By Michael Daly
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NEW YORK'S FINEST is the story of a city's transformation through the tireless efforts of Detective Steven McDonald, Nurse Justiniano, Jack Maple, and a host of hero cops—including the great niece of Jazz Age great Josephine Baker—the finest of The Finest.
McDonald was then promoted to detective at the urging of NYPD Deputy Commissioner Jack Maple, a postal worker's son who sported a bow tie, Homburg hat, and two-tone shoes as he implemented transformative crime-fighting strategies to deter violent subway robberies. Coming up in the force, Maple had been routinely mocked for imagining the impossible: that Times Square would one day be a destination for families and tourists.
Now, resentments and tensions are mounting in the same neighborhoods that most benefited from the careful consideration of officers like McDonald and Maple. But as NEW YORK'S FINEST illustrates, their legacies, and those of people like Nurse Justiniano, may well rescue New York City from its present state of unrest and struggle in the wake of protests and the pandemic.
The year was 1976. I was starting out as a writer at Flatbush Life in Brooklyn, and a prosecutor suggested I inspect a bullet hole in a subway sign to further an education left incomplete by Yale. The prosecutor had himself discovered it while investigating the account by a transit cop who said he had nearly been killed with his own gun. It was exactly where it should have been and thereby dispelled the prosecutor’s initial doubts.
I sought out the rookie cop whose proximity to violent death was recorded in a .357-inch circle punched in an overhead sign that thousands bustled obliviously past each day. His name was Jack Maple, and he was a perpetual learning experience as we became best friends. We spent many hours riding the trains and walking West 42nd Street, aka the Deuce, when the city was at its wildest.
I went with Jack to the hospital when his daughter, Jacqueline, was born. He drove my wife, Dinah, and me to NYU Hospital when she was about to give birth to our first child. He was trying to avoid potholes, and that prompted an accusation from the back seat.
“I know why you’re driving so slow!” my wife cried out. “You want to deliver the baby so you can get in the newspaper!”
Sinead Daly was born soon after at NYU. Jack became godfather to her and to our second girl, Bronagh, to whom he would give his deputy commissioner’s shield when he was dying. I repeatedly put him in the newspapers and magazines for many reasons over the years.
I also wrote about Detective Steven McDonald, whom I met through FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge. Mychal always said that just as the devil is to be found in evil, God is to be found in good. I have never known anybody as godly as Steven. He is who we all should be.
After decades of writing about Jack and Steven and other cops for the New York Daily News, New York magazine, and the Daily Beast, I wanted to collect those tales into a book along with stories I had not previously told. Cops in New York have been called the Finest since the aftermath of the Civil War, when the city’s writers were seeking heroes to match those of the Union Army. This book is about modern day heroes who have lived up to this name. My focus is on Jack and Steven while including other cops whose lives occasionally intersected with theirs as New York was transformed from Fear City into the safest big city in America. For added source material I drew upon The Steven McDonald Story, the 1989 book by Steven McDonald and Patti Ann McDonald with E. J. Kahn III. I also used audio recordings of Jack made by Chris Mitchell, who wrote The Crime Fighter with Jack Maple.
Mostly, I was guided by my love for Jack and Steven, along with the other cops who actually are the finest of the Finest. They are well worth remembering—and honoring—at a time when actions of the Lousiest in New York and elsewhere are feeding into an unfortunate tendency to judge the many by the few and giving all cops a bad name. I was with Jack when he died, and I saw Steven in his final hours. I have the privilege of living in the city their sons now serve.
The last I saw, the bullet hole was still there.
Steven liked nothing more than to go dancing with his younger sister Clare. They would proceed from club to club until the four a.m. closing time. Or, they would just go to Butters Bar near their home in the suburban Long Island town of Rockville Centre. They had stocked the jukebox with their favorite 45s, and he would seem to become the music itself as he danced, danced, danced.
Any number of young women had been in a tizzy over six-foot-two, gleamingly handsome Steven McDonald. But his interest had immediately narrowed to exactly one when he met Patti Ann Norris at Butters in the spring of 1983. She was pretty and fun and entirely genuine.
