Book Review – A COP’S TALE – NYPD: THE VIOLENT YEARS by Detective Sergeant Jim O’Neil (Retired) with Mel Fazzino (2009)

A COP’S TALE – NYPD: THE VIOLENT YEARS by DETECTIVE SERGEANT JIM O’NEIL (RETIRED) WITH MEL FAZZINO (2009, Barricade, 286pp) ∗∗∗∗

Blurb: A Cop’s Tale focuses on New York City’s most violent and corrupt years, the 1960s to early 1980s. Jim O’Neil – a former NYPD cop – delivers a rare look at the brand of law enforcement that ended Frank Lucas’s grip on the Harlem drug trade, his cracking open of the Black Liberation Army case, and his experience as the first cop on the scene at the Dog Day Afternoon bank robbery.

I bought this book to aid me in my research into crime and policing methods in New York in the 1970s, when the city was in financial and social crisis. The book actually covers the period of Jim O’Neil’s service in the New York Police department between 1963 and 1984. O’Neil was a highly regarded detective working in some of the city’s most crime ridden locations. It is an honest account of O’Neil’s experience on the front line working in some of the toughest precincts in the city. The main focus of the book covers O’Neil’s time as a detective in Brooklyn’s notorious 73rd Precinct (known as Fort Zinderneuf) and later in Harlem’s 32nd Precinct (known as Dodge City). In between time there are stints with a specialised robbery division and Internal Affairs.

O’Neil’s first-hand account of his experiences are extremely enlightening and frank – notably around the methods used in the detection of crime, policing on the streets and building of a network of informants by frequenting the same bars as the crooks. The anecdotes are real and are both funny and shocking. O’Neil pulls no punches and delivers it as it was. He offers no apologies for the methods used by officers and detectives and indeed puts a strong case for them. These methods are shown to be justified by the results they created. The breaking of the Black Liberation Army terrorist organisation and the deconstruction of the drugs empire in Harlem being two key examples.

However, O’Neil does not condone much of the corruption that took place in the department during this period. he is as harsh in his judgement of a cop taking bribes or dealing dope as he is of the dope pushers, murderers and rapists on the street. He is also scathing in his judgement of the reforms introduced in the early 1970s by Police Commissioner Patrick Murphy, which limited the interactions cops could have on the streets and re-structured the department. Equally he has the utmost admiration for some of his senior officers and the repair work done by Michael J Codd between 1974-8 upon his election as Commissioner.

Reading this book may not be comfortable for the more liberal minded, but it is historically accurate, honest and gives the reader a real insight into what the cops had to deal with during the city’s years of decadence.