Desmond Robinson went to extraordinary lengths to avoid looking like a police officer. He shaved his head but not his beard. He wore earrings to work, along with shorts and sandals. He became so good at dissolving himself into the fluid masses on the subways that his colleagues bestowed on him the ultimate nickname for an undercover officer: The Phantom.
He was just the kind of adversary most dreaded by the roving bands of pickpockets who work the trains and spend more time looking for the police than they do hustling for the easy wallet. Most of them never get arrested, having mastered the art of spotting an officer's nervous glance through his disguise. But they rarely spotted Robinson."He could be on you out of nowhere," said Sgt. Michael Conway, his former supervisor in the transit police.
Peter DelDebbio did not wear a uniform to work, either, but came from a different corner of the city's sprawling law-enforcement community. A straight-arrow squad leader in the military reserves once a month, he spent his workdays in an elite unit of the police department's Organized Crime Control Bureau, working with the gadgets and tools of reconnaissance. Though a plainclothes officer, he never had occasion to wear an earring to work.
He is white - half Italian, half Hispanic - and Robinson is black.
The two men might never have met had it not been for the kind of misunderstanding so possible and so deadly that the thought of it chills the blood of every police officer in or out of uniform. Sometimes it nearly happens but is averted at the last moment by a shout or a signal or an instant of recognition. Last Monday night, there were no such fortunate moments.
In the gloomy commotion of the 53d Street IND subway station, DelDebbio shot Robinson four times, having been fooled into believing that the man in the brilliant disguise, who happened to be holding a gun, was a criminal. Two of the wounds were in the back, and witnesses said DelDebbio had continued to fire as his colleague fell to the ground or after he had fallen.
Stemming from familiar circumstances - two youths carrying concealed weapons from Manhattan to Queens - the incident became one of those crushing but perfect illustrations of how a police officer's life is divided into a series of split seconds. In a job where a decision must come faster than thought itself, the instinctual judgments about race and crime built into an urban culture are often more important than all the sensitivity training a police department can offer.
No one was killed in the incident, but Robinson was seriously wounded. He is in stable condition and on his way to recovery at Bellevue Hospital Center with wounds to the heart and liver. DelDebbio, who was shot in the arm by another officer on the platform, was released from the hospital on Thursday after a distraught and apologetic bedside visit to Robinson.
"He can't believe that's his face in the newspaper," said Det. Sergio Rivera, a good friend of DelDebbio's in the public morals unit, where he was previously assigned.
"Of all the nightmares a cop can have, this is the worst. I told him I was praying for him, and he said to pray for the other guy."
There is more to being a daredevil than riding a motorcycle, learning kung fu and training for a helicopter pilot's license, although Desmond Robinson did all of that. Even more risky in the circumscribed culture of the police was listening to - and liking - the music of the rapper Ice-T, who ignited a firestorm a few years ago with his song "Cop Killer." Where others heard a furious diatribe urging the execution of cops, Robinson heard a song about bad cops, who murdered and broke the law.
"He'd say it was about killing criminals," said Lt. Bobby Wheeler, who trained Robinson in the police academy and later served as his superior officer with the transit police. "He understood the message. He'd raise eyebrows, but Des stuck to his guns."
Desmond Robinson never did care much about conformity, at least not until he had to learn to blend into the tide of subway passengers. Growing up in an apartment in the West Brighton section of Staten Island, the youth known as Skip did not bother hanging out with the other teenagers, putting up with their taunts when he said he wanted to be a policeman.
"We didn't believe him," said Robbie Edgeworth, who lived down the hall from him. "But he did it."
First he put in a stint in the Marine Corps, stationed in San Diego, then he took the police exam, hoping to be assigned to the New York Police Department. Instead, he drew the transit police and grew to love it.
"He was a tunnel rat," said Detective Billy Nolan, a longtime friend who was also in the 1986 class of recruits. "He said he loved it down in the hole. He said the steel dust made him strong."
After four years in uniform, Robinson moved in May 1990 to the plainclothes anti-crime unit of District 4. The unit handled a variety of duties, from summons sweeps to the rousting of panhandlers to elaborate robbery stakeouts and setups. In tandem with his partner, David Thompson, he proved remarkably adept at the intricate, subtly clandestine work of the plainclothes officer on the trains. The two became good enough to be known to fellow officers as the Dynamic Duo and were praised by their superiors for the quality of their arrests.
"The criminals in the subways are always looking for cops," said Deputy Inspector Joseph Madden, who served as Robinson's commanding officer in District 4 for a year. "It's tough work to blend in, to do your job at the same moment you are doing your best to act completely uninterested. Des and Dave were good. Better than most. It's saying a lot."
Some stations are considered "war zones" for black undercover officers, who know if they're seen with a weapon drawn, they can "get done," to use their expression.