THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Frank Bolz
Title: “To Be a Cop”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. My guest today is a cop, quite a cop. And he’s been here before to talk about terrorism and hostage-taking, because he’s head of the New York Police Hostage Negotiating Team. He’s considered by most people in the field as the smartest guy on that beat. The lives he’s saved testify to that, as to police all over the world who have learned from this extraordinary teacher his lessons of police patience and forbearance. But he’s a cop first and foremost for the last quarter century. And I’ve asked Captain Frank Bolz to join me today just to talk about being a cop.
Captain Bolz, thanks for coming back. We’ve talked mostly about hostage-taking and about your own experiences in that area and the kind of patience and forbearance and psychological understanding that has to be demonstrated. I’ve read Hostage Cop, your book. I think it’s great. And I’ve followed a lot of your career. And I guess I’m going to throw you a curveball to start with. I’m not going to start about hostage-taking to start with. In this city, New York, the police almost went out on strike recently. In a number of cities in our country that has happened. We’ve talked so much about your sense of obligation in terms of saving lives, in terms of your own career as a policeman. I wondered what your own feelings were as a cop, as a citizen, at the prospect perhaps of having a police strike.
BOLZ: Well, first let me say you did throw me the first curveball in the beginning when you said I’m a cop for a quarter century. And it’s true, it’s 25 years. But that sure doesn’t seem like a quarter of a century.
HEFFNER: Join the club.
BOLZ: Yes, it is. I think every cop, every policeman, as the time is ticking closer, as the time got closer, was feeling a certain amount of consternation, a certain amount of concern, a certain amount of fear, and a certain amount of worry. Because I don’t think any cop really wanted to go out on strike. But I think what’s happened, that policemen are feeling the problems, the economic problems that everyone is feeling. Policemen, they are the product of the Depression. And I remember hearing people say in the Depression days, “Get a job as a civil servant. Be a cop, be a fireman. You’ll never get rich, but you’ll always have a job. You’ll never be laid off”. And then seven years ago, totally unheard of, six, seven years ago, cops got laid off. It started here in New York City. The first cops got laid off here. And then almost as though that were the signal to every other mayor and city manager throughout the country, they laid off cops. And you sort of wonder what was behind that. Is this a way for the mayors or for the city managers to say, “Hey, listen, you know, we have a problem. We even had to lay off cops”. It was unheard of. And these cops who had taken jobs that didn’t pay as much, who had taken a police job, paid less…I took a cut in salary. I worked for the phone company when I came to the police department. I took a cut in salary, as did most people who came to the police department for that security. And then they didn’t get security. So we had a lot of cops who felt betrayed.
And there became this feeling, “Hey, where is this calling that I have? I’m supposed to have a calling. I’m supposed to give this my all. I‘m supposed to give everything. And the city didn’t care”. The city, they felt that the city betrayed them and sent them out. And then of course, they started to come back on the job. They rehired them. But some of the attitudes that some of the people had were that, “Hey, it’s not a calling; it’s a job. I could be fired from this job tomorrow. I was fired. I was laid off. It’s no different than an airplane factory, an automobile plant. And now you turn around, however, and you want more from me. I should give you more because I’m a policeman. When you didn’t give those policemen any more. You gave him what you gave him, equal and perhaps even less. Because for 20 years or 15 years or eight years he’s been working at a lesser salary with greater kinds of things that he’s had to give up. His family has had to give up things. They’ve had to give up the social lives that they’ve had with other people because now they’re cops; they can’t meet on weekends, you know”. what happens to a cop who comes on the job, can’t get Saturday nights off, so people whom you’ve grown up with or who you’ve socialized with, they’ll invite you over to the house. You’ll say, “Gee, I can’t make it this week”. Two weeks later, a year later, a month later, they’ll invite you again. “Gee, I can’t make it this week”. After a while, the invitations stop coming. And now your social structure becomes other policemen, other policemen who work the same hours, families who are as understanding that you can’t be off New Year’s Eve because you have to watch a firebox. Somebody may pull a firebox, so we have to have an overlap of tours and things like this. So now our structure becomes this way. And now you see how they tend to maybe close up a little bit. And it’s, they don’t have that feeling of a calling any more, because it’s just a job, and nobody has really given them that particular place of acceptance as a calling. It’s just a job.
