I was a young cop when I first visited New York City nearly 20 years ago. As I walked the streets of Manhattan during that visit I asked myself a question, one that I still ask every time I return: How on earth does the NYPD do it? In a city of eight million people spread across five boroughs, with countless others streaming in from beyond the city limits every day to work or see the sights, the New York Police Department is faced with what is surely the most Herculean task in American law enforcement. Anyone who shares my curiosity about how the city’s cops face this challenge should tune in to ABC’s new reality series, NYPD 24/7.
Forget CSI, forget Law & Order, forget all their various derivations that seem to make up so much of the networks’ prime-time schedules. Forget even NYPD Blue, the once-outstanding drama in whose Tuesday time slot NYPD 24/7 now appears. (NYPD Blue returns for its final season in the fall.) For a look at how police work really gets done in America’s largest city, mistakes and all, this show stands alone. Beginning in August 2002, ABC News crews spent 16 months with the NYPD, going behind the yellow tape at crime scenes and into the precinct station houses to reveal how real detectives solve real cases. Or, sadly, as in Tuesday night’s episode, don’t solve them.
The show premiered in June with an episode titled “Shawna Kunkel Stabbing,” in which detectives investigated the near-fatal stabbing of a woman in the lobby of an East Village apartment building. Suspicion initially fell on the victim’s boyfriend, a New York banker who lived in the building where the attack occurred. But after interviewing the boyfriend the lead detective knew he wasn’t their guy: the case would not be cleared so easily. When they discover the victim’s cell phone and bank card have been used since the attack, the detectives follow the clues on a path that takes them from the East Village to East Harlem, then to Paterson, New Jersey, and then back to Harlem. Modern technology lent a hand to the eventual arrest of the suspect. Cops were able to zero in on the neighborhood where the cell phone had been used, and on the subway station where an MTA pass bought with the victim’s bankcard was swiped. But the collar was made only through the expenditure of good, old-fashioned shoe leather. In watching the episode I couldn’t help but be impressed by the number of experienced detectives working the case, and by the time they spent on the streets tracking the cell phone as it passed from one possible suspect to another. I regret to say that a similar crime occurring here in Los Angeles today might well go unsolved for lack of manpower: New York has almost 40,000 cops while Los Angeles, a city of four million people, has but 9,300.
In last week’s episode, “Romona Moore Murder,” detectives in Brooklyn took on a missing person case that evolved into a murder investigation when the woman’s body was discovered in the yard of an abandoned house. Once again, the case was investigated by a team of what seemed to me to be top-notch detectives. The matter became Cause of the Month for rabble-rousing Brooklyn City Councilman Charles Barron, who accused one of the detectives of willful indifference to the fate of the black victim. Barron led a protest in front of the precinct station house, telling those assembled (through his ever-handy bullhorn, of course) that the victim would have been found alive if she had been white. It was later revealed that the killers, both of whom were young black men, had allowed one of their neighbors, also a young black man, to see the victim while she was still alive and being held captive in the suspects’ basement torture chamber. The neighbor did not call the police until after the victim’s body was found; it was chilling to see him attempt to justify his inaction to the ABC camera. If Mr. Barron had any opinions on the killers’ depravity or the neighbor’s indifference to it, he apparently did not express them for the cameras.
But NYPD 24/7 would not be the honest portrayal it is if it showed only those cases where the guilty are punished. Sometimes the trail from the crime scene goes quickly cold, as was the case during this week’s episode, “Orchard Street Murder.” Officers responding to 9-1-1 calls found Burke O’Brien, a 25-year-old from Chicago’s north suburbs, dying on the sidewalk in front of a friend’s Lower East Side apartment building. O’Brien, after a night on the town with his sister and some friends, arrived at the building at four A.M. with his college roommate, Forrest Bloede, and was shot as he was about to enter the front door. One of the 9-1-1 calls came from Bloede, the other from a man who happened to be walking down the street. Bloede informed detectives that he and O’Brien had been accosted and robbed by two men, one of whom shot O’Brien. But the other man’s account did not support this. This witness claimed that Bloede and O’Brien were the only people on the street when the shot was fired. Thus did Bloede become a suspect, spending the day under questioning before a prosecutor recommended that he be arrested and booked for murder.
Such is the temptation of the quick solution. The detectives were not convinced of Bloede’s guilt. He was consistent in his account of the shooting through hours of questioning, a feat only the most experienced and hardened of criminals can pull off. And when the cops compared the witness’s 9-1-1 call to his later statement they found inconsistencies that cast doubt on his version of the shooting. The murder weapon was not recovered despite a thorough search and despite the fact that Bloede would have had little time to discard it. Detectives were also unable to show that Bloede ever owned or possessed a gun. If Bloede’s hands were tested for gunshot residue, a routine procedure when a possible shooter is in custody, the test was not shown on Tuesday night’s program. Still, based on the prosecutor’s recommendation, Bloede was put through the ordeal of being arrested and booked for his friend’s murder, this despite the paucity of evidence against him. A second witness was later located, one whose account corroborated Bloede’s and was further supported by evidence gleaned from the autopsy. When the Manhattan district attorney’s office wisely declined to prosecute Bloede, both the D.A. and the NYPD took a beating in the local press. But these things happen. O’Brien’s killer left behind no DNA, no fingerprints, no serendipitous image of himself on a security video. He left only a shell casing, one that to date has yielded no clues to his identity: Burke O’Brien’s murder remains unsolved.
NYPD 24/7 is showing America that police work is still as much art as science, and some episodes have shown officers in less than favorable light. But what the show makes abundantly clear is that, despite the occasional misstep, New York’s cops are still as good as any, and better than most.
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.