Patti Ann was the second of six kids in an Irish Catholic family in the nearby town of Malverne. Her father was an English teacher at the local high school, her mother a homemaker from Boston. Patti Ann worked at Macy’s and studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. Meeting Steven seemed like another step in living life as it should be lived.
Steven was also from an Irish Catholic family, the third of eight kids, and the first boy. He had served as a Navy corpsman and had returned to civilian life to become the supervisor of housekeeping at a Philadelphia hospital, commuting home on weekends. He took a similar job at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York as he and Patti Ann began dating. They had been seeing each other for a year and she had already decided he was “the one” when he first mentioned that he was thinking of becoming a cop.
“By the way, I got a phone call today,” he told her. “I’m going to be starting the police academy in a month.”
Patti Ann would have been happy if Steven had just pursued a career in hospital housekeeping while she worked in the art department at Parents magazine. But Steven was the son and grandson of cops. The tradition stirred him as if it were a kind of melody that carried you from what had been to what should be, making fate more than just happenstance, turning an occupation into a calling.
Steven had grown up hearing tales of his maternal grandfather, James “Smiling Jim” Conway, who had been gassed as a teenage soldier with the Fighting 69th in World War I and then served five years with the Navy before joining the NYPD. Smiling Jim was ninety minutes into a midnight tour in the Bronx on November 12, 1936, when he came upon two gunmen who had just robbed Galvin’s Beer Garden on Beach Avenue.
Steven listened to how Smiling Jim had been shot in the chest and then lay sprawled on his back as one of the gunmen stood over him to finish him off. The bullet had struck the pavement beside Smiling Jim’s head, and he managed to get up on one knee and fire after the fleeing thieves. He had been reloading and spitting blood when a fellow cop arrived on the scene in a patrol car.
“You do the driving, I’ll do the shooting,” Smiling Jim had famously said.
Smiling Jim had kept firing as they gave chase, causing the getaway vehicle to crash. Only after the gunmen were in custody had Smiling Jim consented to being taken to Fordham Hospital. He had managed to offer a smile in keeping with his nickname when his wife arrived by subway along with their two young daughters, Anita and Catherine. He recovered and went on to be promoted to first-grade detective after capturing the murderer of an eight-year-old boy who was found sexually assaulted and strangled in an abandoned amusement park in the Bronx.
Smiling Jim’s younger daughter, Anita, had been just six when her father was shot and had never forgotten that early lesson in the dangers a cop faces. She had nonetheless married Police Officer David McDonald, the son of a Sanitation Department hostler whose wagon was drawn by a horse named after Tony the Wonder Horse ridden by cowboy movie star Tom Mix. Anita had repeated the same bedtime prayer each time her husband returned safe from another tour: “Thank you, God, for keeping us together another day.”
By chance, David McDonald had been standing by the entrance to Manhattan criminal court June 8, 1957, when gunfire erupted inside. A homicide suspect was attempting to flee, and detectives shot him seven times as he reached the bottom of the steps from the second floor to the lobby. David learned that the would-be escapee was Fred Hartjen, one of the two gunmen who had shot Smiling Jim. Hartjen had served twenty years and been freed only to be arrested soon after for murder.
David McDonald had subsequently made sergeant, but he had eight kids at home, and even with the accompanying salary boost he had to work a second job as a manager at Leonard’s of Great Neck, a Long Island catering hall. He was too seldom home, and that intensified Steven’s memories of such rare moments as standing with his father at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade when he was a youngster. Steven would remember literally looking up to the figure in the uniform with sergeant’s stripes and a gold shield on the chest, by every important gauge bigger in his eyes than the outsized balloons that passed.
Steven’s father had retired in February 1975, still certain that becoming a cop was the best possible thing he could have done in life.
“Was it a good job?” a police academy classmate who had also retired asked David.
“It was the only job,” David replied.
But some of the younger cops still on the only job in 1975 were about to learn that it could be taken away like any other.
