04.07.12

Former Cop Edward Conlon on What He Learned About Profiling

When three Mexican tourists were picked up by the police for taking photographs, former New York City cop Edward Conlon learned a lesson in innocence—and how a suspect can become a hero.

Appearances are occasionally deceptive, but people lie all the time. Accomplices claim to be bystanders, and bystanders swear they were nowhere nearby. Questions need to be asked, statements put to the test, but cops have to be careful of making an outright religion of unbelief, or they risk missing out on the benign outliers, the strikes of lucky lightning—the incredible, in the sweeter sense of the word. One afternoon a few years ago, I was in my squad room in the Forty-Fourth Precinct in the South Bronx early in what I hoped would be an uneventful shift when a young, uniformed officer knocked at the office door.

“Detective, do you have a minute?”

The familiar tone of wary bewilderment made me flinch a little. It meant that there was a mess out there somewhere, some creeping weirdness that threatened to grow longer legs and start to gallop. There might be someone wearing handcuffs who shouldn’t be, or the reverse. The only thing I could predict was the next question.

“Do you mind talking to these guys?”

Just as likely, he knew my reply: “What’s the story? Whaddaya got?”

What he had was a group of three foreigners taking pictures of the subway. They were downstairs in the precinct, not-quite arrested, not-quite free to go, just yet. While lawsuits since then have established that it’s legal to snap away just about anywhere, it was a gray area in the minds of most cops at the time, who had to interpret the First Amendment by way of the New York City Transit Rules and Regulations, making exceptions for any activity for which they could articulate a “reasonable suspicion.” And the precise time was not long after the multiple suicide bombings in the London Underground. While my guess was that no crime had been committed, it certainly wasn’t the best way for exotic out-of-towners to make an impression on local law enforcement. A number of men affiliated with the Iranian Mission to the U.N. had been enthusiastic shutterbugs with a particular focus on critical infrastructure until the NYPD Intelligence Division helped facilitate their return back home. 

“Bring ‘em up. What are they?”

He knew that I meant, “What country are they from?” The expression sounds offensive even as I write it, as if the check-the-box caption for nationality would provide at least half the answer to the question. You could hold up the quote as the reductive essence of prejudice, and if it were thrown back at me by a defense lawyer on the witness stand, I’d likely stammer in hapless rejoinder. But New Yorkers are casually tribal, and dual identities often seem like the minimum bid for belonging here. And broader origins do matter: if I weren’t from my Irish Catholic family, I wouldn’t have been wearing a New York City detective shield. Besides, the three foreigners turned out to be Mexicans.

“Mexicans?”

“Mexicans.”

Not guilty. That was my first thought. The Mexican population in the Bronx was small compared to other Latinos, and smaller still compared to everyone else from everywhere else. In the precinct, there was a kind of Mexican mini-ghetto centered around two blocks, where the gang activity had an aspect of a struggling intramural sports league. It took a lot of desperate hectoring for the buffs—Do I have to do everything myself here?—to get a few guys to show up, get in a car, and drive around for hours until they found another Mexican teenager to stab. I couldn’t envision a nexus between half-ass Vatos Locos and putative mujahedeen, but you never know.

The trio of exceedingly well-mannered, well-heeled young men were brought upstairs, and they were interviewed separately. All had the same story, saying that they were art students working on a project, and all had the same jittery, earnest demeanor of understanding the misunderstanding. After being satisfied that there was no hidden agenda, I brought them into a room so they could sit together, to elaborate at greater length and with less anxiety. The year before, while on vacation in Mexico, I’d been shaken down at gunpoint by cops. Because I told them that I was in a robbery squad myself—Not like you guys, though!—they may have extended some professional courtesy in accepting a discount bribe of $20; other friends in other rental cars paid far more. Looking back, the art students’ relative calm under the circumstances was a touching kind of tribute to their faith in American institutions.

Their story didn’t bother me, in terms of public safety, but I felt inclined to pursue the subject further.

“So, what’s the art project with the subway?”

“[Y]ou’ll think of this as a funny story about your visit to New York. Speaking of which, I wonder if one of you guys might be able to do me a favor…”

“It wasn’t about the subway, it was next to the subway. It was with the garbage cans.”

“Garbage cans.”

“Yes.”

“Why were you taking pictures of the garbage cans?”

“They were painted to look like cans of food. You haven’t seen them?”

This renaissance amid the trash bins of the Grand Concourse had escaped my notice. Fortunately, they had digital cameras, which allowed for a review of their ouevre. There they were, frame by frame: big cans painted to look like little cans of corn and lima beans. They resembled, I was told, what was as common a Mexican grocery brand as Campbell’s Soup is for Americans. I’m guessing that there was an Andy Warhol reference in a grant proposal somewhere, and the word “iconic.” Now, there were deeper questions to be raised: It wasn’t terrorism, but was it art? And if it was art, was it also art to take pictures of it? Since issues of documentation and interpretation are essential to police work, I looked forward to a lively discussion with my guests. But then there was another knock on the door.

“Detective, do you got a minute? Would you mind talking to this guy?”

This time, it was someone from the Narcotics Division, whose team had picked up something of an odd fish in the catch of the day. He went on, “We were set up for buy and bust, and somebody comes over to us to say there’s a guy jerking off in his car next to a playground. We rolled up on him, and his pants were unzipped, but nothing was…sticking out. He says he wasn’t doin’ nothing. And the witness is in the wind.”

This was the other kind of mess that comes upstairs to the squad—cases that are about to fall apart, creeping weirdness that is about to dissolve and slip back into the sewer. Despite the fact that it was obvious what had happened, no one could swear to having observed it. Even if an arrest was made, it would not be prosecuted, and a lawsuit could well follow. Without a confession, nothing could be done beyond advising him strongly that having sex with himself in public near children was frowned on in our otherwise broad-minded municipality.

