Truth, oath, honor, and integrity. Simple but powerful words. The definitions that mold the character of an honest cop.
Corruption, deception, misconduct and cover-ups. Those words we should never hear when speaking of law enforcement, however often times they are synonymous with police and the criminal justice system.
Twenty-four years ago my law enforcement career came to a screeching halt because I believed in the oath I swore to when I became a cop.
How that happened is not a short story, but one I believe that is worth telling, even though it occurred almost a quarter of a century ago.
Sometimes doing what is right and telling the truth has consequences.
How can doing what is right end up so wrong, I would tell myself many times over the past two and a half decades.
This story is not going to be a recollection of police war stories, although there are hundreds of those I could tell.
To understand the cop you first have to understand the man behind the badge.
People become cops for many different reasons, most have honorable intentions and want to help keep their community safe. Others like the idea of the power that wearing a gun and a uniform projects, which is the wrong reason to become a cop.
The reason why I chose to get into law enforcement was personal and profound.
Sixty-one years has passed since I was born in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York. Life has taken me on many journeys, some memorable and some I wish I could have forgotten, but as life is you really can’t remove from your memory events that have made a major impact on your life no matter how tragic they were.
Like most Americans I am the descendant of immigrants. My grandparents on my mother’s side immigrated to the United States from Italy. My father was born in Constanta, Romania.
I have very few memories of my father as he left my mother when I was just a small child and as a result grew up without a father being present in the home.
I did have some French military medals that my mother had given me that my father had received during WWII, long since lost as a result of moving way too times in my life.
What I still have after all these years is a tattered faded Divisional Citation translated from French from the Free French Forces, 1st Free French Division, 13th Light Brigade, Foreign Legion 1st Battalion that reads:
By decision dated July 3, 1943, Major General Koenig, Commander of the First Division of the Free French, makes the following Divisional Citation: Antoine Poppa – Serial No. 80 – Private, “Participated on May 9, 1943 at Djebel-Garci in a difficult patrol within enemy lines which, in the full light of day, succeeded in capturing 14 Germans. Due to his discipline, daring and courage, he largely contributed to the brilliant success of this action.”
I would like to think that I inherited from my father the traits of discipline, daring and courage.
We had very little money when I was growing up. Fun for us was hanging out on the street, as it was for most kids in the city. Fate could have taken me down the wrong path, but that didn’t happen. I guess my mother did a good job, looking back on things.
They say you are a product of your environment. I don’t necessarily agree with that statement. I think what makes you a good person in life are the values that are instilled in you as you grow from a child to adolescent to adult. It doesn’t make one bit of difference where you grew up or whether you were poor or rich.
They say we all leave this world with nothing, nothing materialistic anyway.
What you take with you is your character and your integrity. What made you the person in life that you were. And that is something that nobody can take away from you.
I have my mother to thank for that.
In Catholic elementary school I thought about becoming a Catholic priest, maybe because my mother was very religious or the books I read that described how priests and missionaries help people.
Little did I know at the time that even a priest can disgrace his collar, just as a cop can disgrace his badge?
I also had an avid interest in science and also loved the police dramas, western shows and war movies that were on television.
I never figured that one out. A priest on one hand, and a soldier and a cop on the other.
Every Sunday we attended church at St. Patrick’s on 97th Street in Bay Ridge.
My mother’s answer to life was that whatever happened either good or bad was what God wanted. She would always say things happen for a reason. They may not all be good, but there is a reason why God planned it that way.
Bad things may happen in your life but it only makes you a stronger person, she would say. And bad things happen to good people.
As a child I really didn’t understand what all that meant. Little did I know that many many years later I would find out that what my mother had told me as a child, was right.
In September 1969 I ended up going to public high school, which was an eye opener for me, mainly because of the change in discipline. The Dominican nuns in elementary school were pretty strict. By today’s standard a lot of what they did back then would be considered child abuse. But no matter how bad it was sometimes, in the end I think it made me a better person in life.
Public high school was the other side of the coin.
Illegal drugs in the late sixties and early seventies were so prevalent on the streets and in the schools it was no different. Barbiturates, amphetamines, acid, heroin, pot and a host of other narcotics were easy to acquire.
I saw first-hand the destruction that drugs can do to young people. I saw the drug dealers making money off the junk they were peddling to the kids. When others would be taking the bus home, they would be driving home in their cars.
I never thought at that time that one day I would be going after them. Not them personally but other drug dealers in general.
There was the anti-establishment movement. The anti-war protests. Riots.
I remember watching the evening news, which showed the Vietnam War as it was happening. You could actually see the terror of war from the comfort of your own home. It was nothing like I had watched on television movies, it was real life with real soldiers getting killed or wounded.
Protesters against the war were mocking the soldiers who were fighting overseas and or coming home from the Vietnam War.