HEFFNER: Frank, what about this question of calling? I hear you. I hear you loud and clear about what has diminished the feeling. Can we have a meaningful, effective police force without that sense of calling?
BOLZ: I think it rebuilds itself, fortunately, because most cops enjoy what they‘re doing. I think it tends to reestablish itself, it tends to reflourish. But there comes a point in time where a man has to think for his family. And now his family has to come first, even in this calling. Because you know, the oil has doubled, tripled, gasoline has doubled, tripled. A lot of guys bought houses where they traveled two hours each way. Not to get away from the city and the problems of the city, but to give their families a little something extra, to give them a bigger house, give them a half an acre. And so they sacrificed traveling two hours each way on the road, right? Because, well, we get a better buy out there, further out, either up north or further east, east cupcake or and up on the far side. And they sacrifice and travel. But now their taxes have quadrupled from when they first went out there. They’ve built all new housing. The taxes have gone up. The two hours is not so bad, but the gasoline has gone up five times as much, and they can’t afford it. There have been reports of some policemen who, because they didn’t have gas for their car two days before payday, have actually gone sick because they couldn’t afford to drive in until that day when they were getting their check and they could cash their check and fill up the tank on the way back.
HEFFNER: Okay. That reinforces the strength of my questioning attitude. I hear again what you say about a regrowth, a rebirth of that old feeling of calling. You’re describing a rather grim situation, at least to a guy who grew up at a time when the cop was something absolutely extra special. He was someone who was there protecting you.
BOLZ: The cop still is.
HEFFNER: Yeah, I consider he’s extra special. But if the cop doesn’t feel quite as much that way, that must be a reflection that society at large doesn’t fell quite that much.
BOLZ: I think that’s a very good observation on your part. Because society only gets that kind of police department that they deserve. And they set the stage for their police department, not just in terms of money, but in terms of support. You have to support your police department. Talking strictly economics. When people inquire for assistance, they need information, well, a lot of the information…After the Knapp Commission there were a lot of feelings that, well, cops shouldn’t go into bars because these are places where the wrong kind of people hang out, they shouldn’t deal with gamblers, they shouldn’t deal with these people. Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with the criminals, criminal element and you need information, you don’t get too much information from the parish priest or from an ice cream parlor. You get it usually from the ne’er-do-wells who hang around in some of these other places, so you have to cultivate. Well, there have been times when some cops perhaps slipped a little bit, went too far. But I think by and large our department pretty much has been policing itself, especially since the Knapp Commission. I think they’ve been policing themselves. But there has to become a feeling of trust. A lot of people, you know, still don’t have trust in policemen. And that’s really; I think it’s too bad for them, because really, most cops trust people. They really do. And they take assistance from people and they’re looking for assistance from people. It’s kind of disheartening when you go out and you start to ask anybody, “Did anybody see anything?” And of course there are the people who just don’t want to get involved. They don‘t want to get involved because perhaps other segments of society don’t back them up, other segments of government don’t back these people up who do get involved. For example if they become witnesses, they have to go to court, and they get subpoenaed into court four, five, six times. They don’t get reimbursed. They have to, they lose time at their job, and now maybe all of a sudden their boss says, “Hey, what is this? What are you? A professional witness? Or are you going to work for me? I can’t afford to pay you if you’re not working for me”. And if he had the kind of job where they work in piece work or by the hour, they figure, “Hey, the heck with this. Why should I get involved?” And so these are problems. Not just police problems, but problems of society in general.
HEFFNER: It’s funny that you don’t, strange that you don’t, strange to me that the one thing you haven’t mentioned is the thing that I think of first. When I see a police officer, I think, or a fireman, I think, the guy who puts his life on the line for me, my wife, of my kids. And you’re not being chauvinistic; you’re not talking along those lines. And I think that’s quite a tribute to your own position. And I come back to wondering about what in the world has happened to us that we don’t offer assistance to those who assist us to the extent that I think we used to.
