Police Story (part one) -- 06/28/03

It's summer. April seemed to last right up until about a week and a half ago. Lots of rain. Cool temperatures. But that's gone and we jumped right into summer. It's been in the eighties almost all week -- even had a couple of ninety degree days.

This made me think about summer and summers past. Last year I wrote a piece about childhood summers. And then, at summer's end I got to thinking about the year (1961) I graduated from high school and wrote about that and followed that up with more tales from that summer.

So last night I was thinking about various topics I wanted to write about here -- including an accumulation of thoughts that I have just been too busy to deal with -- and I realized that I had never really written about the summer that I was a cop. (Yes, I mean badge, uniform, nightstick, and gun.) And as I thought about it, I realized I could never cover everything in one entry... hence, the "part one" in the title.

I grew up in Kingston, NY and in 1966 was still living with my parents and brother in the same house in which I had grown up. Well, that was my legal address, although for the 1965-66 academic year I had been sharing a house on a country road a few miles outside of New Paltz, where we were attending college. I had completed my B.A. at the end of the fall quarter (at that time the college was on the quarter system instead of semesters) and was a grad student in the winter and spring quarters. One spring day, while driving in my car, I caught a news item on the radio: the Kingston Police Dept. was looking to hire a group of young men (remember, this was 1966, there were no females on the police force) as police officers for the summer. There were a number of motivations for this -- they hoped to be able to cover the increased manpower demands of summer while still allowing for regular officers to be able to take vacation time -- but they also hoped that this opportunity might attract applicants who would decide to make policework their career. The minimum age requirement was 21, which meant they were essentially targeting guys who were just graduating from college but had not yet signed on to a permanent job. I went straight to City Hall, filled out an application, was finger-printed, etc. (and yes, they did do a background check, I know that they interviewed people at a discount store where I had worked -- "Hey, man, there were a couple of cops in here the other day, asking questions about you.") and two or three weeks later I was accepted.

There were six of us hired for the summer positions. (The motive to attract college educated guys to a police career worked -- two of us did switch over to full civil service status at the end of summer -- and I had thought about doing the same thing, at least while working on a master's degree, but the department worked on rotating shifts, every week your shift changed, which meant I would automatically miss at least one third of my classes each term, so I ended up taking a teaching position at summer's end.)

We did not attend formal police academy. We had a day of training and then were set to work in two man teams with veteran officers. Well, first we had to get uniforms -- so one day, about a week before we were to start -- we all piled into a car and drove down into New Jersey, to some police equipment supply store, where we each bought three short-sleeve uniform shirts, two pairs of wool uniform pants, a leather pants belt, a uniform police cap, and a Sam Brown belt with various accessories (hand-cuffs and clip, come-along, ammunition holder, gun holster, blackjack, holder for nightstick). That was an up-front investment of more than a week's pay, but most everything could be sold to another cop at summer's end to recoup some part of what we had spent. (We also needed black dress shoes but I can't remember if I bought a pair there or in a regular shoe store.)

Pay? Our pay was $88.00 per forty hour week (paid every two weeks). Remember, this was 1966... and we were actually being paid eight bucks a week more than a regular police rookie would have been paid (because we had no benefits, no medical coverage, no sick leave, no vacation, no pension). That fall I would take a teaching position that had a base pay of $5200 a year, but because of my graduate courses I made $5610.

Training. Report to police headquarters -- in the basement of City Hall -- at 7:40 a.m. Shifts changes were nominally midnight, eight a.m. and four pm., but you were required to report twenty minutes before the shift start. Join the morning line-up. Sign lots of paperwork. Sworn in. Given our badges. Be issued guns (if memory serves, .38 caliber Colt, "Chief Specials") and ammunition. Go to a firing range in the basement of the National Guard Armory. A box of fluffy cotton is passed around so we can stuff our ears. (Yes, pretty feeble compared to the ear protection you would have to wear today. I think my high frequency loss in my right ear, however, dates from a summer I worked for IBM.) We were taught how to shoot -- using what was called the FBI stance: turn sideways toward target (the idea being this presented the bad guys with your narrowest profile), extending right arm with the gun. Modern thinking has switched to the two-handed stance (for better control and handling of recoil) facing the target, slightly crouched -- but it sure seemed strange to me when I began seeing that stance in movies and on tv; it looked all wrong. We each fired off about sixty shots (ten loadings of six bullets in our revolvers) at paper bullseye targets. Break for lunch. After lunch, a few minutes of instruction on filling out a traffic ticket. Then we were paired up with an experienced officer to fill out the rest of the shift, either walking a beat or riding shotgun in a patrol car. That was our training.

I mentioned the three shifts: midnight to eight a.m., eight a.m. to four p.m., and four p.m. to midnight. Those were the standard shifts. We were assigned to work a special overlapping shift, from eight p.m. until four a.m. That added extra manpower during the busiest parts of the night. We usually rode in a two-man patrol car or, sometimes, were set to drive an unmarked car with a plainclothes detective. And, during the first week or two, we might walk a two man beat. Although we rode two-man cars all summer, we were soon put out to walk foot patrols by ourselves. Each week one of us got to work a special day shift instead -- patrol duty at the public beach -- a task none of the regular officers wanted.

My father had very mixed feelings about this. He was very proud of me but he thought his heart would break seeing me in my uniform for the first time. You see, his father, whose name I carry, had been a police officer with the Kingston Police Department -- and he was slain in the line of duty on February 7, 1919, when my father was twelve years old.

To be continued in a future entry....

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