I never agreed with any of that. Too many John Wayne war movies I guess when I was growing up.
It was almost as if overnight respect for the police turned to hatred of the police.
What I saw was the police trying to keep a lid on things. Others saw it differently, but that didn’t matter to me because all cops were the good guys, at least that is what I believed at the time.
Watching the police shows on television as a kid, it was always the good guys going after the bad guys. The good guys wore the uniform and carried a badge and arrested the crooks. In the back of my mind I wanted to be a part of that.
So after graduating from high school I volunteered with the New York City Police Department’s Auxiliary Forces Section. I wore a uniform and patrolled my neighborhood, directed traffic, and worked parades. It was a little crazy, wearing a police uniform with no gun and not getting paid for it, but it got me closer to the real cops and I loved it, thinking that I would become a police officer with the NYPD one day.
One of my first jobs out of high school was working in a Radio Shack a few blocks from where I lived. I would see and talk to the beat cops who would stop in and say hello from time to time. Other times I would see the plainclothes anti-crime unit cops chasing down bad guys, which only strengthened my resolve to want to become a cop.
I remember one day when I was leaving the house, dressed in my auxiliary police uniform. My Uncle Joe was on his way out after visiting my other uncle upstairs. He had a permit to carry a gun because he owned a supermarket. He took off the holster with the gun in it and placed it on my side for a minute and said, “one day you’ll have one of these on your hip when you become a real cop.” His brother Frank was an NYPD officer who had passed away years before.
I never forgot that moment.
My uncle would never come to know that I became a police officer.
Tragedy struck my family.
One night after leaving his supermarket my uncle was making a night deposit drop at the bank at Hamilton Avenue and Van Brunt Street in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. He was shot and killed during a robbery when some dirtbag grabbed the money bag from him.
My uncle who was a WWII veteran, had fought back and shot the suspect after he himself was shot. The suspect ran away and my uncle died at the scene.
I remember receiving the telephone call from my cousin when he told me that my uncle was dead. My mother and my Aunt Lucy were standing next to me. When I told them that Uncle Joe was dead it was the worst scene I have ever experienced in my life up until that time. I never seen anybody scream and cry like that before.
I left and we went over to my Aunt Nancy’s house, my uncle’s wife. It was terrible beyond belief. My uncle’s daughter, my cousin Lynn and my aunt, they were going out of their minds. Such painful emotions of sadness and there was nothing anyone could do to make it go away.
All because one man placed the value of money over the price of another man’s life.
When I was at the viewing at the funeral parlor, this elderly Italian lady came in and she went up to my uncle, looked at him and started crying uncontrollably. I asked who she was. My uncle for years would give her free groceries because she had no money, I was told.
And she wasn’t the only one who benefited from his generosity. Every Thursday my uncle would drop off a free bag of meat to my mother.
My uncle was a good man, as all my uncles were.
The family was devastated and would never be the same after that. The holidays would never be as they were before, there was always someone missing from the table.
Reality hit me pretty quick.
It wasn’t like television where you see some actor getting killed and the next night he is on another show doing a different role.
My uncle was gone forever.
I knew then that I had to be a cop more than ever. I had to go after the bad guys. I didn’t want another family to go through the horror of what my family had gone through.
Then in 1975 New York City laid off thousands of cops.
I didn’t want to hang around Brooklyn and wait to see when hiring would resume, years I heard it would be.
So with no money and no prospect of a future I made a decision.
One that would change my life forever.
Less than a year later a friend and I went to see an Army recruiter who told us we could be cops in the military. Soldiers and cops at the same time. He said that would help us if we wanted to be civilian cops in the future.
So we took the tests, passed and signed up. I didn’t tell my mother I was leaving until two days before the recruiter was coming to pick me up for the short ride to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn where we would take the oath into military service.
That decision would also strain the relationship I had with my mother. She never really forgave me for leaving Brooklyn.
My dream of being a cop had started.
That was 40 years ago.
As I get older in life I face the prospect of my own mortality and lately often look back at my life. Police work was a major part of my life, and I did it with passion and pride. I wasn’t one of those cops who just did what he had to do to get by on a shift. I was always looking for something to get into and many times I just fell into things.
I also learned that you had to communicate with the citizens. If you alienate yourself from them you will never get any information or help when you need it.
I learned that a patrol officer can make plenty of cases if he keeps his eyes and ears open. Whether it was drugs or stolen property, having the contacts on the street is how you are going to make cases and arrests.
Police work cost me my marriage. I was married to my wife but I was really married to the job, especially when I started to work undercover. I lost my marriage, my home and a lot more than that.
Then a few years later I lost the job that cost me my marriage because all I did was tell the truth. I would often think over the years if it was all worth it.