The banks had long been encouraging and assisting the city’s borrowing of billions as it struggled with the burden of more than 1 million people on welfare and the exodus of more than five hundred thousand manufacturing jobs. The banks now decided that the city was a bad credit risk. Bankruptcy threatened and mass layoffs were looming in June of that year, when the police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), sought to emphasize the need for cops by distributing a pamphlet at the airports.
“Welcome to Fear City: A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York” read the words below a drawing of a black-hooded skull on the cover.
The city had never before laid off cops, and it seemed generally inconceivable to the NYPD rank and file that it would actually happen. Then came the morning of July 1, when the teletypes in all the precincts began chattering on and on and on with the five thousand names of cops who had as of that moment suddenly ceased to be cops.
Those who were laid off had particular trouble getting new jobs because employers knew they would rush back to the NYPD if they were rehired. White House chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld, in the meantime, urged President Gerald Ford to deny New York emergency assistance.
FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD read the October 29, 1975, headline in the New York Daily News.
The Emergency Financial Control Board of bankers, business leaders, and local officials managed to avert bankruptcy, and the cops were gradually hired back over the next three years. But many were soured with a sense of betrayal. How could you be expected to lay your life on the line at one moment and be laid off at another?
But tradition retained its pull on Steven. His mother’s nightly prayer had seemed to be answered when his father safely retired, and now she would be repeating it for her oldest son.
On July 20, 1984, Steven became the latest of his clan to take the oath as an officer of the NYPD. He was one of 1,856 recruits in his academy class, and they had to attend in two shifts, as the facility on East 21st Street could only handle a maximum of one thousand at a time. All recruits were required to fill out registration cards asking questions designed to give the instructors a quick profile of them. Steven reported that his favorite book was Trinity by Leon Uris, his favorite play was Philadelphia, Here I Come!, and his favorite movies were The Quiet Man and A Christmas Carol. He was little different from many if not most of his fellow recruits when he wrote that he had joined the NYPD because “Traditionally, policemen have been in a position to help people in many ways, for many reasons, which has led to a high profile. It is a job where I can make a mark and a difference in society. A job I will be proud to be connected with.”
While he was in the academy, Steven went out to the movies with Patti Ann and saw The Razor’s Edge, a 1984 adaptation of a W. Somerset Maugham novel in which a man who has suffered the traumas of war embarks along “the razor’s edge” to transcendental meaning. He finds himself, but loses his great love.
The Bill Murray character on screen had just called off his wedding when Steven turned to Patti Ann.
“You know what? Let’s get married,” he said.
He subsequently went to Patti Ann’s mother and father to ask for their blessing and then presented her with a ring. Her parents attended the police academy graduation the following month and met Steven’s family for the first time.
During the five and a half months in the academy 101 recruits had either been asked to leave or had simply dropped out. The remaining 1,755 graduated at Madison Square Garden on December 19, 1984. Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward told the graduates that he hoped they had broken in their new shoes, because most of them would be going on foot patrol. Mayor Ed Koch also spoke.
“We see the best in ourselves when we see you,” he said.
When cops are either promoted or leave the department, they turn in their shield at headquarters, where it remains until it passes on to somebody else. Steven had requested the one his father wore before making sergeant, and it had been available. Shield number 15231 was shining on his chest as he joined the other graduates in the traditional conclusion of the ceremony. They threw their white gloves ceilingward, looking to him like a huge flock of white doves that then fluttered down as he began his chosen life as a cop.
The rookies started out in Neighborhood Stabilization Units (NSUs), which were fielded as an added, high-visibility police presence. Each rookie was assigned an experienced training officer. Steven had the good fortune not to get one of the cops who remained bitter over the layoffs of nine years before. Detective Bobby Reid was uncommonly smart and had proven as a Marine in Vietnam that he could stay unwaveringly true to his immediate mission even in a monumentally discouraging situation. He took as much pride in wearing the uniform of the NYPD as he had that of the USMC.
