid was 17.

“It was a good feeling, because I felt like a young cop again, you know?” he says. “I got the pat on the back, once they found me down in the alley. Oh man. Great job, great job. Old school. The old-timer.” He laughs.
Mattioli tells the story in a small conference room on the 13th floor of NYPD headquarters, at One Police Plaza in lower Manhattan. The room faces north, with a view of the city that’s spectacular even on this overcast February morning. Mattioli is tall, with pale blue eyes, a craggy smile and an air of weathered cool. His voice is deep and a little gruff; his Bronx accent isn’t too pronounced but it’s there.

The arrest was no big deal, he adds, and with more than 600 collars in his career, I trust him on that. His years on a narcotics detail in the Bronx, working undercover busts on the streets and knocking down the doors of drug dens, were certainly more dangerous. That said, taking a mugger off the streets seems like a pretty straightforward win for the police and public. Mattioli’s thief was probably out on a spree: Just before robbing the pregnant woman, he snatched a schoolteacher’s purse. “Those are two decent people,” he says. “That’s your mother or your grandmother, your sister or your wife that’s being attacked.”

Chasing crooks through the streets is the kind of thing we expect cops to be ready for on any given day — that’s what they sign up for and why they wear the badge. Their job can be routine, even boring, or hellishly complex, as evidenced by the past year, with its protests and riots over police use of deadly force in a number of cities, including New York, and accompanying calls for reform from politicians, pundits and activists. That debate continues to shake out, but one thing is clear: Policing is under the microscope like never before.

For the city cop on the beat, the added scrutiny is one more thing to worry about in a job where no two days are ever the same. “A cop on patrol, what they see in the course of just one shift is amazing,” Mattioli says. “It runs the gamut. They never know what’s on the other side of the door. They don’t know what’s on the street corner when they’re responding to a job, or who’s inside that car. It’s just one situation after another, after another.”

Even seemingly ordinary encounters can take extraordinary turns. The thief Mattioli chased into the alley, for example, was unarmed and gave up without resisting. Another mugger, on another day, might have a knife or gun, or be on the run from felony warrants. He might be in the grip of violent psychosis or simply ready to fight to escape arrest. If there is a struggle, it might be documented on a smartphone and uploaded to YouTube, with or without context, for broadcast around the world.

On patrol, all the formal education in the world, even a Notre Dame degree, can be no substitute for experience, intuition and judgment. “You could have four doctorates — if you can’t handle yourself with a couple of thugs in a hallway, you’re not really of much use,” Mattioli says.

The extreme variety of cop life emerges as a recurring theme of sorts this morning, in the course of a lively round-table discussion with Mattioli and three other Notre Dame grads who also wear NYPD blue, Sergeant Robert O’Shea ’05, Sergeant Kerry O’Connor ’99J.D. and Captain Timothy Malin ’99. We’re in the domain of the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of public information, a warren of brightly lit, slightly shabby offices that hum with quiet intensity. To my left sits Sergeant Carlos Nieves, a former narcotics officer who takes his role as media minder very seriously.

Captain Timothy Malin ’99, photo by Antonio Bolfo

Credit for orchestrating the gathering goes to Malin, a compact whirlwind of energy and good cheer who has ascended the NYPD ranks with impressive speed since joining the force 15 years ago. Things begin with introductions all around, as only Malin and O’Connor are previously acquainted. That the rest have never crossed paths before is not surprising. The NYPD is a huge organization with an intricately layered structure of bureaus, sections, divisions, units and sub-units. Today there are roughly 34,500 sworn officers on the force and more than 14,000 civilian employees, making it the largest police department in the country.

The group is very Irish, it must be said, including Mattioli, whose mother’s family hails from County Cavan and Dublin. It’s fitting. The Irish, foreign and native-born, dominated the great urban police forces of the northeastern United States from their beginnings in the 19th century, forging the classic image of the Irish patrolman. By the 1930s, the NYPD’s Irish contingent still numbered as high as 40 percent, according to The New York Times.

Today’s department far better reflects New York’s amalgam of races and nationalities, and is better educated to boot. The police academy’s 2013 graduating class of 781 cadets was 28 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black and 10 percent Asian. One quarter of that year’s new cops were immigrants, hailing from 49 different countries; 15 percent were women; 45 percent held a college degree.

