Why I'm a Cop: Interviews From a Reporter's Notebook

ALVIN NIERENBERG: Came out of service in 1953. Father had died, and he went to work in a warehouse as a laborer (same work father had done). New York policeman for ten years; recently became a lawyer in California.

“The majority of men in the police department are conservative thinkers. I think it is obvious that they represent the system. They think like the establishment. A lot of this is for their own self-preservation on the street.

“Cops are not broad enough to look at the overall scope of the picture. It’s hard enough for the average citizen, let alone for the cop, who is always on the defensive. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

“When I was first on the force, I was sent up to Harlem, and I had never been to Harlem in my life. I’d heard all sorts of things about it as a rookie—how awful it is. I had to go get a guy out of a store who was causing a ruckus in there. I didn’t want to arrest him, just get him out of there. He’s high and calls me a white bastard. So there you are. If you touch him you’ve got a potential race riot on your hands, but you’ve got to do your job too. A Negro cop I knew came along, and I asked him to give me a hand. He could lay his hands on this guy and get him out of the store and no one would touch him. So you realize you’re not too effective in certain situations. So next time you may hesitate. Then after a while you think maybe you should have segregation. Let the Negro cops work in Harlem, where they can be effective, and let the white cops work downtown. And the next thing you know, you’re thinking conservative. That’s wrong, but I can see how it happens to a lot of these guys.

“At first you wonder why people hate you for doing your job. You say, look at all the stores in Harlem. Most of them are owned by whites, just like the Negroes say all the time. But what is stopping a Negro from owning a store? The Puerto Ricans open stores about as soon as they arrive here. They’re willing to accept responsibility. You start to feel you don’t want to hear crying stories anymore from Negroes, and you start to accept the clichéd notions about them.

“When whites quarrel with each other, they wind up in court, but nothing has happened. But when Negroes quarrel, they cut each other up, and the courts look the other way in such cases all the time when it’s two Negroes. I saw a Negro woman once who had really gotten badly cut up, but she wouldn’t press charges against the man because he was still her man. Cops look after a while at this as a whole way of life: Negroes are just different.

“Cops see the filth and realize a lot of the filth they see is caused by the Negroes themselves. And they think they’re paying out and the Negroes are taking in and putting nothing out. The cop resents it. He doesn’t want his kids to have any part of this or of these people.

“I’d like to see cops have more of an overall education—just in general knowledge. This John Jay school is great. It’s fifty years past due. Now you’re seeing a broadened police officer. This is in the new crop. But the old cop had a lot over the new one. He had a lot of street sense, a lot of common sense, and a lot ol heart. He had compassion; he grew up in the neighborhood; he knew the people, and he knew their mores. The cop used to catch you playing hooky and he’d boot you in the rear and call your mother, and there were no records and no stigma later for what you’d done. I think there’s a total lark of communication now with the new system of moving cops around from precinct to precinct.

“How many times do you hear of the cop breathing air into a Negro baby’s mouth or helping firemen go into burning buildings? The publicity is very bad for cops.

“Detectives get paid $12,000 a year to be stenographers and typists, with all the paper work they’ve got. How can they develop professionalism when they’ve got these conditions?”

ROOKIES several months on the job, all in late twenties:

Frederick Mundt—Irish-German background, Catholic, married to Puerto Rican girl; lives in Sunnyside.

Thomas Arnstein—Jewish, middle class, Ivy League college, CCNY {no degree), single; lives in Flushing.

Sam Miller—Negro, Catholic, married to Negro girl of mixed racial background. Her mother white and Jewish, a manager of a Stouffer’s; lives in Hempstead.

ARNSTEIN: “There’s a great deal of difference between the ideal and the actual. A year ago I was a cop-hater. I decided to try to find out. I was a beatnik when I came on. It’s a noble profession. I’d rather have it in my hands than someone else’s.

“We’re overworked and underpaid and doing a sacrificial job. A typical person thinks the cop is the man who stands there to pick on you. We’re out there rain or shine to protect society. Only 10 percent of our actual duty is in real crime fighting.”

MUNDT: “It requires a readjustment of your social life. I was only married a year prior to coming on the job. I had weekends off and holidays off and a summer vacation. Now I don’t have weekends or holidays, and I have odd hours and I have become distant with old friends.”