Under Reid’s tutelage, Steven hit the streets with an NSU that ranged through several precincts in Lower Manhattan and saw a bit of everything. Steven’s first arrest was a young man who had been caught using a forged credit card by the private security at a discount electronics store. Steven was processing his seemingly contrite and cooperative prisoner at the Sixth Precinct station house when he discovered that the evidence had disappeared from the table where he had left it. Reid noted that Steven had handcuffed the prisoner to a nearby chair. Reid had a word with the prisoner, who owned up to having stashed the card under a tear in the cover of one of the chair’s arms. Reid explained that the lesson for Steven was to never trust anybody.
For a time, his NSU was detailed to the area surrounding Union Square Park. They were told to pay particular attention to the vicinity of the various dance clubs. And while in earlier days Steven had danced with Clare and her friends at Butters, he was now posted alone at the upper edge of Union Square, across Broadway from the Underground, a disco that occupied a full block. The entrance would be the scene of at least seven murders in the years to come.
On this night, partiers were going in and out of the Underground when suddenly Steven heard a call over his radio of a fellow cop in need of assistance.
The cop was pursuing a suspect across a series of rooftops in Steven’s direction. Steven radioed that he was joining the chase, but a squad car pulled up and an NSU sergeant in the passenger seat ordered him to remain where he was in case the suspect came that way. The squad car continued down the street, where other cops were hurrying into buildings and on up to the roofs.
Steven stayed put as ordered and saw a man saunter from a doorway and light a cigarette. The man was a close enough match to the description on the radio that Steven went over to question him. The man immediately protested that he was being singled out because he was Black.
Steven politely asked the man to hold on for a moment and radioed for a repeat of the description. The response generally fit the man before him, but did not include one detail. Steven asked the dispatcher what kind of shoes the suspect was wearing.
“White sneakers” came as a response as audible to the man as to Steven.
Steven grabbed the man by the arm just as he sought to dash away in his white sneakers. Steven held on and he was now the one radioing “Ten-thirteen! Ten-thirteen!” Steven ended up down on the sidewalk with the man, who then tried to grab his gun. Steven would later say that he felt as if he were in some kind of slow-motion dream that ended when his fellow cops arrived.
On learning that the man had just stolen $8,000 in jewelry, Steven was thrilled to have made his first big-time collar. Reid then tutored him on another nuance of being a cop: You give the collar to the guy who was first in pursuit.
The excitement left Steven wanting to work where there was the most action. He sought to be posted to the busier parts of Brooklyn or the Bronx, where he could become a cop in the way of Smiling Jim. He was instead sent to a low-crime command where rookies were not normally assigned.
For all its fame, Central Park was a dumping ground for a particular kind of troublesome cop in the NYPD. Cops who were boss fighters or rule breakers were liable to be punished by being consigned to the very sort of high-crime commands where Steven had hoped to go. Cops in Manhattan who simply had difficulty getting along with the citizenry were liable to be sent to Central Park, where there was less interaction with people than in the surrounding densely populated areas. The idea was they would cause less trouble patrolling among the squirrels, estimated to number more than two thousand.
Then, during the same summer Steven graduated from the academy, a drug dealer at the edge of the park approached a uniformed figure whose hat visor had leaf-shaped gold embellishments. The dealer, who may have been sampling his own merchandise, apparently mistook the man for an airplane pilot and offered to sell him an illegal substance to really fly. The man proved to be Chief Robert Johnston, the highest-ranking uniformed member of the NYPD.
Johnston took this as a personal affront and ordered an immediate boost in the number of cops in the park. That included rookies who had been assigned to deter the drug dealers in much smaller Union Square Park. Steven now began doing much the same in Central Park even as he delighted in watching people jog and cycle and play softball and just stroll.
“The oasis in the city,” he called Central Park.
The best dancing of Steven’s life was at his wedding on November 9, 1985. He and Patti Ann posed for a photo in a tableau as if in a scene from The Quiet Man. He hung a framed poster from The Razor’s Edge on the wall of their apartment in Malverne, the Long Island town where Patti had been raised. They both loved the city and joined the waiting list for an apartment in Stuyvesant Town, one of the few remaining places in Manhattan below Harlem where a cop could afford to live. Their shared fantasy was to spend their days off wandering the streets and enjoying everything the city had to offer before they were ready to have kids. He wanted eight. She thought maybe four.
