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The Cops Issue

The NYPD From A-Z

I know that the NYPD can seem like a big, blue, mustachioed, Orwellian enigma. It is—at least the top brass is.

by Officer Leo Fearpini
Jun 1 2006, 12:00am

Photo by Nguan

I know that the NYPD can seem like a big, blue, mustachioed, Orwellian enigma. It is—at least the top brass is.

The walking-the-beat stuff, the down-on-the-street police work, however, is really pretty cut and dry. I should know—I spend every waking minute of my life up to my neck in it. In fact, I can tell you the whole deal right now…

is for ARRESTS
This is what we do, and it’s why so many people hate and fear us. If you listen to people in jail, nobody in the history of the world ever deserved his or her arrest. From the biggest drug-dealing, innocent-bystander-killing rapist down to the guy selling bootleg DVDs, it was all some BULLSHIT! “I didn’t kill that guy, and anyway he deserved it.” “Those aren’t my drugs; I borrowed a friend’s jacket and he must have left them in there.” “I was just looking at these DVDs. I ain’t sellin’ ’em; I just happen to have $300 in singles on me.” You wonder why cops get jaded?

It’s what people constantly spew at us. I swear that I deal with more bullshit every day than a farmer does in a year. It is our job to sort through all of it, to make order out of the chaos, and to render a decision. We don’t do this in a nice, calm courtroom, but in crowded hallways and busy streets with people screaming at us. If we sometimes seem a little direct and impatient, you’re going to have to forgive us. We are up to our ears in bullshit.

is for CRAZY
This is a word we no longer use. Nowadays, nuts are referred to as “emotionally disturbed people” (EDPs for short). Whatever terminology you use, these calls—along with family disputes (more on them when you get to F)—are the two things we hate the most. The problem with crazy people is that they are fucking crazy. (emotionally disturbed—sorry.) The rules of normal, rational thought go out the window. They may be nice and calm one moment, then raving and attacking the next. One thing you can be sure of, though: If something goes wrong, the headline won’t be OFFICER defends himself from irrational, rampaging madman WIELDING A KITCHEN KNIFE. It will be cop shoots cuckoo FOR KICKS.

Also, nobody ever wants to tell us how we should deal with these people—they only like to tell us how we should NOT deal with them. “Why did you have to use pepper spray? Why did you have to handcuff him?” Maybe because he was trying to chew my nose off? What should I have done? “I don’t know, just not that.” Oh.

There is no member of the NYPD that inspires more interest and awe from the public than a detective. The truth is, yes, we do have the finest investigators in the world, because of both experience (NYC has a little of everything) and the sheer size of our department.

It’s like high school sports: The 2,000-student school tends to have more standout players than the 300-student school. Those are simple odds. So, yes, there are lots of detectives doing lots of good jobs in the NYPD. There is, however, one job that none of them do: Supervise uniformed cops. A detective outranks nobody. That’s right; he (or she) doesn’t outrank me, a lowly police officer.

Detective is the only discretionary rank in the NYPD. That means a detective becomes a detective simply by the Police Commissioner tapping him on the head and saying, “It is so.” A cop can be made a detective (and vice versa, though it is rare) at any time without taking a test or jumping in rank. I know you watch Law and Order and NYPD Blue and detectives order the uniformed officer (who’s invariably portrayed as an idiot) around. It doesn’t happen, people. It’s a TV show. If, in real life, a detective ordered around a cop like that, he would be told to go fuck himself in no uncertain terms. (Wait, actually he would be told in those exact terms.)

When I first came on, a wise sergeant told me that if you can just view 80 percent of what you see on the job as sheer entertainment, you can do 20 years no problem. The trouble, of course, is the other 20 percent. I have witnessed things that made me laugh, cry, and everything in between. Still, how can you not piss yourself when you ask a guy if his drunk friend you’re sending to the hospital is a diabetic and he replies: “No, he’s a Baptist.”

As I said, right up there with EDPs on the list of things we hate to deal with. For one thing, you’re in a person’s home. They know where all the pointy things are, and you don’t. We try to avoid the kitchen.
But these are especially dangerous because so many emotions are involved. Plus, the people are often hammered.

You are never quite sure where you stand either. A woman calls you because a guy assaulted her. You go to cuff him and now she turns on you. Suddenly, you’re the problem! “I didn’t want you to arrest him, just scare him a little.” Sorry, lady. We’re the police, not your big brother. If you call us, the guy’s getting collared.

is for GUN
Like a bad car accident, our guns both attract and repulse people. It’s the symbol of our authority, an acknowledgement of the powers vested in us. It is also what sets us apart from most of the population. But it really is just another tool. The carpenter has his hammer and we have our guns.

