The Puddle Beneath his Head was Red…

You’re a NYC Transit Cop. You and your Brother and Sister officers are the Marines of  NYC policing as you patrol the 660 miles of track and 468 stations of the city of New York. You represent order and safety to some eyes, oppression to others, but to most…you’re just a cop.

There’s a lot going on beneath the surface of NYC, and there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of the interactions there. All you want to do is your job.

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As you step off the platform and into the subway car eyes fall upon you. To some a Transit cop is a very welcome sight:

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 to others…not so much.

You see a man right across from you. He’s sound asleep. His back rests against the handrail at the end of the bench seat. His legs are outstretched and take up the seats in front of him where his shoes rest on those seats, all in violation of NYC Railroad Rules. Many NYC residents are not aware to the various Rules and Regs of the Transit System. Some violations are very minor but they are there:http://web.mta.info/nyct/rules/rules.htm

Some people in the subway car are looking at you, then at him. Some passengers want those feet down. Others feel you should leave the guy alone, “He’s not hurting anyone. Go catch a thief!” they might think.

What you have before you is of course a very minor violation. It is also crime prone condition because sleeping passengers are often victims to thieves. Sometimes they will lift a wallet or jewelry or any item. Sometimes they will slit a pants pocket with a razor to take a wallet. Sometimes victims wake up during the theft and violence results. You need to wake this guy. But you don’t want to write a petty summons for his feet on the seats, you only want him to be awake and his feet down. It’s your job. It’s a crappy part of it…but it is your job.

You approach the guy, knowing that whenever you start an interaction, waking someone up or any other act, you must be prepared to follow through if it doesn’t go well. You represent the credibility of all police officers. You are aware that the initial approach can be crucial in how it does go.The academy teaches you to show respect and you do need to keep this in mind, it IS important.

You tap your nightstick against the bench seat trying to awaken him without even touching him. He doesn’t stir. You shake his shoulder. Finally he opens his eyes. You give him a few seconds and say, “It’s not safe to sleep on the train so try to stay awake, sit up and take your feet down, okay?”  You hope he’ll comply and you already have a, “Thank you.” and a smile in mind if he responds well. But he doesn’t move his feet. He keeps his eyes open then just stares at you.

You say, “It looks like you got the “stay awake” part but let’s get the feet down, alright?” He doesn’t move his feet. He says, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” You say, ” If you don’t take your feet down I’m going to have to give you a summons. You don’t want that right?” No movement. You say,“Okay, give me some ID.”

He answers, “I don’t have any ID.” You say,”Okay, we’re getting off at the next stop. You can ID yourself with a phone call”. He responds with, “YOU can get off and ID YOURSELF I’m not going anywhere, stop harassing me. All I was doing was sleeping. Get out of my face!”

A car full of subway riders is watching all this.

“Stand up!” you command. He says, “I’m not doing anything and I’m not going anywhere!” He’s loud and you feel he’s playing to the subway audience. You also get the sense that this could all turn very ugly. So you get on the radio and request assistance at the next stop, Times Square, where you know a cop is stationed.

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The cop meets the train and enters your car. You tell him what the situation is. You both approach and you tell the male once again to stand up. The train conductor is aware some kind of police action is being taken. He keeps the doors open. If the train doesn’t move soon there is a train delay, other riders are being inconvenienced. You take him off the train and when you are all on the platform the train pulls out.

In the USA a citizen is not required to carry ID but it’s good to carry some. A cop can’t just take your word for who you say you are, you must identify yourself.

You say, “Give me a phone number of someone who can verify your name and address.” He refuses. He says, “I don’t want to be embarrassed with a phone call from you.” and adds, “Why don’t you find the guy who stole my car last week making me take this damn subway?”

The platform has a lot of people on it, many of them gravitate to your location. You are near a stairway to an upper mezzanine. There will be less people and less danger from passing trains. You can make a call from there. You say, “Okay, let’s go upstairs.” He shouts, “I’m not going anywhere.” He sees that the crowd has gathered and hears some jeers towards you and sympathetic calls of support for himself.

He shouts out to the crowd, “All I did was fall asleep and they’re treating me like I’m a damned criminal!” He’s very loud now, more people are gathering, he’s become disorderly. You say, “I’ll have to place you under arrest, put your hands behind your back.” as you take your handcuffs out. “You’re arresting me for this crap?” he says. “No way!” and pulls his arm away from your grasp. He’s raising both of his hands and arms to avoid being handcuffed.

Yes, he is now resisting arrest:http://ypdcrime.com/penal.law/article205.htm?zoom_highlight=Resisting+Arrest

You and the Times Square cop each take an arm and try to move his arms behind his back. But he’s big and strong and pushes back with his legs and arms. Both of you are now struggling to get him under control but it’s not going well. You all are on a subway platform in a physical struggle. A dangerous place for a physical struggle.

Times Sq 42 st PlatformDSC_9134

You need to get this under control fast. He’s pushing both of you harder with his body weight and arm strength back and forth. He tries to pull away and in the struggle he goes down and hits his head on the metal edge of a stairway step.

He lies there unconscious. He later dies. An autopsy reveals he died as a result of brain hemorrhage due to the combination of  head trauma and blood thinner medications. 

The man it turned out, from newspaper reports, was on his way to his second part time job when he fell asleep, making about eight bucks an hour at each with no benefits. His ’97 Honda was stolen, probably for parts it was presumed, the week before. His boss at this second job told him, “If you’re late once more, don’t bother coming in at all.” His wife said he was particularly depressed lately because he felt one job didn’t promote him to full time because they wanted to put a certain “face” before the public.

