The Disconnected Cop

Posted 2002-09-10 Print this article Print

A year after Sept. 11, law enforcement far too often finds itself left alone on the front line of defense.

Murders in New York had fallen to fewer than 675 in 2000, from 2,262 in 1990. Then, a group of homicidal bombers plowed commercial airplanes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 people. In an instant, stopping terrorism became a life-or-death mission for local law enforcement organizations around the country. But a year later, New York's Finest far too often find they are left alone on the front line of defense.

8:45 p.m., Saturday night. It's one of those hot, August nights when everything on the New York streets seems to melt rather than move. Patrol cars pull in and out of a Brooklyn station house, located off a two-mile stretch of low-rent shops and apartments that has seen 16 shootings in the past three weeks.

Dusk fades on the main drag of one of the city's toughest precincts and the cops on duty expect to be busy. No one leaves the station without strapping on a bulletproof vest.

10:54 p.m.: A call comes over the radio. "Code 31. Burglary in progress." Just an address. The responding officer barks back, with the concern of a man who could be absorbing a bullet in the chest. "Any other information?" Long silence. Then, the dispatcher responds, "No report of weapons."

"Do you have anything else?" the officer asks. Another long silence. "No."

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10:59 p.m.: Two cops in another car listen to the exchange. "Did you hear that?" the officer in the passenger seat asks in disbelief. "Did you hear the way he kept on asking for more information?" The driver just shakes his head. Dispatchers—each responsible for patrols in at least two precincts—often possess information that they're just too busy to share, information that could save a life; clues about what lies ahead, such as the name of the person who called for help, a description of an attacker, and whether guns or knives have been reported at the scene.

Police officers in other cities get all this information, and more, from in-car laptops tied to sophisticated computerized dispatch systems. Police officers in New York, on the other hand, are thankful if their car has a terminal that can just spit out information about who owns a particular vehicle, and whether there are warrants outstanding on that person.

These two Brooklyn officers, who prefer not to give out their names before they retire, are both in their thirties. They are young enough to tackle the physical demands of the job but also old enough to know that, when it comes to police work, brains are better than brawn.

On any given night, the two cops will respond to gunfights, stabbings, thefts and family fights. They worry a lot about the domestic disputes. The neighborhood is loaded with drugs and firearms—two potentially combustible elements in the heat of an argument between a couple.

The officers are two of the 40,000 cops patrolling the streets of a city that one year ago suffered the nation's deadliest terrorist attack. Theirs are the eyes that now must be constantly on the alert for any suspicious activity on concrete sidewalks, asphalt roadways and even in the air, which might signal more destruction to come.

Yet these are isolated and estranged cops, disconnected from the information they know would enable them to deal with everyday thugs and worse, effectively and safely.

"We're cut off," the cop in the passenger seat says. "Definitely."

11:06 p.m.: The cops stop talking as a call comes in. "Code 52. Family dispute." No other information, except an address. The driver makes a turn and steers the car through the district's crowded streets, which are darker now than they were earlier in the evening—but just as hot.


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