Edward Conlon joined Gotham Gazette's Reading NYC Book Club in an online chat on March 24, 2005 to discuss Blue Blood, his memoir of being a New York City cop. An edited transcript is below:
WRITER AND POLICE OFFICER
Gotham Gazette: In some ways you come from a classic police background: You are a fourth generation New York law enforcement officer; your father was an FBI agent, and you also write about a great-grandfather who was a corrupt cop. At the same time, you have the prototypical writer's background: a self-described bookworm with a Harvard degree. Which did you want to be first, a cop or a writer?"
Edward Conlon:I always wanted to write, the interest in police work came much later, surprisingly so given my family. I was writing city stories, crime stories, sometimes for the New Yorker magazine, and the more I ran into cops, I saw how they loved their jobs.
Gotham Gazette: Has trying to be both ever gotten you into trouble?
Edward Conlon: The two jobs complement each other, except in demands on time.
BLUE WALL OF SILENCE
Gotham Gazette: As civilians, we hear a lot about the blue wall of silence, and as journalists, we know how difficult it can be to get the police department to be forthcoming with information. You have covered the police department as well, and mention the blue wall of silence in your book. Have you had any difficulties writing about the police department from the perspective or a member of the department?
Edward Conlon: It's exaggerated to a great degree I think, but it does exist. In the book, real names were used in cases only when there was a conviction. There are other issues of privacy. People have to be comfortable working with you. Fortunately, I was known as a cop before the writing became public, so there was trust there to begin
Gotham Gotham: So there was never any official objection to either your project overall or anything specific that you have written?
Edward Conlon: When I wrote the cop diary pieces for the New Yorker, I submitted them to the NYPD press office. But I later learned I didn't have to, though it's a smart thing to do politically. The press office was great though -- no complaints, and they sometimes fixed spelling and grammar. Under [former Mayor Rudy] Giuliani, especially, I was more concerned they might try to direct what I wrote--"The Mayor wants something on bicycle summonses"-- but it was unfounded. It turns out I have a first amendment too. Who knew?
Gotham Gazette: You say that the blue wall of silence is exaggerated. But why is it there at all?
Edward Conlon: The legal system is adversarial, the press culture more so, and the nature of much police work is conflict. Also, police culture is insular, deriving from our schedule in part.
Gotham Gazette: Because the hours are strange?
Edward Conlon: Even now, I work two nights, two days, and have two days off--who else is around except for other cops? The fraternity is a benefit, by and large, even when earlier historical circumstances were not for the best -- corruption for example.
THE PRESS AND THE POLICE
Gotham Gazette: You write about the press that "the adversarial posture became a reflex: for the Times, the word 'police' became primarily an adjective used to modify the noun 'corruption' or, later, 'brutality'; they got their story thirty years ago, and they've stuck with it ever since." Where does this antipathy come from?
Edward Conlon: I think that it's a cultural divide--upper middle class people covering working class people who are locking up poor people.
Gotham Gazette: Is the cultural divide inevitable?
Edward Conlon: I don't think so. I think it could be better. Any writing can, any understanding can. It's less the case now, with [Police Commissioner Raymond] Kelly and [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg. The press covered cops as if they were an aspect of Giuliani's personality.
Stacy Horn: The adversarial posture and the reflex action go both ways, don't you think?
Edward Conlon: Absolutely
Gotham Gazette: You've observed that the Metro section of the Times is getting thinner. Is there just less interest?
Edward Conlon: There's less crime, certainly, but the coverage seems more suburban and "thematic" rather than hard news about the city.
Gotham Gazette: And this illustrates the cultural divide?
Edward Conlon: I think so. Many of our murders aren't especially interesting--Drug dealer A kills drug dealer B. But there's a bit of a lifted pinky attitude there.
COPS VS. COMMISSIONERS AND POLITICIANS
Stacy Horn: Of all that you have written about the police department, which gave you the most trouble from within the department?
Edward Conlon: Legally, there was little problem--the libel lawyer had surprisingly few objections. I beat up a couple of bosses and he had no problem. It was fair opinion I guess
Stacy Horn: How did the bosses you beat up respond? How have your fellow cops/detectives responded?
Edward Conlon: No legal problems, and political ones have been few. Last Friday, I got yelled at by former [police commissioner] Patrick Murphy. He was Lindsay's PC, and skipped a cop's funeral for a conference. But he never liked detectives, and he insulted them in the end, so I was happy how he was treated.
Stacy Horn:What did he say? Did you yell back?
Edward Conlon: Actually, he whined more than yelled.
Stacy Horn: It was interesting for me to learn, as an outsider, how everyone was not on the same side on the inside.
dglove:I am curious what the feeling is in the ranks towards Mayor Bloomberg?
Edward Conlon: Disliked, primarily over money. Most mayors are. Koch was liked, Giuliani wasn't. Giuliani did everything for us except pay us.
Stacy Horn: Who was the most beloved police commissioner?
Edward Conlon: Hard to say--probably [William] Bratton in my career, but [Robert] McGuire by people who have longer memories. Cops aren't an especially loving bunch toward most bosses and politicians.
Gotham Gazette: On a day to day basis, is it much different being a cop under Giuliani and being a cop under Bloomberg?
Edward Conlon: No, which is why the difference in coverage is strange--we're not nicer because Kelly is nicer, or Bloomberg is, but you might think so from reading the papers.
Gotham Gazette: A term that is often associated with Ray Kelly is "community policing." The term eludes definition. As a member of the police department, what does that term mean to you?
