From July, 2002. In which I, in my bullet proof vest, ride in the back seat of a squad car in the 30th precinct for an entire Saturday night shift in West Harlem with two police officers. I was in the back seat which had no seat cushion (just a metal surface). The driving was jerky and it was so hot, I thought I was going to throw up the entire time. This is a meandering story with no point, but I think it is fascinating what these cops (in this particular precinct) deal with on a regular basis. This article includes only a portion of what went on that night.
As Officers Odalis Perez and Mike Rivera head for their squad car at 4 p.m. on a sultry 85-degree Saturday, ready to begin a patrol of West Harlem, they step past Eric, who is standing outside of the entrance of the stationhouse. No one seems to know much about Eric, except that he is seriously mentally ill. Smoking a cigar and wearing the same dingy black vest and white shirt that he wears every day, he nods officially to Perez and Rivera. He is waiting for his assignment from the sergeant.
The sergeant comes out and gives the order, which Eric writes carefully into a book he carries everywhere. He is appointed such duties as cleaning graffiti off a phone booth, or checking out a known drug dealing corner. Most officers laugh about him behind his back, but to his face they are respectful. One senses that these cops appreciate any help they can get here in one of the busiest precincts in all of New York City.
“He’s been doing that for eight years,” Officer Rivera says with a mix of admiration and humor in his voice, as he pulls away from the stationhouse in car 1896.
The West Harlem neighborhood called Hamilton Heights, from the Hudson River to just before St. Nicholas Avenue, between 133rd and 155th streets, is one of the smallest precincts in New York — fifth or sixth smallest according to its officers — but it rivals some of the largest and toughest precincts in felony arrests. The neighborhood, nicknamed the Cocaine Capital, is infiltrated by a deep-rooted narcotics trade that serves drug dealers nationally. The 30th precinct stationhouse is one of the few that is regularly visited by the FBI, Secret Service, and the DEA.
Busting a narcotics industry nestled within the apartment buildings of their precinct is not an achievable goal for Officers Rivera and Perez, cruising around in their squad car. They are, however, exceptionally deft at placing Band-Aids on some of the hundreds of surface wounds that result from the narcotics culture of Hamilton Heights.
“Why the fuck do I gotta pay for this?” asks a young man in his early twenties wearing a white t-shirt that is hand-painted with dripping blood and a smoking gun. He is a suspect in a liquor store robbery.
The owners of Brand Liquor take Officer Rivera and another cop who has arrived at the scene, Officer Figueroa, into the back to show them the security camera tapes. They see the young man with three other men, all of them requesting different bottles, then changing their requests, confusing the store owners. While the owners are scrambling to put together the order, two of the young men walk out with two expensive bottles of liquor.
“They were smooth, man,” says Figueroa.
“They work good together,” says his partner, Officer Shea.
The young man in the painted t-shirt reluctantly pulls out a wad of money as thick as a small novel. He peels off a couple of bills that total $150, the cost of the two missing bottles.
“I made him believe he was gonna get in trouble,” says Figueroa when he is out on the sidewalk. “He kept saying, ‘But it’s my birthday!'”
“Three-oh-Charlie, three-oh-Charlie,” says a blaring voice over Perez and Rivera’s radio. This is their signal to get back in the car and find out what is going on around the next corner of West Harlem.
A woman waves to them frantically from the side of the street. They pull over. She speaks urgently in Spanish. She points to a car.
“Honey, you’re gonna have to call a locksmith for that,” Perez tells her in a friendly voice.
“I love my job,” says Perez, who is 28 years old and a former bookkeeper. “I have fun. It’s not like when you’re in an office and you know what’s going to happen every day. I love my job.”
Rivera drives his partner of two years over to Riverbank State Park, which is built over a sewage treatment plant. On this blazing summer day, the carousel is in full swing, and the park is crammed with families on beach blankets. As the officers drive along the wide sidewalk that cuts through the park, little children wave at them. The officers pull over along side two pre-teen boys, one of whom has a nosebleed, and Perez asks in Spanish if she can be of any help. She calls out some first-aid advice as Rivera drives on.
“Three-oh-Charlie, the perp is a wearing white pants, a brown shirt, is dark skinned and has braids,” says the voice over the radio. “Her name is Rosa.”