On Thanksgiving, Steven was on foot patrol in the park, wearing his father’s shield along with a uniform just like the one his father had worn so grandly amid the crowds and the giant balloons of the parade. Now, as when Steven was a youngster, the arrival of Santa Claus marked the culmination of the procession, and the paradegoers scattered, heading off for turkey dinners. Steven remained on duty and walked in solitude, save for figures who slept on the benches. He would remember saying a prayer for those with no home. He went off duty in time for the first Thanksgiving dinner with his wife.
Along with the rookies, the Central Park Precinct had a new Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit (SNEU). The sergeant in charge was Jimmy Secreto, who had lived on his own since he was sixteen, after the premature death of his mother was followed by the premature death of his father.
Secreto would recall having numerous positive as well as negative experiences with the police while growing up in a Brooklyn housing project. The cops would take him and other kids bowling regularly and sometimes to play pool and to go fishing. But there was also a day when Secreto came out of a barbershop to see a group of other kids forcibly take a bicycle from a boy. Secreto chased after them and came upon a radio car parked outside a McDonald’s. A cop was sitting in the passenger seat, reading a newspaper.
“Officer, those guys right there just took that bike!” Secreto would recall saying.
“They just left my jurisdiction,” the cop said. “There’s nothing I can do.”
This encounter with a lousy cop roused in Secreto an ambition to become a good one. He also possessed an unwavering moral compass that guided him as he essentially raised himself amid the chaos of the Albany Houses.
“I’m going to become a cop and do the right thing,” he would recall telling himself.
But the city had not yet begun hiring new cops following the layoffs. Secreto worked for a time as a conductor in the subway.
“It wasn’t bad, but it was not a job you could be proud of,” he would recall, then adding: “I always wanted to be a cop and make a difference.”
The city finally gave a police test in June 1979. Secreto took it and did so well that he was sworn in five months later as a member of the first academy class in four years. His training officer was one of the cops who had been rehired after being laid off.
“Even though they were experienced, they were very bitter,” Secreto later said.
Secreto was nonetheless able to pursue his goal of making a difference when he heard a gunshot and moments later saw a man climb into a double-parked car. Secreto stopped the car just as a report of a person shot came over the radio. Secreto recovered the gun and arrested the man.
“If you lock up somebody who shot somebody, you’re helping people, and you’re helping the guy he would shoot tomorrow if you didn’t catch him,” Secreto later reasoned.
As he was subsequently assigned to a series of precincts in upper Manhattan, Secreto encountered many cops who likely had started out just like him but had since become too much like that one who had sat in a radio car, reading a newspaper.
“I think when you come on, you’re excited, you’re ready to go,” Secreto would later say. “And then when you get to the precinct, cops say, ‘This is the real world. That academy is bullshit. This is the real thing here. You get involved, you get in trouble.’”
Secreto would sum it up as “Kind of like just do enough to get by. That was the attitude.”
Secreto saw that one cop who split his pants had repaired them with a stapler. Another cop had used electrical tape to hold his shoes together when they began to fall apart.
“Apathy,” Secreto later said. “An attitude I guess there was back then.”
In the 34th Precinct in Washington Heights, Secreto encountered what he remembers as “Guys, they didn’t want to be there, had no compassion or empathy for the people.”
He went to the 25th Precinct in East Harlem. He recalls, “You had a lot of lazy guys. They didn’t want to make arrests.”
He was in a radio car with an experienced cop at the wheel when a citizen stepped into the street, waving to them and calling out, “Officer! Officer!” The experienced cop pressed his foot on the accelerator.
“Hey, that guy’s waving us down,” Secreto said.
“It’s alright. He’ll call 911,” the experienced cop said.
Secreto remained one of the true good guys as he made sergeant and ran the SNEU unit in East Harlem. He was then transferred to Central Park, which had gained sudden priority after the “airline pilot” incident with Chief Johnston. But the dumping ground was still a dumping ground as Secreto sought to put together a SNEU team there.
