Thursday 25 April 2019

'Heartbreak, heroism and abiding friendship' - renowned Irish photographer's two-year NYPD project

Photographer Mark Condren has spent two years capturing New York's police at work and play. Jane Last reports

Members of the NYPD specialised unit on watch from a rooftop on Coney Island. Photo: Mark Condren
Members of the NYPD specialised unit on watch from a rooftop on Coney Island. Photo: Mark Condren
Potshots: the NYPD testing weapons at the firearms range at Rodman's Neck, The Bronx. Photo: Mark Condren
Mark Condren's new book, NYPD
Drive it in: Galway hurler Joe Canning smashes a snowball in Midtown Manhattan
On patrol: NYPD transit officers make their way through a blizzard in The Bronx. Photo by Mark Condren
Locked up: an NYPD officer removes cuffs in a holding area. Photo: Mark Condren
An officer washes his face in a public convenience. Photo: Mark Condren
The Mounted Unit in Central Park. Photo: Mark Condren
An NYPD officer outside the Rockerfeller Centre in New York. Photo: Mark Condren
NYPD officers clear a stairwell before entering a rooftop of a housing project. Photo: Mark Condren

New York, New York - home to 8.6 million residents, with 63 million people visiting it every year.

The challenge facing the 36,000 members of NYPD in making the city safe is something most of us can't begin to comprehend.

Irish Independent photographer Mark Condren has documented their work after spending two years embedded with the NYPD. He was tasked to do so by NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill. The result is his new book NYPD: Behind the Scenes With the Men and Women of the New York City Police Department.

The book was officially launched by Commissioner O'Neill last weekend, garnering publicity on NBC and Fox News.

"There are images of heartbreak, heroism and abiding friendship; of melancholy and surprising beauty. One page might remind me that being a cop here can be the hardest job anywhere; the next makes me think that there isn't a job in the world that's half as much fun," the Commissioner said.

It's not Condren's first experience documenting a police force. The son of a retired garda sergeant, he is married to serving garda Michelle. The couple have three children - Ben (12), Aaron (9) and four-year-old Emma.

Drive it in: Galway hurler Joe Canning smashes a snowball in Midtown Manhattan
Drive it in: Galway hurler Joe Canning smashes a snowball in Midtown Manhattan
Members of the NYPD specialised unit on watch from a rooftop on Coney Island. Photo: Mark Condren
NYPD officers clear a stairwell before entering a rooftop of a housing project. Photo: Mark Condren
An NYPD officer outside the Rockerfeller Centre in New York. Photo: Mark Condren
Locked up: an NYPD officer removes cuffs in a holding area. Photo: Mark Condren
On patrol: NYPD transit officers make their way through a blizzard in The Bronx. Photo by Mark Condren
Potshots: the NYPD testing weapons at the firearms range at Rodman's Neck, The Bronx. Photo: Mark Condren
An officer washes his face in a public convenience. Photo: Mark Condren
The Mounted Unit in Central Park. Photo: Mark Condren
Mark Condren's new book, NYPD

Ben has Type 1 diabetes - and in 2009, Mark decided he wanted to raise funds for Temple Street Children's Hospital who had been treating his son for his condition.

"With this in mind, I approached the gardaí and asked them if I could do a book with them."

In 2011, Mark's book The Guards: A Year Behind the Scene with the Men and Women of An Garda Síochána was published, and marked the first-ever photographic portrait of gardaí by a photojournalist.

"So I was embedded with gardaí for two years, then we brought out a coffee table book. It was the Christmas No 1 that year, selling 7,500 copies in two weeks. It was a massive success," he says.

"I was in New York after the book was released, and I was just wondering what it would be like to be an NYPD officer.

"Anyway, I was lucky enough to know someone in Ireland who is a cousin of Pat Sullivan, a lieutenant in the NYPD.

"So I contacted him - and he managed to get me a meeting with Commissioner James O'Neill. It took a year to get the meeting but it happened.

"I gave the garda book to the commissioner - that book was my business card.

NYPD officers clear a stairwell before entering a rooftop of a housing project. Photo: Mark Condren
NYPD officers clear a stairwell before entering a rooftop of a housing project. Photo: Mark Condren

"Even though the commissioner didn't know me, he saw the book and said we had to do the same for the NYPD. And that's how it started.

"And so I started flying back and forth to New York over two years - while still working full-time. It would be a few days here and there. I would be embedded with NYPD officers on patrol.

"I wanted to try and capture everything. It was not about kicking doors down, or blood and guts. It was about capturing as many aspects as I could in the life of an NYPD officer."

