My ride-along with Bushwick’s 83rd Precinct landed on a sunny afternoon. I was told the sunny days are the busiest ones for the NYPD — something that rang true when, an hour into the ride-along, three teenagers opened fire on a public park, injuring a 19-year-old with a bullet to the back.
I’ve never trusted cops. I signed up for the ride-along because I was curious to see things from the perspective of a police officer.
When I arrived at the Knickerbocker Avenue police station at 3 p.m., I was hustled to a secluded corner behind a gated front desk.
I was soon joined by a black man in his twenties whose face was swollen on the left side. He told medics that a stranger hit him with a blunt, black object, and left when it was suggested he go to the hospital and get x-rays. The two remaining officers made an ill-suited joke that the unknown weapon was nothing more than five knuckles.
Eventually, I was given a bulletproof vest and assigned to a pair of female officers: Cop #1, a friendly black woman around the age of 30, and Cop #2, a rigid white woman who looked about a decade older than her partner of three years. Neither shook my hand or introduced themselves.
While they drove around the streets of Bushwick on the prowl for miscreants, I asked if crime had gone up or down since the area became gentrified. They sounded certain it had risen, confirming that people with money are easy targets.
I couldn’t help but ponder if crime had actually risen or if it was just being reported more frequently now that Caucasians – a race of people who often get treated more fairly by police than minorities – had moved into the neighborhood. Or perhaps the crime rate hasn’t changed, but cops are making more arrests because they care about the safety of rich people over those who are less fortunate. My best guess would be a combination of the three.
While at the wheel, Cop #2 took a 10-second cell phone call about a parent teacher conference. Regardless of the irony of a cop breaking the law while looking to punish others doing the same, I liked her. She was tough yet sweet, an ethos that led me to believe she was a good person whose life wasn’t easy.Our first official police business took place on Gates Avenue. A middle-aged, white woman called 911 because her son had vandalized her car. The officers surveyed the damage, but I couldn’t see much since regulations required me to stay in the back of the vehicle. (I also wasn’t allowed to use my cell phone, voice recorder, camera, or take notes of any kind.)
After getting a statement from the mother, we were back on the streets of Bushwick. I took this time to ask their input on stop-and-frisk, the controversial policing strategy known for targeting innocent minorities. Cop #2 turned to me, and sternly informed me that “a lot of very young kids in Bushwick have guns.”
Before I could inquire further, we approached a double-parked car. The driver ran out of a nearby bodega, but Cop #1 still wrote him up — there were plenty of spots around, and it was an inconsiderate move on his part. The next person ticketed was a van driver who failed to signal while turning. Eminem came on the radio as they wrote his ticket. Cop #1, who sang along to almost every song, told me they always listen to 103.5 while on duty.
I sat in the back of the cop car imagining how rappers would react if they heard police listening to their music. My thoughts were interrupted when dispatch announced there had been a shooting at Garden Playground, a small park on the school grounds of P.S. 120, near Flushing Avenue. Cop #2 quipped, “Your first shooting. Welcome to Bushwick!”
We turned on the sirens, but they seemed to only confuse the other drivers. We were stuck in traffic. Dispatch chimed in with more details: The shooters were three African-American males between the ages of 14 and 16. A bullet grazed the left shoulder blade of a 19-year-old male playing basketball. The kid then ran to his grandma’s house at 890 Flushing Avenue, not realizing he had been shot until he arrived home.
As we approached the teenager’s house, Cop #2 murmured, “Oh no, not this building.” We parked directly behind an ambulance and I watched as an EMT lifted the victim into the back. He was on a stretcher, with his shirt off and a large bandage wrapped around his chest. A girl paced back and forth between the ambulance and our car, frantically calling people and telling them that the kid was going to Kings County Hospital. A man started screaming at the cops, following the officers around, though I couldn’t make out the words.
In the middle of the chaos, I noticed a tough-looking man in a tank top standing against a wall with his arms crossed, one of the few not pacing. He stood motionless, aside from the tears pouring from his eyes in puddles. My eyes started to water and I hid my face in my hands. I’ve never seen such a display of emotion: He didn’t wipe the tears from his cheeks. He didn’t move. He just stood there. Crying. I struggled
to compose myself.
Cop #2 got back in the car and sped around the corner. Shaking, she lit up a cigarette and inhaled it faster than I’ve ever seen anyone smoke. I asked why the man had yelled at them. “Because that’s what people do,” she answered. “We’re here to help and they just want to yell at us.” She was on the verge of tears. It broke my heart to see this woman so upset, but it was also reassuring to see a member of the NYPD care so intensely about the wellbeing of others.
She told me the kid was going to live, and that he didn’t know the person who shot him. “He’s a good kid,” she admitted with sadness in her voice. She met him a year prior when she responded to a call to take his grandma to the hospital. We returned to the crime scene. “This is the end of your ride-along,” she said, before leaving me in the back of the car for an hour.
A male officer eventually let me out of the vehicle. “This is why we have stop-and-frisk,” he declared as he opened my door. I was taken aback. He claimed that stop-and-frisk had started out with good intentions, but that cops can hardly tell if people fleeing the scene of the crime are victims or perpetrators, so they’re forced to stop everyone. It was a shortsighted defense that failed to explain the thousands of cases of racial profiling and harassment.
Cop #2 returned with two male officers who were to drive me back to the precinct. Before parting ways, I asked for an update — she explained that three teens were responsible for the shooting, but only one of them had a gun. They stood outside of the basketball court, on the northeast corner of Beaver and Ellery Streets, and fired three shots through the chain link fence.
I asked if she thought it was a gang initiation. She said no, the shooters were most likely aiming for someone else, and that security cameras belonging to a bodega had caught the incident on tape. This happened on March 11; when I checked in with the NYPD two weeks later, no arrests had been made and the investigation was ongoing.
The cops on the scene said shootings of this nature happen frequently in Bushwick. Following the incident, when I didn’t come across any news articles about kids shooting up a basketball court mere inches from a children’s playground, it was evident they weren’t exaggerating.
Back at the precinct, I backpedaled the steps I had taken earlier in the day from the L train. The walk was the same, except it had gotten chillier outside, and things no longer seemed as sunny.