BOLZ: Well, I hope I’m not getting jaded in the point that I’ve been to over a hundred police funerals, you know. And each one is a terrible thing to me. It’s a terrible loss. And we don’t, I don’t think any cop thinks that he’s ever going to be killed, you know. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be a policeman. You recognize that policemen do get killed. You recognize that you do perhaps risk your life from time to time but if you were to think that, “Hey, today I might get killed”, you wouldn’t go out there today. You know, you’d be very paranoid. So you don‘t get that feeling. You think, “If it’s going to happen, it won’t be me”.
HEFFNER: Do you think any society protects you as much in that regard as it did – you’ll forgive me – a quarter century ago when you became a cop?
BOLZ: Well, I think a quarter of a century ago the criminal element knew that it didn’t fool with cops. Because if you, even the organized criminal or organized crime knew, hey, you didn’t mess with a cop. Anybody else, but you didn’t mess with a cop because you knew you were going to be had. You were going to, they were going to get you. And you were going to be put away. The judges and the courts would put you away. And so they didn’t mess with…that same support I don’t think is quite as evident as it was 25 years ago. But getting back to – you were talking about the life-and-death aspect of it – as I say, I’ve been to over a hundred police funerals, and I’m very much aware of the line-of-duty widows because I’ve been working with the line-of-duty widows now for about 14 years. And as a matter of fact, I’m the chairman of the Police Line-of-Duty Widows Scholarship Fund. We have people like Mario Biaggi, who’s been trying to get federal monies to cover and give scholarships to members of the public service who have lost their life in the line of duty. And some of these things are finally coming to bear, but that’s only for those who are killed now. We have a lot of kids whose fathers were killed eight, ten, twelve years ago. And when their fathers were killed, their mother, or the survivor got half of his salary. Now the cost of living has rose, risen, the cost of, and our salaries have risen, but not their pensions. Their pensions have stayed the same. So one of the things I’ve done, and almost as if it were a calling for me, I guess, is I’m always trying to pay my dues. In the event that I ever did get killed, I wanted to make sure that my survivors, that my family was taken care of. So I’ve worked very close with the police and fire line-of-duty widows. And specifically, I became the director of the Line-of-Duty Widow’s Scholarship Fund to complement, and the Donald O’Connor Scholarship fund for the fire department, so we have this available. We don’t go chasing around looking for outside money, although from time to time we do get it. But most of the support we do get we get from within the department, from policemen, from organizations in the department and so on. But we’ve been supporting our own, and last year we gave out 38 scholarship checks to anybody who applied for it who was the survivor of a line-of-duty policeman.
HEFFNER: Frank, let’s get back for a moment to this question of the calling and the place of the calling in our contemporary society, and the erosion of that sense of calling. I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t say to me it has a natural capacity to come back. At the end of our strike crisis, the feeling of calling does come back. It grows again. You’re not going to say otherwise. But how true is that? What has happened around the country where there have been major strikes?
BOLZ: Well, I think there will always be certain animosities that will be there between some individuals. I think we’re even fortunate here in New York that we haven’t had it. I mean, we did have a demonstration a few years back, right up and down the street, 42nd Street here. But these were demonstrations, people trying to get their frustrations out, trying to vocalize, trying to ventilate their anxieties. And not unlike some of the things we’ve talked about when we talked about hostages and crisis. People go through a crisis. And these policemen were going through a crisis at that time. And by letting them and permitting them to ventilate, you were able to bring that crisis down to a position where they could cope with their particular crisis and I think, even last week when that strike was getting ready to go down, when the strike was ready, I had received a call at a quarter to four telling me that, “Hey, you’re excused at three o’clock, but be back in at ten o’clock in the event the strike does take place”. so I found out 45 minutes later that I was already excused, and that I’d turn around and come right back and be prepared to, with other superior ranking officers, to deal and put some kind of service out for the public and for the residents of the city.
