Targeted Attack on New York Police Officers Reopens Wounds From the Militant 1970s

The coffin of Officer Gregory P. Foster being carried into St. Patrick’s Cathedral for his funeral on Feb. 1, 1972. He was shot and killed in the East Village, along with his partner, Officer Rocco Laurie. Credit Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

For some members of the New York Police Department, the ambush killing of two officers over the weekend roused memories of a far darker chapter in the department’s past, the 1970s, when violence on the streets and anger at the police erupted into the deliberate murder of some officers.

There were other similarities — public protests roiling the city and the nation; the police blaming politicians for fomenting antipolice sentiment; and city leaders scrambling to defuse a dangerous divide between law enforcers and the communities they serve.

The drug dealing and rampant crime that characterized that era have faded, but the shooting of Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos on Saturday shifted the Police Department into the kind of defensive pose more reminiscent of decades past.

Forty-six police officers were killed in the line of duty in the 1970s, and 41 more in the 1980s. Before Saturday, the last time an officer was killed in the line of duty was in 2011.

22HISTORY3web-master180Officer Laurie

Some of the assassinations of police officers in the early 1970s were stoked by a militant strain of the black liberation movement, including the explosive killing of Officers Rocco Laurie and Gregory Foster in 1972.

Officer Foster, 22, of the Bronx, and Officer Laurie, 23, of Staten Island, who had fought together as Marines in Vietnam, were shot dead after walking out of a diner in the East Village just before 11 p.m. on Jan. 27, 1972. They had asked to be placed on patrol in the East Village because it was riddled with crime.

Killings of police officers have dwindled, and the city has sought to rub out the stain of drugs and violent crime, but people in the law enforcement community say the fatal shootings on Saturday ripped open old wounds.

“The drive to Bellevue Hospital, the chaos, and the sea of uniforms in and out,” Officer Laurie’s wife, Adelaide Laurie, recalled.

“Please don’t let it be that we are retrogressing to that horrible time in the ’70s,” Ms. Laurie said in an interview on Sunday. She added: “It’s the same idea. No one trusted the police; they were called pigs. I’m just kind of reliving that tragedy all over again.”

For many police officers who grew up in the aftermath of these killings — or had relatives who were on the police force at the time — the link to that harrowing past is both sentimental and real. Officer Ramos, killed on Saturday, once served as a school safety agent at Rocco Laurie School on Staten Island.

The Black Liberation Army also took responsibility for the fatal shooting of Officers Joseph A. Piagentini and Waverly M. Jones by two assailants outside the Colonial Park Houses in Harlem in 1971. In 1975, three members of the Black Liberation Army were convicted of murder in the case.

Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, speaking on the NBC “Today” show on Monday, said the killing of the two officers on Saturday reminded him of the department’s unease in the 1970s.

“My first 10 years were around this type of tension,” Mr. Bratton said. “Who would’ve ever thought, déjà vu all over again, that we’d be back where we were 40 some-odd years ago?”

Mr. Brinsley’s Instagram posting shortly before his death, in which he vowed to put “wings on pigs,” recalled a frequent refrain of the Black Panther Party, “Off the pigs,” in the late 1960s, a time when anti-establishment sentiment spilled into violence against the police. The latest killings, in contrast, came during historically low crime rates.

22HISTORY4web-master180Officer Foster

But then, as now, a sharpening sense of political polarization and anger among police officers toward the mayor threatened to turn even an isolated police killing into a flash point.

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association in recent days circulated a letter allowing officers to request that the mayor not attend their funerals in the event of a line-of-duty death, recalling the animosity toward Mayor John V. Lindsay after police killings in 1972.

Ms. Laurie said she made it known then that she wanted Mayor Lindsay to stay away from the funeral. He attended anyway, prompting scattered boos and calls from mourners that he should go home.

“The police had the same feeling that he wasn’t helping them, that he was against them,” Ms. Laurie said.

Mayor Lindsay had been on uneasy terms with the police after seeking to strengthen the Civilian Complaint Review Board. That gulf widened after another officer, Phillip Cardillo, was fatally shot inside a mosque in Harlem after being lured there by a 911 call. The mayor was accused of letting political aspirations and his alliances with some black leaders cloud the city’s handling of the case. He went on vacation instead of attending the funeral.

Vincent E. Henry, a former police officer who retired in 2002 as a Police Academy commander, said the fatal ambush on Saturday, coming in the midst of protests against police brutality that Mayor Bill de Blasio has declined to condemn, had similarly endangered the current mayor’s political standing among officers.

“This is de Blasio’s Cardillo moment,” Mr. Henry said. “This is his Cardillo moment.”

The volatile politics also recall the 1978 killings of two officers in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Norman Cerullo and Christie Masone, in what the police initially described as an ambush by two ex-convicts involved in the Attica prison uprising. One of the assailants was killed in the shootout. A second man, Cleveland Davis, wounded and arrested blocks away after crashing his car, was charged with murdering both officers, but eventually acquitted.

At the officers’ funerals, Mayor Edward I. Koch called for the passage of a bill reinstating the death penalty as a deterrent to police killings, a measure supported by the patrolmen’s union and opposed by the governor at the time, Hugh L. Carey. The political heat intensified when it emerged that Governor Carey had pardoned Mr. Davis in 1976 for charges related to the killing of a fellow Attica inmate, as part of an effort to “close the books on Attica” and to forestall charges against the police and guards for their actions at Attica.

Other bursts of violence were initially seen as politically driven, but proved not to be. In 1973, after a young man carrying a .22-caliber revolver wounded several officers inside a precinct house in Manhattan before being killed in a fusillade of police bullets, the police indicated that the shooting had political motives. But detectives later described it as “the work of a very, very sick man.”

The police killings in the 1970s created a “siege mentality” among officers, Mr. Henry said. Officers began arriving at the station house four hours before work and leaving four hours after their tour in order to trail marked patrol cars with their personal cars, shotguns in hand, providing an additional layer of cover. Mr. Henry said police officers also began carrying private shotguns during that era.

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  • tom_billesley

    Officers with east asian and hispanic ethnicity. It’s an attack on white privilege.

  • winniec

    De Blasio will have a lot of backpedalling to do. New Yorkers need Giuliani, not this bozo.

  • RevnantDream

    Politicians have become to comfortable thinking of the police as extensions of their ideology. Mini militias to enforce draconian laws