This man may have had an axe to grind for the system in general…then you came along. Does it matter his color? Or your color?  The puddle beneath his head was red…and the man was dead. 

But you are not a Transit cop. You are sitting in the cool setting of a computer or an iPad before you. You’re reading this, perhaps with a cup of coffee, and making judgements about the whole scenario, after the fact.

None of the above actually happened. And it’s a good thing it didn’t happen because if it did many would want to see you indicted. A man was “murdered” because he was asleep and had his feet on some subway seats…and it was YOU who killed him.

Police interactions have started this way and similar ways over smoking in the subway, riding between the cars,  beating the fare and peddling to name a few. 

I used an extreme example of a minor violation and blatant resistance to authority. The scenario is not really that far fetched though. Yes, I made you, the Transit cop, a very reasonable and polite officer and the sleeper very antagonistic. The former almost always are reasonable and polite, and the latter almost always are not very antagonistic.

But there is latent anger in many people these days due to personal family situations, or just the basic unfairness of life itself: the joblessness, or the multiple part time jobs, the lack of decent pay or health insurance, insane income inequality. You, the cop, are not responsible for that. But you ARE the face of it. You ARE the face of society, the same  society that wants to see YOU put in jail.

Real police action doesn’t always go the way you see it in the movies or on TV. It doesn’t  go the way you OR the police want it to go. You just don’t hear about a lot of it.

This is one such incident:

It was decades ago and I was a Transit Police Officer on a Manhattan IRT subway train. It was summer and air conditioning had not yet come to the NYC subways nor was it even in anyone’s dreams.

A passenger told me, “A cop is having trouble a few cars back.” The train was in the station and I ran on the platform and found a cop trying to get a male under his control. I assisted in taking him off the train and onto the platform. The male resisted furiously.

He was not heavily built but he was very athletic and we struggled to get him under control. Many passengers got off the train and surrounded the action. The only voice that was clear to me was, “Give it up, brother, give it up!” Someone in the crowd was trying to get the male to cooperate. Someone knew something really bad could come out of this.

But the male didn’t “give it up.” He continued to struggle with extraordinary tenacity. He was sweating and slippery and twisted in resistance. But he didn’t throw a blow, nor did we.

I didn’t know what crime this male had committed. Neither I nor the original cop used any weapon, no nightstick nor blows of any kind to stop him. We were only trying to use the minimal force necessary to overcome resistance. But the force we used wasn’t enough. And he did break loose. And he did blow like the wind being pushed by an A train…down the platform… up the stairs…and into the street.

The cop did tell me what had led up to that experience but today I don’t recall what it was. I just remember that it was a minor crime or violation. 

It all sounds like no big deal, the guy got away after committing a minor crime. He might have been just scared as hell of going to jail. But he also might have resisted so strongly because he was on probation or parole or carrying some felony-weight narcotics. He might have been wanted for a serious crime: rape, robbery, murder and couldn’t allow this arrest to reveal a warrant for it. We didn’t do our job that day, that cop and me. Our job required us to use the necessary force to overcome resistance to arrest…and we didn’t. It wasn’t a good day for two cops or the city of New York.

For police officers everywhere, in the street, on the subway, or in housing projects, interactions over minor violations do turn into major catastrophes. Police Officers have to be Goldilocks Cops, use just the right amount of force, not too little, not too much…just right. And no errors please, and that’s 100% of the time, thank you.

They must use just the right amount amidst flying fists and feet. Against knives and guns. In environments of  concrete sidewalks and subway platforms and tile walls and dark stairwells, and plate-glass store fronts and unyielding fire hydrants and electrified tracks and speeding trains. And of course there is the asthma and diabetes and heart conditions and blood thinners. Yes, there is injury and there is death in police work, and too many times it happens because…someone simply didn’t comply.

Why they don’t comply can be for any reason. But they need to be encouraged to do so, not used as tools to attack those who serve us all…as best they can.

I’ve heard a lot of comments on recent police events but I haven’t heard much about complying with the police. Some leaders might consider such comments. It might save a life or two.

Below is brief description of a scene similar to what I described above, a Police Officer waking a man.  This one wasn’t fictitious, I wish it  was. It quickly turned into horror…and went downhill from there. 


Be well,


2 replies »

  1. Here’s something as real as it gets. People should think about it, and put themselves there. But they won’t – not the media, not Mayor DeBlasio, not President Obama. They are all obviously MUCH smarter than any police officer could be, right? They never have willingly put themselves into such a situation, but I’m sure they’d handle any such encounter with aplomb. Oh, and they’d be able to cuff anyone with minimal or no struggle, just like they see on any number of TV shows, or shoot the gun out of a felon’s hand, or at least just hit him in the shoulder. Right?

    regards, kc


  2. Here’s something as real as it gets. People should think about it, and put themselves there. But they won’t – not the media, not Mayor DeBlasio, not President Obama. They are all obviously MUCH smarter than any police officer could be, right? They never have willingly put themselves into such a situation, but I’m sure they’d handle any such encounter with aplomb. Oh, and they’d be able to cuff anyone with minimal or no struggle, just like they see on any number of TV shows, or shoot the gun out of a felon’s hand, or at least just hit him in the shoulder, again, as we all see on TV.

    Thank you, Lee.

    regards, kc


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