Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 25 December 2020



Three Generations on the Police Beat

Recently retired after 38 years in the NYPD, John McAuliffe says the force is ‘demoralized.’ He’s no fan of Mayor de Blasio, and Black Lives Matter makes him see red.

By Tunku Varadarajan
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Staten Island, N.Y.

John McAuliffe recalls an incident from his rookie days with the New York City Police Department. It was 1983, and he was on patrol in the 71st Precinct, in Crown Heights, a black-majority Brooklyn neighborhood.

“I’m right out of the academy,” he says. “I’m with a training officer. And we see a guy do a minor traffic infraction where maybe he and his regular partner wouldn’t have intervened.” But they stopped the driver so the callow Mr. McAuliffe could get practice pulling a car over and safely approaching it.

As officer and trainee moved toward the stationary vehicle, they saw a young boy—presumably the driver’s son—in the back seat. “I was supposed to do the talking,” Mr. McAuliffe recalls, “and the older cop was going to watch me. But he took over.” He told the driver to be more careful and said, “No, you don’t have to show me your license. Have a good night.” When the two got back to their squad car, the veteran told the rookie: “Never embarrass a guy in front of his kid.”


Such lessons, Mr. McAuliffe says, “are not being taught to cops these days.”

Mr. McAuliffe, 59, retired from the NYPD on Nov. 30 after 38 years of service. His father and grandfather, both also called John McAuliffe, were NYPD cops before him, serving for 32 and 20 years, respectively.

There’s “much more cop than that” in the family, Mr. McAuliffe tells me with a matter-of-fact pride. His eldest sister, Ellen, has two sons who are cops in New Jersey and a daughter who is married to another Garden State policeman. Jane, another sister, is married to a retired detective from Brooklyn’s 73rd Precinct, and their daughter is an NYPD detective married to a highway cop. Sister Sue’s ex-husband is a retired policeman. Kathy, a fourth sister, was married to a fireman who used to be a cop.

“You see a pattern here?” he asks in jest. Of the six McAuliffe siblings—all raised in Gerritsen Beach, in bluest-collar Brooklyn, where their dad worked the neighboring precinct—only Tim, the youngest, took a different direction: He worked for decades in the city’s Sanitation Department, retiring as a foreman.


We’re seated at opposite ends of the dining table at Mr. McAuliffe’s home in northern Staten Island. On the wall behind him hangs a print of the 69th New York Infantry—the Irish Brigade—doing battle at Fredericksburg, Va., in the Civil War. Behind me sits a stack of vinyl records—“The Beatles, mainly,” he says. The Dutch Colonial house, modest but immaculate, was built in 1930. He raised his two sons there.

Neither one is a cop, though the elder—yes, John McAuliffe—is in the Fire Department. (The other, Liam, is a film student.) Mr. McAuliffe thinks John “made a better choice” than if he’d followed his father’s path. Mr. McAuliffe says he’d “have worried more” if John were a cop rather than a fireman. He clarifies that he’s not talking about street violence. “It’s the political stuff,” he says. “The danger of being a political scapegoat as a cop—of being on the scene where another cop does something wrong or is perceived to have screwed up at an arrest situation, and you just happen to be there. You’re going down, too.”

Mr. McAuliffe joined the NYPD at 21, quitting his job as boiler mechanic with the Brooklyn Union Gas Co. and taking a pay cut of $2,000 a year. It was a blue-collar transition, one of many he could have made. At 16, while still at vocational high school in Brooklyn, he’d passed exams for the Fire Department, the Sanitation Department and the U.S. Postal Service in addition to the NYPD.

Would he join the NYPD now? “Probably not,” he says ruefully. Every generation of cops tells the next generation that “the job is dead, kid. You should’ve done it 20 years sooner.” He’s sure his father heard it, and his grandfather: “It’s not the same. We don’t ride horses. They invented this thing called the car.” But what’s happening now, Mr. McAuliffe says, “is a big game-changer. There’s no backing from the politicians.” The police are “the enemy”—not to everyone but to “a vocal minority.” His father’s head “would be exploding,” he says, if he were still around. (He died in 2005 at 77.)

“I don’t want to get into the whole political thing,” Mr. McAuliffe says, “but cops need the benefit of the doubt in certain situations until the facts come out.” In his telling, politicians, especially Mayor Bill de Blasio, are “too quick to condemn before any facts are even known, because they have to appease the vocal minority.”

Mr. McAuliffe says young cops today are “screwed, particularly with the iPhones, the cameras. They have a 0% margin of error. You can’t make a mistake. You can’t lose your temper. You don’t get a do-over. They have to be perfect every single time.”

