"NYPD: A City and its Police," by James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto. Henry Holt and
Company. 368 pages. $27.50.
An Irish longshoreman known as Sailor Jack was shot and killed by a police officer, sending the Irish community into frenzy. The officer was charged with murder, but a grand jury refused to hand up an indictment.
A questionable police shooting recently in Baltimore? No, this one happened in New York-- in 1857. It was one of the earliest shootings by police in the city's history, and it cost the police commissioner his job. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
James Lardner, a writer for the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, and Thomas Reppetto, president of New York's Citizens Crime Commission for two decades, use this example and a series of others to take readers through a fascinating and detailed history of the NewYork Police Department.
Examples of rogue cops, colorful criminals and unending graft on the part of officers, "NYPD: A City and its Police" is not simply a history of the city's law enforcement, it opens a window on the rough and tumble life in New York neighborhoods, from the gangs of Hells Kitchen to Hudson Dusters of the West Village.
What is most enlightening is that though the names, faces and crimes have changed, the antagonisms between citizens and their police that are so evident today is nothing new. Problems of low pay, sinking morale and frustrations over how judges treat their cases are as true in 2000 as they were in the 1800s.
"The legal system, too, did little to spur cops toward vigorous enforcement of the law," Lardner and Reppetto write about the force in 1877. "Even in the face of overwhelming evident of guilt, a defendant with the right lawyer or political connections was likely to escape punishment."
The book uses real people in the streets and alleys to tell the larger history of the department, spending a great deal of time delving into the lives of cops and crooks and showing the greater political context through their eyes.
Readers are taken through the recent spate of shootings of unarmed men, such as Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond, and the stationhouse attack on Abner Louima, and how those incidents are byproducts of get-tough policing strategies that, it turns out, aren't new either.
The book showcases some of New York's most colorful cops and crooks, and how they are inexorably linked, and is useful both for a history buff as well as city residents eager to learn the genesis of Baltimore's imported crime fighting strategy.
But while the book is richly detailed in its portrayal of history up through the 1950s, it does not do the latter years justice. The infamous Frank Serpico case that led to the first in a series of crime commissions to expose corruption in the 1970s, up through the present-day turmoil, is documented in far less detail than are the earlier problems.
It has this police reporter wondering what it all means today, and leaves a frightening assumption that nothing will change or was learned from the tumultuous past.
The authors end with a quote from Zachary Carter, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Louima case: "The relationship between the police and inner-city residents is a love affair awaiting to happen." It is far more complex a problem -- one that this history shows might be with us for years to come.
Peter Hermann, a reporter for The Sun for 10 years, has covered the Baltimore Police Department and its command structure for the last five years.