Kerry O’Connor took a roundabout path to the force. Of medium height, with an athletic build and blond hair tied back in a ponytail, she has a jocular, blunt personality and a big laugh. She grew up on Long Island, with policing in her blood — her father and grandfather were both NYPD — and was ready to follow in her father’s footsteps right out of high school, along with a majority of her five siblings. “My dad signed us all up for the police test as soon as we were old enough to take it,” she says.

The daughter of a cop, O’Connor tried other careers before joining the force, photo by Antonio Bolfo

O’Connor passed, but her father staunchly opposed her actually joining up. His years working the streets of Harlem during the epidemic of drugs and violence that convulsed the 1970s and ’80s probably swayed his thinking, she says. He persuaded her to go to college and find a different career. “I can understand why he didn’t want us to take the job,” she says.

After earning a degree in history from the University of Scranton, she applied to Notre Dame Law School “on a whim” and got in. Studying law was fascinating, but when she graduated in 1999 she found it hard to land a job. She ended up back on Long Island, working in the law department of a national health care firm. “Sitting in that office day after day was terrible,” she says.

After three years in health care law, she was laid off. It was a blessing in disguise. She took a job as a paramedic in Jamaica, Queens, and the fast pace suited her. A few years later, then in her early 30s, she again took and passed the police test. Within a few months she was at the NYPD academy, a 33-year-old cadet. Only one enlistee in her class was older, a 40-year-old retired Marine. “We were definitely the gray-haired sages in the room,” she says.

Now a sergeant with eight years’ experience, O’Connor works patrol in Manhattan’s 9th Precinct, which covers the East Village. She wasn’t the only sibling to disregard her father’s early advice: Two brothers and one sister are also cops, though not all on the NYPD. She talks about the job with her father — the foot chases, the shots-fired calls — but not her mom. “As long as she doesn’t have to hear too much about it, she’s okay,” she says.

O’Connor is openly gay and lives with her longtime girlfriend in an apartment in downtown Brooklyn. But it’s not been an issue in her time on the force. “I haven’t found it to be a big deal,” she says. “I can’t think of any impact that it’s had. It’s just — you’re gay. Okay, great. I don’t think anyone cares.”

She finds policing a good fit for her personality, though it has its ups and downs. “There are definitely days when I ride around and it’s like, I can’t believe I get paid to do this,” she says. “Then there are some days when it’s like, they don’t pay me enough to do this.”

And she likes being out in the streets, breathing fresh air, responding to calls, interacting with every imaginable class of person. “It doesn’t matter what happened yesterday,” she says. “Every day is like a clean slate.”

Robert O’Shea took a far more direct route to the NYPD, and at age 31 he already has nine years on the force. In January 2006, less than a year after receiving a B.A. in history from Notre Dame, he was a police academy cadet. He works day shifts in the 33rd Precinct, in Washington Heights, a busy neighborhood in the far upper reaches of Manhattan’s west side. Last year he was promoted to sergeant, and he now supervises a squad of nine patrol officers, one of three squads on duty in the precinct during each shift. He’s of medium height and thin build, with dark eyes and hair, and a quiet disposition.

He never planned or dreamed about being a cop, even as a kid, he tells me, and enrolled at Notre Dame — his reach school — with the idea of being a doctor. It was not to be. “Organic chemistry did me in, I guess,” he says. He switched to history, did ROTC during college and took the NYPD police test not long after graduation. Policing “just seemed like a good career,” he says. His favorite part of being a cop is the camaraderie — the sense of belonging to a brotherhood. It’s a feeling strongly shared by the rest of the table. O’Connor takes no exception to the masculine terminology. “I feel like ‘brotherhood’ is a gender-neutral term at this point,” she says, to laughs.

Before his promotion last year, O’Shea spent almost eight years patrolling the city’s public housing projects. One of the main duties of that detail is “verticals” — sweeping the stairwells and hallways of city-owned high-rises, often dilapidated buildings awash with drugs and violent crime. I ask O’Shea to talk about time in housing, almost the entirety of his career so far.

That’s when I run into trouble. Nieves, the media officer, waves his hand and cuts O’Shea off before he can answer. “What’s your next question?” Nieves says sharply.

