I first watched Law and Order: Special Victims Unit nearly a decade ago on a laptop in the common area of a dormitory at Northwestern University. I was spending the summer before my senior year of high school studying journalism there, as part of the Medill-Northwestern Journalism Institute.
SVU was racy TV for a bunch of cherubs, as those of us in the program were called, and we relished it. We would fling ourselves over the rough upholstery of the worn green couches in that makeshift living room, eyes glued to a 13-inch laptop resting on a dinged-up coffee table. We were silent from the moment the blue-and-red words “LAW & ORDER” floated on a black background. The words were accompanied by a voiceover that any loyal viewer of the show has memorized: “In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories,” punctuated by the iconic gavel echo of “DUN DUN.”
SVU’s utter predictability is what I’m after. I know that I’ll see something upsetting—like a partially-clothed dead body—within the first five minutes, that the empathetic, whip-smart detectives will then go about finding the perp, and that by three-quarters of the way through the episode there will be a satisfying interview room scene in which said perp implicates himself (or more rarely herself) in the crime at hand, and that more often than not, the episode will end with the jury issuing a guilty verdict and the victim being vindicated. I have always relied on the coping mechanism of gathering information and getting the facts straight, and that’s what the detectives and prosecutors on SVU do—they take a horrific situation and make it right through investigation and, later, adjudication.
Four years before my summer at Northwestern, when I was thirteen, I met one of the stars of SVU, Christopher Meloni. He played the hunky detective who struggles to control his anger, Elliot Stabler, in twelve seasons of SVU. Meloni, along with Jerry Orbach (who portrayed Detective Lennie Briscoe on the original Law & Order), was in attendance at the ceremony for the Theodore Roosevelt Award, given to members of the service who, like Roosevelt himself, overcame severe illness and extensive treatment to return to their duties in the NYPD.
My father was “on the job,” and he was being honored that November afternoon in 2002. He was a lieutenant in Auto Crime, a division of the NYPD’s Organized Crime Control Bureau, which itself is an “elite squad.” Auto Crime doesn’t investigate standard-issue car thefts by junkies looking to get a fix. They track down organized rings of criminals who steal cars and strip them for parts in “chop shops” or keep them whole and ship them overseas to markets in Africa, Russia, Central America, Hong Kong, the Middle East.
But Dad wasn’t present at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site to accept the award. He was in a semi-private room at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, biding the first of a series of extended stays there.
Dad had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in April 1997. After a year of treatment and surgery, the cancer went largely into remission, and he came off his sick leave to return to work in Auto Crime. In June of 2001, when Mom was ill with the chronic bronchitis that led to her lung cancer diagnosis, Dad’s cancer came back, and it got steadily worse after Mom died in January 2002. Dad worked as best as he was able through it all, never reporting sick. Except for his stints in the hospital and his final months of life, Dad made it to the office in Queens. It was this dedication to the job, coupled with his distinguished police work, which won him the Theodore Roosevelt Award. Dad was still an active member of the force when he died on January 18, 2004, and is memorialized by the NYPD as having died “in service.”
When we watched SVU at Northwestern, I kept quiet that my dad was a cop and that I had met the dreamy Elliot Stabler a few years earlier. Back then I wasn’t in the business of discussing my parents. In high school and through much of college, I kept the bare facts of what had happened to my mom and dad to myself, developing an array of tactics for holding others at a distance. Instead of telling stories about Mom or Dad, I told stories about my aunts, my dad’s four sisters who all had a part in raising my brother and me. These conversational circumventions came about as a way to keep my emotions in check: at sixteen, I couldn’t speak of my parents without weeping.
I was leery of discussing my father’s former profession with my fellow cherubs for another reason, too—one I now consider shameful. At Northwestern, I made my first encounter with kids who had attended private high schools whose tuition rivaled that of private universities, kids who drove BMWs to school, kids whose parents were the presidents of marketing or seasoned journalists or executive television producers.
