by Robert Cubby
My first day of work was going to be memorable, I was told so by our clerk, John Wehman. We were finishing the first part of our academy training which was four weeks. We were to go out on the street for the summer to boost police presence, then return to the classroom in the fall after which we formerly graduated. We were given our assignments and commands and we met our commanders and our clerks. They called my name and told me I had my first two nights off and I was to report Friday, April 13, 1973, to the 4-12 shift at the 4th Precinct. John said, “Friday the 13th. That will be a day you’ll remember the rest of your career.” Little did any of us know how true that would be.
After a trip to the uniform store to get my shiny 4’s for my collar, I headed home and spent two days making sure my uniform looked ok. On the afternoon of the 13th, I donned my uniform for the first time and headed into my first day of work. I found a space on Communipaw Avenue and walked into the 4th Precinct.
The veteran officers were all grouped to one side and were eying the new recruits as we walked in the door. I saw some of my classmates to my left so I went over by them and greeted them. They announced roll call and we all fell into formation as we were taught in the academy. Notebooks out we copied down all the information the sergeant gave us. I received my portable radio and was introduced to a member of the previous class who would be breaking two of us in on the job and tell us what was expected.
There were two classes that went through the academy. Because of the size of the class they split them up into two, one starting in February and one in March. I was in the March class as was John, my partner that night. Harold had come on in February and already had one month’s experience on the street so he was to show us what needed to be done.
We had the worst post in the city, Post 1. It was the most crime ridden and violent stretch of real estate in the city. Although we would normally not walk the same side of the street at the same time, they would make an exception because we were being broken in. Once we were used to the routine and broken in, we were to walk opposite sides of the street in opposite directions, no loitering by either of us and no stopping in any stores without authorization unless we had a call there. OK no problem.
Most of the stores were burned out wrecks and abandoned. The remaining were liquor stores, bars or Laundromats. A few stray store front churches rounded out the occupied buildings. Above them were apartments. People mostly hung out in front of their buildings playing music or drinking liquor in bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. There was also an abundance of drug dealing.
We had made it down to the southern end of our post and Harold was explaining the job to us. It seemed curious that he mentioned that the older veteran officers won’t talk to any of our class members and seem to ignore us when we’re around. I wondered what that was all about. My guess was they wanted us to prove ourselves to them before they would “accept” us being around. Since they were in radio cars and we were on walking post, and unless it was a holiday or someone took a day off, we probably wouldn’t see the inside of a police car for many years and so I had no concerns about the older guys since I wasn’t working with them.
We started our return trip back to the northern end of our post. We really didn’t have any interaction with anyone that was loitering in an area because most moved when they saw us approaching. Some of the younger kids asked if we were rookie cops. I wonder how they knew. Years later, when I see a rookie cop I think back to my first night on the job and I look at these rookies and I saw what those young kids saw. Green and inexperienced, wide-eyed wonder, the lack of the mean, street smart scowl or even the way a rookie walked as compared to a seasoned veteran. Yes they could tell, and they would try us to see what they could get away with.
We came upon a large disorderly group at Bramhall and Jackson. Harold thought this would be a good learning opportunity to see how we do moving a crowd. Most started walking and a few asked why they had to move. One male in blue coveralls with the name Bob on his right pocket stood not moving. He seemed to stand out, not part of this group. He said he wanted to talk to me in private. Rule number one in street survival is never separate from your partner. I said to him that anything he wanted to say he should say to all of us. But he persisted and we finally had to insist that he had to move off the corner, which he did. He walked north on Jackson toward Communipaw. That went well I thought. If this is the sum total of what I had to do, I guess I could handle it.
We started walking north when an assist patrolman call came over the air and shots were being fired. The location was at the end of our post at Communipaw. We ran at a full sprint. After all we were young and in condition and a cop needed help. I saw an officer being loaded into an ambulance, a blood soaked towel around his neck. There was a large crowd gathered. The lieutenant started yelling orders to establish a perimeter and preserve the crime scene. I politely asked people to move and of course they ignored me. The lieutenant screams at me, “use your stick man”. I push with the baton as we were taught and they pushed back. I guess pushing against a classmate we tended to do so lightly and without much force. I pushed harder until they listened and backed up.
I felt something slippery on the street that I was stepping in. I looked down and saw a massive amount of blood, the thick arterial blood I got to know all too well in my career. My brand new shoes are stepping in this blood. My eyes follow the blood trail to the building’s wall. There was a male in a sitting position, dead, his face unrecognizable as a face and bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds from the officer’s gun. I notice he’s wearing a blue coverall with Bob on the pocket. I realize that’s the male I was speaking to a few minutes earlier on Bramhall. I realize I could have been in an incident with him if I hadn’t remembered my training. He had slashed the officer across the throat with a large knife and the officer killed him in self-defense. That could have been me. Just that quickly. I had never seen a dead body before. I had never seen that much blood before. I suddenly had the urge to vomit on the spot and knew that if I did, I would be the laughing stock of the precinct and my classmates. That much I knew already.
