An Open Window Beckoned

Paul Bass Photo In a dark backyard, Officer Paul Bicki found an empty bucket. He brought it to the driveway nearby, turned it upside down, stood on top. He reached up to a window screen and cut a small hole. Then he felt around—the window was unlocked. He lifted the window.

The cops had a report that a serious crime was brewing inside. Bicki had rung the bell, knocked, tried to locate the landlord. No luck.  A supervisor said to go in.

Bicki looked up at the window. It was a good six feet off the ground. In his younger days on this same beat, no question, he could pull himself up and in. Could he now?

At 53, Bicki was twice as old as some of the cops accompanying him. Old enough to be their dad. Sometimes he offers them pearls of wisdom, sort of like a dad.

He knew they could get through that window.

He’d noticed that his younger compatriots seemed to be taking on more day-to-day challenges like this than he was lately. “I feel sometimes that maybe I’m overstaying my welcome,” he said. “You start feeling, ‘I’m riding on their coattails.’”

The window beckoned. It also taunted him: Bicki no longer weighs 150 pounds, as he did when he ran marathons in the 1990s. On top of the extra pounds, he had a gun and vest on him.

Bicki had to make a quick decision. He decided he had something to prove—if not to his colleagues, then to himself.

“I think I can handle this,” he decided. “I can get in that window.”

He could still be a cop on the beat.

He jumped up. He grabbed the window ledge. He started pulling himself up. Two officers, in their 20s, stood by. He was getting there ... They took his feet, gave him an extra lift.

Next thing he knew, he was tumbling into the living room.

A Good Vintage

A felony arrest was made that night. (Police can’t release key details about the case while it’s pending.) Bicki contributed to a job he considers a noble calling: Being a beat cop.

Bicki, a modest Southbridge, Mass., native with a philosophical bent and a resemblance to the writer/actor Ben Stein, has made that contribution countless times. He has worn a New Haven badge for 22 and a half years. He has patrolled the Dwight/Kensington neighborhood since 1992, one of the first assigned walking beat cops back when New Haven believed in spreading walking beats around town. These days—and evenings (he works the 4 to 12 p.m. shift)—Bicki patrols the neighborhood in a cruiser.

He never tried to snag a detective’s badge, to move up the ranks or off the street. “To me,” he said, “the most humane contribution any individual can make, especially in a democratic society, is to be out there safeguarding people’s liberties.”

Bicki has enough years to put in for retirement, then work a second full-time job. He’d make more money that way. His wife wouldn’t need to worry if some night he would no longer come home to their two teenage children.

Plenty of other cops make that move by Bicki’s age. Sometimes he wonders if he should, too. The “bad guys” haven’t gotten any older. Nor have most of the cops out on street patrol. He has. And the years have changed him.

He concluded he’d like to stick it out eight more years. He saw good news in those changes.

“I still have fire in my belly. I still feel like I can stand tall doing this job,” he said. “I like to think, like a fine wine, you age, you get better.”

Some recent episodes have driven home how older can be not only fine, but in some ways better for a cop on the beat. Not because he can (with some help) still crawl through a window. Because, he decided, the years have given him new gifts he can bring to the beat and share with younger colleagues, gifts like wisdom, patience, and the benefit of experience when it comes to making quick decisions about the fates of strangers.

Trip To Lock-Up Called Off

Bicki made one such decision a week ago. It reminded him how his approach to policing has evolved.

He was on his usual B Shift duty, patrolling in a car with a trainee who’d just finished the regional police academy. As the senior officer on the shift, Bicki regularly finds himself chosen to break in rookies. He was one of the first seven officers chosen as field trainers back in the early ‘90s when the department began pairing new cops with experienced officers to learn the ropes. He continues to play the role of mentor. “He is the rock foundation of our district,” said his supervisor in Dwight, Lt. Ray Hassett. He is willing to share “a tremendous fountain of experience” with new officers.

On the B Shift, call came in: a domestic argument. A man locked himself in a woman’s bathroom. He wouldn’t come out. The woman wanted him to come out.

Bicki and his trainee arrived at the address. The woman came outside and told him the story. Bicki went in, asked the man to leave the bathroom. He did.

