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Ever since the student uprisings at Columbia University a decade ago, New York cops have been instructed not to beat or shoot at rioters. Said Deputy Commissioner Francis J. McLoughlin last week: "They were under orders to break up unruly crowds or looters by charging with their night sticks but not shooting over their heads." The cops were responsible for few beatings, no indiscriminate shooting and no killings. About 18 policemen suffered serious injuries.
Reported TIME Correspondent Jack White, who covered the 1968 racial uprising in Washington, D.C.: "The cops have learned a lot about riot control in the last decade. In the past, officers hopelessly outnumbered by angry crowds frequently fired on them and increased their anger. But in New York, large numbers of calm, well-disciplined officers avoided adding to the violence. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, for example, the situation gradually came under control as enough police arrived to station four or five cops on every corner of the most troubled area, while other cops prowled in marked and unmarked cars. One worn-out sergeant told me: 'My ass is numb and my shoulders are scrunched from riding with five other men in a Pontiac Tempest." But it worked. As tensions eased, the police avoided making arrests as much as possible to help cool things off."
Sometimes looters were let go with a warning. One experienced pair of 26-year-old cops, with modish long hair and sideburns, spun around Bedford-Stuyvesant in a battered 1970 Dodge painted to look like a gypsy taxi. They spied a young boy carrying a big box. The frightened kid dropped the carton, and glass tinkled. "What's in the box, Johnny?" asked one of the policemen. ''Booze, man, liquor," replied the kid. "Where'd you get it, Johnny?" "I bought it, man, paid money for it." The cop peered into the box and saw the markings of a newly looted liquor store on broken bottles. Then both policemen advised the kid to "take the box and go home. And by the way, maybe you can do us a favor some time."
But arrests were common. Officers collared more than 3,500 people between the time the blackout struck and 7:40 a.m. Friday, when Beame declared the emergency over. The figure was about eight times the number of arrests in the riots of 1964 and 1968.
The city's courts and prisons were swamped. At Beame's urging, prosecutors refused to plea bargain with suspected looters and arsonists or agree to release them without bail. As a result, police station houses and courthouse holding pens were jammed with prisoners—up to ten in small cells designed to hold one person.
At the Manhattan criminal court, some prisoners shouted protests against the heat and overcrowding. To handle the overflow, the city reopened the Tombs, a Manhattan jail that had been closed by federal court order in 1974 as too decrepit. Feeding the prisoners was a serious problem at first because most restaurants had closed for lack of electricity. Many families brought food to relatives behind bars. Others subsisted on coffee and rolls.