Patrick Lynch, New York City's Blue Bulldog

Patrick Lynch Shaminder Dulai for Newsweek

About an hour after midnight on January 24, 2004, two men who had probably never seen each other before met for a single tragic moment on a rooftop in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

One of them, Timothy Stansbury Jr., was a black teenager. The other, Richard S. Neri Jr., was a white officer with the New York Police Department. Stansbury lived in the Louis Armstrong Houses; Neri was on a "vertical," patrolling the housing project's rooftops and stairwells, where criminality sometimes thrives. Stansbury had been at a party at another building and was returning there after fetching some music CDs from his apartment. He was with two friends, and though they probably knew that access to housing projects roofs is forbidden, that route was easier than heading outside, then back up again. Neri was with his partner. His weapon was drawn, as department protocol allows on verticals.

Neri, on the roof, approached a door that led to a stairwell into the building as Stansbury and his friends approached that same door from inside. At exactly the same time, Stansbury and Neri opened the door. As Neri would later testify, the bewildering and startling presence of someone on the other side of the door caused him to discharge his gun. He fired just one shot. Timothy Stansbury Jr. ran bleeding down five flights of stairs. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Timothy Stansbury Jr. is shown in photos displayed at a sidewalk memorial in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2004. Stansbury, 19, was shot and killed by police on a Brooklyn rooftop. John Marshall Mantel/AP

At the time, the administration of New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was just a shade over two years old. In neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, where Stansbury lived, black and brown residents were still seething from two terms under the lash of former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, during which the NYPD operated with the implicit mandate that public safety trumped civil rights. They remembered well Abner Louima, sodomized with a broom handle in a Brooklyn precinct house; Amadou Diallo, shot 41 times in the entryway of a Bronx building while taking out his wallet; Patrick M. Dorismond, killed by an undercover detective outside a Manhattan bar. Defending the last of these killings, Giuliani said Dorismond was "no altar boy." It was quickly noted that Dorismond had been just that.

Now, with Stansbury dead, the city waited to see whether Bloomberg would respond with a similarly reflexive defense of the department. Would the riots that tore through Crown Heights in 1991 revisit Bed-Stuy in 2004?

An unidentified woman wearing a vail of mourning holds a card with the image of Amadou Diallo before the start of a prayer vigil outside the United Nations Sunday, Feb. 27, 2000, in New York. Stephen Chernin/AP

Several hours after the shooting, Bloomberg's police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, conducted his own investigation, walking around the scene of the shooting. Later that day, he rendered his verdict: "[There] appears to be no justification for the shooting." It was a stunning admission that instantly dissipated the mounting rage.

But not everyone was pleased. The most vociferous critic was Patrick J. Lynch, who heads the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, a union for more than 20,000 beat cops in the city's five boroughs (sergeants, captains, lieutenants and detectives have their own unions). Lynch doesn't just represent cops; he represents what it means to be a cop in an America where guns are legal and restraint is rare, a nation still fighting a drug war in which the enemy may be a Mexican drug lord or a teenager smoking a joint, still dealing with racial animosities we'd supposedly transcended in 1968...or was it 2008? His officers are the brethren of those in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as the members of 18,000 other nonfederal law enforcement agencies across the nation, men and women who on any given day may have to deal with terrorists, illegal aliens, meth cooks, crazies, messianic cultists and protesters in Guy Fawkes masks. All these officers are charged with the impossible task of upholding a broken social contract.

In the wake of the Stansbury shooting, Lynch was furious that Kelly had failed to defend one of his own. "Commissioner Kelly gave a message to the 23,000 New York City police officers that said basically this: Take all the risks of doing your job, go up on all those roofs, patrol all those subway platforms, walk the streets day and night, take the risks to yourself, take the risks to your family, but then when the worst happens, when there's a tragedy, that you will not have the backing of the New York police commissioner."

Several days after that, a grand jury decided not to indict Neri. A year later, he was elected as the PBA delegate for Brooklyn North. Bloomberg was elected twice more, and Kelly remained his commissioner for all three terms. The city never burned, but Lynch never forgot.