I know it seems like a big deal to people that we walk around armed, but after a year or so it just becomes second nature, like putting on your watch in the morning. Sometimes we even kind of forget about our guns until they get caught on something as we’re walking by. “Oh yeah, I have a deadly weapon on my hip.”

is for HOURS
We work 365 days a year, 24 hours in a row. (Not all of us; we do it in shifts.) Like 7-Eleven, we never close. As you can imagine, this takes a toll on one’s body. I have finished arrests at 6 AM that started on a tour that was supposed to end at 11:30 PM, then had to start all over again at 8 AM. It’s not uncommon to work for 24 hours straight. That’s when the meth comes in handy. Just kidding. They do regular drug testing.

There are lots of cops that never see the outdoors. They are known as inside people. Some have earned their spot by doing years of work on the street; others just end up stuck behind a desk. Those of us who put on a gun belt and actually do police work tend to look down on these guys.

is for JOKES
Cop humor is a way of dealing with the things we have to see on a daily basis. We’ll joke with each other about how bad a dead body smells or how the local drug dealer, shot by his rival, can take seven bullets and be back to work in two weeks.

Cops are also big on practical jokes. They lighten the mood. Sure, they can be juvenile, but what are we, the serious police? One classic that goes way back is calling a fellow cop and pretending to be a high-ranking chief. The real payoff is when a chief really calls soon after and your buddy tells him to go fuck himself.

is for KILLED
This is something that can happen to any of us at any time. We joke about it and minimize talking to our loved ones about it, but it’s the only job around where you have to wear a garment designed to stop bullets. This is why police funerals are so well attended—deep down, we all know that the next one could be for us.

is for LIE
I know I sort of covered this in BULLSHIT, but seriously—everyone lies to us all the time. Here’s a good rule of thumb for new cops: The first story a perp tells you will be a lie.

Always being lied to takes a toll on your psyche. You have to be careful not to carry it over to the outside when you’re off duty. More than once my wife has accused me of interrogating her. She sometimes has a point, but it’s just that we learn to ask questions that get to the heart of a matter and that try to get people to exclude extraneous information. Sometimes I ask her if she went food-shopping and she starts rambling on about how busy she was and what a day she had. I have to be careful not to say, “Just answer my question Ma’am: Yes or no, DID YOU GO SHOPPING?”

is for MONEY
Talk Like A Cop

Anti-Crime: A puzzling term. Aren’t all cops, by definition, anti-crime? It’s like those bumper stickers you see that say, “I [heart] my wife.” Doye. In the NYPD, “anti-crime” refers to a unit of plainclothes cops assigned to unmarked cars. Their job is to catch crimes in progress, like robberies and burglaries. This is a highly sought-after unit and is considered a path to the detective squad.

Buff: A very common police term, best defined as a cop who is very into his job. For example, a guy who spends a lot of money on extraneous equipment (extra lights for the car, an expensive knife) might be derided as a buff.

It can also be used as a verb, as in: “How did you catch that guy?” “Oh, I was buffing out on a rooftop looking at him for a while and saw him break into a car.”

Collar: An arrest. Both noun and verb: “I collared him. I am looking to make more collars.”

Skell: A skuzzy, dirty guy. This is an interesting word, as its origins are in doubt. It goes back at least to the 19th century, and some say it’s a shortening of “skeleton.” Others say it’s from an old Dutch word. Whatever, we know a skell when we see one.

Mope: Also a person of dubious moral character, just one with better hygiene. You could say, “That group of drug dealers on the corner are a bunch of mopes.”

Mutt: See above, but slightly harsher. “This fuckin’ mutt robbed some 14-year-old kid.”

Squad: Detectives. After a major crime, you establish a crime scene and call the squad.

DOA: A dead body. “Did you smell that DOA? Talk about ripe!”

Central: The dispatcher on the radio. A good one is indispensable, and a bad one can get cops hurt.

Job: A radio run. A call dispatched from central.

RMP: A police car. It stands for Radio Motor Patrol unit.

Jammed Up: In trouble with the department for either on- or off-duty misconduct. Not a good thing.

Hair Bag: This one is hard to define. Sometimes it’s used to describe a cop—particularly one without a lot of time—who acts like a know-it-all. Like, “Look at that three-year hair bag, talking to the rookies like he knows what he’s doing.” It can also describe a bitter cop with lots of time on the job who isn’t that concerned with his personal appearance. “Why doesn’t that fuckin’ hair bag just retire?”

Boss: Any supervisor.

The Job: The NYPD. As in, “The Job is killin’ me.”