Because of “the mixed messages” from politicians and prosecutors, “they’re not even sure what their job is anymore.” He cites indications from the district attorneys of New York boroughs that “low-level crime”—like subway turnstile jumping—will no longer be prosecuted. “So now you’re a cop in the subway system. A guy jumps a turnstile. What are you going to do as a cop? You’re in uniform. There’s people watching you. What are you going to do?”

Mr. McAuliffe describes the depressing interaction that ensues, as seen through the cop’s eyes: “So you go over and say, ‘Hey, give me your ID.’ You can’t arrest him anymore. It’s like a community court summons. But as a cop you have to go over. A guy just jumped the turnstile, for God’s sake.

“You confront the guy. And the 10 people on the platform are all going to start filming you. And now the guy you’re talking to—he’s being filmed, so he can’t back down because he doesn’t want to look like a chump to his friends on YouTube. So it turns into a fight with the guy.”

Even when an arrest is permitted, Mr. McAuliffe says, smartphones make a cop’s job unenviable. The public doesn’t understand that “arresting someone is not always pretty. When someone doesn’t want to be arrested, the video’s not going to be pretty.” He cites a patrolmen’s aphorism: “It may look awful, but it’s not unlawful.”

Cops feel as if “the whole world is against them now,” Mr. McAuliffe says. NYPD morale is at “the lowest level it’s ever been” since he joined the force in 1983, “especially for young cops.” Minutes later he reframes the thought: “The NYPD is demoralized. And it’s because of what they’re hearing out of the politicians’ mouths.” There’s “a whole new radical ideology” that bounces back and forth between politicians and antipolice activists. The slogans of the day infuriate him. “Defund the police? I mean, have they really thought through the implications?”

He offers an anecdote to show how everyday life has “become sloganized.” An employee at a coffee shop near his old precinct—the Ninth, in Manhattan’s East Village—asked him if the district attorney could compel her to appear in court. Her apartment had been broken into, and the burglar had gashed himself in the process, allowing the cops to identify and arrest him based on the DNA he’d left behind. The victim didn’t want to go to court. Incredulous, he asked her why. He says she answered: “I don’t believe in mass incarceration.”

Black Lives Matter makes Mr. McAuliffe see red—“not the phrase,” he’s quick to clarify, but “the movement,” which he calls “a scam.” Obviously black lives matter: “What the hell do you think I’ve been doing for the last 38 years? Missing time with my family because I’ve been working. And just because I locked up a black guy doesn’t mean that black lives don’t matter. There’s a victim on the other end, too, who’s a black person.” But the critics “are only looking at the person arrested.”

Mr. McAuliffe says policing can be especially hard for black officers, who often face hostility from “their own community.” And beyond it: In the disturbances that beset New York this summer after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, “you often had black cops being called traitors to their race—by white college kids. It wasn’t the blacks so often saying that, it was the white millennial kids screaming in their faces.” Mr. McAuliffe cites the riposte of a black sergeant in his precinct to a white heckler who called him an Uncle Tom. “You know nothing about me,” the black officer said, “and you know nothing about being black.”

Mr. McAuliffe, who’s worked under five New York mayors, pulls no punches when he talks about Mr. de Blasio. “[Ed] Koch, [David] Dinkins, [Rudy] Giuliani, [Mike] Bloomberg—all had their strengths, and Giuliani was, of course, the one who backed the NYPD the most.” But he’s certain that all four loved the city. “I’m not so sure about de Blasio,” Mr. McAuliffe says. “I’m not so sure he loves New York City.”

The best cops, Mr. McAuliffe says, “have the right temperament. They’ve got to let stuff roll off their backs.” He recalls a time when he pulled a car over in Crown Heights in the 1980s. “I was horrified. There was a guy driving, and his wife—or girlfriend—was in front beside him, with an infant child in her lap.”

Mr. McAuliffe says he gave them “a talking to. ‘Listen, if you jam on the brakes you’re going to kill this kid.’ ” He told the mom to get in the back seat. “I could see they were trying to make a go of it as a family. He was with the mother of his child, which was kind of rare in certain neighborhoods.” Mr. McAuliffe cut them some slack. He didn’t give the driver a summons for violating the state’s 1982 car-seat law, which would have cost him around $80. Instead, he said: “A car seat is about $40. Take this break. Go buy a car seat.”

The “human element” is in danger of extinction, Mr. McAuliffe says. Young cops don’t get mentored the way they used to, and they’re on “pins and needles” from the moment they start their jobs. City Hall is hostile. People are hostile. “I feel recruitment is going to get very tough. You have all these movements, and they want change. They want cops to be at a level that probably doesn’t exist.”

Mr. Varadarajan is a Journal contributor and a fellow at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.

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