Police arrest demonstrators during a protest on October 12, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri of the killinga of Michael Brown and Vonderrit Myers Jr. Scott Olson/Getty

The Urban Lazarus

It takes Patrick Lynch a very long time to get around New York: Merely walking to his SUV, parked around the corner from his office at the tip of lower Manhattan, can take 15 minutes. That's because Lynch makes a point of shaking hands with every police officer within about a 20-foot range. A more distant officer will get a wave and a shouted greeting. The flesh-pressing is mostly just saluting the troops, but it is also good politics, since Lynch is up for reelection next year (his fifth term). With his graying hair perfectly slicked back and a pinstripe suit outlining solid features, Lynch has neatly transitioned from policing to politics.

The PBA's communications director, Al O'Leary, believes Lynch is the most powerful police union chief in the world: His union has twice as many members as Chicago does police officers. Lynch's loudest critics—for example, a city councilman who had once been a Black Panther and deemed the PBA the "Police Brutality Association" after the Stansbury shooting—would be dismayed to know how little impact they have on his ironclad convictions. He is not reflective, nor is he paid to be. His job is to be the strident, unflagging voice of his beat cops in contract talks and grievance hearings.

Lynch is also a stentorian frontman for a profession that has not been popular of late; perhaps his most pressing duty is to be a tireless reminder of law enforcement's role in making urban life attractive once more. The return of American urbanism in the late 20th century was led by New York, which in 1990 had 2,245 murders: six a day and about seven times higher than its murder rate in 2013. Today, the metropolitan revival has spread so far beyond the five boroughs that there is unironic talk of resurgence in places like Kansas City and Omaha. But if Lazarus has risen in Milwaukee, it's not entirely because the celebrated creative class brought him back to life in its graphic design studios and vegan cupcake shops. The cities had to be made safe before they were made hip. And that was done in part by police officers like Lynch.

But as crack dens become condominiums, memories fade. In recent years, police officers have frequently found themselves vilified both by poor minorities pushed by gentrification into ever-more-distant neighborhoods and by the upper-middle-class whites who have replaced them in "up-and-coming" areas.

Perhaps that's because cops serve as an uncomfortable reminder of what it takes to make Brooklyn a playground for the Lena Dunhams of this world. Like teenagers, we chafe at them, doubly so because we badly need them. Not that those who enforce the law always abide by it. To an unabashed cop defender like Lynch, what he says are rare instances of police misbehavior have received an inordinate response that points to a deeper antipathy, a growing ingratitude. "Maybe we're forgetting what it felt like to be afraid," he says with something approaching bitterness.

'A Bunch of Thugs… '

Patrick Lynch, now 51, was reared in Bayside, Queens, the last of seven children in an Irish-Catholic family. He went to Monsignor Scanlon High School, in the Bronx. There, he met Kathleen Casey, who became his wife. They have two sons. One is a police cadet. The other is a police officer. Lynch still lives in Bayside, close to where he was raised.

Lynch's father spent 30 years as a subway motorman, and Lynch worked briefly as a train conductor. He became a police officer on January 4, 1984, assigned to the 90th Precinct in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Today, that neighborhood is a global nexus of cool; 30 years ago, Lynch recalls, it was a "drug supermarket" with "crime out of control. There was no walking safely down the street [back then]. Now there's clubs there, and that's a direct result of police officers putting themselves at risk."

Nevertheless, recent events have provided a vexing challenge to Lynch: New York has never been safer, and the police have never been less popular. Last spring, the NYPD's social media team encouraged city residents to use the #MyNYPD hashtag to tweet selfies with police officers. Within hours, Twitter exploded with photographs, coded with the hashtag, of NYPD officers looking like brutal foot soldiers of the 1 percent, swinging fists and crushing windpipes. Many were outraged by the social-media subversion, with the Daily News suggesting, in an editorial titled #ourNYPD, that the image of the NYPD as "a bunch of thugs haphazardly wielding force is gross, sloppy and plain wrong." Yet a point had been made, in the plain sight of millions.

Lynch thinks that maybe it got too "good on the streets," and that people have forgotten that they need the police. He thinks they will soon remember. He says he has seen an uptick in graffiti while driving around Brooklyn and Queens, a sure sign that the bad old days are returning.

A Slap in the Face

Lynch straddles a tricky divide: A product of the old, heavily Irish department, he must work within the new one, where a patrol car might have an officer from Warsaw and another from Port-au-Prince. That task is complicated by the fact that Lynch regularly has to defend the use of force by white cops against blacks. His job is to defend all cops, regardless of their race, yet in his statements to the media after such a shooting, Lynch shows little sensitivity to black and brown victims of police force—even if he knows that an increasing number of his officers come from those communities.

