You get hard quick investigating the cops. When I first started working for the CCRB—the Civilian Complaint Review Board, empowered by the New York City Charter to investigate police abuse—I was a smart hardworking kid who wasn’t that long out of college. The city was looking for smart hardworking kids back then, because they wouldn’t complain if they were asked to stay late and close cases, and they wouldn’t take a sick day whenever they felt like going shopping instead of going to work.
But I wasn’t tough. I had lived in New York for a few years, but only in those parts of New York that bright kids not long out of college live in. Bars on the Lower East Side seemed adventurous. Flatbush was a world away. Queens was unthinkable. I had never seen what happens to someone when you pull his hands behind his back and whip him face-first to the asphalt. I had never sat face-to-face with someone carrying a gun. I had never read medical records running an inch thick. In the next decade, I would do all of that, many times over.
You start off so sympathetic. The first person who comes in—say it’s a homeless guy who stands in front of a supermarket in Staten Island every day—feels so much more real than all your friends from college. And he’s got a broken cheekbone and his arm is in a sling so what happened to him must have been really bad. But when you actually go to Staten Island (by car, because this didn’t happen anywhere near the ferry terminal) and the guy that runs the supermarket proudly says he called the cops, and boasts that the guy had always harassed his customers, and that the guy had jumped the cop who came too, practically forced him to take out his nightstick, what are you going to do then?
Or the nineteen year-old who came in with a broad scab that ran all the way down the left side of his face and scrapes along his shoulders. The crowd had seen him tackled in the middle of Woodbine Street. But they hadn’t seen that he had been arrested selling weed in the park an hour before, and that he had managed to break out of the van the police had locked him in, slip his legs under his arms to put the cuffs in front of him, and had run a quarter-mile and scaled and eight foot fence before being caught.
Investigating the police meant getting used to hardship. It meant, pretty soon, that you didn’t flinch when you saw pain. You stopped asking “did the cops really do this to him?” Instead you start asking whether they were justified. And you learn quickly that the law usually favors the cops. And if you want to do your job properly, that means you follow the law. That kid who pushed off the wall who was getting frisked, and instead got handcuffed and charged with Disorderly Conduct? The cop’s action was perfectly legal. That woman who was pepper sprayed when she was walking towards the officer, waving her empty hands? Nothing to be done for her.
But even as it made you hard, there was always justice to be found. Even in small cases: I will always remember the name of a twelve-year old boy in a group home on St. Nicholas Avenue who talked back when being lectured by a cop and got slapped in the head so hard that his eardrum ruptured. That, the police cannot do. I showed a cop the pictures—time stamped—that a victim had taken of his own bruised face just after the officer had sworn he’d never touched the kid. And you can use that pepper spray when someone’s charging you, but not when they are passively resisting, civil disobedience style.
The work I did investigating cops runs throughout The Big Fear. But more important than the details that I learned about the police department and its operations was both my hardened eye and my sense of justice. I wanted to write about a world that is tough and mean, but one in which the right guys just might be able to prevail. Only you will know whether I have succeeded.
Andrew Case’s new novel is just out from Thomas & Mercer. Practically ripped from recent headlines about police brutality and misconduct, Case’s debut novel THE BIG FEAR takes readers deep inside the world of the men and women who “police the police.” His website is http://www.andrewcase.com.