HEFFNER: What’s happened in the other communities where there have been great confrontations involving police or fire people?
BOLZ: Gee, I really don’t know that I’d be really qualified to talk about it.
HEFFNER: Fair enough.
BOLZ: Because I haven’t really dealt with anyone, although I do deal with a lot of policemen. But from that standpoint, I haven’t really inquired. But I think you know, you tend, life itself, we tend to forget the bad things. You know, when you look back on your childhood, a lot of bad things happen to you, but you don’t remember too many of them. You remember all the good things that happened. And I think the good Lord in his wisdom has given that capacity to people in their mind to be able to subordinate the bad things and bring up the good ones. And maybe that’s why we get that reflourishing of the calling, the attitude of the calling.
HEFFNER: All right. I know that has a lot to do with you and your personality. Let me ask a question about, you said something before about people being unwilling, perhaps increasingly unwilling to be of help, of service to an officer. And you don’t want to be bothered with being called to court. As you say, you’re employer’s going to call you a professional witness, etcetera. Do the police, by and large – you can immediately turn around and say, “What do I know about the police, by and large?” – But do you have a feeling that there is an extensive feeling among your colleagues about the role in the courts for instance, over the past quarter century in perhaps eroding the position, the safety of the police officer?
BOLZ: Well, in terms of perhaps eroding the safety, not only of police officers by perhaps of everyone. And I think, I don’t say, I don’t think you can say the courts. And people say the correctional institutions. You have to say the whole criminal justice system.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
BOLZ: Well, I don’t think we’ve built too many correctional institutions or prisons. You know, some people say, “What do you mean correction? How are you going to correct these people”? There are some people we’d like very much to correct and try to rehabilitate back into society. There are others you just have to separate, because their psychopathic personalities and sociopathic personalities may be beyond rehabilitation. I really shouldn’t say that, perhaps, but I feel that there may be times when we have to separate these people. And I think what’s happened, and we’ve seen it happen where the prisons become so full that some federal judge will say, “Wait a minute. You can’t put anybody else in that prison. You’re not treating them like human beings. You’re piling too many in there. Close this prison”, or whatever. So now you don’t have a place to put them. So now as the policeman will go out and arrest a new crop of people, now the prisons say to the court pens and the court personnel, “Hey, we only have room for 35 people”. Now the court, the correction people say to the court personnel, “Hey, we can only take 35 in”. “But we have 126 arrangements”. Well, tell the judge we can only take 35”. So now the judge has to try to juggle. And he has to try to find the worst of this 135 or 125 and put those in, because he’s going to have to let the others walk in terms of probation, parole – not parole – yeah, both parole and the arraignments pending and coming back for trial. And so a lot of people really go out and there’s a lot of recidivism because they figure, “Hey, what’s the…I’m going to get a slap on the wrist. I’ll take my chances. Why shouldn’t I go out and rob?” They felt perhaps because there is no death penalty…
HEFFNER: What’s your feeling about that?
BOLZ: Well, I don’t know that I could pull a switch. I don’t know that I could do that myself personally. But we’ve seen where people would just as soon kill anybody who could be a witness against them as not, because they’re not going to get anymore if they’re doing a robbery, an armed robbery, and they hurt someone, they assault someone. They’re going to get maybe 25 years. If they kill this person, they’re taking the chance, “Well, if he’s the only witness and he’s killed there are no witnesses, and then they only have circumstantial evidence. I’ll take my chances that way”. And we’ve seen a lot more actual horrendous crimes where people…it’s not just a robbery, take the money and go; now it’s a robbery, take the money, kill you, and then go. We’re seeing a lot more of that. But perhaps it’s because they feel, “They can’t, they’re not going to kill me anyway”.
HEFFNER: Well, “They’re not going to kill me anyway”, but I thought you had said something more than that. “They’re not going to kill me anyway, and there’s always that possibility that…
BOLZ: “I can get away with it.”
HEFFNER: Well, not only, “I can get away with it”, but “They’re not going to keep me penned up terribly long…
HEFFNER: …and the revolving door is always there”. So maybe it does come back to the larger question of the criminal justice system and what facilities we provide and don’t provide rather than taking vengeance from the Lord upon ourselves.