“Bring him up.”

And so the next suspect was delivered upstairs into another interview room. Shlubby, sweaty, and disheveled, a lump of a man in early middle age, he looked as if he were auditioning for a part as a pedophile. His polyester shirt was misbuttoned; his eyes shifted downward and searched the floor, as if something scuttled around the corners of the room. I wouldn’t swear to it, but it seemed like his hairline was receding as we spoke. The narco cop had given me an ID, but there was no criminal record. As the man was another new arrival in the city, the clean slate meant little. What was a greater disadvantage was that he didn’t speak any English at all. Barely a word. I believed that he wasn’t just dummying up, though he was in no rush to be understood.

Espanol?”

“Espanol.”

I forget where the jerkoff was from. New York City is about one quarter Latino, and so is the NYPD. My Spanish is what we call “subway Spanish”—I can get the gist of many conversations, and I can tell people to calm down or put up their hands or open the door. But this task required a real command of the language, alert to nuance, adaptive but focused on the goal of candid admission of relevant facts. And then again, in writing. And then another time, preferably, on video, although I wouldn’t bother to call the District Attorney’s video unit to come up to the precinct for a misdemeanor. As it happened, there were no other Spanish-speaking detectives around. If I went downstairs to canvass for a Spanish-speaking cop, it didn’t necessarily mean that I’d come up with a good talker. The jerkoff was nervous, and I didn’t want to let him settle into defensive denial. I didn’t want to give him time to think, and so I thought less, maybe, than I should have myself. I locked him in the interview room and went back around to the other one.

“Guys, you’re all free to go, and I’m sorry that you had to go through this. I want to thank you for your cooperation, and to apologize for any inconvenience. Pretty soon, you’ll think of this as a funny story about your visit to New York. Speaking of which, I wonder if one of you guys might be able to do me a favor…”

What had happened in the room seemed like a dance to me, even though no one moved from their seats.

My three new amigos were fascinated by the prospect of cooperation. The discussion of documentation and interpretation that had I’d hoped to have with them was finally held. I brought out a copy of the Spanish-language Miranda-rights form, explaining how each of the warnings had to be delivered and individually assented to before we began the conversation. Perhaps some small ceremony was performed investing them as deputy detectives pro tem; it was years ago, and my recollection is hazy on the point. Memory is a garage, not a museum, and constant repairs and improvements are always underway. What I do remember was that the savviest of them was a natural. And so we began again.

No comprendo, no Ingles…”

“No problemo, senor.”

Ideally, a translator isn’t a participant in a conversation, but a neutral, technical instrument, no more opinionated in the delivery of messages than a Morse code device. Earlier in my career, I had a sergeant who I’d sometimes ask to translate for me. He might go back and forth for twenty minutes with a suspect, and when I asked what was said, the response was “Nothing much.” It wasn’t helpful. Though I usually didn’t allow translated exchanges go beyond a few sentences without being clued in, frequent interruptions risked breaking rapport with the subject. Here, though, there was no risk of that, as the jerkoff stubbornly blathered about maybe forgetting to zip up his fly when he went to the bathroom, or maybe loosening his belt after a heavy lunch. That he failed to persuade didn’t matter; as long as he said anything but the truth, he’d be a free man, soon enough. The pace of our three-way parlay began to slacken, and the intervals of thick, sour silence between lies became more frequent and prolonged. In my mind, I began to question the severity of the offense—Was what he did more of a nuisance or a menace? How close was he to the playground? In old movies, the detective doesn’t call everyone into a room to declare that he knows the identity of the masturbator. The art student-deputy seemed frustrated, too, but he was less willing to concede, and he began to draw out the suspect into longer stretches of dialogue. Maybe he was offended because he was hearing a variation on the same theme he’d just offered me: “I know it looks bad, but there’s a simple explanation…”

Now the jerkoff was no longer confronted by an ignorant gringo in a suit, but by a Mexican hipster who kept up with him at every step of the crooked course. The conversation sped up past the point where I could catch one word in three, then 10, but the voice of the deputy was almost musical in that the mood, the idea, of what he was saying was unmistakable: You can’t fool me. At first, I thought he talked too much—the aim was to get the other guy to open up—but he was more often sympathetic than he was challenging, going on a bit before posing a question, then letting the jerkoff speak, cutting him off at narrow particulars, then pushing him to go on. Even in confrontational moments, he was never contemptuous, taking on instead a tone of fatherly rebuke. As far as I could understand, the talking point was that we were all men here, with natural urges, but there was a time and place for everything. The approach was apt if not original; the performance was inspired. It was such a privilege to witness that I was tempted to applaud, and it wasn’t long before the young man broke the older one down into confessing, which was then written down on the legal pad that was my one useful contribution to the case.     

Though the Mexican’s status as a deputy was dubious, I no longer questioned his artistry. Like terrorism and obscenity, art is easier to recognize than to define. What had happened in the room seemed like a dance to me, even though no one moved from their seats. Minds were changed, and truth was revealed. It was a joy to watch. I wish I had a picture of my Mexican friends, or even a copy of one they had taken. When we were finished, I collected the relevant documents, thanked everyone again, and sent them on their way. One to jail overnight, the other three to wherever—the Waldorf or the Holiday Inn, to a restaurant or a gallery, or to venture back out to more get shots of the garbage cans on the Grand Concourse. It was late afternoon, the time that directors call the magic hour. For a while, the glare of high day softens into a kinder, sideways light that makes contrasts fade, and a bit of the beauty is in what you can’t quite see.