As Perez and Rivera scan the streets for a suspect, they head for the apartment of the “victim,” although Perez is not entirely comfortable with that characterization.
“There’s always two sides to each story,” she says.
“She was looking for me because I used to be with her man,” says the young woman who filed the complaint, holding a toddler in her arms.
She points to a cut on her leg which she claims came from the knife that Rosa was swinging at her. At her feet is the broken glass from a small table tipped over, and papers are all over the floor. There are a few dents in the thick metal door to her apartment. Approximately 10 feet directly across from her apartment, two members of a family peek through their door with wide eyes. They have no doorknob, and their door looks like it has been smashed in with a battering ram.
“I was in the house when she broke the door down,” the woman says. “I was holding my son.” The previous day, Rosa had at first kicked down the wrong apartment door, and then turned around and kicked down the correct door. After her knife-wielding threats, “her man” finally arrived and convinced Rosa to leave.
The attacked woman spotted Rosa on the streets just a few minutes ago and called the police.
Perez and Rivera drive the young woman around the block, searching for the suspect. Rosa is spotted through the window of Juan’s Unisex, a beauty salon on Broadway. The officers motion through the window for her to come out onto the sidewalk.
As Perez recites the Miranda rights in Spanish and handcuffs this alleged felon who, with downcast eyes, remains completely calm, a crowd assembles quickly, filling up the sidewalk. Rosa’s friends touch her shoulders and speak to her quickly in low voices.
“Funny how everyone already knows the whole story,” Rivera says dryly.
After about a half hour of paperwork back at the station, with Rosa sitting quietly alone in a yellow cell, Perez and Rivera pass the case on to another officer who has not had a felony arrest this month, and get back into their car.
Slowing for intersections, then lurching through the side streets, the car makes its way to a reported drug sale with a female dealer.
Some consider Hamilton Heights the narcotics capital of the Northeast. Not the northeast of Manhattan, but the northeast of the United States. Drug dealers travel for hours to this neighborhood to pick up stock for their local businesses back home.
“It’s a unique place,” says Sergeant Anthony Adorno, later, back at the stationhouse. “You see plates from all over. Here they don’t deal in grams, they deal in kilos.”
The neighborhood is riddled with “steerers,” and “look-outs” — sometimes 10 to 15 of them per dealer. They are part of a chain of people who protect dealers from the cops. Sometimes there are so many people involved with a single drug transaction, it is hard to build a case against anyone.
When Perez and Rivera arrive at the scene, the few people there tell the officers that nothing is going on.
“There’s not much we can do,” Perez says, back in the car. “They just disappear.”
After a slice of pizza for dinner and a quick check on a complaint about some teenagers, Perez and Rivera continue to cruise.
“Three-oh-Charlie, three-oh-Charlie, an ambulance requesting police,” says the radio.
“Look, it’s already 8:30 now,” says Perez, “and in three hours, that’s it!”
“But there are days when you just want to go home and you don’t want to hear the radio anymore,” says the 33-year-old and married Rivera, less enthusiastically.
The radio operator fills the officers in on the ambulance call, warning them that it is for an extremely drunk woman who is acting obnoxiously, and that the woman’s husband was the one who called for the ambulance.
“Caroline,” says Rivera. “She’s a regular.”
“Oh, she’s a sweetheart,” says the ambulance driver sarcastically when the officers arrive. “She’s drunk out of her skull.”
The living room of Caroline’s apartment is pleasantly decorated with photos of jazz musicians and art prints. Books and compact disks line the walls, and there is a huge doll of “Chef,” the cook on the animated television show South Park, sitting atop the television.
They ask Caroline to put something on her feet. “I don’t even know what a shoe is,” she says in a slurred voice. She is a pale woman in her forties with dyed black hair, wearing a short red t-shirt and naked from the waist down. She is splayed across the couch.
“I have to say this is my apartment. And he’s mentally ill,” she says of her husband, who is standing sheepishly in the foyer. “When are you going to take this guy to psych? He’s nuts.”
“Soon as we help you out,” Perez says as she helps the ambulance workers wrap Caroline in a white smock and strap her to a portable chair.
“She peed on herself,” says Perez in the patrol car after Caroline was safely carried into the ambulance. “It’s sad because this lady has been like that for a long time.”
A fellow officer’s voice comes over the radio, asking where the hell his police bike is. Perez and Rivera laugh.
