In the 1970’s and 80’s, crime was rampant across America’s major cities. On several occasions, NYPD officers were randomly targeted and executed in cold blood by thugs who thought they had the upper hand on law enforcement. At the time, maybe they did.
This public fear of crime was catapulted by incidents such as the events of May 30, 1971 with the shocking execution-style slayings of NYPD Officer Waverly Jones and his partner, Joseph Piagentini. These police officers were on patrol in Harlem’s Rangel Public Housing Community. They were targeted solely because of the uniform they wore by affiliates of the Black Liberation Army who fired upon them 25 times.
Some months later, on January 27, 1972, while patrolling in the East Village of New York City, NYPD’s Rocco Laurie and Gregory Foster were the next officers to be executed in a similar fashion reportedly as retaliation for the law enforcement control of the Attica prison riots. If police officers were targets of assassination then how could the average citizen be safe?
The 1980’s continued to usher in further examples of New York City’s perceived lawlessness with the infamous Son of Sam serial killer, a deranged psychopath who took orders from his neighbor’s dog that instructed him to kill. He terrorized New York City with random lover’s lane shootings over the course of a year as depicted in the Spike Lee movie “Summer of Sam”.
The 1980’s was also a decade of blatant shootings of police officers and other law enforcement officials which was epitomized by the shocking and well publicized shooting of NYPD Officer Steven McDonald by a 15 year old suspect in Central Park.
A short time later on February 26, 1988, another shocking assault on law enforcement made national headlines with the execution-style killing of NYPD Officer Edward Byrne–shot to death as he sat watch in a patrol car in Queens, guarding the home of a witness who was set to testify against a drug dealer.
These events and others like them across the nation stoked public fear and reinforced the dire need for public support for law enforcement. This fueled the war on crime and mass incapacitation. To the rescue came harsher sentencing guidelines, proactive policing, and mass incarceration which helped swing the pendulum back towards increased public safety, improved quality of life, and unprecedented decreases in crime rates.
With crime down today in many major cities and crime statistics teetering at historical lows, the memories of these horrific events has faded as evidenced in the backdrop of growing opposition to “stop and frisk” and other proactive police models.
In New York City jails, the pendulum is also starting to swing. Former New York City Corrections colleagues report that the current concern focuses in the lawful use of force incidents in which correction officers are coming under increased scrutiny. In many instances, they relate that corrections officers are becoming reluctant to use force when necessary.
This represents a paradigm shift from staunch support for law enforcement when public fear was heightened and the law enforcement officer stood tall as the lone buffer between chaos and civility. When crime dissipates, so does some of the public support of law enforcement activities that many suggest transposes into the “hug a thug” mentality. This is a programmatic catch phrase that always provides a chuckle.
This paradigm shift is evidenced most recently in the indictment of 12 correction officers and supervisors from the Department of Correction. These officers are charged with using excessive force on a violent inmate with a history of behavioral issues. The jury will ultimately decide their fate after preponderance of the evidence.
The unions argue that even in the unlikely case that the officers are found culpable to any degree of policy violation, that these types of violations were previously handled administratively within the agency. Penalties ranged from termination to a verbal reprimand depending upon the severity of the violation. The fact that staff was arrested by the Bronx District Attorney on charges believed to be supported solely by the statement of inmate witnesses suggests a paradigm shift.
The new normal seems to be that correction officers are no longer given the benefit of the doubt. This has translated into a unspoken policy in which officers are now reluctant to use force to enforce lawful policy for fear of being the next targets of indictment. The whispers heard amongst the ranks suggest that using force in legitimate instances may be misconstrued. It may be safer to not expose yourself to scrutiny and policies and procedures being continually unenforced increase in lawlessness in the jails.
This may just be a regional issue for New York City. However, I surmise it may be the paradox on a grander in scale on a national level. I am curious to hear the feedback from this article. The take away is that crime and public fear are down for the moment and along with the decrease comes decreased support of law enforcement efforts. So the take away is use force only when absolutely necessary without a question of a doubt to enforce the law, agency guidelines and policies and make sure facts and circumstances can fully support your actions to counter increasing scrutiny of the use of physical force.
Pete Curcio is corrections consultant who presently trains senior corrections personnel and executives throughout the United States. He is a graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice – CUNY and holds a Masters Degree from the University of Cincinnati and serves as an adjunct criminal justice professor at Briarcliffe College. Pete is a former Bureau Chief from the New York City Department of Correction and an Executive Fellow at the DOJ/FBI. He presently provides subject matter expertise for justice Solutions of America, Federal Prison Consultants, Inc. and serves as Law Enforcement Today’s correctional expert. He has been featured on MSNBC and Court TV and consults for the television show “Necessary Roughness”.
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