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THE DECOY SQUAD

April 11, 2013

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Forgot to blog because I thought it was Tuesday, so you get this image-heavy rush-job. I’ve mentioned on this blog just how terrified that Bruce Davidson shot of a man at gunpoint on a train made me when I was younger, reinforcing every rotten apple stereotype that a childhood of obsessing over 1980s VHS sleaze that showed a city overrun by “wallet inspectors” who’d take you for everything you had in front of witnesses (thank you William Lustig, Abel Ferrera, Martin Scorcese and Frank Henenlotter).

That picture turned out to be a member of the New York Transit Police’s “Subway Stars” aka. the Decoy Squad — 24 undercover cops in a variety of disguises; like a crime fighting Village People, to take on the rise in packs of younger muggers hunting prey on the trains. The whole Decoy Squad concept sounds like the plot for a great b-movie and when the team assembled in 1985 in a post Bernie Goetz climate of paranoia, brutality and potential vigilantism (and Davidson’s 1986 Subway book with its glum faces in those tag swarmed surroundings indicates that the trains were no joke back then), it was the subject of plenty of media coverage, presumably for reassurance and political PR.

Bruce Davidson shot plenty of images of the crew at work for a June 1985 New York magazine feature called Hunting the Wolf Packs, with an incredible crew photo of everyone in their disguises, ready to “play the vic” or be a bystander ready to strike. Officer Lyons plays a sleeping Jewish lawyer, Officer Quirke plays a blind man, Officer Doran is a pizza maker returning from his shift and Officer Carter is the undercover man in the satin jacket, Cazals and baseball cap making an arrest in the photo that had me shook. Carter makes plenty more appearances in the images to accompany the article (the black and white images are from 1985 newspaper pieces on the squad), looking cooler than any real world cop has ever looked. It must have been slow, tedious work with quick bursts of intensity.

Entrapment via exposed gold chains and fake Gucci on people pretending to be fake yuppies, dozing Asian tourists, plus gang members looking like they stepped out the Bad video is present in this 1987 footage from a WCBS-TV 60 Minutes episode (scroll down). Allegations of the unit acting illegally with wrongful arrests ended the program in winter that year, but if you were amused by Stallone dressed as an old lady to take down a thief to a Keith Emerson soundtrack in 1981′s Night Hawks or Kramer being saved by a cop posing as a blind violinist on the subway in an early Seinfeld, you’ve got to love the whole Decoy Squad project. Three finger rings and backward hats were an interesting 5-0 uniform for a minute.

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