A Tree Grows in Harlem: Life, Death and the NYPD’s Unhappily Ever After

If a black policeman falls in Harlem, does his body make a sound?

“Mr. Nathan, my name is Essie Jones,” the email to me began, “I’m Waverly Jones’s daughter. I’m writing to you about my father’s tree.”

— — —

On May 21, 1971, two young patrolmen had just answered a call for help at the Colonial Park Apartments in Harlem. It was a distress call — a domestic. They were in the same academy class together, raising their white-gloved hands at their swearing-in ceremony in 1966. Over their short career, they answered hundreds of radio calls — thousands — passing thousands of hours on the springy, unforgiving vinyl bench seat of a green, white, and black patrol car — a Dodge Coronet, a Plymouth Fury; all horsepower and hubcaps. Some of those calls they’d answered together, other times paired with other partners. But tonight, on a beautiful spring evening, they were together. They would always be together, after that night. Spoken into microphones together. On the television screens together. In the New York Times together. On the wall of Intermediate School 192 together, named for them.

Jones and Piagentini.

On the Harlem sidewalk, together. Sprawled out, in their spring uniforms together. Their blood running down cracks in the pavement, pooling together. One was black and one was white. Much would be made of this in the press at the time, but that fact didn’t matter to the men who killed them. Maybe it didn’t matter very much to the department that employed them either.

— — —

When Waverly Jones’s daughter reached out to me, she was living in Florida, working as a sheriff’s deputy or a corrections officer — I can’t remember now. I’m not sure she knew, when she wrote that email to me, that she was writing to a twenty-year-old college student. She had read an article that I had written about her father and his partner’s murder that had gotten published by a pro-NYPD website, and she was asking me for help — help with her father’s tree.

“It’s just awful what’s happened to it,” she wrote, “what they’ve let happen to it.”

— — —

I had read about the Jones/Piagentini case when I was a junior in high school, and it chilled my blood. Two young police officers killed by shots to their back. Jones was felled first, killed immediately by the first shot square to the back of his head, then a couple more, for good measure, along his back. The coroner counted twenty-two entrance and exit wounds in Piagentini — shot thirteen times, dying in the back seat of the patrol car that went screaming off toward Harlem Hospital. Jones and Piagentini weren’t the only cops to die this way, and they weren’t the only racially-integrated police partnership to suffer this fate either. To a relatively innocent, white sixteen-year-old who grew up in a comfortable upper-middle-class suburb in southeastern Pennsylvania, the barbarity of this crime, and others like it, was not only incomprehensible but utterly unexplainable.

Could you blame me? Not to cast aspersions against my vaunted Blue Ribbon school district, but all I learned about the black experience in America was that there was slavery, and that was bad, and they kept them so close in the slave ships that they were packed like spoons, and that was bad, and that we had the Civil War and they took us to Gettysburg, and to see “Gettysburg” (and students were angrily shushed in the movie theater by irritated teachers when they cheered for the wrong side). We learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. did his I-Have-a-Dream-thing and that he was killed and then things were basically fine. We learned all this in an AP History class that contained maybe one black student.

I learned about this crime not from history class, but by noodling around the local public library. I had picked up, kind of randomly — if things can be random — a book called “Badge of the Assassin” by Robert K. Tanenbaum, the man who prosecuted the case against the men who were convicted of killing Jones and Piagentini. I devoured most of this pretty dense book sitting on the floor of the library, and then I finally realized what time it was and checked it out and finished it at home, sweating and very confused and frightened.

The backdrop of this murder was, of course, a time of virulent racial unrest in America, and multiple police killings of so-called black radicals. There were no body cameras — or even dashboard cameras — in those days, and whatever witnesses saw these crimes were appropriately intimidated and otherwise dissuaded from coming forward. And even if they did, who in the late 1960s or early 1970s would take the word of a black citizen against a police officer? The nation was on fire, and rage and oppression can only be ignored for so long before two young patrolmen, with their backs turned to their assassins, became part of the unspeakably painful legacy of race in America, a story that I would, two decades later, pick up on a library shelf.

But there was something wrong with this book and, not that I’m a fucking genius — and I certainly wasn’t at sixteen — I kind of picked up on it immediately. It was an imbalance — a very unapologetic and a very obvious one, and it started immediately: the book was really only concerned with telling the story of, and amassing sympathy for, the white patrolman; Joseph A. Piagentini.

Tanenbaum, and his “assistant-author” Phil Rosenberg, does a very credible job setting the scene on May 21, 1971, a little bit after ten o’clock, describing the streets and highways that criss-cross around the Colonial Park Apartments, but it dispenses with Jones with all of the ruthlessness of his killers — Jones is felled like a tree, and that’s that; his execution takes little more than three or four sentences to describe. But Piagentini’s bull-ring-like demise, vulgar and protracted, is given multiple paragraphs of ink, and is highly over-written, including his pleas and moans to his killers to stop shooting him because he has a wife and two young daughters. His slow crawl to a nearby hedge, the writhing movements he made as his brain failed to communicate with his body.

