Posted by: vote4claxton | March 17, 2003

The Line of Fire Is Again Part of the Line of Duty

March 16, 2003

They did not die fighting a horrific act of international terrorism. They did not die trying to rescue thousands of people. The place where they died was not instantly recognizable around the world, nor will it ever be. It was a nondescript patch of road through a working-class Staten Island neighborhood, where last week a small tuft of paper roses sat near a chain-link fence, next to a laminated paper sign that said, ”May God Bless Our Two Heroes.”

As one police lieutenant said, the deaths of two undercover detectives last Monday felt, in a shocking, unexpected way, like a return to normal — ”a very sad normal.” He hesitated to use those words, he said, words that should never really be used to describe the sacrifice of a police officer’s life, much less the lives of two in a single night.

But as the first line-of-duty deaths in the city’s uniformed services since Sept. 11, 2001, the slayings of James V. Nemorin, 36, and Rodney J. Andrews, 34, both undercover detectives, has become a stark reminder for many New Yorkers of something half-forgotten in a city gripped with fears of terrorism and war, a city still mourning the losses that occurred at ground zero.

The deaths reminded the city of the way police officers have always died on the job and will continue to die as long as there is violence and random chance: doing the everyday, incremental, incredibly perilous work that keeps one more gun, one more criminal, off the streets.

For the public and even for officers themselves, the World Trade Center attack profoundly changed the context in which line-of-duty deaths were viewed. In several interviews last week inside and outside the Police Department, those who talked about the detectives’ deaths said that the shootings seemed like a dispatch from a distant past, a reminder of an older kind of reality — no less tragic than Sept. 11, but different.

”It’s a reminder of the daily terror on the streets, as opposed to the foreign terror, the daily terror that was rampant for years before 9/11,” said Eli B. Silverman, a professor of police studies at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice. ”The public knows that crime has gone down, but are they really aware of how that actually happens, every day, on the streets? I don’t think they are, and this is a reminder that it’s never easy.”

Police officers have of course never forgotten how hard or dangerous the job is. But they said the killings on Staten Island — the first fatal shooting of a police officer on the job since Gerard Carter, a patrolman, was killed in 1998 — brought back, even to them, a kind of feeling they have not had in a long time.

The World Trade Center attack was immense, its aftermath of funerals and wakes and memorials for friends and co-workers overwhelming. But the attack, precisely because it was so extraordinary, did not bring the same sense of vulnerability to some officers that a shooting in the line of duty does.

‘This hit home: You know the peril, that feeling in your heart when something is about to go wrong,” said Marq Claxton, a detective in the 90th Precinct in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who worked for five years in undercover narcotics operations. ”You know it in a very personal way. You know exactly the way they felt in the last moments, that terror.”

”A lot of undercovers and former undercovers, we all had to talk about it,” said Detective Claxton, who knew Detective Andrews and works in the same precinct as Detective Andrews’s ex-wife. ”If you did that kind of work, you know that undercover operations are just one itchy trigger finger, one turn of emotion or fit of anger away from tragedy.”

Of course, some officers worry that viewed in the context of Sept. 11 — when 23 city police officers, 37 Port Authority officers and 343 firefighters died — the killing of Detectives Andrews and Nemorin, apparently over $1,200 and an illegal gun, will seem somehow inconsequential to the public.

Like many officers who preceded them in death, the two men will receive the grandeur and solemnity of inspectors’ funerals. Like all who have been killed in the line of duty in New York, their names will be enshrined in police memorials from Albany to Battery Park City. ”But there will be no huge shrine to them put down in any location in the city, debated over and visited by the world,” said Lt. Eric Adams, a co-founder of the police group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. ”Presidents aren’t going to read off their names.”

”The term ‘normal’ is difficult to say about this,” he said. ”But I think that’s the way it’s going to feel, and so it’s important that we all understand how significant and tragic it is.”

He added that even within the Police Department, perhaps because of the emotional exhaustion caused by Sept. 11, he sensed a slightly different reaction to the deaths. ”For those days after a shooting, in the past, there was sort of feeling of everyone being disoriented,” Lieutenant Adams said. ”It felt like your life changed. The way you patrolled was different, the way you carried yourself. And that didn’t happen the same way this time, in my experience.”

Others, however, said that they sensed something else: among the public, a greater sensitivity to last week’s shootings largely because of the impact of the deaths in the terrorist attack. While before Sept. 11, 2001, thoughts of the police might easily have dredged up the names Amadou Diallo or Abner Louima in the public imagination, the attack helped to humanize officers, they said.

”The people I talk to are genuinely coming to me and expressing sorrow and condolences to me and a lot of anger that something like this could happen for a gun, for a few dollars,” said the Rev. Robert J. Romano, the Police Department’s deputy chief chaplain, who lost several friends at the World Trade Center and who also delivered the terrible news to the family of one of the slain detectives last week. ”Sept. 11 made us all feel closer, and you can feel that with what just happened.”

He added that, from his perspective as a pastor and a grief counselor, he was surprised at the capacity for anguish that remained within the department and said he felt that many officers were surprised, too. ”This wasn’t like a re-opening of an old wound,” he said. ”It was a brand new one. And it was something you could take in, unlike 9/11. It was like being punched in the gut.”

Last Friday, in a cold morning wind, Jeff Bollinger, a retired electrician, said that he wanted the police to know that they were not the only ones who felt that punch. He stood only a few yards from the spot where the detectives were found, virtually in front of his clapboard house. That Monday night, he said, his daughter walked out the front door into the darkness after eating dinner, and spotted the bodies lying on the street in the moments just before swarms of undercover officers descended.

”You never think about that kind of thing anymore,” he said. ”With Giuliani and the crime going so far down, with everything else that’s going on in the world. Then you realize what’s right around the corner from you every day.”





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