NEW YORK CITY — When I was a kid, Bob McKenna saved my neighborhood.
A narcotics cop on the Lower East Side, McKenna got reassigned to Washington Square Park in the mid 1980s. The Park was our backyard. My three brothers and I learned to ride our bikes there. We would sled there in the winter. I remember the patch of grass where I learned to throw a football and where I first played stickball.
We learned commerce in The Park — I think my first purchase was a hot dog from a cart near the fountain. I also learned the value of the different sizes of crack vials: $10, $15, and $25, if I recall correctly.
The Brothers Carney didn’t buy or sell the crack, of course, but plenty of people did. “[O]ne of New York City’s most blatant drug bazaars,” the New York Times called it.
After our mom and her friends raised hell, eventually the city responded with sufficient force: They sent in Lieutenant McKenna.
McKenna and his couple-dozen foot soldiers had a strategy. It involved lots of arrests for selling and buying — a few a day, more than a hundred a month. It also involved getting to know the neighborhood.
“You know the stories about Slim?” McKenna, now retired, asked me over breakfast at the Washington Square Diner Wednesday morning. Slim was a New Jersey high school basketball star, 6-foot-9, who preferred slinging crack to grabbing rebounds.
“My first time in the park, he’s over by the Arch, and my driver says to me, ‘that’s Slim over there. He’s one of our drug dealers.'” McKenna tells how he walked up to the dealer: “‘Hey Slim, how you doing.’ ‘Okay.’ He looks at my name tag. ‘Oh, Lieutenant McKenna.'”
Slim swore he had no drugs on him and agreed to a pat down. McKenna says “it took half a second and came out with a crack vial. ‘I say what about this?’ He says ‘damn, McKenna — I mean Lieutenant’ he says ‘I was looking for that all night so I could buy breakfast for my girlfriend and I.'”
“I arrested him 32 times.”
A decade later, McKenna got a call from a reporter. Slim was dying of AIDS. He wanted to talk to McKenna. The retired cop visited him at Cardinal Spellman nursing home. “I spent four hours talking to him, and he told me his whole life story.”
The Park is no longer a crack supermarket. Wednesday night, it wasn’t hard to find drugs in the park, but it was marijuana being enjoyed during the massive Bernie Sanders rally there.
As we stroll past the Sanders supporters lined up around The Park 10 hours before the rally, McKenna makes it clear he’s not feeling the Bern.
“My dad was a Democrat. His dad was a Democrat,” McKenna tells me. “I was a Democrat until Jimmy Carter f*ked it all up.”
This time around, McKenna admits he’s voting for Trump. (He says he hopes Trump will become more sophisticated on policy issues.) McKenna, who has lived in Staten Island for decades, is thus a bit of a stereotype politically, and he wasn’t the only outer-borough dwelling, Trump-supporting cop I spoke to this week.
Tommy is a young cop, late 20s at the oldest. “Tommy” isn’t his real name, but he looks like a Tommy, and he’d get in trouble if I named him. He and his friend “Dominic” met me at the Patriot, a dive bar near NYPD headquarters, with tattooed barmaids and bras hanging from the wooden chandeliers.
Tommy says Trump is “the only one” who stands up for law enforcement. Like McKenna and Dominic, Tommy says things have gotten worse for cops since Ferguson (where a white cop killed an unarmed black kid) and Staten Island (where a white cop choked to death an unarmed black man).
I asked Tommy if he feels more vulnerable: “Definitely,” he said. He thinks the city is becoming less safe. “Guys are afraid to use force,” he says. He blames politics. “Criminals are emboldened by the mayor. They’re emboldened by the president.” How? “They supported Black Lives Matter.”
“Black Lives Matter was founded on a lie!” Tommy barks out. “A lie! ‘Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!’? That never happened. What does it tell you if your movement is founded on a lie?”
Tommy characterizes the growing cop attitude as: “I’m not going to be proactive now. Why would I be proactive? I’m going to get sued.”
McKenna uses the same word. “All the guys that are out there, all the windows up, turn the heat up, and listen to the music. Don’t do anything. Don’t get proactive.”
McKenna blames the media and a few agitators for starting it. “Every little bullshit case, the press just runs it out there, like it’s happening all over.” Then the protestors show up, with a couple of them hurling rocks at cops. “The press are glorifying what they’re doing,” McKenna says, “and that’s the part that’s bad.”
Trump’s got his own diagnosis of the problem. “You see,” Trump said after one protestor was removed slowly from a rally, “in the good old days, law enforcement acted a lot quicker than this, a lot quicker. … [T]hey get away with murder because we’ve become weak, we’ve become weak.”
The problem, according to Trump: “Our country’s going to hell with being politically correct.” In short, we need to stop being so nice and start busting heads, Trump says.
McKenna doesn’t share Trump’s diagnosis or prescription.
The story of “Slim” shows McKenna’s path forward. Cops today don’t have to bust more heads. “They have to get to know the people in the community.”
McKenna tells me other stories of perps treated with respect. He recalled a hungry arrestee eying the sandwich of a cop in the station. When the cop noticed, he just handed the sandwich over. Perps McKenna treated with respect later became peacemakers of sorts in the Park, he tells me.
The key: “getting to know the people.” Tommy and Dominic agree the cops don’t know the people — that they drive around with their windows up. “How you gonna hear someone cry for help if your window’s up?” Tommy says.
“It’s just the atmosphere right now,” McKenna says, “because it’s them against us.”
“Them against us” is Trump talk. But McKenna thinks it doesn’t have to be the case.
“But right now there’s a wall. The wall that didn’t go up in Mexico — at the border — has gone up between the black community and the police. And somehow we have to get that wall down. Even if it’s a chest-high wall, we can talk to each over it. Then eventually it’ll come down.”
Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner’s senior political columnist.