ARNSTEIN: “I was a student for a few years, and as soon as I donned the blue uniform I was no longer me. I am socially limited now. I’m no longer me to old friends. People have trouble seeing us as part of society, the part who protects the rest of society, as ones who have given up some of our freedoms to protect theirs.”

MUNDT: Father a mechanic for a time, also owner of a bar when Mundt growing up. Unde works for Transit Authority. “As a child I always respected the police department. I thought it was a fine profession.” Worked for Con Ed six years. “I always wanted to become a cop. It was a matter of getting up some Saturday morning and taking the test. Private industry was a little callous. Not that Con Ed didn’t treat me well, but you could have a number of years on the job there and then become disabled from the job and you were through.

“I came to the police force because I felt I could better myself here monetarily and social-wise [social status].”

MILLR: “I really don’t know why I came on. 1 used to work for Chase Manhattan, and I was about to become the head teller. The money was better here. I never was a cop-hater. I never had any feelings or dealings either way.”

Miller’s parents separated. Mother raised him, and brother working as domestic. Another brother was raised by an uncle. Miller’s mother always told him: “If you want something, make sure you’re qualified to get it. Don’t ask for anything, and don’t cry if you don’t get it.”Says mother was strict.

MUNDT: “My father gave me respect for authority. My father was an old chief in the Navy.”

ARNSTEIN: “Education was the most important thing in our family. I was raised to question values and establish my own. I think the highest value is education. I plan to make a career of the department. I’m going to make inspector. Before I came on the force, I wore ray hair long and had a beard. I believed in absolute freedom and absolute responsibility. Most of my friends are behind bars now. They got caught doing everything from auto theft to rape and burglary. Those are my high school chums. I went to Bayside High in Queens— a middle-class neighborhood. These were middleand upper-class kids. They did it for kicks.

“My parents were very liberal people, but they laid down certain laws: don’t be brought home by the police. If I was, my father threatened to break my back. My mother is a Democrat, my father votes for the man. He voted for Dewey, Stevenson. I lean toward the conservative.”

MILLER: “I’m a liberal, but not a social liberal. The problem today is ‘give me, give me, I want.’ I don’t think the cry of the black man today is that. He doesn’t say give me $100 and let me live in this shack. He says just give me a chance and let me do something for this country. When I worked in a Brooklyn ghetto, I just looked around and thought to myself, ‘This is a damn shame.’ ”

Miller on the attitude of other cops toward Negroes: “They don’t have enough education. The police are in a position to understand the ghetto problems more than middle-class people on Long Island. But you can’t explain the Negro problem in America in relation to the Irish and Italian immigrants coming over here. After all, they came voluntarily. But the Negro has to cut out the attitude of ‘I want this, I deserve this.’ He’ll have to say ‘I have my degree. I can do this.’ And whites have to stop complaining about welfare and saying the Negro can’t do anything. It has to work both ways. The poverty program is a big hoax. I don’t think that black pride will hurt people. I don’t know why people get so upset about black power. I think black power means learn, baby, learn so you can earn. Every Negro doesn’t take the phrase to mean ‘Let’s loot, let’s burn.’ ”

MUNDT: “I’m a registered Democrat, but I’m a conservative. I voted for Buckley and Goldwater. Goldwater was crucified for a lot of things he said which actually came about, like the escalation of the war. He believes that America should stand on its own two feet and not depend on social security. Buckley was a new breed of politician. He was a truthful man, and that’s why I voted for him.”

MILLER: “When I was in high school I didn’t smoke or drink or do anything. But some kids horsed around, and smoked and drank. I think it’s the family life, when you make it out of a rough situation.”

ARNSTEIN: “I think you have to put more blame on the individual—on his moral fortitude. If a guy has self-respect and cares enough for himself, he’ll pull himself up. If not, he’ll stay at the bottom of the barrel.”

MILLER: “Yes, but you can’t expect someone of thirteen or fourteen to have mental fortitude.”

MUNDT: “A girl who’s a hooker today, you can’t say it’s because of the money. It’s the individual herself. The family has a lot to do with it. But she has to draw the line and make the decision. The girl can say no. Her family ain’t there now.”