Whereas I was the daughter of a cop and a homemaker. The Long Island I grew up in—dead-middle-class western Long Island, among other daughters and sons of cops and homemakers—was not the Long Island conjured in the minds of most cherubs, that of the Gold Coast, the Miracle Mile, the Hamptons. I didn’t visit the Hamptons until I was twenty-three
It was at Northwestern that I realized the buzzwords of my father’s educational and professional history—NYPD, Harvard, NYU—didn’t cohere.
I have a lidded, cardboard box with memos and mementos from my parents’ lives and deaths in my bedroom. In the box sits a large folder marked “MEMORABILIA” in Dad’s careful hand. Inside lay a thick sheaf of accolades. The most recent, ranging from 1980 until his death in 2004, are calligraphed certificates from the NYPD.
The majority of certificates in the pile are royal-blue-edged papers signifying “Departmental Recognition in the grade of COMMENDATION.” Commendations are awarded when officers put themselves in grave personal danger while on the job, or for “a highly credible or unusual police accomplishment.”
Behind all the NYPD awards are documents from what came before: Dad’s academic life.
Aunt Nancy’s husband Tom recently told me the story behind one of Dad’s commendations. Uncle Tom was on the force for about the same span of time as Dad and is privy to the ins-and-outs of Dad’s career—they spoke on the phone from their respective offices in Auto Crime and the Intelligence Division weekly for many years. The commendation that Uncle Tom told me about was Dad’s first, awarded in 1983, three years after he became a police officer. Dad was working anti-crime in the 71st precinct, which spans Crown Heights and parts of his native Flatbush, Brooklyn. Dad was a plainclothes in the Seven-One, partnered with his buddy Bill Nevins from the Police Academy. Back in the day, his unit was called the “Gun Busters” because they took so many illegal guns off the street. One of those guns was pointed straight at Dad and Bill when they stopped a man in the course of their anti-crime duties. The man pulled the trigger, but no bullet came out of the gun; they later found that the firing pin had hit the round, but the mechanism malfunctioned. Dad and Bill did not return fire, and for that restraint they were commended. This story reassures me that Dad was never quick to draw his weapon, even when he would have been justified in doing so.
Behind all the NYPD awards are documents from what came before: Dad’s academic life. These are the papers that I have strived to replicate myself. I find a transcript from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for the 1975-76 academic year, marked by hand with A’s, with the typewritten addition, underneath a list of nine Classical Philology courses, “Did not register F.T. 1976-77.”
Clearly Dad saved everything and always excelled at his pursuits, whether they were graduate-level classics courses or serving New York City as a cop. These papers tell me that much. What they don’t provide is an answer from Dad about why he left classics to become a cop—that’s what I’m left to sort out for myself.
Perhaps part of Dad’s shift towards the NYPD was dictated by boredom with the Classics department at Harvard. Classics departments can seem to have little relevance to our real lives; the NYPD, on the other hand, was imbued with action, glamour, and an opportunity to make an impact on the community. Beyond the department’s sterility was the fact that Dad’s Catholic education meant that he had been studying Latin and Greek for many years by the time he landed at Harvard. As Dr. Glen Bowersock, who had been the chair of the Classics Department in the 1970s, told me, Catholic students “could feel like they’d had it up to their ears, after doing it so long and doing it so well. There could be a saturation of excellence.”
“Your father didn’t view it as fighting crime. He viewed it as the highest calling: helping other people, kind of like social work.”
And perhaps Dad felt that he had veered too far from his roots—from the boyhood he had in Flatbush; from his grandfather, an immigrant street sweeper; from his mother, a seamstress; from his male cousins, who would become truck drivers and firefighters and carpenters.
But after Dad left Harvard, he didn’t fully leave academia. It’s true that he began moving towards work that could feel more relevant, by becoming a teacher of Latin and Greek at Friends Seminary in Manhattan, but he was still playing a role that the script of his transcripts had laid out for him. The real abrupt break with his training occurred in 1979, when he secretly took the Police Officer Entrance Exam. No one—not his mother or sisters, not his brother-in-law Tom who had taken the same exam—knew about Dad’s desire to become one of New York’s finest until he received his appointment and resigned from his job at Friends Seminary.