Tanenbaum then takes us to the home of Piagentini’s widow, Diane, who is at home when a radio car rolls up in front of her house, its red dome light twirling ominously in the black sky. He takes us inside that radio car with Diane as she is told nothing about her husband’s condition on the way to Harlem Hospital. We read about her agony upon being told that Joseph is dead, and about the incompetent way she is handled by New York politicians.

We don’t hear anything about how the situation was handled for Waverly Jones’s family. Nothing. We don’t step up to the door of his unknowingly bereft family with two officers and a police chaplain. In courtroom scenes, after the accused have been apprehended and Tanenbaum, the valiant white savior doing battle against the militant black suspects, prepares for various hearings, there are further pages devoted to conversations he has with Diane. Does Tanenbaum, the prosecutor of both murders, ever talk to members of the Jones family? We assume that there is no way he could avoid doing that, but do those encounters make it into the book? No, they do not.

The members of Waverly Jones’s family, stand beside his casket. I can only suspect that the girl in white is Essie, who wrote to me twenty years ago about her father’s tree. (File photo)

And so a racist crime, brought about by racist policing systems and a racist nation, is written about by a white man in a racist book. And now, decades later, here’s another narrative written by a white man — maybe I’ll do a little better. Maybe not. In any case, what do those salutes for Waverly Jones in that picture even mean? As years rolled along, I was to find out.

— — —

“After my father was killed,” Essie wrote to me, “they planted two little trees in front of the 32nd Precinct house. They put on two plaques, one for my father and one for Joe. Over the years, my father’s tree has gotten to be in bad shape — broken branches, the plaque with my dad’s name is broken, there’s litter and trash there — they don’t take care of it. Joe’s tree is fine. I’ve been calling and trying to get somebody to do something about it, but nobody’s listening to me.”

I was pissed, and you should never piss off a self-righteous, Jewish, liberal arts theatre major who doesn’t drink or do drugs and knows one way to let off steam: writing angry letters to people.

I’ve been doing it for years. My angry letters were famous in my family (my mother thought they were hilarious)— in middle school, I was tossing off angry letters to the Franklin Mint (to excoriate them over inaccuracies in a 1/24th scale model of a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, that I had paid $90 for), the Kraft Foods Company, even UK Prime Minister John Major. Now it was time for me to air out NYPD 32nd Precinct Commanding Officer Vincent M. Coogan. And did I ever.

“In closing, Inspector Coogan,” I closed, “I would hate for anybody to think that the negligence with which Patrolman Jones’s tree is being treated, and the superior condition of the tree honoring his partner, has anything to do with the color of Jones’s skin; because that’s certainly how it looks from over here.”

The next afternoon, I was at a rehearsal for a Chekhov short play called “The Jubilee” and I went to the phone in the lobby to check my voicemail (you could do that in those days) and there was an apologetic voicemail from Inspector Coogan of the 32nd Precinct in Harlem, informing me that not only has the area by Waverly Jones’s tree been cleaned, but that the plaque would be replaced, and that there would be a ceremony to “re-dedicate” the tree, complete with a blessing by a police chaplain and bagpipes and the whole shebang, and would I please come.

And that’s all it took. One angry email from a fucking white college student, when a black woman who was deprived of her father forever went unheeded.

Thanks for your call, ma’am.

We’ll look into that.

We’ll get right on that.

No problem.

Malcolm X, a man who history teachers at my high school had mysteriously forgotten to mention, said it best, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.”

Maybe a day or two later, I called Coogan back, and was surprised to be connected right to him by the sergeant who answered the phone. We exchanged a couple pleasantries, and he apologized — to me — about the fucking tree. I asked him if the entire Jones family was invited to come to the ceremony. He hesitated. Well, there were issues — one of Waverly Jones’s children, a son, also named Waverly, was calling for the release of his father’s killers.

I knew this, but I said nothing.

The other issue, Coogan informed me, was that Waverly Jones’s marital situation at the time of his death was “unclear”, and that Waverly Jones, Jr. was from another woman. I don’t know the Jones family tree, and I don’t need to. Neither does the NYPD. The only tree they needed to be concerned with was that fucking tree outside their stationhouse door; the tree that was supposed to be equal in importance with a white cop’s tree.

But then, that’s the NYPD; at times, more Catholic than cop. You can say and do what you want, just keep quiet about it. Keep up appearances, don’t step out-of-line, don’t turn your back on The Blue, preserve the family and the warrior image, or pay the price.

I politely declined the invitation to come to Harlem to listen to some bagpipes and hot air. A few years later, though, I was visiting a friend who lived in Chelsea and we took a subway ride together so that we could walk past the 3–2 and check out those trees. Both of them looked just fine to me; but what do I know from trees anyway?

Gabe is Editor in Chief of OC87 Recovery Diaries, an online mental health publication. He owns far too many ties.

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