Incredible scooter cops in community relations

Retired NYPD officer Joseph Willins (Scooter Joe).
Photo by Lem Peterkin

“Two Street Savvy Cops Nail ‘em With Words,” was the glaring headline of a New York Daily News article written in 1977. No Bullets, no choking, no abuse and yet, retired NYPD officers Joseph Willins (Scooter Joe) and his partner Kenneth Kaufman were consistently able to take hardened criminals and murderers into their custody during the 70s and 80s, a time when drugs and crime were rampant and police and community worked together.

“We would not have choked Eric Gardner, we would have hugged him. Ken and I would have taken a much different path. We sought out street-wise individuals, as Eric, because he was the eyes and ears of the community. He knew what was going on. We would have befriended him and enlist him as an asset to solve crime in the community. He was a family man with children; He wanted a safe community for his wife and family too. He was not a hardened criminal. Wall Street executives committed worse crimes against the people than Eric. No one choked them,” Joe stated during a recent interview at his Bed-Stuy residence.

Joe and Kenny were partners for almost 20 years and worked in the 79th Precinct in Bedford Stuyvesant. Joe lived in the community, while Kenny, his Jewish partner, commuted. The community knew them. They patrolled up and down the streets on scooters. They knew the criminal elements and the criminals knew their no-nonsense approach to crime. They knew every nook and cranny of the community- the burglars, number joints, dope dealers and they also knew the doctors, lawyers, teachers, other professionals, hard working residents, home owners, elders and youths of the community. There was no profiling because they knew the community and had gained the respect of the people whom they had sworn to serve and protect.

A recent report stated that of the 179 people murdered by police officers over the past 15 years, one officer was found guilty, but got no jail time. Of those murdered, 61 percent were black and 95 percent were men. Neither Joe nor Kenny has ever fired their weapons over the course of their careers, to apprehend anyone. They knew how to communicate. In the tensest situations, criminals were subdued without lethal force. Their focus was always on breaking down the barriers between Police and Community. Joe said, “Your gun and badge are not your greatest assets. Your relationship with the community, trust and respect are important. Police thrive on information. There must be open lines of communication. Police have enormous power but Ken and I preferred the gift of gab.”

Joe and Kenny were outstanding cops assigned to scooters. They believed that they had a moral obligation to rid the community of crime for all the good, law abiding residents, so they went after the criminal elements and have made over 2,000 arrests and put 38 people in jail for murder, such as the killer of a subway token clerk and other high profile cases. “I wanted to cleanse the Bed-Stuy. Community of the most dangerous, violent, murderous individuals. Ken and I were like Blood-Hounds in the community. The clock or time of day did not matter; results were the only thing important to us. Therefore, we partnered with the community to make it safe for the residents. We provided Police service not police tokenism. Neither did we over police the community,” Joe said.

Joe and Kenny’s exemplary police work in Bed-Stuy is documented in a book published by Fawcett – “The Incredible Scooter Cops” – written by Dave Fisher. It was also made into a stage play and shopped around for a movie. On his retirement, more than 30 block associations, elected officials, clergy, police supervisors of all ranks and the community at large gathered together and held an elaborate retirement party for Joe. This ex-marine, son, brother and father epitomize the NYPD slogan, “Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect.” Older community residents still tell of his caring, human characteristics and their ability to reach out to him for assistance in time of need or just to embrace or talk to their disobedient children. Residents still stop in their tracks to shake his hand and say, “Thank you” for doing your part to keep our community safe. They exhibit an undying love and respect. He has been the guest of TV and radio talk shows, featured in print and has a store house of articles, award letters and citations that confirm his status as a living legend, full of knowledge and insight on community policing. A proven, valuable resource, with lessons for the current NYPD and its leaders.

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