Readers of my books know that I reference a lot of different places and agencies. So today I am continuing the theme of Throwback Thursday, the 2nd in the on-going series, by introducing you to what I consider the preeminent unit within the NYPD; the Emergency Service Unit. In my second book, Queen’s Gambit, ESU plays a pivotal role in the hunt for terrorists threatening NYC.
The saying goes in New York City: ‘When a civilian needs help they call 911, but when a cop needs help they call ESU.’
In 1964, the Philadelphia Police Department established what became known as the first official Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team in the United States. Three years later, the Los Angeles Police Department launched their SWAT team. These were the first units dedicated to specifically addressing escalating violence in urban areas. Without taking anything away from these two premier agencies, in my opinion they were about four decades late to the party.
In 2015, after five years of research, I wrote: Uncommon Valor, a history of the insignia of ESU. It was my goal to record not only the insignia of this acclaimed unit, but also the rich history. I was deeply honored when Police Commissioner William Bratton called me to say that he was having this book included at the NYPD Police Academy library.
The origins of the modern ESU date back to 1925, when NYPD Police Commissioner Richard Enright, created the Police Emergency Automobile Squad. This unit arose out of the need to address changes in the growing urban landscape in New York City. A steadily growing population, coupled with increases in urban construction and a diversifying system of transportation, began to present new issues that the regular patrol officers simply could not begin to handle effectively. Officers were now being forced to contend with a myriad of issues, such as gas leaks, pedestrians being run over by vehicles or falling from elevated train lines, and horses that would fall into open construction sites. It soon became obvious that there was a need to have a specialized unit, which would be available to respond to the new type of emergency situations that New York City was beginning to face.
On November 3rd, 1926, the officers of Emergency Service engaged in their first major gun battle when NYC mobster, Herman ‘Hyman’ Amberg, who was in jail for the murder of a local jeweler, attempted to escape from the old ‘Tombs’ jail on Centre Street, along with two other prisoners. Pistols had been previously smuggled into the jail for the three men. They faked illnesses so that they would be brought to the jail doctor. Once inside the doctor's office, they pulled their guns and attempted to escape. Newly assigned Warden, Peter Mallon, heard the commotion and came running to stop the escape. He was shot and killed as he entered the office. The three inmates then fled into the prison courtyard, near the Lafayette Street gate, where they exchanged shots with Keeper (the former title for Corrections Officer) Jeremiah Murphy and his partner, Daniel O’Connor. Keeper Murphy was killed and his partner was wounded.
Emergency Service responded and engaged the inmates from nearby buildings, raking the jail from all sides with heavy machine gun fire and gas bombs. The gun battle at the Tombs went on for thirty minutes, with hundreds of rounds being fired. Amberg and the other two inmates hunkered down behind a pile of coal in the yard, before making their way to the safety of a guardhouse. They occasionally returned fire, wounding a police officer and a businessman in the Conklin Building across the street. At some point, two of the inmates were shot and wounded. With no escape possible, all three committed suicide.
Over the decades, the role of the Emergency Service Unit has continually evolved. While they still respond to all major disasters, they have become the tip of the spear in the response to terrorism. On September 11th, 2001, of the twenty-three members of the NYPD killed on that day, fourteen were members of ESU. Sadly, in the years since, a number of members have succumbed to 9/11 related illnesses from the toxins they ingested during the rescue & recovery efforts.
In addition to its traditional role, ESU also provides Counter Assault (CAT) / Counter Sniper (CS) Team’s for major events and dignitary protection details. Like the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, ESU works hand in hand with their counterparts in the United States Secret Service and is part of the protection details for presidential motorcades and venues.
The motto of the NYPD ESU has always been: ‘Anytime, Anywhere, Any Place’.
If you have ever watched a newscast, concerning any major event in NYC, it is almost certain that you will see the familiar vehicles of the ESU. Contained within these trucks is a variety of equipment to handle any type of incident. When confronted with a situation they have never encountered before, they will find a way to perform the impossible.
The men & women of ESU are the epitome of the title: NY’s Finest.
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