In Nieves’ eyes, I’ve wandered into a minefield. Last November, a rookie patrol cop sweeping the stairs in a public housing project unintentionally discharged his gun. The bullet ricocheted, killing an innocent man the next flight down, and, after a grand jury investigation, the cop was charged with manslaughter. His trial date has yet to be announced, but police officials, city leaders and even New York’s vocal civil rights activists seemed to agree that the death was a tragic accident, not willful misconduct. The case sparked debate over how the NYPD patrols the city’s housing projects but didn’t engender a media firestorm.

I hadn’t asked for and O’Shea hadn’t offered any commentary on the shooting, but that didn’t matter to Nieves. "You just happened to ask about something that is very sensitive in the department,” he says. “Do you have any more questions for him?”

It’s frustrating — the interview loses major steam at this point — but I’m sympathetic, to a degree. The NYPD is renowned for hypervigilance with the press even under ordinary circumstances, and these are hardly ordinary circumstances. For months the department has been caught in a bitterly contentious national debate over police use of force in minority communities, and it has been under fire from critics who cast the department and its practices in a very poor light. I understand why they’re on edge.

The encounter that truly inflamed the city began on an afternoon last July when a team of officers attempted to arrest Eric Garner, a 350-pound black man, for selling untaxed cigarettes near the Staten Island ferry terminal. Garner argued with the police and pulled away while being handcuffed. A much smaller plainclothes officer then wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck and took him to the ground from behind. Rolled on his stomach, with a swarm of officers pinning him down, Garner pleaded for air, saying “I can’t breathe,” several times. He lost consciousness and died less than an hour later. A friend of Garner’s filmed it all on a smartphone.

The video hit the Internet and then exploded in the local and national media. Local prosecutors launched a criminal probe, and the NYPD vowed an internal investigation into the actions of the officers. Newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio called Garner’s death a “terrible tragedy” and said he was “very troubled” by the video of the encounter. Thousands of protesters took to the streets, decrying oppressive and excessive policing in poor minority neighborhoods.

In early December, a Staten Island grand jury declined to press charges against the officer who subdued Garner, and protests exploded again with even greater fury. By that time Garner’s last words — “I can’t breathe” — had morphed into a protest slogan and gone viral online, along with the similarly blunt mantra “Black Lives Matter.” Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James appeared at pregame warm-ups in a custom “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt. Hundreds of professional and college athletes followed his lead, including the entire Notre Dame women’s basketball team, who sported “I Can’t Breathe” shirts before a game against Michigan on December 13. Like a kind of shorthand, the phrase spoke to a host of deep and longstanding grievances — over racial profiling, police brutality, the mass incarceration of black men — in minority communities all across the country.

In late December events took another tragic turn. A 28-year-old black man, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, shot and killed two NYPD officers as they sat in a patrol car near a public housing project in Brooklyn. Hours before, Brinsley had bragged on social media that he was going to shoot a few cops to avenge Garner and other black men killed by the police. “Time to put wings on pigs,” he wrote.

The backlash was swift and fierce. Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the city’s largest police union, excoriated the mayor for sympathizing with the protesters and appearing to bow to their demands. “The mayor’s hands are literally dripping with our blood,” he told reporters. At the funerals for the two murdered officers, thousands of uniformed officers turned their backs on the mayor as he stepped to the podium to offer his remarks. After the funerals, arrests, tickets and summons for low-level crimes and violations plunged as rank-and-file cops engaged in a stealth work slowdown.

All of which is to say there remains a pretty heavy atmosphere in the building when I sit down at NYPD headquarters with the Notre Dame cops in mid-February. The slowdown is over and tensions are easing with the mayor, but feelings remain raw. Timothy Malin still chafes at the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” chanted by demonstrators and hoisted on placards. “It’s hard not to be insulted and take that personally when you look at the work we do and what we have accomplished in this city,” he writes me in an email before the meeting.

Malin, 36, is not your average beat cop. Promoted to captain last year, he transferred from the Chief of Department’s office at NYPD headquarters, where he had worked in policy analysis, to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, to a serve as second in command at the 24th precinct’s executive office. (In April he transferred back to NYPD headquarters to work on policy analysis.) He knows the trenches, with years on patrol in Manhattan and the South Bronx, and he also holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, in addition to his ND dual degree in history and English. He has an impressive command of policing data and policy, and can talk for hours about conviction rates, arrest data, summons, traffic fatalities — any statistical category that can be compiled, crunched and sent up the chain of command for review.