Hook: A connection to the NYPD’s power elite—a friend or relative in a position of authority who can help one’s career. “How did that guy get into the squad?” “He has a hook—his uncle is a retired chief.” This is a sore point for us. I know, I know: Nobody thinks they’re paid what they deserve. But the fact that we are the lowest paid police agency around, and that they just LOWERED the starting salary to $25,000? It’s insane! Actually, it’s worse than insane—it’s $375 a week (after taxes).

Don’t know what this is? Neither did I before I became a cop. Now, if a perp can’t produce one, I become suspicious. This is a welfare card issued by the state of New York. A guy can be homeless, missing most of his limbs, drunk, and high on crack, but you can be sure that somewhere on him is his benefit card. Your tax dollars at work.

is for ONE WAY
This expression is unique to the NYPD. It means that someone is selfish, as in: “Johnson is like First Avenue, one fuckin’ way.”

is for PERP
Yes, we really say this. It wasn’t invented by NYPD Blue. In case you didn’t know, it’s short for perpetrator. When you first become a cop, you feel a little silly saying it. Eventually it just becomes part of your vocabulary. It can also be used as an adjective, as in, “Watch out. This place is perpy.”

is for QUEENS
For whatever reason, cops from all other boroughs look down on Queens cops and refer to them as “Queens Marines.” I guess this is because Queens—with a few notable exceptions—is almost a suburb. Supervisors out there will start nitpicking about stuff like how shiny your shoes are or what color socks you have on if there isn’t a lot of crime to fight. I personally have never had anything but good experiences with Queens cops.

is for RIOT GEAR
OK, this one is a personal pet peeve. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS RIOT GEAR. The only additional piece of equipment you will see at a disturbance is a helmet. That’s it! And guess what—we’re supposed to carry our helmets in the car every day anyway. The baton, the pepper spray, the handcuffs… we ALWAYS have that stuff. Still, anytime there’s any kind of civil unrest (such as the incident in Brooklyn this April with the Hasidim), the media will invariably describe us as “police clad in riot gear.” We aren’t “clad” in anything; we just put on a fucking helmet so that when people throw stuff at us it doesn’t kill us. WE. DON’T. HAVE. RIOT. GEAR.

This is why we tend to distrust the media. If they can’t get something this freakin’ simple right, how can we expect them to accurately report on anything remotely complex?

is for SHIELD
That piece of tin on our chest with a number on it is a shield, not a badge. Boy Scouts have badges; we wear shields. BTW, I know you think it scares me when you ask for my “badge” number. It doesn’t. I give it out 20 times a day, and besides, it’s right there on my chest. You don’t have to ask, you just have to look down about 14 inches.

is for TAXES
Your taxes pay my salary! (I wanted to say that first just once.)

is for UNION
The NYPD union is called the PBA (Patrolmen’s’ Benevolent Association) even though the title “patrolman” was eliminated like 30 years ago. Invariably the media will accuse politicians of “kowtowing to the powerful police unions.” This cracks us up. We are the lowest paid police department around, our facilities are dirty and crumbling, and for the most part we’re miserable. Yeah, that’s some powerful union we got.

is for VOCAB
As a cop, you develop a unique vocabulary. It’s gradual—you don’t realize you’re talking differently until you use NYPD language in polite (civilian) company. Much of this lexicon was in use around the turn of the century and survives only in the NYPD. No, I’m not going to tell you what all of it means. We have to keep some secrets. Please DO NOT read the accompanying sidebar.

is for WASTE
Waste waste waste. Wastes of potential, wastes of life, wastes of money. Lives ruined by drug or alcohol abuse. Lives wasted by bullets or knives. Children’s potential wasted by bad parents or no parents. Twenty-five-year-olds who have spent their entire life in some form of institution: Foster care at three, group home at 12, prison at 18. Cops are basically waste management experts.

is for XEROX
The Job is all about paperwork and, as a result, the NYPD’s ancient Xerox machines have probably caused more deforestation than all the wildfires in California and Oregon put together.

BTW, our copiers aren’t the only outdated equipment we have. We still use typewriters (at least they’re electric), carbon paper, and computers with those green screens where you enter commands like “/:f9.”

is for YONKERS
This is just one of the many nearby police departments that pay better than the NYPD does. Their starting salary is $47,507 (according to the woman at Yonkers Civil Service whom I just called).

is for ZERO
A cop who does the bare minimum (or less) is referred to as a zero. Thanks to the civil service system, no matter how much work you do, you’re paid the same as everyone else in your rank with your time on the force. The questions thus arises: Are you smart and dedicated if you try harder than these guys, or are you just an idiot for doing more work for the same pay?


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