I was a cop for almost 16 years of my life, up until 1992 when it all came crashing down. I sometimes find myself pondering what happened to my dream and why things turned out the way they did.
Why didn’t I have the opportunity to rise in the ranks or at least retire with a pension I would ask myself over the years?
After all I had years of experience and specialized training.
I had worked patrol, rode a Harley in the motor squad, was promoted to criminal investigator and did one of the most dangerous assignments in law enforcement, working undercover for many years.
I was one of the good guys, I would tell myself, I believed in the oath I took when I became a cop. Honor and integrity should be rewarded, not frowned upon, I would tell myself.
I never considered myself a kiss-ass either. I always said what was on my mind and sometimes I was called a rebel for it.
If someone had asked me a question I gave them an honest answer.
My take has always been, don’t ask something of somebody if you might not like their answer. If something was SNAFU, situation normal all fucked up, then that is exactly what I would tell them. I have been like that my whole life. A yes man I was not.
And I didn’t cozy up to the boss just to make points with him.
Those that did really had no respect for themselves, because they couldn’t exist just on the merits of their own abilities, so kissing ass was all they were good for.
Plenty of times though that would work to their own benefit. Everybody has to live with themselves, so if that was the kind of insecure, losers they were then so be it. They have to live with themselves, not me.
The downside of all that was in police work, that when the time comes to play ball with the team and something happens that needs to be covered-up and swept under the rug, you will do it, because now the boss has you in his pocket.
If you worked in law enforcement you know the kind of cops I am talking about.
The ones who move up the ladder by having their noses so far up the brass’ ass that if one stopped short the other would end up with a broken nose.
Those who would put a knife in your back just to make themselves look good.
Those cops who seem to get away with just about anything because they are close to the brass while others are disciplined and or retaliated against for doing the same thing.
And don’t ever think about going up against the system and standing up for what is right, something you swore an oath to do. Telling the truth is sometimes a death sentence to your law enforcement career, at least it was in my case.
Hanging a cop out to dry because somebody less honorable has to protect their own ass has occurred all too often in the past and way too many times in the present and that is a disgrace in police work and the criminal justice system.
I found out the hard way that not everyone who wears a badge is a good guy.
Not all cops are honorable and that goes for prosecutors also.
In my case when it came time to stand tall and do what was right I was abandoned by not only my department, but the criminal justice system itself to some extent.
Good morals and ethics are inherent in good people. Pinning on a badge doesn’t miraculously make you a better person. If you lack good character traits and you become a cop, you will end up being a bad cop.
And speaking of honor, honor is something that comes from the heart.
Good cops don’t stand by and let a good cop get screwed. Good cops don’t let bad cops get away with corruption and misconduct and disgrace the badge.
Maybe I should re-phrase that because in reality, yes they do.
In police work, integrity and honor many times takes a backseat to cowardice and complicity.
Cops are hypocrites, not all cops but many. Why? Because cops want criminals to inform on other criminals. That’s how cases are made. That’s how you move up the ladder in a criminal case.
But God forbid that a cop informs on a bad cop, or stands up for the oath he swore to. Then he is a piece of trash, a rat because he broke that blue wall of silence.
I guess these cops think that wearing a badge gives them some God given right to break the law and or violate someone’s rights and act like judge, jury and executioner. What they do is spit on and tarnish the badge of every good cop and every cop who has given up their life on the job.
To this day I just don’t understand why cops stand by and let these thugs with a badge get away with this kind of behavior. What bad cops don’t seem to understand is that once they break the law, they have gone from being a cop to being a criminal.
And that goes for prosecutors also. It doesn’t make a difference if the titles before their names are district attorney, commonwealth’s attorney or attorney general.
When it comes down to protecting their own ass they lie, cheat and do whatever they have to just to protect themselves and that is usually at the expense of another cop or a civilian.
That’s not why I became a cop.
Standing up for the rule of law, defending the oath you swore to and not compromising your own principles.
That’s courage, that’s honor, that’s integrity!
That’s what wearing a badge meant to me.
I just didn’t wake up one day in 1991 and decided I had to do the right thing. I had done it many times before in my life.
I learned the hard way that the strong-arm of the law has a long reach and sometimes that reach is deceitful and malicious.
When I was being methodically crushed by the same system I gave my life to, it was devastating.
When they could find nothing else to attack me with they did what any coward would do. They made up lies and defamed my character and integrity many times, and often behind my back. They embarked on a campaign of character assassination, making comments to the press off the record, because they were not man enough to say it outright.
I guess they thought that if they spread enough lies about me it would work to their benefit. How so wrong they were.
The truth does have a funny way of creeping out. And in my case it not only creeped out it poured out.
Tomorrow Chapter Two
All photos by Dough Poppa, unless otherwise noted.
Editor’s Note: Read all the chapters here.