I meet Malin for the first time on a Saturday in mid-February, a few days before the sit-down at NYPD headquarters, when he invites me up to the precinct to spend a shift tooling around town in his unmarked car. It’s snowing lightly and just starting to get dark when I exit the subway on Broadway and West 96th Street. As I walk up the stairs to the street, a young man with stringy brown hair hangs over the railing, ranting about the Antichrist, but no one pays him any mind. It’s New York.

The 24th precinct occupies a drab concrete building on West 100th Street. It was built in the mid-20th century in a vaguely Soviet style and appears designed to withstand a siege. The inside is just as vintage as the exterior, with scuffed linoleum floors, flickering fluorescent lights and plaster walls painted various shades of institutional green.

Malin emerges from the back, talking on his BlackBerry, and hails me from across the room. He’s gregarious, a fast talker, and with his blue eyes, round Irish face and blond hair combed sharply to the side he reminds me a bit of a young Mickey Rooney. Tonight he’s in charge of the precinct and is also the duty captain for all of Manhattan North. That makes him responsible for everything that happens from 59th Street to the upper tip of Manhattan, where the Harlem River bends into the Hudson.

It’s dark by the time we hit the streets, and Malin’s BlackBerry chirps and chimes every few minutes with alerts and messages from various sources. We stop by several precinct houses for routine checks, eventually making a circuit through Harlem and back down toward Columbus Circle, where we grab some Starbucks. There’s plenty of time for conversation because there isn’t much crime happening.

“I feel horrible. It’s been so boring,” Malin says jokingly as we pull back into traffic. “I can’t believe I haven’t had a shooting or at least a stabbing.” I’m surprised, too. Winter is the slowest season for crime, for predictable reasons, but I assumed that with half of Manhattan to patrol, something interesting would happen. “To be serious, a boring night is a good night,” Malin adds, trying to sound convincing.

By the time midnight rolls around there’s been a little action: an iPhone swiped at a sushi restaurant and a domestic violence call, both of which result in arrests. The midnight shift will see more, as alcohol works its magic. But it’s clearly been a quiet night for Manhattan North. “I don’t think you would have seen this 10 years ago,” Malin says.

Little more than a generation ago, large swaths of the area we’d covered were considered a virtual war zone, saturated by drugs and rocked by gunfire day and night. In 1990, the city experienced 2,245 murders, an all-time high, along with near-apocalyptic levels of robberies, rapes, assaults, burglaries and car thefts. In the city’s poorest precincts — Harlem, the Bronx, North Brooklyn — the crack cocaine epidemic raged in neighborhoods already hollowed out by decades of intensifying blight. The city was a late-night punchline, a poster child for urban dysfunction and decay, and many who could afford to move fled for the safety of the suburbs.

photo by Antonio Bolfo

Then, amazingly, it all turned around. By the mid-1990s, the tide of crime was decisively ebbing, a reversal corresponding with major changes at the NYPD. The department shed its old-school reactive approach and began intensively tallying and analyzing crime statistics, identifying trouble spots, and deploying manpower accordingly. For the first time, commanders from the precinct level on up were held to account for activity in their jurisdiction. The department became as rigorously analytical and results-oriented as any modern corporation; simply reacting to crime was no longer tolerated. “I came in at the beginning of that concept,” says Mattioli. “If you couldn’t get a handle on your piece of territory, there were consequences.”

The strategy has long drawn the ire of community activists, who say it subjects poor neighborhoods to suffocating levels of police attention and ensnares too many young minority men in the justice system over trivial offenses.

The mayor at the time was Rudy Guiliani, a tough-on-crime former prosecutor who appointed William Bratton, the former head of Boston’s police department, as commissioner. Guiliani put thousands of new cops on the streets, and Bratton honed a strategy that pinpointed areas of rampant crime and flooded those locations with officers. The department also began focusing on low-level offenses, like graffiti, aggressive panhandling, marijuana possession and drinking in public. That strategy was based on the concept that tolerance of minor offenses can foster an atmosphere of general disorder which then fuels more serious crime.

