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New York's Finest

An embattled police department responded to the catastrophe at the World Trade Center with displays of uncommon courage.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

September 11, 8:50 a.m. Sgt. Charlie Wilson was in a police van, racing south toward the World Trade Center. He had gone on call six hours before, having been posted at Times Square in preparation for Election Day.

Five minutes earlier, his radio had screamed to life when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. When Wilson looked up and saw the burning tower spitting fire on the huge television screen above Times Square, he jumped in his van and headed to his precinct, Midtown South, picking up eight policemen for the drive downtown.

The van wouldn't make it all the way to the towers.

"A bunch of pedestrians jumped in front of the van," says Wilson, 43, a man of average height with glasses and a mustache. "A woman was hurt -- half her foot was blown off."

Wilson and seven of his men left the van, putting the injured woman inside. The driver turned for the hospital while the eight cops ran toward the Twin Towers. They were five blocks away when the second plane -- United 175 -- hit the south tower. It was 9:03, and for Wilson the day wouldn't end until 2:30 the next morning. The nightmare will stay with him forever.

Before September 11, New Yorkers had reason to view their police with a wary eye. The 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, slain in a hail of police gunfire, and the brutal 1997 torture of Abner Louima in a police department bathroom had stained the department's image. "We were in the dumps," says Patrolman Tim Burke, 41, a 20-year veteran of the NYPD stationed in the South Bronx. "We had some very bad publicity."

The department traces itself to very humble beginnings. New York's earliest policemen were the Burgher Guard, a group of eight night patrolmen created in 1658 by Dutch settlers to watch for fires and raids. For almost 200 years, the city experimented with different forms of part-time law enforcement -- some paid constabularies, some volunteer patrols. All efforts were undermanned. None were very efficient, and the city crawled with crime. Eighteen-thirty-four became known as the year of the riots, and in the Five Points neighborhood in lower Manhattan, where Park, Worth and Baxter streets intersected, one murder a night was said to take place. After a visit in 1842 to Five Points, Charles Dickens described the streets as "reeking everywhere with dirt and filth."

With nearly 400,000 residents, New York clearly needed protection. In 1845, the city created America's first full-time professional police force, with 900 men. They wouldn't get uniforms until 1853, however.

New York remained tough. The West Side neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen was one of the city's most notoriously crime-ridden areas, home to several gangs. Police were said to walk those streets only in pairs.

Police corruption was frequently a problem, but heroes soon rose from within the department's ranks. In 1895, Theodore Roosevelt became police commissioner, three years before he would lead the Rough Riders into Cuba. One of Roosevelt's moves as New York chief was reining in Alexander "Clubber" Williams, a tough, corrupt cop who won his nickname by swinging his nightstick with particular ardor. "There is more law at the end of a policeman's nightstick than in all the decisions of the Supreme Court," Williams bragged. Roosevelt forced him into retirement.

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