As my Aunt Joan recalls of Dad’s explanations for joining the force, “Your father didn’t view it as fighting crime. He viewed it as the highest calling: helping other people, kind of like social work.” Maybe Dad admired his Uncle George, who was Housing Police in an East Harlem project and was “more a social worker type.”
That jibed with a word I would come to understand better a few years later: vocation. I attended Catholic school after my parents died and I moved to New Jersey to live with my Aunt Alice, and in my senior year, one of the school’s nuns came in to talk to us about holy orders. She emphasized that the sacrament was a divine ordination, a calling, a true vocation, not just a job. Uncle Tom, a former Catholic schoolteacher himself, told me, “I think [your dad] had the calling to go. I don’t think he took it as a job where you got a paycheck. I think we both had a similar ideology that it was going to be a vocation.”
Still, Dad’s calling to the NYPD was flabbergasting to those closest to him. My Aunt Mary Ellen was there when he first broke the news that he was joining the NYPD. “He said that he wanted to be a cop and that he always had wanted to do it. Really, it was a shock,” she said. “When boys are five, they want to be firefighters or cops, and maybe Robert had always really wanted to be a policeman but never talked about it because he was so smart and it wasn’t socially acceptable for someone that smart to do that.”
I never got the impression from my father that he found his NYPD days anything less than fulfilling. He was well admired on the force, both by his bosses and his subordinates. His last boss, Auto Crime Inspector James Dean, told me, “Your father had a rack of medals. Very quietly heroic would be the best way to describe him.” And his former detectives, who called him “Professor Martin” around the office, knew to polish their reports for spelling and grammar if they were going to make it past his inspection. They commemorated him on their Auto Crime Alumni Facebook page: “RIP Lt. Robert J. Martin, NYPD Auto Crime Division. End of watch – 1/18/2004…To Kris and John, they broke the mold with your father. Tough boss, knew his job, but family always came first.”
Over time, I have realized that Dad’s career change from Classics PhD student to NYPD rookie is not so much of a mystery—it’s just that I, like my Aunt Mary Ellen, can’t let his life as a would-be academic go. It’s that humanities-centered academic life that sets my father apart from what passes in the media as your typical police officer, not congruous with the kind of cop my peers lambast on social media as part and parcel of an institution muddied with systemic racism, unbridled brutality, and a disconnect from the public they purport to serve. I cannot because of the events of 2014 and 2015, and the impossibility of reconciling the images of the police that I grew up with—men and women who drove my father to his chemotherapy appointments at Long Island Jewish Medical Center—with our country’s warranted uproar over recent cases of police brutality.
Over the past year, our country’s discourse around policing has changed drastically, with the names Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray standing out as keywords, hashtags. This list of names—and the video evidence that shows the moments when those names made an untimely transition from representing life to representing death—has increased our awareness of police homicides of civilians. This list of names and the movements that have sprung out of the deaths of these boys and men have forced me to reconsider the legacy of the NYPD and my desire to admire my father’s work on the force.
Since the summer of 2014, which saw Eric Garner being put into a chokehold by a white officer for selling loose cigarettes, and Michael Brown gunned down by a white officer for walking in the middle of the street, I’ve encountered more criticism of the police in the media and in my peer group than ever before in my life. This criticism has been on a scale and at a pitch that I cannot afford to block out.
In the fall, I would exit the subway and fliers would be shoved into my hand: “STOP POLICE MURDER,” they read, with the faces of the recently dead (Eric Garner) and the long-gone (Amadou Diallo) emblazoned on them, representing the brotherhood of those killed by cops. I recall leaving a movie theater and stumbling into a protest, hearing chants that seemed to belong to an earlier era: “No justice, no peace, no racist police.” In those months, it was impossible to read a newspaper or watch television without seeing images of the die-ins, images of Ferguson ablaze. In December, a grand jury declined to indict Eric Garner’s killer, and one of my childhood friends was arrested for sitting in the middle of the street in midtown Manhattan with a sign that said BLACK LIVES MATTER.
