By James Maher
Name: Christopher Reisman
Occupation: Police Officer, retired
Location: 9th Precinct, 5th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue
Time: 11 a.m. on Monday, May 5
Read Part 1 here.
In 1975, my partner, Andrew Glover and my boss, Sgt. Fred Reddy were murdered. It was a stupid killing. It was on 5th Street, between Avenue A and B. They were just getting into the car … it was a replacement, because the regular car they had was in the shop. The replacement cars were almost always clunkers. They worked just well enough to roll. So they’re getting into the car and my partner sees a car double parked behind him and a guy is behind the wheel.
There was always pressure to write summons and he was driving the boss, so he said, ‘I’m gonna go back and check this guy’s license.’ To make a long story short, he asks the guy for his driver’s license, and the guy reaches for his driver’s license and shoots my partner in the chest. Then he runs up to the police car. The sergeant was sitting in the passenger seat, but the door was so stiff that you couldn’t open it. You had to turn and kick the door open with both feet. By the time he got the door open the guy was on him and shot him and then he went back and shot my partner.
The Hells Angels chapter was founded here after I came. There had been a small gang run by a fellow named Sandy Alexander. I think the Angels today are much more circumspect than they were then. There was a fellow they use to call Big Vinny. Vinny was large ... he never wore a shirt. All he wore was the patch with the colors and that was it. Vinny was arrested for allegedly throwing a girl off the roof at a party in 1977.
The District Attorney’s office, in their infinite wisdom, allowed him out on bail, which meant that all the witnesses to this disappeared. But Vinny died about that time anyway from a burst pancreas.
Anyway, most of the people who were victims of the Hells Angels kind of provided themselves. These were exotic characters; they were bikers, outlaws. The clueless would gravitate to them. They would like to hang out with them not realizing that the Angels were a closed group. They were kind of hermetically sealed within themselves. If I was a Hells Angel and I considered you a good friend and another Hells Angel was mad at you and hit you, then I’d hit you too. As far as they were concerned, anybody outside of the club was a civilian.
It was kind of a blue-collar fraternity in a sense, and that’s not being fair to blue-collar people or fraternity people. Quite often drugs were involved. For the most part, they made an effort to avoid us largely because of the organizational structure. It was kind of a standoff. It was considered bad form to get locked up. You were bringing ill repute on the club and they didn’t want further examination.
Drugs became worse in the 1980s and, not surprisingly, it was when many more white kids came to the neighborhood. The kids from the outer boroughs came in here, often because of music, drugs or a combination of such. The kids were street savvy in the sense that a blue-collar kid knows a lot more than a white collar kid, but they weren’t that down and mean.
Then you had the whole punk rock era, which was great. This was always a very creative area. There were a lot of poets. There were a lot of well-known artists, not necessarily famous, but well-known within their own artistic community. Even if kids were screwed up on drugs, they would get these tremendous creative influxes, but they wouldn’t last long. You would find an abandoned apartment and there would be half a project, and you’d go into another and there would be another half a project, whether they were building something with wood or painting, then for whatever reason they would move on.
The drug organizations became bigger and they got meaner. They became more organized. The neighborhood had already started to be crushed. The housing was diminished by fire and neglect. So we had the guy who might have been selling small bundles of heroin out of his apartment and now he’s moved to Brooklyn and he’s connected with another guy, so instead of selling a small bundle of dope, now he’s got a kilo of dope. He’s got an organization, and the moment you’ve got an organization and the moment you’ve got a lot more money, you in turn are much more vulnerable.
It’s true of all crime. The thing that the criminal needs more than anything else is a police department. This is what the Mafia does. There’s no such thing as a sit down where they plot bank robberies. There’s a guy who controls the area and it’s understood that if you ply your trade in his area you have to pay tribute, and if you pay tribute then nobody else can rob you.
It was the same with narcotics. The very fact that it became a much bigger business and there was much more money at stake, encouraged more sophisticated firearms. I have no way of proving this, but I often wonder if reduced homicides were just due to the drug business becoming more efficient. There is always a certain number of homicides that will never go down. Husbands will always stab wives and vice versus, somebody will just be stupid, and lots will happen in a neighborhood, but homicide is bad for the drug business.
Two things changed the police department — the video camera and the machine gun. All of a sudden the bad guys had much better weapons than the police department and anything you did on the street was very likely to be recorded. Mostly the weapons were a function of protecting the drug situations, but if you were facing life in prison you would take a chance on killing a cop.
Here’s where I’m going to sound very pompous. If police work were simply a matter of apprehending criminals and throwing brush-back pitches at them — I think there are as many as 29,000 sworn officers in the city — you might need a thousand. The other 28,000 exist to protect me and you and our individual inner jerk. It’s the same as a stoplight. The police exist to stop me from that momentary lapse in judgment. It’s 3 in the morning and nobody is around and I’ll run this light or something. It’s to stop somebody from doing something stupid.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.
Previously on EV Grieve:
Out and About in the East Village, Part 1