The full realization that this person had been alive and talking to me, but is now dead hit me like a ton of bricks. I gathered myself up as much as possible and maintained my position and perimeter until relieved. Although they trained me for all contingencies and all scenarios, they didn’t train me for this. This feeling I was having that this job wasn’t what I thought it was. That you have to find a way to stuff those feelings down and move on. I learned this from all those around me that seemed unfazed by what just happened. Do what the others are doing. Deal with the emotions later, some other time. That “some other time” seems to never come though.
My shoes survived the blood bath and we resumed patrol. As we’re walking south on Jackson, Harold spots a gun on the front seat of a parked car. We impound the car and seize the gun. What’s puzzling to me at his point is how can Harold be concentrating on this car and gun when I’m still trying to come to grips with the shooting and the close call we all had earlier. He went about his patrolling like nothing happened. I have a lot of learning to do I felt. Is it that he learned to mask his emotions or is this something they never taught us in the academy and I’ll have to learn, quickly? To survive I’m going to need to learn to be like Harold. And the older more experienced guys. Now I wish they would talk to us. I need a lot of street experience and knowledge and soon. That thought bothered me the rest of the tour and I couldn’t help but think about it constantly.
Why didn’t the academy think this important to learn? Was this going to be something maybe we’ll learn in the second half of our in class training? It would turn out to be “no” never. We never learned what we would be facing or how to deal with what I was dealing with now. We just learned from our peers and older more seasoned officers what to do and how to handle it. Another plate of armor added. The suit of armor is in progress, the suit that will shut out this hurt.
I never want to go through that again. Time to armor up. We took our meal period and I called my wife to let her know how things were. My hands were shaking so badly I couldn’t put the money in the pay phone. When she asked me how it was so far, I told her I may have picked the wrong profession. And after telling her what happened and seeing how it upset her, I came to realization that I would have to shield her from a lot of what this job will be. Another learning experience. More armor needed for the protection. Not only do I need to deal with the tragedies I will see every minute of every day and not let them bother me, but I can’t share those with my wife and upset her.
The indoctrination process has started from day one and will be ongoing for the next 38 years, 4 months. The street is a mean teacher but it will teach you to survive your career. But it will take the life you once knew away from you slowly replacing it with someone no one will know because it’s safer that way.
I always wondered what happened to that officer involved on Friday the 13th in that shooting. Did he come through the incident alright, did he need counseling, how did he handle that close brush with death? I know he was promoted and retired as a captain but I really didn’t know him personally to ask how he was doing. And from the outside he seemed fine. But looks can fool us and we learn as police officers to put on that happy face even though we’re dying on the inside.
Many years later, I was picking up a pizza order at a local pizzeria. Sitting at a table were two old college friends, Chris and Joe. Chris was now a civil engineer and Joe was assistant prosecutor for Passaic County. Joe asked if I was still a police officer with Jersey City and wanted me to give him some information to help him with a case. He asked if I knew a certain person who claims he was a police officer with the Jersey City police to which I said yes. The name mentioned was the officer involved in that shooting on my first day. He said this person had been arrested for shoplifting. It was his first offense and Joe wanted to find a way to give him a break on his sentencing. Joe said that the officer seemed like a nice person and he didn’t seem he wanted to be helped, like he wanted to be sentenced. I told Joe that seemed so not like the officer I knew, that he’d be the last person in the world who would shoplift. I didn’t know anything about PTSD then or post shooting trauma but I thought Joe should know in case that had any bearing on the case. Apparently Joe knew a little more about PTSD and post shooting trauma and would use that to help this officer. I don’t know whatever happened with that case. I don’t know if it made any difference in his sentencing. I was glad that the prosecutor thought it would. I had heard that this officer now runs counseling groups to help people with personal problems. Maybe by some twist of fate in that chance meeting someone’s life was turned around because the ravages of PTSD were recognized and considered. I hope so.
About the Author: Robert Cubby was born January 4, 1950. He attended Montclair State College (University) earning a BA degree in psychology. Shortly after graduation, Robert was sworn in as a police officer for the Jersey City Police Department. After attending the Police Academy, he was assigned to the patrol division. After seven years of working in two patrol districts, he was transferred to the Emergency Services Bureau where he was an instructor for the Police Academy. After 8 1/2 years, Robert was promoted to sergeant and assigned to the Property Unit. This was followed by assignments back in patrol as a sergeant, lieutenant, and captain. As a lieutenant, Robert was deployed to assist in the efforts during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. As a captain, he was assigned out of title 50% of the time as an acting inspector/city commander. Captain Cubby retired from the Jersey City police Department in 2011 after 38 years, 4 months of service. As the result of his service to the department, he was diagnosed with PTSD and continues to struggle with it on a recurring basis. Robert also appeared in the film Code 9- Officer Needs Assistance.