In each of these instances, my mind went through a gymnastics routine of reactions. First was defensive mode. In this mode, criticism of police stung as criticism of my father, even though he has been dead for more than a decade now, had nothing to do with the instances of brutality being criticized, and is not here to comment one way or another on whether or not the officers responsible for the killings should be indicted. In this mode, I would believe that Mayor Bill DeBlasio was not doing enough to support the NYPD. I would go to bed believing that the voices against the police were lacking in nuance and even bordering on anarchistic.
Some days I think that my pride in Dad’s NYPD career should not be tempered by the discourse around police brutality.
And then I would wake up and not be able to shake the feeling that maybe the protesters were right. I would read about the policies that have undergirded these deaths and the protests surrounding them—the Broken Windows policing strategies that focus on petty crimes like selling loose cigarettes; the practice of donating military-grade gear to local police departments to use against citizens as in Ferguson—and believe that the concepts that underlie these policies (that “undesirable” citizens make us feel unsafe with their petty crimes, that those “undesirable” citizens should be treated as if they lived in a police state) were unjust. I would be ashamed of the pro-police stance. The actions of the cops who turned their backs on DeBlasio at the funerals of Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, who were killed by a mentally ill man who set out to “put wings on pigs,” would strike me as immature, inappropriate, and harmful.
And then I would direct the shame back onto myself for not supporting the institution that Dad was so proud to serve in. What would he think of the fact that I believe Darren Wilson, Michael Brown’s killer, deserved to be indicted? What would he think of the fact that I believe Commissioner Bill Bratton needs to scale back Broken Windows? My father was a compassionate man and he was not overtly racist, but the Blue Wall of Silence is real, and the brotherhood of the NYPD protects itself. I surmise that my father would have approached the Garner situation differently if he had been in Officer Pantaleo’s shoes, but I do not know if he would join me in thinking that Pantaleo should have been held accountable for his illegal chokehold of Garner, and that selling loose cigarettes shouldn’t be grounds for arrest in the first place.
Some days I think that my pride in Dad’s NYPD career should not be tempered by the discourse around police brutality. The breadth of the NYPD, with its more than 34,000 officers and range of precincts, bureaus, and specialized units, makes it difficult to apply disapproval at the actions of one officer or one policy towards every other officer, every other policy. I can’t just look at what Pantaleo did and ascribe his wrongs onto my father. I can’t just look at Broken Windows and blame my father for working for the institution that put the theory into practice, since by the time Bratton introduced the strategies in the 1990s, Dad was a lieutenant in Auto Crime, working on cases involving chop shops, not kids beating subway fare.
On other days, I remember that the roots of policing in America are tangled with those of slavery and racism: slave patrols, which regulated the behavior of black slaves in the pre-Civil War South, were the first police system in this country. Surely Dad, who was deeply interested in history, acknowledged this past. Surely he wrestled with it as I am wrestling with it.
In his 1963 book The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin writes, “it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” Dad was not the sort of “author of devastation” that Baldwin writes of—he was not a slave-owner, he was not a perpetuator of Jim Crow Laws, he was not responsible for creating the ghettos. But he was a police officer—a very good police officer—and he must have known that he was not wholly innocent, he must have reconciled his involvement in the system in his own way, he must have decided to work within the system for the greater good. And that’s why I can’t see his time as an NYPD officer as being a “crime.”
Unlike a formulaic episode of SVU, this story does not end with a seamless reconciliation of my complicated views of policing with my love of Dad and pride in his work. What I can remind myself is this: Loving my father and believing that he was a good man and a good cop should not stop me from interrogating the web of prejudices and biases that gird the policies of police forces around the country