He had no shirt on. No shoes. Just a pair of baggy sweatpants.

“What is he doing here?” Bicki asked the woman.

“He gets his mail here,” she said. She had agreed to have his mail come to her apartment. This time he came for the mail, then went into the shower, then refused to depart.

Bicki tried to figure out: What’s their relationship? Is violence involved? What’s up with the mail? Is the woman cashing the man’s checks?

He learned that the man lives with family in Hamden. He spoke with the man further, out on the sidewalk.

“Put your shoes on and just go,” Bicki suggested.

The man responded by pulling his sweatpants down to his knees. He had no underpants on.

At this point, Bicki felt annoyed. The men kept talking—veering on tangents, becoming incoherent. He didn’t seem drunk or high. “He’s having delusions,” Bicki guessed. “He’s schizophrenic.”

He handcuffed the man and called for a transport van to take him to the police lock-up.

Then Bicki had a change of heart. “Yeah, I could charge him with disorderly conduct,” he reasoned. But “it doesn’t benefit anyone to send him to jail.”

Bicki canceled the transport van. Instead he arranged to have the man committed for 72 hours to the Yale-New Haven Hospital psych ward. Get him a clean bed, some food, medication, and a professional assessment of the wisest next steps.

Earlier in his career, Bicki would have charged the man with the disorderly. That’s easier. It takes longer to go the hospital and fill out forms.

Plus, Bicki had a reputation as a stickler, for enforcing the letter of the law as widely as possible, to everyone.

He still believes in enforcing the same laws on everybody. But he’s also come to see the need for more nuanced judgment, for sometimes not locking people up, for using discretion.

“When you make decisions out here, nothing is black and white,” he reasoned. “We do have discretion. Discretion is a good thing—as long as it’s not abused. I don’t make the laws. I don’t have the right to decide which laws I like and which laws I don’t like.”

But if, say, an officer stops a man who ran a red light, the man apologizes, and it turns out his wife had passed away an hour ago and he didn’t pay enough attention, the officer should have the latitude to let him off without a ticket, Bicki said by way of example.

“As you get older, you get a sense of the complexities of life and the contradictions. You don’t have that when you’re 22.”

No Reason To Stop Now

Some of those 22-year-olds do tend to get more guns and drugs off the street than he does, Bicki acknowledged. He also noticed that younger colleagues will take on more tasks, like writing reports, when paired with him. Bicki told one officer that he wanted to pull his weight more. “In my culture,” responded the officer, who’s of Asian descent, “the older people teach, and the younger people work. Don’t worry about it. When you’re older, you mentor. You teach.”

Bicki does occasionally get a gun off the street. He did one night a few months ago.

It was near midnight and Bicki was approaching the end of a shift with yet another trainee under his wing. They headed east in their cruiser on Goffe Street, toward Union Avenue police headquarters to write up a report on a domestic case they’d wrapped up.

The trainee was driving. In the passenger seat, Bicki noticed a group of men on the sidewalk near a van parked on Orchard Street. He got just a glance. He saw man in a white T-shirt raising his hands to the level of his head. Bicki wondered: Were his hands up because he was being robbed?

“Spin it around,” Bicki told the trainee after they passed through the intersection. “We’ve got to go back over there. Let’s just check it out.”

The men didn’t notice the two officers as they pulled beside the van. Bicki and the trainee got out of their car, approached with guns drawn. They ordered the man to the ground.

The men complied—except for the one in the white T-shirt. He turned toward the van and put his hand in his pocket.

Bicki told the trainee to pat the man down. The man had a gun.

“What’d I do?” the man asked.

“I thought you were getting robbed,” Bicki explained.

It turned out the man had no permit for the gun, a 9 mm Browning. He said he’d borrowed it from his father. Bicki checked. It turned out it had been reported stolen, almost 16 years ago to the day, from a home on Judson Avenue. The man was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, theft of a firearm, and possession of a pistol without a permit.

Bicki and his trainee ended up working until past dawn filing reports. It was worth it, Bicki said. “Gun arrests make you feel like you saved a life.”

