In their publicity material, and in the timing of their book’s release, the authors of NYPD: A City and Its Police promise to provide the historical context to such recent police scandals as those involving Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, and Patrick Dorismond. But Thomas Reppetto, a former commander of detectives in Chicago, and James Lardner, a journalist, do so only in the most literal, chronological way. An account that would serve better as a resource for some local version of Trivial Pursuit than as a tool for understanding the sociopolitical complexities of the NYPD-civilian (especially minority civilian) relationship, NYPD misses the insight for the details.
What’s clear from anecdote after anecdote is that New York cops were abusing the disadvantaged long before Mayor Rudy came along. But why? The authors offer a facile analysis: Cops are governed by the “inner life” of their department, a mix of “traditions,” “fears,” and “lore.” They indirectly point a finger at top leaders by describing the NYPD as a strictly vertical hierarchy and broadly allude to influential changes in immigration, race relations, and the economy. But what of some specific trends—welfare reform, post-1965 third world immigration, and racial profiling, to name a few that the authors don’t—that have affected the relationship between contemporary New Yorker and state?
NYPD is best during its numerous dime novel moments. Many chapters are rife with scurrilous villains, invincible cop heroes, and meaty descriptions, such as that of one criminal who sported “a broken nose, cauliflower ears, a short thick neck, and a body scarred from head to toe” and who “liked to emphasize his oddly ferocious appearance by wearing a derby hat several sizes too small.” The famous—Edgar Allan Poe, Jacob Riis, Cornelius Vanderbilt—appear with no more fanfare than P.O. Joe Schmo, as much an indication of the authors’ romantic notions of the cop as of their unpretentious style.
Lardner and Reppetto end with the wishful suggestion that, if New York’s minorities “were treated with obvious courtesy and fairness, even the experience of being stopped and checked out by the police could leave a favorable impression.” The proposition might prompt a snort from anyone who’s recently read a headline. It indicates how cursorily, if with earnestness and an abundance of descriptive color, the authors have examined the relationship between the city and its police.