First published October 23, 2003
It seems a small number of thin-skinned New York City police officers don’t advocate the department’s slogan — Courtesy, Professional-ism, Respect — when it conflicts with their personal feelings.
After the first of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band’s tour-ending three-night stand at Shea Stadium earlier this month, the New York Civil Liberties Union criticized the NYPD, specifically, Chief of Department Joe Esposito, the officer in charge of the stadium detail who capriciously canceled the post concert police escort, seemingly because he was unhappy that the singer performed his controversial song, "American Skin [41 Shots]."
An NYCLU executive director wrote to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly that displeasure with a song "cannot be a basis for granting or denying department services."
Springsteen wrote the song four years ago in the wake of the Amadou Diallo tragedy that left the unarmed African immigrant dead after plainclothes police officers opened fire when they mistakenly thought a wallet the victim pulled from his pocket was a handgun. Four officers fired 41 shots, hitting him 19 times. A subsequent investigation cleared them of any misconduct.
Despite being interpreted by some as controversial, “American Skin” is, nevertheless, powerful and poignant, and, unquestionably, not anti-police. Those who take exception to the song should listen more closely. In the opening verse Springsteen portrays a cop "kneeling over (the victim’s) body…praying for his life."
In a revised edition of "Songs," a book of Springsteen’s lyrics, he comments about "American Skin," writing, "I worked hard for a balanced voice…I just wanted to help people see the other guy’s point of view." He also notes his intention to show what "systematic racial injustice" can do.
Neither Springsteen nor any of his representatives have commented on the dispute, wisely choosing to ignore an episode that likely would have gone unnoticed, but for the civil rights group’s intervention.
Granted the escort is a courtesy, but law enforcement authorities usually provide it after many popular groups end a local show. It is essential, not to coddle rock stars, but to whisk them safely away from a congested situation in which a crazed fanatic, like John Lennon’s assassin Mark David Chapman, may be lurking.
I’ve toured with Michael Jackson and The Rolling Stones and, in each instance, whether in the U.S., Canada or Europe, a nightly post-concert escort was provided. In fact, after one show outside of Boston, the police escorted the Stones’ multi-vehicle entourage away from the venue in an oncoming lane, a clear inconvenience to approaching motorists.
Some supporters of the Shea Stadium decision contend the courtesy comes at taxpayers’ expense, but ignore the fact that the three Springsteen concerts indeed generated more revenue for the city than the cost of the escort.
The Daily News reported that Mayor Bloomberg was "not happy to hear about the retaliation" and poor judgment, according to his press secretary.
An NYPD spokesperson issued a statement that no formal request for an escort had come from Springsteen or members of his band.
I recently received a copy of an electronic communication, allegedly from a member of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). The correspondence implies that Esposito had been "stripped of virtually all authority" by Kelly, which may be why he pulled the post-concert security detail after the rock star performed the song that evidently still infuriates a few New York City police officers.
Incidentally, the FOP was brutally critical of the song after Springsteen debuted it in Atlanta in 1999 when only a few people had heard it. At the time, Bob Lucente, president of the group’s New York State chapter, referred to Springsteen using such derisive terms as "a f—-ing dirtbag" and "a floating fag."
Springsteen did not perform the song in question for the last two shows, which some assumed was a surrender to the hullabaloo. That notion demonstrated how little they know about Bruce Springsteen performances. He most likely did not capitulate to the criticism. You see, he rarely performs the same song list two nights in a row, so pulling "American Skin" was probably due to his penchant for change rather than a concession. As a matter of fact, in over 120 concerts in the last two years, Springsteen performed scores of songs with "American Skin" merely sung on a dozen occasions.
Years ago when an adviser told President Ronald Reagan about the Springsteen-penned "Born In the USA" without carefully listening to the song’s angry condemnation about neglected Vietnam veterans, Reagan incorrectly referred to it as a patriotic anthem in a feeble attempt to connect with young Americans.
It appears Chief Esposito and other NYPD officers who remain uptight by the Springsteen song have made a similar blunder. Not only should they take the department’s CPR catchphrase more seriously, but they should also end the petty foolishness that guides their personal feelings, which just might toughen their own American skins.