Thirty years Ago Richard Rosenthal went undercover in the Jewish Defense League, a militant Jewish group convinced that the US was fertile ground for another Holocaust. His new book, ROOKIE COP (reviewed at right) tells the strange but true tale of life in the little known group, and what it was like to go undercover without any idea of what he was doing. As a deep undercover agent, he never trained at the police academy before going on his mission, but simply took his oath in an empty office building and immediately began infiltrating the JDL.
After this assignment was over, he finally attended police training and spent 20 years in the various departments in the NYPD, finally settling in as the police chief of Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, with his wife where he uses his fascinating life as a literary wellspring.
I spoke, via the net, with Rosenthal, who is surprisingly liberal in his view of gun control, first amendment rights and women’s work.
CA: At the beginning of the book you say several times that you were really dedicated to the idea of becoming an NY City Police Officer. Why was it so important to you? And do you still have the same reasons for being a police officer or have they changed?
RR: I think I held a romantic (and somewhat naïve) notion as to what a police officer did. Hopefully I’ve matured a bit in the job (been at it over thirty years now). I used to crave the adventure of the work (beside my undercover assignment I served as a homicide detective, robbery squad detective, narcotics officer and helicopter pilot, among other things). I also found (even more so today) that I got a good deal of satisfaction in helping people. The criminal justice system has evolved to the benefit of the police/prosecutors/defense attorneys /judges. It is a maze to be avoided by the average citizen. When I could help a victim work their way through this minefield it was a good feeling.
CA: You are very even handed in your commentary about the goals and actions of the JDL during the period you were working undercover in the organization. You only seem to have problems with their actions and goals when they might be a danger to themselves and others. After so many years in law enforcement how do you keep yourself from generalizing about extremist groups and their ideologies?
RR: : As a person I hold many opinions. As a police officer I am not entitled to espouse them to the same degree as the average citizen. Police officers cannot do their jobs and at the same time be social activists. What would you think of a chief of police who spoke strongly for some issue you felt strongly about? For example, if a person in my position took a position on the matter of abortion, half the population would look kindly on my words, the other half would be upset and concerned that I would not enforce the law in order to protect their rights and interests. Silence is therefore most appropriate in such matters. As for extremist groups and their ideologies, I hold many strong opinions. Which shall remain mine.
CA: It’s common for most people to feel bad about lying, even when it’s for a good reason. While you were infiltrating the JDL, did you ever feel bad about lying to people you were pretending to befriend or did the necessity of the information you were gathering make up for it?
RR: Interesting question. I pride myself in being honest and forthright, yet, as you point out, I mislead the members of the JDL during my undercover assignment. I suppose the end justified the means. In fact, I liked a number of the people I was involved with in that organization. I found them bright and articulate. But they were doing things that if unchecked could have had a terrible impact on society (their desire to blowup the Soviet Diplomatic Mission comes to mind) and in fact lead up to the death of a young woman. The bottom line was, it was my duty and I had no other choice.
CA: Your ideas on guns and citizens are also very even handed. I was surprised that you were in favor of an armed populace. How do you feel about the current controversy about guns and children/teenagers? Do you believe that the only way to protect kids from guns is to strictly control them or take them away altogether?
RR: Freedom is a delicate thing. Every law which goes on the books is one small detraction from our liberties. I understand the need for control of human actions, as anarchy is the ultimate tyranny. Nonetheless, I’d much prefer to see the myriad laws we have on the law books enforced before we create new ones. As for dealing with firearms, children and teenagers, clearly a person must be responsible prior to being given access to such devices. I have no qualm about such controls aimed at youth and others who should not have access to weapons. However, I tend to object to these controls when it impacts my freedoms. Many law officers wish for strict firearms controls. They would well be advised to remember that they won’t be law officers for the rest of their lives and will have to live with the restrictions they promulgate and which become law.
CA: What do you mean by anarchy is the ultimate tyranny?
RR: In a society which is out of control only the powerful, and armed, have freedom. Everyone else is subservient to them, with no recourse to the whims of that group.
CA: After your assignment was over, what did you feel had accomplished on a social level, or on a legal level?