Bicki wanted to be a cop since graduating from Boston State College with a law enforcement degree. For years he couldn’t land a police job; he worked security at a museum, a hospital, a bank, waiting for his break. It came in 1988, when New Haven took him on.

He’s still grateful for that break. “I think of my accomplishments in life. I’ve had the same job for 25 years. I’ve been married to the same woman for more than 20.” He sees no reason to stop now.

Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:

Shafiq Abdussabur
Lloyd Barrett
Maneet Bhagtana
Scott Branfuhr
Dennis Burgh
Sydney Collier
David Coppola
Roy Davis
Joe Dease
Milton DeJesus
Brian Donnelly
Anthony Duff
Bertram Etienne
Paul Finch
Jeffrey Fletcher
Renee Forte
Marco Francia
William Gargone
William Gargone & Mike Torre
Derek Gartner
Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
Dan Hartnett
Ray Hassett
Robin Higgins
Ronnell Higgins
Racheal Inconiglios
Hilda Kilpatrick
Peter Krause
Amanda Leyda
Anthony Maio
Steve McMorris
Stephanie Redding
Tony Reyes
Luis & David Rivera
Salvador Rodriguez
Brett Runlett
David Runlett
Marcus Tavares
Martin Tchakirides
Stephan Torquati
Gene Trotman Jr.
Kelly Turner
Lars Vallin (& Xander)
John Velleca
Alan Wenk
Michael Wuchek
David Zannelli
David Zaweski

(To suggest an officer to be featured, contact us here.)

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posted by: amicahomi on October 8, 2010  12:04pm

Thanks to NHI for taking the time and care to publish this feature.  It is always interesting in a good story line, human interest, get to know your neighbor way.  Cop of the Week is also a way to humanize and thank the people who protect our city by directing attention to their real lives.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on October 8, 2010  1:44pm

With all due respect for compassion and the wisdom of experience, though, if someone runs a red light out of inattention—even if the distraction is one for which there is every reason to sympathize—maybe you don’t give him a ticket but I hope you strongly urge him to get off the road. 

Distraction is distraction, and it would hurt the grieving driver even more than a ticket if his distraction led him to run a red light and collide with someone else, who got hurt or possibly even killed.

posted by: Ex-NHPD on October 8, 2010  2:51pm

With all the other negative stuff going on right now in which the NHPD is taking some hits, it is nice to see one of the great ones getting his due. 

They don’t come any better than Paul. He is a throw back to the old days where the cop on the beat is the cornerstone of the department.  He may not have chevrons or gold bar(s), but he is just as valuable to the NHPD as any supervisor.  He is the epitome of what you want in a FTO; he knows the job and knows how to teach it.

I had the pleasure of being Paul’s supervisor for many years.  Supervisors often discuss with one another the cops who report to them.  One of the measures of how good a cop someone is can be shown by asking this question—If a member of my family was the victim of a crime, who would you want to respond/handle it?  Paul was always at the top of that list.

And to Ms. Pritchard—Did you read the article and only come away with a negative response to the Hypothetical Red Light Scenario?  I know you don’t know the officer, but do you think in that scenario that he would not have made sure the guy was okay to continue on?  If it was reported that an officer had given the man a ticket in that situation, the officer would have been accused of being a heartless “RoboCop”,  who was just making his quota.

Thank you Paul for your dedicated service.

posted by: diver119 on October 8, 2010  5:42pm

Great job Bicki!

posted by: Jon Haddad on October 8, 2010  7:10pm

Paul Bicki is one of the best people on earth. I have worked with him for over 21 years. He is honest, dedicated, and brave.

posted by: D9DM on October 9, 2010  9:32am

Paul is a true Humanitarian,who just happens to be a police officer..He is one of the best officers we have for many years.He is diligent in his work and a tremendous educator to the young officers on this job..I to learned from Paul as I worked with him in D4 for 6 years, he always had time for me and others and he shows a true passion for his job..Great Job Bick..Cop of the Year is more like it…long overdue.

posted by: Jim on October 9, 2010  5:19pm

Intelligent, compassionate, highly capable; we need more officers like him
I bet Paul Bicki isn’t afraid to have his picture taken when performing his duties. That’s the difference between a real professional and a thug in uniform.