“Central Park, a lot of guys didn’t make arrests,” Secreto would recall.
He noted that the rookie Steven McDonald had made a minor collar—the primary significance being the willingness to make it.
“He made an arrest, so he came on my radar as a collar guy,” Secreto later said.
Secreto approached Steven.
“Are you interested?” Secreto asked.
“Sure,” Steven said.
The SNEU documented more than one hundred dealers in the park whom the unit arrested again and again. The dealers of the new drug called crack favored the Harlem end, sometimes selling “beat” stuff that was in fact ground-up pretzels. The hallucinogenic and THC dealers tended toward the middle area on the west side and Strawberry Fields, which was dedicated to the memory of John Lennon, who had been shot to death just across from the park in 1980.
Steven was posted for a time at the southwest corner of the park adjoining Columbus Circle, where dealers offered a little bit of everything. His presence caused them to move away, but they simply resumed on the other side of the circle, thereby crossing the boundary between the Central Park Precinct and Midtown North.
Steven was technically not supposed to venture outside his precinct. But he was finally unable to resist starting toward them. They moved away. He kept on, figuring he would check their IDs. He was interrupted when a young woman came up to him and said a man had just stolen her gold chain. She pointed to a nearby restaurant, where she said the thief had fled.
Steven entered and saw a man in the far corner trying to hide behind a menu. The young woman came in and cried out, “That’s him!”
Steven went over and quietly asked the man to stand up. The man suddenly leapt to his feet, and Steven only then realized how big he was. Steven again found himself grappling with somebody, only not on a dark street but in a crowded restaurant, banging into tables and chairs, sending plates and glasses and cutlery to the floor.
Steven shouted for somebody to call the police. The man grabbed a knife, and the struggle turned desperate. Steven wondered why none of the people sought to assist him.
“Nobody helped me,” Steven later told his younger brother Thomas. “Nobody helped me. I’m fighting with a guy trying to cut me.”
- "NEW YORK'S FINEST is so gripping, it made my heart race. I was only able to read a few chapters a night or I couldn't sleep. The way it penetrates to the heart of these NYPD families, this calling (there is no other word) is so moving and vivid it has changed forever my perception of the police. It manages all at once to be thrilling, heartbreaking, inspiring, and exhilarating. It is Michael Daly’s tour de force."—Tina Brown, New York Times bestselling author of THE VANITY FAIR DIARIES
- "Michael Daly is one of the finest street reporters New York has ever known. The power of his writing derives in part from both his instinctual humanism and his ability to capture the nuances of his people with novelistic aplomb. And when, as in NEW YORK'S FINEST, he writes about those he has deeply admired (if not downright loved), such as Jack Maple and Father Mychal Judge, Michael Daly is at his shining best."—Richard Price, New York Times bestselling author of THE WHITES
- "Michael Daly’s NEW YORK'S FINEST is the story of the policemen and -women who transformed New York from 'Fear City' into the safest big city in America. There have been plenty of books and articles that missed this story. Michael Daly did not."—Nicholas Pileggi, author, producer and screenwriter
- "NEW YORK'S FINEST is a peek behind the borders of a Blue Nation that is kicked around like a football from one politician to the next. These are the voices of the unseen and unheralded: the legendary Jack Maple whose honesty and ingenuity made New York City safe, the angelic Steve McDonald whose kindness inspired thousands, and the diminutive Vertel Martin, whose courage is a testament to Americans everywhere. They are among the finest that New York has ever produced, and Daly has shared them with us."—James McBride, New York Times bestselling author of DEACON KING KONG
- "Daly’s research and vibrant writing provide the reader with a clear understanding, especially through the two men he selected to honor, of what police work is supposed to be."—NY Journal of Books
- "Mr. Daly is uniquely qualified to weave together stories of heroism, tragedy and hope."—The Wall Street Journal
- On Sale
- Dec 6, 2022
- Page Count
- 432 pages