RR: The end of the assignment was bitter sweet for me. As you saw in the book, an abuse of authority on the part of the federal government (an illegal wiretap) came close to having us totally lose the case. I have no doubt the less than draconian sentences handed down in the plea bargain deal can be argued to have emboldened the JDL leadership and enhanced their view that the authorities were incompetent. This resulted in a number of successful JDL bombings and the death of an innocent young woman.
CA: Do you feel that the JDL changed in any way due to your work? Do you think that extreme political groups will ever stop forming or is it just a side effect of society?
RR: The JDL became quite paranoid after I surfaced. There was an internal witch-hunt at one point which came close to resulting in the murder of one of the members (a man who had nothing to do with law enforcement). It certainly made police surveillance and penetration of that organization very difficult. As to whether extreme political groups will ever cease to form, I would respond, sure, if you create a society which is made up without people. As a species we are a most intractable, xenophobic group. I think we tend to lose sight of the fact that humans are little more then advanced primates. Study chimps and you will see just how well we will be able to live and work together. The main difference between us and our less sophisticated cousins is; we can come up with an unlimited number of reasons why we ought to slaughter our neighbors, and, we have the tools that make it easy to do.
CA: This was your first assignment for the NYPD, and it seems like any assignment after this might be kind of a let down. Did the rest of your NYPD career hold up to this first job? What were some of the better moments for you on the force?
RR: I had a remarkably diverse and interesting career in that department. Some of my favorite assignments were; Homicide detective-I worked in the Bronx. It was a time in the history of the city when there were over 2,000 homicides a year. One of the detectives at work put up a handwritten sign on his locker. It read:
“Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man…. And those who have hunted armed men long enough and like it… Never really care for anything else.” Signed; Ernest Hemingway
Going to homicide scene after homicide scene, then seeking out the perpetrators of the crimes, gives one an interesting perspective on life.
My assignment to the Robbery squad was also pretty intense. Our task was to arrest heavily armed robbery teams. We were well trained and equipped for the work, but it did get your attention. Once, two of my two partners and I interrupted a bank robbery in progress. Four bad guys with guns. We made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Then there was Aviation. The department taught me to fly helicopters. I flew as pilot in command in Bell Jet Rangers and Huey UH-1Bs. We did some interesting things in those ships.
So, I guess you can say I had a most interesting and eclectic career after my undercover assignment.
CA: You’re now a police chief in a small town, especially compared to New York, how do you like that? What do you like most about it, and what do you miss about you work in New York?
RR: After twenty years in the NYPD I was ready for a change. I wanted to be in charge of my own “sand box” as it were. Small town policing is very different from urban law enforcement. I’m living in a fish bowl. Every action I take is scrutinized by the citizens of my little Cape Cod town. You get used to it. As in so much else in life, working here is a trade-off. Now, instead of commuting an hour and half to work I live five minutes from my office. I get to come home for lunch. My wife joined the local fire department (she became an EMT and a Firefighter I since moving here) so I have the pleasure of assisting her in the field (as happened today, at a car accident). I like to say I am one of the few husbands around who can honestly state that he’s helped his wife both putting on and taking off her Scott air pack (a breathing apparatus) as she prepared to enter, then exited, a burning building.
Do I miss anything about NY? In truth, not much. The NYPD has become so put upon by recent circumstances I am pleased not be a part of that agony. On the other hand, the restaurants in NYC are the best!
CA: You mentioned your wife having become a firefighter. Are you still married to the German woman you talked about in the book? If so, you guys have had quite the exciting careers throughout your marriage, not the usual married couple.
RR: Yes, I’m married to Frauke, a firefighter and EMT. She became a member of the fire department when we moved to Wellfleet. She’s very good at it. We met while I was stationed in Berlin (I was in military intelligence, a Russian language specialist). She was studying architectural engineering at the time. We married one week prior to my becoming a police officer and have been together nearly 31 years. Which only proves that that woman can put up with anything! Not sure about us having exciting careers, but I guess you’re right. Funny, when you live it, it doesn’t seem all that special.
CA: There is always something in the news, especially in Los Angeles about the capabilities of women in jobs like the police force and fire fighting. You must have a lot of first hand knowledge about the subject. Do you have any thoughts on it?
RR: Women in law enforcement carry with them the same capabilities, assets and liabilities as the men. We have to get away from the “Them vs. Us” way of thinking, same with our various ethnic, racial and religious groups. Problem is, the human animal is such a contentious beast that working together in harmony is not something we do very well.