BOLZ: Well, and I don’t doubt that if you give an opportunity for a person to work that he’s not going to go into crime in order to support his family. I can appreciate that. I don’t know, I don’t have the answer to that. That’s a greater sociological problem.
HEFFNER: Where do you, you know, on that spectrum, that wide spectrum from those who consider themselves liberal in this area, to those who consider themselves conservative – and you and I could take those terms and turn them around. Those who say, “I think we have to have capital punishment. I think we have to throw them in jail and throw away the key. I think we have to take a tougher stand. I think we have to rid ourselves of those judges who are more concerned with the rights of the accused than with the safety of society at large”. All the clichés. That spectrum of ideas, to those who say, “We must be concerned for what society offers its citizens”. Where do you set down on that spectrum?
BOLZ: I’m a liberal conservative or a conservative liberal. However you want to put it. I think, you know, I think we should look to support people in terms of giving them moral support to go out and make a living. I don’t think we can give them the dole and that’s going to be a way of life or that should be a way of life. There was an interesting show about one of the islands in the Pacific where they were a very, very progressive society, although a little primitive, but they were a society that worked and they did things and accomplished things. And then the government came along and started to pass out food stamps and food and this, that and the other thing, and they lost all initiative to work. And it became now just a society where they just, where leisure was everything and really they didn’t have anything really to fill up their leisure time. It just became a nothing society. And I think this is the kind of thing that could happen and does happen to a lesser degree perhaps in a society that fosters welfare upon welfare upon welfare. Where the salaries offered for people who go to work are less or just about equal to a guy who sits home and does nothing and gets the same amount of money, because he doesn’t have to pay tax out of his welfare money, he doesn’t have to pay social security on his welfare money. So he’s getting tax-free money. Whereas the man who goes to work has to pay for his car fare to go to work, has to pay for his lunches – he has to pay taxes on his salary, and he has to pay social security. So where is the incentive to go to work? And I think that’s where…I’m not saying that we should take away from the welfare recipients, because there are many welfare recipients who actually need it. But there are many who really…you sort of wonder…do they, you know…the State of New Jersey had an interesting problem where a city was putting some of their welfare people to work, and the state said, “No, you can’t do that. That’s our state’s obligation to do that. You’re usurping our power”. These people were happy to do something productive. Or at least they indicated in what I had seen about it that they were happy to do something productive. They said, “No, you can’t do that. That’s the State’s prerogative. You can’t take that away”. And it became that kind of a problem. I think that’s where it becomes ludicrous, where politicians are concerned about their loss of power instead of being concerned about the people they’re supposed to be serving.
HEFFNER: Frank, I’ve taken us off in this direction, and in the minute remaining I’m going to bring us back and ask you whether you find that for a young person – take yourself back all that time ago when you joined the force – is police work and – forget about the question of calling for a moment – does it have the same kind of allure, the same kind of meaning to a better-educated and more, a more well-read population today than in our day?
BOLZ: I think so. I think there’s no job quite like being a cop. I think, I enjoy being a cop, and I think most people who I speak to really enjoy their job. Oh, you have your bad days, you have your bad moments, and you have bad people from time to time. But by and large, you enjoy the service to people. You enjoy helping a family bringing a child into the world if you assist them in that way. You enjoy helping some old person across the street and somebody who feels comforted, a woman who grasps your hand and squeezes a little bit. There are so many things you get that don’t come in a paycheck, you know, and lets you really enjoy what you’re doing. And I think it’s still there. I think the mystique is still there. I think the pleasures, or the things that you really can’t count, you can’t put on paper, but when you take home with you and you do give to your family at the end of the day or end of the week, are still there.
HEFFNER: I was going to ask you in conclusion, what are you going to do when you grow up?
BOLZ: I hope I enjoy myself forever.
HEFFNER: Thanks a lot, Captain Frank Bolz.
BOLZ: Thank you.
HEFFNER: Thanks for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.
And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.