People attend a vigil for Eric Garner near where he died after he was taken into police custody in Staten Island on July 22, 2014 in New York City. Garner died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store for illegally selling cigarettes. Spencer Platt/Getty

The most recent such victim was Eric Garner, who died in July as the result of a choke hold applied by officers who were trying to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street. The death, which was captured on a cellphone camera, led to widespread accusations of police brutality. Later in the summer, after the nation erupted in outrage over Ferguson, many saw a similarity between the two cases. "10 Ways Racism Killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner," one headline said.

"Force is never a pretty thing," Lynch later told me when we sat in his office, which overlooks New York Harbor. It is a spacious, sunny room filled with law enforcement memorabilia: a cross fashioned out of World Trade Center steel, a photograph from his own Police Academy class (darker hair, smaller paunch). An ancient-looking letter bomb detector reposed in a corner.

Lynch maintains that Officer Daniel Pantaleo used a legal "takedown maneuver," not a choke hold. And while some have held Garner up as a martyr, Lynch says that he "died from a number of bad life choices," including selling cigarettes (Garner was an obese asthmatic with cardiovascular disease). Lynch knows that many New Yorkers want Pantaleo in a courtroom and, subsequently, in a prison cell. But he cautions against quick judgment: "Police officers have civil rights, too."

Police officers in riot gear hold a line October, 12 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri as they watch demonstrators protest the shooting death of Michael Brown and 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers Jr. Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty

'Nothing to Hide'

In Queens, the traffic was relentless, though the evening rush was still more than an hour away. We were heading toward the 113th Precinct, in a distant Queens neighborhood near John F. Kennedy International Airport called St. Albans, which is largely populated by middle-class blacks. Long Island is near. This is almost suburbia, but not quite. In 2006, about two miles from the One-One-Three, undercover officers shot and killed an unarmed black man, Sean Bell, as he was leaving his bachelor party at a strip club. A stretch of Liverpool Street was renamed Sean Bell Way, though some thought he was undeserving of the honor.

Officers at the 113th were especially upset because while naming a street after Bell had been easy enough, it had proved much more difficult to similarly commemorate John G. Scarangella, a police officer killed by black radicals in 1981. "I'm disgusted with these people," one user wrote on an online police forum.

Scarangella finally got a stretch of Baisley Boulevard named after him, in 2011. Within the 113th Precinct, there is a memorial for him and for another officer, Disdale Enton, who died in 2002 while in pursuit of a suspect. The building is low, gray brick, like a bunker, and it sits next to a school. By the time Lynch arrived at 3 p.m., kids, mostly black, were walking home from school. Cops trotted into the precinct. A black plainclothes in shorts came over and shook Lynch's hand. "My man, we love you," he said. Lynch had probably shaken more than 100 hands that day, with many more waiting inside.

Officers at 113 Precinct in Queens, N.Y. listen to Patrick Lynch as he updates them on contract negotiations, city demands and crime statistics. Shaminder Dulai for Newsweek

Officers gathered in a muster room that smelled of disinfectant. Photos of suspects covered the walls. Knowing that not even self-interest can make most people listen to an hour of contractual talk, the PBA bought pizza and Diet Coke, as well as PBA tchotchkes. The officers folded their slices, milled around, settled down.

Lynch spoke loudly, confidently, like a coach who knows the game plan and wants only its capable execution. Other union officials stood behind him, somberly, in suits. The city, he said, was offering a "shit contract." Since 9/11, 6,000 officers had fled the force, many to better-paying districts in the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey. Unless the city gave the PBA a contract with significant raises, many more would follow. "Without police officers, this city would go to shit," said PBA Vice President John Puglissi. "We know that."

After the talk, which lasted about an hour, Lynch mixed with the officers, who tend to approach him with a manner at once casual and deferential. He is not their boss, but he is their most powerful advocate. They do not have a voice; his is always willing to be the loudest voice in the room. Earlier in the day, a woman had thanked him for something he said on television about Eric Garner's death, a defense of police tactics that were otherwise facing near universal condemnation.

Lynch basked in the compliment. "I just get to say what everyone is thinking." That may not be exactly true, however: There are probably some cops who disagree with Lynch, cops who know what it is like to be Richard Neri, and also what it's like to be Timothy Stansbury.