One Good Cop

Retiring NYPD Detective Bill Jackson Was No Ordinary Policeman—He Even Rescued Al Sharpton and Me From a Jewish Mob

It is an Indian summer afternoon, September 7, 1999—eight days after Gideon Busch, wearing a prayer shawl and tefillin, was gunned down by cops in the orthodox Jewish community of Borough Park. At 46th Street and Sixteenth Avenue, an angry crowd of Hasidic men and boys has swooped down on a burgundy Windstar minivan carrying reverend Al Sharpton, Ron Daniels, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and me. What followed was 45 minutes of high tension that would have ignited a racial powder keg had Detective William J. Jackson Jr. not put his life on the line to save ours. Last December, Jackson, 62, a troubleshooter for the New York Police Department, retired after nearly 35 years of peacemaking among "the gorgeous mosaic." During the late '80s and '90s, he was a key behind-the-scenes figure, cooling tempers at several "Day of Outrage" protests against racial violence.

This unrivaled mediator leaves the department at a time when it is in dire need of cops with people skills—as opposed to those who resort to the "continuum of force," which allows police to increase the level of their response as circumstances escalate. "Terrible! Terrible! Never should have happened!" was a typical Jackson response to accusations of excessive force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, and offensive language by cops, which tarnished the image of his beloved NYPD. "Respect is a two-way street, though," he also would remind hotheaded militants who harass the police.

"Bill had proven to the department that he was unsurpassed in his ability to mediate and bring about peace and understanding between the community he loved and served and the police department he believed in," says Sergeant Vanessa Ferro, who is putting the finishing touches on a bio she and other colleagues will read on March 1 at a dinner honoring the veteran detective.

Badge of honor: detective William Jackson often placed his life on the line for peace in racially explosive situations.
photo: Dennis Kleiman
Badge of honor: detective William Jackson often placed his life on the line for peace in racially explosive situations.

Jackson, who joined the department in 1966 at the height of America's racial tumult, has thwarted more classic confrontations between "the blacks and the blues" than he cares to acknowledge. In 1989, while assigned to the chief of department's Liaison Unit, Jackson helped quell a violent outburst after police closed off the Brooklyn Bridge to 15,000 demonstrators who had marched through Brooklyn in protest of the racially motivated killing of Yusef Hawkins in predominantly white Bensonhurst. More than 50 cops and an undetermined number of protesters were injured during the melee, which could have been far worse had it not been for Jackson's backdoor negotiations with the top echelon of the city's black activist movement.

"It's a pressure cooker!" the detective would announce over his walkie-talkie or declare to his superiors as he assessed large protest marches. Invariably, he then would seek out the firebrand activists and gung ho cops who were bringing tensions to a boil, and squeeze the peace out of them.

On the afternoon of September 7, 1999, the pressure cooker is Borough Park. The tightly knit Hasidic community, which had exploded in rage over the fatal shooting of Gideon Busch by police officers, is on the verge of erupting again because Al Sharpton, many Jews charge, has come to exploit simmering tensions. Several young men wearing the traditional black suits and hats of the Orthodox faith, brush up against the Windstar, peering into its darkly tinted windows.

I switch on my tape recorder as Sharpton grabs the car phone on the first ring. On the other end is his top aide, Anthony Charles. He and Andrew Stetner of Jews for Economic and Racial Justice had been sent ahead to conduct surveillance. Borough Park is a neighborhood openly sympathetic to Kahane Chai, followers of slain extremist rabbi Meir Kahane. The group has been declared a terrorist organization in the United States.

"What does Andrew think?" asks Sharpton. "I'll do whatever he says."

Seven months earlier, 125 members of Stetner's group had been arrested in front of 1 Police Plaza with Sharpton, protesting the killing of Amadou Diallo by four white undercover cops. Now Sharpton is returning the favor by making this bold foray into unfriendly territory to "unify black/Jewish outrage" over the Busch slaying. Charles tells Sharpton that Stetner has identified "Meir Kahane guys" who are part of a cabal chanting anti-Sharpton slogans. They are madly asserting that Sharpton has no business in Borough Park. I am thinking, maybe we should turn back.

"I've been screamed at before!" snaps Sharpton as he levels the volume on a CD deck playing James Brown's "I Feel Good." He shoots down suggestions by Charles and Stetner that perhaps he ought to rethink this one.

"Anti-Semite! Go to hell!" shouts a small boy, who then spits at the van. But when the boy tries to break through, a hand reaches out of the mob and pulls him back.

"No! No! No!" warns a stentorian voice. "Don't go there, young man!" It is the voice of "the peacemaker," Detective First Grade William Jackson. An elder whisks the boy away.

"I don't like the flavor of this," Jackson tells Sharpton as the van, inching slowly to the spot where the NYPD alleges Busch attacked officers with a hammer, is ringed by more demonstrators. "They don't have a detail," he adds, sounding skeptical about whether the clearly outnumbered cops will be able to control the surging crowd. "They're supposed to have a detail out here, okay? They don't have a detail out here." Jackson stares at Sharpton, half expecting an answer, half praying that the Baptist minister will agree to cut and run.

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