It is known` as “broken windows” policing, and NYPD officials call the policy a crucial tool for crime prevention. But not everyone agrees. The strategy has long drawn the ire of community activists, who say it subjects poor neighborhoods to suffocating levels of police attention and ensnares too many young minority men in the justice system over trivial offenses.

Bolstering the agency’s public stance was the unprecedented city-wide decline in crime, a civic about-face often called the New York miracle. The miracle is right there in the numbers — 333 murders last year, an 85 percent drop from 1990’s all-time high. All other crime categories have similarly plunged. The one-time municipal basket case is vibrant, prosperous and secure; the safest big city in the country; and a global model for urban renewal.

The sociology of crime is a fuzzy science at best, and just how much credit the NYPD deserves for the city’s turnaround remains a matter of fierce debate among academics. National crime rates also fell sharply in the 1990s, proving that broader social forces were also at work in the city. Yet even in that context New York stands apart: Its crime decline was almost double the national average and lasted twice as long. So while other factors undoubtedly played a role, it’s not surprising that the NYPD’s anti-crime innovations continue to be applauded across the political spectrum and widely imitated by police agencies around the country and the world.

New York City’s crime drop saved a great many lives, largely in low-income, predominantly minority neighborhoods. An analysis of NYPD data by Franklin Zimring, a criminologist at University of California-Berkeley School of Law, found that more than 10,000 minority males were alive today who would have lost their lives had the homicide rate held steady. And while imprisonment rates nationwide soared in the 1990s, New York bucked the trend: Between 1990 and 2008, the city’s per capita incarceration rate actually fell 28 percent. On use of force, the NYPD is also a leader in restraint: its officers fire their weapons, and kill civilians, at some of the lowest rates in the country.

None of which is to say that the NYPD doesn’t have real issues with how it polices poor minority neighborhoods. That seems to be the view of the city’s electorate, who overwhelmingly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio on an express platform of scaling back the NYPD’s aggressive “stop-and-frisk” tactic, which civil rights activists say is unconstitutional and targets minorities disproportionately. In fact, the city lost a federal lawsuit in 2013 over the practice, and de Blasio declined to appeal the decision as one of his first acts in office. The NYPD, in its defense, argues that stops and searches are based on suspect descriptions, and that the racial disparities exist because young minority males make up a disproportionate percentage of criminal suspects and perpetrators.

To Lynch, leader of the patrolman’s union, de Blasio’s positions smack of appeasement and retreat, and risk sacrificing the hard-won public safety gains of the last 25 years. Ease up and the city will spiral back into chaos, he says, speaking for many cops and their supporters. It’s a compelling counterargument that leaves de Blasio and his police commissioner — none other than Bill Bratton — in a tough spot. Their challenge is to find common ground on public safety in a political climate already soured by months of high-volume, all-or-nothing rhetoric.

As the debate rages on, in New York and around the country, cops like Mattioli, O’Shea, O’Connor and Malin will continue to show up, suit up and head into the streets. They will face complex and sometimes excruciating decisions that must be made in a split-second. They will make excellent calls that go totally unnoticed and inevitable mistakes that make the evening news. They will put their lives on the line.

At home, their loved ones will worry until the officers put their key in the lock at the end of each shift. That’s a truth brought home again in May, when Brian Moore, a 25-year-old NYPD plainclothes officer, is shot in the head in Queens as he attempts to stop and question a man he suspects of illegally carrying a gun. The last time we speak, Mattioli tells me Moore has just died after two days on life support.

We chat about Moore, then about family. Mattioli and his wife, Laura, recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. Any story about cop life, he says, is incomplete without acknowledging the burden it can place on a marriage. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my wife and two boys, what they’ve put up with over the past two decades. The long hours. The fear. They’ve put up with a lot,” Mattioli says. “If it was any other type of job, a white-collar, 9-to-5 job, you wouldn’t have the same worries.”

Mattioli tells me he plans to spend a few more years on the force, to reach the 30-year mark, and then hang it up. He counts the “days, minutes and seconds” until retirement, like most cops he knows. “But there is also a sense of dread,” he says, “of someday no longer being part of this brotherhood.”

John Rudolf is a freelance writer based in Portland, Maine.