Reviled no more, N.Y.P.D. is getting 'hugs' from public
NEW YORK — The caps are everywhere, more ubiquitous than Prada bags. Black (this is, after all, New York) with white letters, they've crowned the heads of everyone from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to slugger Mike Piazza to comedian Adam Sandler.
More than a fashion statement, the NYPD caps have become a symbol of solidarity in this city for a department that until two weeks ago it was almost de rigueur, in certain circles, to revile.
Hilary DeCourcey, for one, would not describe herself as a longtime supporter of the NYPD. Practices like racial profiling and what she calls excessive force used to upset her. "Now," the New York University student says, "every single police officer I see I want to give a hug to."
The city's newfound goodwill for its officers, almost more than anything in New York, shows how dramatically attitudes have changed in the past two weeks.
Images of officers risking their lives have replaced pictures of brutality in the minds of many New Yorkers. Whether it's due to the bravery they showed on Sept. 11, the colleagues they lost while working to save lives, or their very visible presence protecting the city's battered streets, New York's policemen have joined firefighters, rescue workers, and Mayor Giuliani as the heroes of the hour.
While the shift, like many of the changes here, may be temporary, it reveals how cataclysmic events can radically reshape current thinking. For years, police have been the public servants many New Yorkers loved to hate. That attitude was not helped by a string of high-profile incidents, such as the fatal shooting of unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo and the assault on Abner Louima, which deepened an already sizable distrust between the department and many minorities.
Today, many residents comment not only on their changed view of the NYPD, but also what they see as a distinct shift on the part of the officers themselves. "They're more courteous," says student Edward Herrera, who adds that tensions between residents and police used to be high in his Washington Heights neighborhood.
Many experts say the dual changes in attitude bolster each other. "What's happened in the last two weeks is that the police department has been the recipient of applause and congratulations," says Norman Siegel, a candidate for public advocate and former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "The police are feeling good about the good feeling coming toward them. Consequently, they're more relaxed. When you're more relaxed, you have better community relations."
In the past, Mr. Siegel says, his biggest complaints about New York's police force stemmed from what he saw as a lack of respect or even hostility on the part of some members. "Officers used the F-word too much. In the past two weeks, I haven't heard the F-word."
Joseph McNamara, former director of crime analysis for the NYPD and now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, agrees that goodwill elicits a positive response from police. "People sometimes forget that hostility can breed hostility," he says. "I'm sitting here in California wearing an NYPD cap," he adds. "I thought: This is the week to wear it."
The cap has been a widespread sign of support from many these past few weeks. Giuliani's, which seems to have replaced his favorite Yankees hat, may be the most visible, but the mayor had company when Jets, Giants, and Mets players all received permission to wear the caps (along with those of the fire department and Port Authority Police) during games last week. At Friday's Hollywood telethon, NYPD hats adorned the desks of celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and Reba McEntire. And President Bush paid a salute during his speech Thursday night, when he held up the badge of one of the policemen killed at the World Trade Center.
The challenge now, say some experts, is to channel this surge of goodwill and make it last. "What people are seeing now is the department I came to know and love," says William Bratton, former New York police commissioner.
But the department's newfound regard won't cause all its former problems - from low salaries to overwork - to go away, he says. And the goodwill is by no means universal.
Chris, a construction worker who asked that his last name not be used, says that in this crisis, "I think they're doing a [heck] of a job." But, he adds, in general, "I just don't get along with the guys. They're power struck." That, he doesn't think, will change.
But for now, say many officers, the support from most New Yorkers helps buoy them through weeks of exhausting duty. "We feel better about doing our jobs," says Sgt. Paul Wiedemann, stationed on a corner below Canal St. "Morale was pretty low before.... I haven't seen anything like this [support] in the last 20 years."
Police talk of effusive gratitude from strangers - although they acknowledge the feeling may not last. "Don't worry," laughs Sgt. Dan Ryan flippantly, "they'll hate us in a month." But then he gets more serious. "The public support has really been excellent. It's a pleasant surprise."