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Dressed in police uniforms, two black men, Jim Harris and Joe Logart, break into an apartment in Harlem and steal $300,000 in cash from underlings of Italian-American gangster Don Gennarro. Although Joe and Jim had wanted to avoid violence, when Joe nervously drops something, one of the gangsters goes for a gun, igniting a melee that ends when all of the gangsters are dead. Joe and Jim quickly flee into a rickety getaway car driven by drug addict Henry J. Jackson, but during their escape the car hits a white policeman, who later dies. As Capt. Frank Mattelli arrives at the building, mobs of spectators have gathered to jeer at the police. Inside the apartment, Frank is irritated to see college-educated black police lieutenant William Aliceworth Pope at the crime scene. Fifty-five-year-old Frank, an old-fashioned racist nearing forced retirement, bristles when informed that "the brass" have put Pope in charge of the investigation. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, Gennarro tells his son-in-law, Nick D'Salvio, about the theft and orders him to retrieve the money and severely punish those responsible because showing weakness would cause their family to lose control of Harlem. Nick then goes to see Doc Johnson, a black crime boss who has controlled Harlem for Gennarro for fifteen years, and offers $5,000 for each of the robbers. Doc contemptuously says that he is in charge in Harlem and calls Nick an aging errand boy for his father-in-law. That evening, as the affable Henry J. prepares for a night out, he calls the dry cleaning shop where Joe works to gloat about their success. Worried, Joe calls Jim to warn him that Henry J. is high again and might talk too much. While the police have little success in obtaining information in Harlem, Shevvy, who works for Doc, investigates on his own. Later, at a Harlem brothel, while Henry J. parties with several women, Jim shows the robbery money to his girl friend, Gloria Roberts, who pleads with him to return it. Although Jim confesses that he never wanted to kill anyone, he tells Gloria that he intends to keep the money, arguing that a black ex-convict has little opportunity beyond being a super in his rundown, Lenox Avenue apartment building. Following the discovery of the abandoned getaway car, the police bring in the registered owner, Glenn W. Fears, for questioning. Although Fears had nothing to do with the robbery, he refuses to reveal the name of the person who recently bought the car, prompting Frank to beat him. When Pope stops Frank, the two exchange angry insults, after which Fears threatens to sue Frank. Meanwhile, acting on their own tip, Nick and his henchmen intimidate Mrs. Fears, who reveals that they sold the car to Henry J. Nick tracks Henry J. down at the brothel and brutally beats him, horrifying the other patrons, who are too frightened to resist when Nick takes Henry J. away. A short time later, Henry J., who was crucified and castrated by Nick's men, is being taken to the hospital in an ambulance but dies after revealing Jim's name to Frank and Pope. Stunned by what happened to Henry J., Frank goes to confront Doc, but when Doc's man draws a gun, Pope draws his gun. A bemused Doc compliments Pope for being a college man and offers to put him on the payroll, just like Frank, who has gotten $2,500 a month for the past two years. Frank's embarrassed rationalization that he only took gambling money garners even more contempt from Pope. Meanwhile, when two white patrolmen go to Joe's shop to pick up their uniforms, he overhears them talking about Henry's J.'s crucifixion. At the same time, Pope and Frank go to question Henry J.'s estranged, common-law wife, and she recalls that he had a friend named Jim Harris whom he used to visit in prison. Observing her neatly kept apartment and shy little daughter, Frank cannot bring himself to tell them what really happened to Henry J. and says that he was killed in a hit and run accident. Pope asks her to come and identify the body, but Frank says there is no need, then gently hugs the little girl and gives Mrs. Jackson a large amount of cash from his pocket, lying that they found it on Henry J.'s body. After Joe's boss at the dry cleaner is tortured, a terrified Joe tells Jim that he wants to take his share of the money and go to a friend's place in New Jersey. Although Joe blames himself for the killings during the robbery, Jim insists that it was not his fault. At the police station, Frank and Pope go through the files of all black ex-convicts named Jim Harris and narrow them down to three choices, including Pope's selection, a petty criminal with epilepsy. Meanwhile, Joe hails a cab in Harlem, but when the cab driver calls in his location to the cab company, Shevvy receives the transmission. He, Nick and some henchmen then corner the cab and eventually chase Joe to a high-rise building under construction. There Joe is tortured and tied upside down on an overhang until he reveals Jim's name, after which Nick orders the rope loosened, causing Joe to fall to his death. At the same time, Jim realizes that he also must leave Harlem and says goodbye to Gloria. On the streets, though, Jim begins to have a seizure and remembers that he has left his epilepsy pills behind. He then calls Gloria, who says she will meet him at the apartment. Unknown to Gloria, Shevvy has been watching her and follows her, then calls Nick. At the police station, Frank tells Pope that he is retiring and will give him all of the information he needs to help his career. Just then, Doc calls for Pope and tells him where Jim is. Frank warns Pope that Doc did this to confirm that Frank is "out" and he "in," but Pope insists that he is his own man, then asks Frank if he is coming to the building. In the morning, while Gloria is tending to Jim, Nick and his men arrive. Nick shoots through the door, killing Gloria, then Jim returns fire, killing Nick and his men. Scurrying to the roof with his pack of money just as the police arrive, Jim almost escapes, but is shot. Knowing he is about to die, Jim throws the pack over the ledge into a school playground, where the children surround it. As Frank joins Pope on the roof, Jim takes aim to shoot Frank but is killed by Pope. Unseen by the police, Shevvy has taken position on a nearby rooftop and moments later shoots and mortally wounds Frank in the head. Because Shevvy's gun had a silencer, the shot is undetected until Frank falls to the ground, holding onto Pope's hand.