NYC SWAT team: cops and compassion handling danger
As casually as corporate executives knot their ties in the morning, police officers in New York City's Emergency Service Unit (ESU) strap on 40-pound bulletproof vests.Skip to next paragraph
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They are as at ease with a 12-gauge long-barrel shotgun propped on their hip as a Central Park jogger might be clipped to a Sony Walkman. When they show up wearing the unit's distinctive blue baseball cap, professional criminals know it's not a Mets ballgame.
A police writer says about them that if King Kong ever did climb to the top of the World Trade Center with a ladyfriend, somebody in Emergency Service would be ''handed a rope and told to chaperon.''
If there's a prison riot, a hostage taking, or a terrorist threat anywhere on the richest piece of real estate on Earth, the nation's premier SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team, Emergency Service, will be there.
But here the hero-hype ends and the extraordinary inner strength and resolve begin.
Even though their official arsenal - antisniper rifles, Uzi submachine guns, carbines, armored personnel carriers (Korean-war vintage) - does honor to the memory of John Wayne, at Emergency Service there is no praise for being macho. The KGB may covet some of their special equipment; nevertheless the TV SWAT-team image is all wrong.
'' 'Sentimental, compassionate, concerned, committed, emotionally strong but tender, mature, family man.' These are the kinds of words we use when we interview a man wanting to join Emergency Service,'' says Daniel A. St. John, deputy inspector and commanding officer of ESU. ''We give out medals for not firing your gun. We want somebody who has been thinking maturely and practically before he gets here.''
The ballistic statistics back up Inspector St. John's words. Responding to more than 3,500 incidents last year in which the perpetrator was armed, they fired only twice. No one was killed.
''Our philosophy is protection for everybody involved: the victim, ourselves, and the perpetrator,'' says Frank Gallagher, second in command to St. John.
* It's early September, and just across the East River from Manhattan, the northbound traffic is light on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
''I've been in Emergency Service 15 years and I've never seen two jobs the same,'' says Sgt. Al Baker, driving a blue and white ESU van. ''Guys in this unit would rather be given a pick and shovel and told to tear into a building looking for evidence, get to someone behind a barricade, than push a pencil and paper.''
The newest addition to ESU sits in the rear of the van, a four-wheeled robot with the capability of remote observation for barricade situations. ''We can send it into places where we think there may be radiation or chemical leaks as well,'' says Sergeant Baker.
Tersely, calmly, a police dispatcher's voice over the van's radio reports that the cable on a crane at the Brooklyn Navy Yard has snapped. Three men are trapped underneath scaffolding in Dry Dock 6.
Baker automatically reaches for his blue baseball cap, changes lanes, and exits the expressway. ''There's always a back way in Brooklyn,'' he says.
As we speed to the Navy Yard, he thinks out loud. ''What do I need to get to those men under heavy metal? High-powered jack, acetylene torch, stretchers. If I don't have much time, what I bring with me can make all the difference.''
* In the Big Apple, when a cop needs a cop, he calls Emergency Service.
The unit responds to more than 50,000 emergency calls a year, most initiated by other police officers. Anything from guarding Fidel Castro at the UN, talking a jumper off a roof, and collaring an escaped chimpanzee at the Bronx Zoo to freeing someone trapped beneath a subway car. It's all in a day's work.
An ESU candidate needs a minimum of three years' experience in a high-incident precinct before he can apply for one of the 280 citywide positions.