NYPD: The Inside Story of New York's Legendary Police DepartmentPerhaps one of the greatest accomplishments of civilization is man's delegation of authority to enforce laws, in effect to say, "We make the rules and you make sure we obey them." As James Lardner and Thomas Reppetto make abundantly clear in NYPD: The Inside Story of New York's Legendary Police Department, this bargain is a double-edged sword; not only are we expected to live by our rules, so are those who enforce them and that doesn't always happen.
The world's greatest city is a natural place to study the workings of a police department. All city police department's have their share of both scandal and sainthood, but few have the ethnic mix, history, and sheer size of New York City. It seems the NYPD is always in the news, from a controversial death to a staggering bust, and as Lardner and Reppetto show us, it's always been that way.
NYPD makes clear that the criminals of the 18th and 19th centuries were not like those of today, and neither was the city; living conditions in the poorer sections of New York make today's ghettos seem like paradise. Back then, the force of moral suasion was a bigger factor than it is today. A confession for murder could be extracted by appealing to God and mother despite the near certitude of execution.
Lardner and Reppetto have written a history, of course, but it is a biography, too. The NYPD is a reflection of the people who run it, and the cast of characters is long and colorful, from the formidable high constable Jacob Hays, friend of Aaron Burr, who enforced the law in the early 1800s attired in a black suit and top hat, to the embittered Frank Serpico, an undercover cop in the 1970s who tried to blow the whistle on police graft, but instead ended up in self-imposed exile in Europe.
Corruption is a constant theme in NYPD, as the authors detail a seemingly endless cycle of graft, public awareness, investigations, public apathy, and graft again. Yet throughout, police work gets done.
Realize too, that the majority of this story is pre-Miranda, and if the methods used to bust the bad guys seem extreme, they were everyday practice, both in New York and elsewhere.
Well researched and full of detail, NYPD is a fascinating book, yet it leaves untold the thousands of stories about officers who just did their jobs and didn't get their name in the paper or in this book.
Jim Webb writes from Nashville.