Article written by Bill Masser posted with permission
March 18, 2014
JOE DECICCO, EX-NYC BEAT COP WRITES ABOUT LIFE ON THE MEAN STREETS
The policeman stood and faced his God, which must always come to pass.
"Step forward now, policeman. How shall I deal with you?”
“I know I don't deserve a place among the people here.
They never wanted me around except to calm their fear.”
"Step forward now, policeman. You've borne your burdens well.
Come walk a beat on heaven's streets. You've done your time in Hell."
This poem, author unknown, is in the preface to Joe DeCicco's novel, Dirty Baggs, and two things are clear, cops on the street are often not appreciated by the people whose safety and
well being they must protect, and if you walk a beat in the big city, you've done your time in Hell.
I met Joe for a cup of coffee and conversation, and asked him to tell me about his life and experiences.
“Yeah, born and raised in New York. Lived in Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx. Graduated from Flushing High School. Started at City University of New York (CUNY) to study electrical
engineering, but life threw different things in my way and I didn't get to finish, about five credits away from an associate's degree.”
I asked him to tell me about becoming a policeman, and asked him to tell me what to call a policeman.
“Everybody sworn in calls himself a cop. 'Police Officer' is the rank, then 'Detective', then 'Sergeant' as it crawls up. It's a paramilitary outfit. I joined June 28 in '73, right out of the Police
Academy to Harlem. Everybody in a rank above you is called “boss”.”
I told him my mental image of a detective crime novel author was someone in a beat-up fedora hat, rumpled raincoat with a .45 on the desk, half finished mug of cold coffee with cigarette
butts sticking out, hunched over an old Remington manual typewriter.
“I left the props at home,” he laughed, and continued. “It's different. I was a beat cop. It's all in the first book, the real reason I became a cop is in there. There was a little girl ... 95 percent
of these stories are real.”
I recalled some of the cop movies I had seen, and thought I'd throw it out on the table early. “In your book, you write about beat cops taking money.”
“I never will forget the first time I witnessed that,” he told me, “I walked in to see my friend, it was a real old fashioned station house, like out of the '40s, and I walk inside. There's four guys
sitting around a long table, and there was a mad scramble to hide everything as I walked in.”
And he tells me the guy's real name, and spells it, but I'm not going to use it here. “I fictionalized it and it's in the book,” he goes on, “It was loose money like it was dumped out of a bag.
And he was sitting here going like this, making four piles,” as he demonstrates the movement, like dealing cards. “They had a heart attack, but that was the old 'sergeant's club', kind of
universal back in the day, from the old Metropolitan Police Force when New York was first started. Any police force, anywhere. Now it's pretty much gone.”
I asked how the police department was organized.
“The Precinct is a group of cops, separated by tours. You have your 'day' tour, which is called your second tour, the first tour is naturally midnight to eight, and then you have four (PM) to
12 (Midnight). We had six roll calls a day, depending on exigent circumstances, with one that overlapped. It was weird because Midtown South had the theater district, Times Square, all
this (stuff) when New York City was a cesspool.”
“It was a rough neighborhood, at least when I was there in '66,” I told Joe, remembering the stories about the 'dungaree liberty' weekend during which sailors and marines were turned
loose outside the Navy Yard to encourage local miscreants to move to a different area.
“And of course there was not a cop in sight,” I told Joe.
“The precinct that covers the Navy Yard to this day is the 72 (pronounced seven two) and when I was in Brooklyn, it was the dumping ground for the (wretched refuse) and the people you
couldn't do anything with.”
“When did you retire?” I asked.
“When did you finish your first book?”
“This book, Angel With a Gun, was finished in 2000, and it was published in 2006.”
“How did you get a publisher?” I asked.
“That was a horror show,” he remembers, “I was a Brooklyn detective, and I had always wanted to write a book, about cops and all, you'd be amazed at all the . . . . what happens. I had
written, I had taken notes, when it wasn't a cool thing to do because everybody thinks you're from Internal Affairs, but I had this 475 page 'anthology' called Poet With a Gun. My wife's
idea, she said “You talk like a street cop, but write eloquently”, so I said, “Well, hell, Poet With A Gun, I said and registered it with the Library of Congress with the hopes of eventually
turning it into a novel, an anthology. I knew I'd have to change all the real names.
“Into my office walks, one day, this tiny little thin lady, with a blonde lookin' guy, plain, like Mr. Whipple without glasses, an unassuming guy. She was a victim of an attempted rape, she was
a ballerina, fought him off, kicked his ass, and in the process actually grabbed the knife blade and got a hand wound. Her friend was a fella' named Bill Fawcett, who still writes. He's an
honorary Navy Seal, because he did a write-up for them. (Fawcett is the field historian for the US Navy Seal Museum in Ft. Pierce, FL.)
“I talked to him because I talk to rocks, that's why I write,” he threw out, and I stopped him.
“Talk to rocks? What does that mean?”