Edward Conlon: Next to nothing. It was a Dinkins policy, and it didn't really work. At the same time, what I did early on as a beat cop was community policing, But a foot post is a very "retail" way to deal with things, very labor intensive. Kelly supported it because he worked for the mayor [Dinkins], and did what he was told. You haven't heard much about it lately. They did a study--it makes people happy but isn't really effective in reducing crime.
Gotham Gazette: It is definitely still a part of his spiel, though. He always talks about the three C's: community, crime reduction, and counterterrorism.
dglove: Do you feel that the police department is currently doing enough to make relationships with the communities they police? Your book makes one feel that there is sometimes too much pressure to make numbers and less emphasis on working with the communities.
Edward Conlon:There is definitely too much emphasis on numbers, but this police commissioner is also well respected by the community. Recall the black leaders who marched in support of him when the Patrolman's Benevolent Association called for his resignation, over the Brooklyn rooftop shooting he called unjustified. It always could be better, and community outreach isn't the same as "community policing" in the specific way that policy was devised.
RACE AND THE NYPD
Gotham Gazette:Mayoral hopeful Fernando Ferrer recently caused a furor by saying during a meeting with members of the police force that the shooting of Amadou Diallo wasn't a crime. How much does this particular case still overshadow the way you think about race when you're on the job?
Edward Conlon: I don't think it needs my two cents on how the way Ferrer ran on the case in 2001 jars with that recent quote. [Bronx District Attorney] Robert Johnson had an interesting line on it, stating in effect that Ferrer was a good friend and more or less a liar.
The horror of the Diallo case for working cops is not so much the thought of it, but the lack of thought it allowed. Four cops had seconds to react to a potentially deadly situation, and one shot, and fell, and the others thought he was hit; the chain reaction ends with an innocent man dead and the infamous forty-one shots. Four men who went to work one night looking for a serial rapist found themselves on trial for murder, with politicians of all kinds demanding their conviction. In the aftermath of Diallo, a lot of active cops did back off--this is anecdotal--and the Street Crime Unit was reduced and renamed. But cops did go back to work, the next night and the next, and crime did and has continued to drop. The NYPD is in one sense an old and tradition-bound place, but the author and one-time police press liaison Robert Daley once compared us to a football team, living only for next week's game.
Gotham Gazette: You write that you don't think people react differently to police officers based on race, and that hiring minority police officers would not improve community relations. This idea runs contrary to the conventional wisdom; why do you believe that the race of a police officer doesn't matter?
Edward Conlon: I don't know if I quite say that--but the experience of cops of all colors is generally more similar than not. And the conflicts they get into is color blind, to a degree. It's more important to have a diverse police department than a diverse fire department, I'd say, but cities that have black-majority departments - D.C., New Orleans -- aren't usually held up as models. The problems charged--brutality, corruption--have no relation to diversity. In the Kerner Commission report, black people said black cops didn't treat them better, but it was important for the job to be open to them for economic reasons.
Gotham Gazette: But do you think the increased diversity of the New York police department improved the way that it relates to the communities that it polices?
Edward Conlon: I don't think so--post 9/11, post Giuliani, it's a less divided city in general. Again, I think it is important for a diverse department--you can't have one race locking up another race, it tears the city up -- but the problems we or any department has won't be fixed by more minority hires.
COUNTERTERRORISM AND THE AVERAGE COP
Gotham Gazette:Your book ends at the beginning of this post Giuliani, post 9/11 era. Has the need to work on counterterrorism in addition to traditional police work since then changed your life as a detective?
Edward Conlon: In the ordinary course of events, I do very little in regards to terrorism. And what I've done has been nonsense. A woman claimed in family court that her husband wanted to blow up the court; we had to spend the day debriefing him, but it was garbage. There's a much larger counterterrorism division now though.
dglove: Is there much competition/desire in the ranks to get into the counter terrorism work, or is that seen as not so much why people joined up?
Edward Conlon:It varies. We do have people overseas, in major investigations, but there's also a lot of nonsense of the kind I just mentioned, people who say their landlord's in Al Quada when they're behind in the rent.
GOOD NUMBERS, BAD MORALE
Stacey Horn: Why have the results from Compstat-like initiatives in other cities been less dramatic than the results in New York?
Edward Conlon: The numbers in LA are pretty good. Maybe we had the resources--40,000 cops--to make it more effective here.
Gotham Gazette: Crime has dropped and police community relations are, by many accounts, better than they have been in some time. To an outsider, it would seem to give police officers a certain satisfaction. But you write that "if there was any constituency in New York more alienated from the [Giuliani] Administration than blacks, it was cops." The head of the police union recently said morale was at an all-time low. Why has the city been able to make its police force more effective but not happier?
Edward Conlon: Money. We're paid less than Newark, a city with far less resources. Cops leave the NYPD for just about any agency they can--in Long Island, you could double your pay for a lot less work and aggravation. We have fewer and fewer cops, and it's harder to fill the new classes, but crime is still going down, so there isn't the pressure to address it that there should be.
Gotham Gazette: Has Compstat-related pressure contributed much, or would that not be such an issue if you had a better contract?
Edward Conlon: Compstat pressure is part of the dissatisfaction, but pay is the central issue.
Stacy Horn: What's next for you? What's your next book? Would you like to write about something entirely different?"
Edward Conlon: Fiction is next, but in a contemporary police setting. I hate not having the excuse of research
Gotham Gazette:You thank God in Blue Blood that cops are not required to think about big picture policy ideas. Please excuse us then, in asking you so many big picture questions on your day off.
Edward Conlon: Thanks everybody, take care
Gotham Gazette: Our next book club will be held at the Jefferson Market Branch of the New York Public Library on the last Wednesday in April. Come back to Gotham Gazette Books for more information.