Friday the Thirteenth
My first day of work was going to be memorable, I was told so by our clerk, John Wehman. We were finishing the first part of our academy training which was four weeks. We were to go out on the street for the summer to boost police presence, then return to the classroom in the fall after which we formerly graduated. We were given our assignments and commands and we met our commanders and our clerks. They called my name and told me I had my first two nights off and I was to report Friday, April 13, 1973, to the 4-12 shift at the 4th Precinct. John said, “Friday the 13th. That will be a day you’ll remember the rest of your career.” Little did any of us know how true that would be.
After a trip to the uniform store to get my shiny 4’s for my collar, I headed home and spent two days making sure my uniform looked ok. On the afternoon of the 13th, I donned my uniform for the first time and headed into my first day of work. I found a space on Communipaw Avenue and walked into the 4th Precinct.
The veteran officers were all grouped to one side and were eying the new recruits as we walked in the door. I saw some of my classmates to my left so I went over by them and greeted them. They announced roll call and we all fell into formation as we were taught in the academy.
Notebooks out, we copied all the information the sergeant gave us. I received my portable radio and was introduced to a member of the previous class who would be breaking two of us in on the job and tell us what was expected.
There were two classes that went through the academy. Because of the size of the class they split them up into two, one starting in February and one in March. I was in the March class as was John, my partner that night. Harold had come in February and already had one month’s experience on the street so he was to show us what needed to be done. No FTOs in those days, just an “older” veteran showing us what needed to do.
We had the worst post in the city—Post 1. It was the most crime ridden and violent stretch of real estate in the city. Although we would normally not walk the same side of the street at the same time, they would make an exception because we were being broken in. Once we were used to the routine and adapted, we were to walk opposite sides of the street in different directions, no loitering by either of us and no stopping in any stores without authorization unless we had a call there. OK no problem.
Most of the stores were burned out wrecks and abandoned. The remaining were liquor stores, bars or Laundromats. A few stray store front churches rounded out the occupied buildings. Above each were apartments. People mostly hung out in front of their buildings playing music or drinking liquor in bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. There was also an abundance of drug dealing.
We made it down to the southern end of our post and Harold was explaining the job to us. It seemed curious that he mentioned the older veteran officers wouldn’t talk to any of our class members and seem to ignore us when we’re around. I wondered what that was all about. My guess was they wanted us to prove ourselves before they would “accept” us being around. Since they were in radio cars and we were on walking post, and unless it was a holiday or someone took a day off, we probably wouldn’t see the inside of a police car for many years. So I had no concerns about the older guys since I wasn’t working with them.
We started our return trip back to the northern end of our post. We really didn’t have any interaction with anyone loitering in the area because most moved on when they saw us approaching. Some of the younger kids asked if we were rookie cops. I wonder how they knew. Years later, when I saw a rookie I’d think back to my first night on the job. I’d view the new rookies just as those kids saw us—green and inexperienced, wide-eyed wonder, the lack of the mean, street smart scowl or even the way a rookie walked as compared to a seasoned veteran. Yes they could tell, and they would try us to see what they could get away with.
We came upon a large disorderly group at Bramhall and Jackson. Harold thought this would be a good learning opportunity to see how we’d do moving a crowd. Most started walking and a few asked why they had to move. One male in blue coveralls with the name Bob on his right pocket stood still, not moving. He seemed to stand out, not part of this group. He said he wanted to talk to me in private. Rule number one in street survival is never separate from your partner. I said to him that anything he wanted to say he should say to all of us. But he persisted and we finally had to insist that he had to move off the corner, which he did. He walked north on Jackson toward Communipaw. That went well I thought. If this is the sum total of what I had to do, I guess I could handle it.
While we were on patrol, a young firefighter named Joe Spidaletto was finishing his shift and driving home. As he passed the C&H Bar on Communipaw near Monticello, that same male I had had an interaction with, took a brick and threw it hitting Joe’s car. Thankfully, knowing not to confront this individual, he went back the 4th Precinct and reported the incident. A radio car team was submitting a report. One was typing while the other waited. When Joe reported the incident, the desk sergeant asked the officer, Andy, to go see what the problem was. He soon found out.
We started walking north when an assist patrolman call came over the air and shots were being fired. The location was at the end of our post at Communipaw. We ran at a full sprint. After all, we were young and in condition and a cop needed help. I saw an officer being loaded into an ambulance, a blood soaked towel around his neck. There was a large crowd gathered. The lieutenant started yelling orders to establish a perimeter and preserve the crime scene. I politely asked people to move and of course they ignored me. The lieutenant screams at me, “Use your stick man.” I push with the baton as we were taught and they pushed back. I guess pushing against a classmate we tended to do so lightly and without much force. I pushed harder until they listened and backed up.
I felt something slippery on the street that I was stepping in. I looked down and saw a massive amount of blood, the thick arterial blood I got to know all too well in my career. My brand new shoes are stepping in this blood. My eyes follow the blood trail to the building’s wall. There was a male in a sitting position, dead, his face unrecognizable and bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds from the officer’s gun.
I notice he’s wearing a blue coverall with Bob on the pocket. I realize that’s the male I was speaking to a few minutes earlier on Bramhall. I realize I could have been in an incident with him if I hadn’t remembered my training. He had slashed the officer across the throat with a large knife and the officer killed him in self defense.
That could have been me. Just that quickly. I had never seen a dead body before. I had never seen that much blood before. I suddenly had the urge to vomit on the spot and knew that if I did, I would be the laughing stock of the precinct and my classmates. That much I knew already.