Clad in a bulletproof vest, Mark was put in a patrol car with an officer, following official units to calls.

So was he nervous while out on patrol?

"There were times I would have been nervous - there were a couple of times when I had to run after people. But I always felt safe as I had somebody with me at all times. When it came to gun calls and stabbing, you just have to keep your wits about you. It's not like what it is in the movies - I didn't just take my camera out and start shooting. You have to be discreet and precise - I was very aware that I could put officers in danger by carelessly taking out my camera. I had to be very aware of my surroundings and the situation facing officers, and make the right judgment call or we could all be in trouble," he explains.

"One night when I was out on patrol, we were at a call for a problem in a nightclub, then we got a call for an officer who needed assistance at a stabbing, and after that an hour is a blur. Everything moves so fast - New York just doesn't stop for police officers."

One image where Mark admits his adrenalin is pumping is of two officers, armed with guns, clearing a stairwell in a residential block of flats as they answer a gun call.

An NYPD officer outside the Rockerfeller Centre in New York. Photo: Mark Condren
An NYPD officer outside the Rockerfeller Centre in New York. Photo: Mark Condren

"The tower block was roughly 12-storeys high. Officers have to clear each stairwell as they progress through the building so that is what this picture captures. Officers do not know what's around the corner and where a suspected gunman could be, so they have to exercise huge caution for their own safety and safety of civilians in that environment," he explains.

"The camaraderie between the officers is amazing - they have each other's back. Like they do in every police force, but in New York, when they roll out, they roll out big. There's no messing".

While they deal with serious crime, there are other matters which must be managed - like the safe removal of beehives.

"One day, a call came on the radio saying there was a beehive on a water hydrant in the middle of Manhattan. I then heard on the radio that the beehive unit was en route. The beehive officer is in the Emergency Support Unit and he arrived on the scene in beekeeper gear, and safely removed the hive from the water hydrant and took it away to another location.

"The Mounted Unit is another busy unit - they have their own mobile farrier. His name is Tommy and he's from Co Clare. He goes around the city all day in his van, changing hundreds of shoes of NYPD horses," Mark says.

Mark admits he was surprised by the amount of first generation Irish people who are NYPD officers. "I met a girl from Swords at their training academy. And I was out with Officer Brian O'Donnell, who is from Banagher, Co Offaly, and was seriously injured by someone wielding a meat cleaver in 2016.

"Some of the Irish I met there have this fascination with the NYPD and that's why they came to New York - but I suppose it's the biggest police force in the world, so why wouldn't they?"

In terms of policing, Mark says policing in New York and Ireland have much in common with one another.

"Policing is a vocation. It is not an easy job - the shift work is not easy. And while many of us do shift work, the scenarios and situations police officers can find themselves in the course of their work are often not easy.

"Policing is the same in both Ireland and New York - but there is one major difference. The NYPD has so many dedicated units with officers assigned to them. In Ireland, you could be a uniform garda but still take part in raids, man checkpoints, go on patrol - your assignments could vary every day. You wouldn't have the same day-to-day variety in New York, where you are assigned to a dedicated unit."

From the outset, Mark decided he did not want his book to be focussed purely on serious crime. "I wanted the images in the book to flow and be of a certain standard. I was thinking of my kids - I don't want to have to hide my book in the house because it has dead bodies. I want children everywhere to be able to see this."

So he aimed to capture every facet of life in the NYPD.

His images show officers playing with children on a hot summer's day.

"The fire department turn on the water hydrants during the summer - NYPD officers will often turn on the sprinklers and cool the children down as they play on the street during peak summer time.

"It's more of a tradition than a health thing, but the kids love it and it c

ools them down. It also helps build a positive relationship between the NYPD officers and children," Mark explains. "Overall, NYPD officers enjoy an excellent relationship.

"I often heard people telling them to stay safe and 'thank you for protecting us'. The pubic admire them," he adds.

Mark shows the other extreme in his book - with an image of two very stern looking officers from the Counter Terrorism Unit outside Trump Tower (on the Review cover).

"They are outside Trump Tower 24/7 and have been in place since President Trump's election to the White House in 2016. They won't have any real interaction with members of the public - they are required to be 100pc focussed on the job at hand, and are armed with the most powerful of weaponry available to NYPD officers," he says.

The book will be launched in Ireland by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar next month and will be on sale in Irish bookshops from December 10. Mark Condren has been named PPAI Photographer of the Year on four occasions, and has won numerous awards for his work which has taken him all over the world.

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