MILLER: “You never thought about parents when you were in a position to get into trouble. You had to think back to them. You have to have a background to make the right decisions.”

MUNDT: “What’s the difference between going to bed as a hooker or with your boyfriend? A girl with her boyfriend is doing the same thing that will hurt her family just as much as what the hooker is doing.”

MILLER: “You have to have some basis in your past for what you do. You have to have a basis for respect. It’s love in a family. You got to watch over your family. You can’t tell your kids lies like parents tell now—don’t go to this party tonight because I know these guys are after something. You can’t keep your daughter cooped up.”

MUNDT: “If you have a daughter, you shouldn’t try to hide the fact that men and women get together. I used to go with a girl, and I could always get to a point, and she’d shy away and tell me it’s dirty. I never pushed it, but what happened to the guy who married this girl? You can’t tell your daughter that no man will marry you if you’ve had sex before.”

ARNSTEIN: “Being a cop will change my attitude with my kids.”

MALCOLM FRIEDERICKS: Thirty, white, Catholic, detective in a DA’s office.

“I have no desire to be other than what I am.

“I was raised partly in Harlem and partly in Washington Heights. My father was a retired fire lieutenant. I went to high school and had a year at a mechanical institute to take architectural drafting.

“I was a pro baseball player. Then I went into the Marine Corps. I was out in California. I never had any bad or superstitious attitudes about the police. They weren’t the bogeyman to me. I was out in California—the police there have an esprit de corps. On being discharged we got a recruitment lecture from the Los Angeles Police Department. I was impressed. I came back to New York and worked with a copper company. I did quotations work—an office, white-collar job. I took the police test, why I don’t know. I never took the fire department test. I never wanted to be a fireman. I went first into a very quiet precinct, and I think because of that I have a different attitude than many cops. I like my work, and I like other people. Other cops approach people as the policeman to the community, which means automatic hostility. I approach people on a person-to-person basis.

“My father was a quiet guy. He had his own room he went into—it was the den. He believes in doing things first-class, as opposed to secondor third-class. My parents taught me to be honorable.

“Harlem people are not primitive. The conditions are primitive. This is as much because of self-apathy as because society has imposed it. The family structure is lacking there, period. I’m speaking about the Negro community, rather than the Spanish community.

“The lack of family structure gives them little regard for each other, and they’ll never get together because of that. The Negro community has a genuine lack of morality as our society accepts it. The Spanish community is more aggressive insofar as obtaining what they want, and that’s how they’ve made the progress they have even though they’re here for such a short time.

“I think self-help is the answer, but I think the Muslims are as bad as the Mafia. . . . A riot has to have beginnings. In riots you use the necessary force to contain them as early as possible.

“Riots break out due to lack of facts—people have a tendency not to evaluate something before they act. They’re easily led or misled. What they hear they generally take to be gospel. Riots don’t happen downtown because people here are busy. The lack of employment or the attitude toward work in Negro areas, it’s a matter of 300 jobless people together. In this neighborhood it would take hours just to bring that many people together because everyone here is working.

“I left home at seventeen to play baseball professionally. After grammar school I was on my own so far as schoolwork went. I had none of the Judaic impulse to succeed in school. I read now, but not heavy stuff. I don’t have time. I like Render’s Digest.

“I’m liberal and I’m conservative. I’m not a liberal as far as politics goes. I’m a conservative. I voted for William Buckley instead of John Lindsay and for Goldwater. I’m a liberal in my relations toward people.

“The police department has the tendency to presume you’re guilty even before you’ve had a trial. They suspend you even before there’s proof that you’ve done something.

“As far as I’m concerned everyone is an American [response to the question how does he act in tough ghetto areas as opposed to nice middle-class neighborhoods].

“I’m against verbal brutality, but it exists anyway. Maybe there’s validity to it. I think you should start off being nice and respectful. If you have to, you can get harder. I believe in killing them with kindness if I can. I’d much rather be civil about it. I don’t like people to put their hands on me, so I don’t put my hands on them.