Poor Joe, the fireman, didn’t get home for a few hours as he had to give statements to the detectives as to his part in this incident. I never knew that Joe was involved. We were and are still friends for many years and he never mentioned it. I guess that’s understandable as this was a very traumatic incident to be involved in.
The full realization that this person had been alive and talking to me, but is now dead hit me like a ton of bricks. I gathered myself up as much as possible and maintained my position and perimeter until relieved. Although they trained me for all contingencies and all scenarios, they didn’t train me for this. This feeling I was having that this job wasn’t what I thought it was; that you have to find a way to stuff those feelings down and move on. I learned this from all those around me that seemed unfazed by what just happened. Do what the others are doing. Deal with the emotions later, some other time. That “some other time” seems to never come.
My shoes survived the blood bath and we resumed patrol. As we’re walking south on Jackson, Harold spots a gun on the front seat of a parked car. We impound the car and seize the gun. What’s puzzling to me at his point is how can Harold be concentrating on this car and gun when I’m still trying to come to grips with the shooting and the close call we all had earlier. He went about his patrolling like nothing happened. I felt that I had a lot of learning to do.
Is it that he learned to mask his emotions or is this something they never taught us in the academy and I’ll have to learn quickly? To survive I’m going to need to learn to be like Harold. And the older more experienced guys. Now I wish they would talk to us. I need a lot of street experience and knowledge, and soon. That thought bothered me the rest of the tour and I couldn’t help but think about it constantly.
Why didn’t the academy think this important to learn? Was this going to be something maybe we’ll learn in the second half of our in class training? It would turn out to be no. We never learned what we would be facing or how to deal with what I was dealing. We just learned from our peers and older more seasoned officers what to do and how to handle it. Another plate of armor added. The suit of armor is in progress, the suit that will shut out this hurt.
The veterans already had theirs. You can’t buy it in the uniform shop or order it. It comes, earned, year after year, one plate at a time. No wonder the veterans didn’t talk to us. With no armor we were vulnerable. Looking back I wish I could have armored up every rookie and prepared them for the assaults on their souls. They had to make that trip themselves.
I never want to go through that again. Time to armor up. We took our meal period and I called my wife to let her know how things were. My hands were shaking so badly I couldn’t put the money in the pay phone—no cell phones back then.
When she asked me how it was so far, I told her I might have picked the wrong profession. And after telling her what happened and seeing how it upset her, I came to realization that I would have to shield her from much of this job—another learning experience. More armor needed for the protection. Not only do I need to deal with the tragedies I will see every minute of every day and not let them bother me, but I can’t share those with my wife and upset her.
The indoctrination process has started from day one and will be ongoing for the next 38 years, 4 months. The street is a mean teacher but it will teach you to survive your career. Yet it will take the life you once knew, slowly replacing it with someone no one will know because it’s safer that way.
I always wondered what happened to the officer involved on the Friday the 13th shooting. Did he come through the incident all right? Did he need counseling? How did he handle the close brush with death?
I learned he was promoted and retired as a captain, but I really didn’t know him personally to ask how he was doing. And from the outside he seemed fine. But looks can fool us and we learn as police officers to put on that happy face even though we’re dying on the inside.
Many years later, I was picking up a pizza order at a local pizzeria. Sitting at a table were two old college friends, Chris and Joe.
Chris was now a civil engineer and Joe was assistant prosecutor for Passaic County. Joe asked if I was still a police officer with Jersey City and wanted me to give him some information to help him with a case. He asked if I knew a certain person who claims he was a police officer with the Jersey City police to which I said yes. It was Andy. The name mentioned was the officer involved in that shooting on my first day. He said this person had been arrested for shoplifting. It was his first offense and Joe wanted to find a way to give him a break on his sentencing.
Joe said the officer seemed like a nice person, but didn’t seem to want help. It was like he wanted to be sentenced.
I told Joe that didn’t seem like the officer I knew, that he’d be the last person who would shoplift. I didn’t know anything about PTSD then, or post shooting trauma, but I thought Joe should know in case that had any bearing on the case. Apparently Joe knew a little more about PTSD and post shooting trauma and would use that to help this officer.
I don’t know what happened with the case. I don’t know if it made any difference in his sentencing. I was glad that the prosecutor thought it would. I had heard this officer now runs counseling groups to help people with personal problems. Maybe by some twist of fate in that chance meeting someone’s life was turned around because the ravages of PTSD were recognized and considered. I hope so.
Now fast-forward 44 years to 2017, and there is another twist of fate. I’m sitting in the office of the chief of the Sparta Police Department, Neil Spidaletto, along with my friend Marge. We are meeting about possible training for the Sparta Police Department concerning PTSD. I know that Neil is my friend Joe Spidaletto’s son. I know Joe left Jersey City and the fire department. Both Joe and Neil served the Sparta Police Department and that Joe left the Jersey City Fire Department to become a cop.
Neil then shares with Marge and me why this training is important to him. He begins to tell me the story of his father Joe Spidaletto and the shooting on my first night on the job. To say the least I was stunned. We both had no idea that we were connected through Joe to that tragic day. For all the years I’ve known Joe, he never said a word to me about the incident. Now I hear from his son, Neil recounting in vivid detail, that night of the shooting.
We can never gauge, never realize how far reaching a single incident can reach into countless lives. How not only those immediately on the scene of the incident are affected but their families, their children. In this incident, in one shared moment, Neil let me know how much that affected him as a child and now as an adult. I shared that it affected us both. Happily, we can both make a difference in future lives, in future incidents.
Thank you Neil for sharing this story and allowing me to share it with others.
– Robert Cubby