He explained, “My wife says I'll talk to rocks and trees, just to hear the sound of my voice. So, I'm chattin' with Bill while the girl's goin' through mug books and he said he was a writer and
liked to help people and I said, “Really?” and I told him what I did.”
“Send it to me,” he said, and I said, “OK”, and emailed him a a copy.”
““Bill,” I said, “I'd like to do it as an anthology and he said, “You should fuggedaboutit, you're an unknown, blah, blah, blah.” He writes science fiction, he's a amateur Napoleonic historian.
He said, “You go ahead and pick a few and write the story and send it to him (Bill). He critiqued it and spurred me on to complete it. I completed it in '96, when I retired. Sent it to him, he
got an editor, and was going to be my agent, but got too busy and said “I've found you an agent, Kirby McCauley,” and I said 'Who the hell is that?” and he said, “He discovered Dean
Koontz,” and I started turning cartwheels and said, “This is like terrific.” Kirby got one nibble, from Pocket Books, and they were going to give a $5,000 advance and he turned it down, it
wasn't enough. I was disappointed, and then Kirby died.
“So now I got no advance, and no publisher, and Bill says, “I'll hawk your book, and blah, blah, blah and I move to North Carolina and went to work as a management consultant, and one
day this guy says, “I know who you are, you're Joe DeCicco” and he spins his computer monitor around and there it is, my book. I thought someone stole it. I contacted Bill Fawcett and
learned he had sold it and he sent me a check. I got a $1,000 advance. Big whoop.”
It's not like the old days, when you had an agent and a publisher. These days, Joe's books are available in hardcover, on Kindle for your e-reader, and as on-demand printed softcover
editions from Amazon. You can see them easily, as well as read a few sample pages from his novels, by going to Amazon.com and searching for Joe DeCicco.
Fast paced and based on real life experiences, Joe's novels have a grittiness that reflect his time on the street. His fourth book is in the works now, part of a series following the exploits of
March 26, 2014
JOE DeCICCO, NYC STREET STORIES
I phoned Joe DeCicco.
“Talk to me bro,” he answered, and I told him I wanted to find out how he decided to become a policeman, and what it was like going through training.
“The answer is in book one (Angel with a Gun),” Joe laughed, reminding me of an earlier conversation.
“Mike Romano, my alter ego, is walking his dog, at night, lights and sirens, ‘boom, boom, boom’, a big brouhaha at the apartment building around the corner from where he lives. It has
exposed stairways. He sees the cops running up to the roof. He finds out later that a little girl was molested on the rooftop. That triggers it, “If that was my daughter, I’m gonna’ kill him.
Right, I’m joining the police department. The avenging angel triggered it.”
“The avenging angel?” I asked.
“I share, I mean through Mike Romano, the need to right wrongs. I enjoy helping people, I see something cockeyed, I mean, I’m kinda’ compulsive. I go into an office and see a picture
crooked, I gotta’ straighten it.”
I told Joe I wanted to find out more about his early days on the police force, about his career. I asked, “How satisfying was it as a career?”
“Immensely, “he answered, and repeated, “Immensely. You get frustrated by the politics involved, but it’s immensely satisfying on a personal level because you’re a, uh, a psychiatrist, a
lawyer, a judge, a jury, all sometimes in the space of ten seconds or less. And when it comes out well, remember what Hannibal says in (the TV show) The A Team?, “I love it when a plan
comes together.” It’s that kind of gratification, you can’t top it.”
“Any low points?” I asked.
“I responded to an accident, a little boy got hit by a car, he was six years old, the same age as my child, and he died in my arms. That was the pits. For two days my partner did all the
work, I put on my suit and sat in the car. I did nothing. I was a vegetable case. But you know? You get out of it.”
“You can’t be that close to life and death without being affected by it,” I offered.
“Yeah, and on the other hand, you save someone’s life and they remember you forever,” emphasizing “for-evah”. “I have a Chinese friend, that, when I was a city detective I locked up a
guy who tried to kill him, the guy extorted from him, and my partner and I met with him in a Chinese restaurant and spoke with him in a language he would understand. He said, “But you
can’t do that, you’re a policeman,” and I said, “I can be a Hong Kong policeman, and you know what that means,” and his eyes got big and round but he never bothered my friend again.”
“Extremely gratifying,” he emphasized, “righting wrongs.”
I asked Joe to tell me about his earliest days at the Police Academy.
“Police Academy? It’s like, uh, the most fun I ever had in my career. It’s located on 20th Street, I believe it’s five stories, the Police Lab, with ballistics, forensics, and all the rest of the
(police vernacular, meaning ‘stuff’) located on the top floor. When I went, we were in the academy for six months. I was probably in the last class to wear the ‘grays’, the uniform that
indentifies you as a police trainee, there’s no shield or anything, but everybody in New York City knows that, when you’re carrying a duffle bag that’s dark blue, and in a gray uniform, you’
re in the Police Academy. You get four hours of classes, and four hours of PT, physical training. You got one pool day, because every cop in the city knows how to swim, New York City
being surrounded by water, you’re trained in water rescue.