“People misunderstand what cops are all about, and this misunderstanding is getting bigger every day. Because of our unique position in society, an officer’s presence is as a godlike figure, or to some people the lowest on earth. But no matter what, the patrolman feels he has to be mechanical and not reflect his emotions, and this is why people feel as they do toward him. The uniforms are ridiculous, and they have a lot to do with it. They can’t possibly look good on you unless you are twenty-one and just out of the academy. Also the lack of communication: cops act without face. When talking to an individual in the street, people feel they’re talking to a robot.

“I don’t socialize with cops. The job is so demanding, and it’s really a way of life like normal jobs aren’t, where you don’t have to work nights, weekends, and holidays. It’s hard, if you’re trying to relax, to he around other policemen without talking about the job. I don’t think it’s a good idea for cops to socialize with each other. Our closest friends—he’s a director of a boys’ club on the Lower East Side, a social worker, and his wife is a painter. She’s on the other end of the political spectrum from me. We have some interesting arguments. Ben and I grew up together.

“From their appearance, cops’ wives are not exactly Barnard girls. Their manner of dress is not like that. They don’t have the look of a college girl. They don’t appear to me like college girls. They aren’t disheveled as college girls. They’re usually clean and neat.

“Cops’ wives have to work harder and longer at being good wives than foe Average’s wife.”

PETER VILLONE: Thirty-eight. Detective assigned to investigate organized crime.

“Why did I become a cop? I don’t actually know. I used to take all the city tests as a hobby. I was a butcher by trade. In 1957 I had taken the test for policeman, and I got called in November, 1958. I had just lost my mother—I buried her the day before the appointment. I was married and had others to think about. I didn’t really want to become a policeman, but I was working all hours as a butcher. I thought that every city job was a dorm of retirement. When I went on I had every intention of taking it easy. I went to the police academy for six months, then I went to the 28th Precinct in Harlem for six months. I found out my first day at the academy that it wasn’t an easy job, but I like it.

“My wife knows very little about police work, and I would just as soon keep it that way. She won’t worry as much. I put in five years with the Burglary Squad, and it is rare that I would ever discuss a case with my wife. I may tell her a funny incident that happened during the day or something, but it’s mostly things you’d rather not talk about at home.

“I think it’s the greatest work a person could go into. There’s something in it for everybody: it can give you the greatest satisfaction if you’re a liberal or a conservative or a do-gooder, no matter what you are. I get a lot of personal satisfaction from it.

“In the Burglary Squad we worked on criminals who would normally never get caught. Those who make burglary, hijacking, and stickups such a wellpaid and skilled profession, it would have been dangerous for even a cop on the street to run across one of them. They were really pros, and it gives you a tremendous amount of satisfaction to know that when you catch a really good thief and you catch him right, well, you really have something.

“I’m a restless person. I like excitement. I’m a very, very nosy person by nature. I feel that this is one thing all good policemen have. I don’t think a person who is not inquisitive would make a good policeman.

“If I had a college background, I wouldn’t entertain the thought of being a policeman. I feel then my education would be wasted. I feel other fields offer more for a man with college. Maybe business administration. I would probably lean toward salesmanship, where I could get out and meet people. I find that one of the most interesting things about being a cop. Any investigation that you get is a challenge and gives you a tremendous amount of satisfaction when you do break the case.

“The average policeman’s wife has to be a very understanding person. He keeps bad hours. I think there are more divorces among police . . .

“The Negro person from his upbringing, perhaps from the time of slavery, didn’t have dose family attractions. He tends to think only of himself. All the fundamentals have to come from the home. There has to be respect for the mother and the father, and the only way for the child to respect his mother and father is for the mother and father to respect the child. I feel it’s just like a big round circle, but no matter how you look at it, it has to come from the home, and what this means is you have to take the mother and father under your wing, not the children.

“I feel that the majority of crime is committed against the little person. The little person is the most susceptible.

“You don’t realize what a cold world this can be until you’re a policeman. It’s probably made me a stricter father with my own children. I have the tendency to be very lenient, but I imagine when they get older, I’ll be harder than the average father. Because of what you see, you don’t want your child to fall into it.”

Why do people turn to crime? “Because they make good livings at it, or because he’s an addict trying to support his habit.

“I feel that as long as a person can get drugs he can become an addict.

“When I arrest an addict I really feel for her, and more for her family. I know how her family must feel. I would go to any extent to help them if they wanted me to.”