In 2017 Brooklyn, the idea of having a relationship with your local beat cop feels definitively foreign: indeed, many people probably don’t even realize they have a neighborhood patrol, let alone what precinct they live in. We often think of cops’ relationships with the communities they police as exploitative, unnecessarily violent, generally problematic and far from neighborly. That perception has been a nationwide issue for years, making Joe Willins’ and Kenny Kaufman’s story all the more inspiring.
Willins and Kaufman were beat cops assigned to Bed-Stuy’s 79th precinct back in the days when the area was defined not by its historic housing stock and rapid gentrification but by record-breaking crime, rampant drug use and poverty. They formed a “two-man homicide squad” who used their relationships with the community to make the 79th a safer neighborhood for all — and without once firing either of their guns in their 20 years of service.
Now, Willins’ neighbor Travis Benn is making a documentary, The Scooter Cops of Bed-Stuy about his and Kaufman’s adventures. Production will hopefully wrap by the end of summer, given they can find enough money. It’s certainly a welcome addition to an otherwise bleak national dialogue: a tale of two cops who were actually able to live up to the NYPD traits written on the side of squad cars: “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect.”
“Here are these two cops interacting with the community and taking criminals off the street without humiliating them or kicking the crap out of them,” Benn said of the partners’ career and legacy.
They were scooter cops, something remembered but not often seen anymore: officers patrolling on Lambrettas. They were boys in blue but also neighbors within their beat, and by befriending those they served to protect they were able to become vigilante officers, bucking their assigned responsibilities of counting pot holes and giving parking tickets to find and arrest murderers.
If Willins and Kaufman could make a difference in 1970s Bed-Stuy, there’s no reason that, by following their example, police and their commissioners today can’t reform back to actually engaging with their community. We got a chance to speak with Willins and Benn about how the scooter cops success in 1970s could be a model to improve police relations today.
Joe, what was it like being on the scooter patrol and what can today’s cops learn from you?
Willins: What Kenny and I did is we transformed our scooter patrol into a two-man homicide squad. Bed-Stuy at that time … the heroin-epidemic hit this neighborhood like the atomic bomb. We hit the crime head on. We wanted to arrest these drug pushers, the people who were committing a lot of crime, the people that were making the neighborhood unsafe. We put 38 people in jail for murder in the late ’60s into the ’80s. We took a number of drug dealers off the street. We got a lot of guns off the street. We arrested a lot of dangerous criminals. We transformed this precinct.
People said what made you guys so successful? What we did was stood in the middle of all this danger and never fired our guns. I never fired one round, and in 20 years neither did Kenny. We were successful with breaking down this crime epidemic without using lethal force. We elicited the community to help us, we treated people with respect, we didn’t humiliate anybody. People loved us out there, we were famous. We were separate from the rest of the cops because our method was togetherness, community help. Everything we did was community-minded and that resonated with people.
The method of patrol they’re having today is police are patrolling these streets in their street cars, and they’re going down the block 30 miles an hour. When Kenny and I were working, we were on scooters and in the open. We saw the people on the corners, in the block associations. We could relate to them on a one-to-one basis. People saw the scooter cops and they said, “Mommy, mommy, look at the scooter cops.” That’s not being done today.
What’s the main message of the film in your eyes, Travis?
Benn: In Brooklyn North when Joe and Kenny were working in the ’70s there were about the same amount of murders as there are in all five boroughs today. So crime as a whole has dropped dramatically from its peak to today. The comparison that we’re not trying to draw is Bed-Stuy 1970 and Bed-Stuy 2017. It’s looking at Bed-Stuy 1970 as it was then, with a lot of crime and a disenfranchised community and here are these two cops interacting with the community and taking criminals off the street without humiliating them or kicking the crap out of them
The most attention-grabbing city right now is Chicago and that doesn’t compare at all. It’s not even close to what Bed-Stuy had in the 70s: You had 45 murders in the 79 precinct alone in 1973. There just isn’t any city that’s as bad as NYC was in the ’70s into the early ’90s. That’s as bad as it’s ever been.
Travis, what inspired you to make this film?
Benn: Joe and I have been friends now for about three years. He lives down the block from me in Bed-Stuy and I think not a week goes by that I don’t hang out with Joe, drink beers with him. He likes to talk about his exploits with Kenny on the scooters. Especially in the beginning of 2015 and the end of 2016 it became so obvious to me how valuable his story would be to the national dialogue.
Just the way he and Kenny operated in the most dangerous neighborhood that’s ever existed in modern America. It’s not a blueprint for what we need as a country, but it’s a very optimistic message that I hope inspires both police and communities, specifically minority communities, but all communities. There are departments in the country that are making strides towards making a community-based police program. I hope that by getting Joe and Kenny’s story out there that serves as a story of optimism and encouragement for that progress.
When’s the film coming out?
Benn: We have no money. If anybody is interested in helping at all they can go to our website, ScooterCops.com. For the past four or five months we’ve been making a lot of progress in getting our fundraiser initiative going. There’s a lot of work to be done when it’s just a couple people making a feature length doc. And we all have regular jobs on the sides, so this is coming together on weeknights and weekends.
Co-director Gideon de Villiers and I are spending a lot of time writing grant applications. We’ll be launching a Kickstarter towards the middle of the spring. There’s a lot of things we’ll have to pay for to get this thing out the door, like documentary footage from the era. We’re going to be shooting some reenactment scenes. We’re a pretty robust little team, we’re hoping to wrap production by the end of the summer.
It was just me and Joe initially. Kenny lives down in Florida, so we don’t have as much access to him.
Joe, what do you miss most about Bed-Stuy back in the day?
Willins: I miss Kenny. I miss him dearly. We were closer than brothers. He meant so much to me. We made a difference in so many people’s lives. That’s what I missed when I retired, I don’t have the opportunity to make a difference as I once did. Kenny’s not at my side, and that meant a lot to me. So that’s what I miss most.