“I don’t know if they still do it, but this is how it was when I went through. You get assigned to a training officer, who’s willing to take on the task of training a rookie. I was very fortunate. I got
assigned to a training officer, he’s the character in book one, I call him ‘Peter Perfect’. I still call him that, he lives in Florida. The man’s an ex-Marine, and whenever I saw him dirty, I beat
up the man next to him because I thought he had assaulted him. I mean, he was always neat and clean. He changed shirts in the summer in the middle of his tour.”
“How long did you serve as a police officer before you became a detective?” I asked.
“About 16 years. You advanced through pay ranges at a set schedule. “Detective’ is not a Civil Service rank, it is at the whim of the Police Commissioner. It’s performance related.
Sometimes it’s because you’re good at what you do, sometimes it’s a reward. I made detective because I was a fingerprint expert. I used to recover fingerprints, that’s what I did as a cop,
on Staten Island, for three and a half years. From there I went to narcotics, and did a lot of plain clothes investigations, and that’s where I earned the rank of detective. It’s an earned, a
meritorious rank, that’s what I’m trying to say. And you can lose it in a heartbeat.”
“When you look back on it, as a career, is it something you would recommend?”
“It’s not a job, it’s a calling. It’s an avocation, the good cops, the fellas who proceed in rank, become detectives, the guy who joins and plods along and hides, it’s just a job.”
It has to be frustrating for a police officer to put his life on the line, investigate crime, arrest a perpetrator, and bring him to court only to see the ‘perp’ turned out on the street again.
It was, and Joe remembers some of the judges he worked with.
“Turn ‘Em Loose Bruce” was a not too subtle name for a judge on the New York State Supreme Court who had an unshaken belief there was great inequality in the way bail was set for
white defendants and black defendants. Whites, as a general rule, he thought. had more money and were often able to pay the bail amount. Blacks often were poor, and not able to pay,
and Judge Wright had established a reputation for setting low, and in some cases, no, bail for some minorities.
“Bruce Wright was a very articulate man, a very nice man.
“When he put his black robes on, he would get carried away. He was, I wouldn’t say black activist, a minority activist. The white people could pay high bail, the black people can’t. On
relatively minor charges, what’s the point of putting a high bail on some (graphic description of a street thug) who can’t afford it? That was right, and I got no problem with that. But, every
now and then, somebody would come in front of him who had serious charges, and he’d still put a low or no bail. That’s wrong.
“When I brought that guy in for arson, he let him out on his own recognizance, or a low bail, $1,000, some petty (another graphic description, street vernacular for really low bail). When
they went to let him out, he realized the error of his ways, and he pulled the bail on the guy and they brought him back in, pending his case.
“Bruce wasn’t a bad guy at all.
“Talk about judges, judges are weird. This one guy was young, worked in arraignments, used to always let ‘em out. This is when I worked on 42nd Street. He used to always let the ‘pros’
(pronounced pross, short for prostitute) out with no bail, and the street gamblers, all that (another graphic description, bad people on the street who fleece people). I used to lock up the
street gamblers on a daily basis, the three-card Monte scam.
“One day, (in court) the judge asked, “Does anyone in here have a deck of cards?”
“Someone said, “Yeah, I do judge.”
“He said, “Bring ‘em up here.”
“He gives ‘em to the bridge man (the courtroom official who calls the cases, distributes materials, the go-between for the judge and the attorneys).
“Here’s how he decides the case. (The judge said,) “If you pick the right card you go free”. So that lit me up, this is (street language for ‘not a good idea’) I said, and every time I was in
court, and that was every other day, I had a news reporter from the New York Daily News sitting in court, and he used to write up the judge every day, the three card Monte judge throwing
cards to decide the case.
“He got removed from the bench. He knew it was me. He said, “I knew it was you, you had the news here, the newspaper guy.” I said, “How am I going to get the newspaper guy here, what
are you, crazy?” (laughs)
“Sometimes, if the ‘pros’ was real pretty, he would have her come up the bench with him to watch the goings on.”
We talked for a while about getting burned out and cynical, dealing with the dregs of society out on the streets, and whether you could lose hope for the process, the judicial system.
“Have you gotten cynical about mankind?” I asked Joe.
“I think people are fascinating. I enjoy a good human chess game.”
“Anything else, anything remarkable on the streets of Harlem?” I asked.
“I used to see Willy Mays all the time, in his pink Cadillac, ‘Say Hey’, I’d blow the siren, get on the speakers and ‘say hey’ and he’d blow his horn.
Tough-guy ex-NYC cop Joe DeCicco writes about his experiences on the streets of New York City in a series of detective novels, with three in print, and a fourth on the way. Google ‘joe
decicco books’ to find them.
An Interview with Joe DeCicco