“It’s probably in the bathroom or in the shower,” says Rivera. Practical jokes are widespread at the 30th.
Rivera and Perez recall when some fellow patrol officers pulled up besides their car and covered them in Silly String. Another time, someone put baby powder in their car’s air conditioning vents.
“When we turned it on — poof!” says Perez. “The people on the street were all laughing at us.”
The car passes a restaurant called El Nuevo Floridita. Rivera points it out as a known drug dealer hang-out. The owner has reported the dealers to the police. In response the dealers have scratched his car and put crazy glue in his locks.
Next stop is a half-way house for the mentally ill. Some ambulance drivers need help assisting a resident, Arlene, out of the building. She has not taken her medication and is acting psychotic.
“I just need a cup of coffee,” Arlene insists. “I need a cigarette. I’m not crazy. I am not going to the hospital.”
The workers at the house say that she thinks another resident is the devil, and Arlene does not deny this. Perez tries to convince her to get checked out at the hospital. But Arlene will not budge.
“I’m gonna fight you,” Arlene says.
“That won’t be good,” says Perez, crouched down before the sitting woman.
“Oh, it’ll be good. I’ll grab that motherfucking gun and blow your motherfucking head off.”
Perez quickly rises to her feet with a smirk, and the group discusses a new strategy. They tell Arlene she can have a cigarette outside, and that a worker from the house will go to the hospital with her. She goes peacefully, excited about the cigarette.
A call comes over the radio.
“Three-oh-Charlie, go to 1649 Amsterdam Ave.”
“Isn’t that…” says Rivera.
“Yeah,” says Perez.
“Remember, they, uh….”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
The location is a tall, boxy apartment building with a huge paved lot in front of the entrance. Older residents line the perimeter on benches, and children are playing with their brothers and sisters. Teens are scattered about, leaning against the chain-link fence.
The complaint is that a drunken man is throwing bottles at the kids.
LaQuan, a gaunt man in his early twenties, is shirtless and wearing puffed out baggy running pants with boxer shorts sticking out. He has a budding afro and a homemade tattoo down his arm that says “monster.” He is covered in sweat.
“Do me a favor,” says Perez, standing close to LaQuan. “Take a long, long, long, long walk.”
“I live here,” LaQuan says. “I ain’t doing nothing.”
After saying some good-byes to acquaintances, LaQuan staggers slowly out of the lot, hardly able to hold himself upright.
“He’s probably on crack cocaine,” observes Perez, as Rivera chats with some of LaQuan’s friends.
As the officers drive away, they see LaQuan resting near the lot’s entrance on a standpipe. They stop the car.
“I’m not messing with nobody,” he says to the officers, as he stumbles towards their car. “I only mess with people I know.”
“Peace out,” says Perez, as she watches him continue down the street.
LaQuan’s friends told Rivera that he does, indeed, live in the building. He shares an apartment with his grandmother.
“Got the time?” says a child walking in the middle of the street.
“Five to 11,” says Perez.
“Things start winding down at 10, 10:30 on weekdays,” says Rivera. “But things go to one or two on Saturdays.”
A call comes in about a dispute at a residence. One woman is accusing another of stealing $200, and the fighting is escalating. Within minutes, Perez is in the middle of four women arguing in rapid-fire Spanish, their voices echoing down the apartment building’s hallway. Soon there are five adult onlookers and several children peeking out from behind their mothers. Everyone gathered, with the exception of Rivera, is female. Voices are shrill and booming, and hands are clapped sharply together for emphasis. In the end, there is shoving. Perez speaks in exactly the same pitch as the women, and convinces them all to break it up.
Out on the street, the loser of the argument is crying, and she approaches the police car as it is driving away. She is the one who was accused of stealing, and she is also the one who called the police.
“They’re saying I did it,” she says.
“What the fuck do you care what people think of you on Broadway?” Perez says empathetically.
“I hang out here,” the young woman says through tears. “I know everyone.”
Rivera and Perez have come to a halt right in the middle of Edgecombe Avenue, just as a melee begins to surround the squad car. Other police cars are already on the scene, and more arrive within minutes.
“I live here too,” says someone in the crowd.
“I live here too,” says someone else defiantly.
The verbal posturing of the scores of people filling the street is growing fierce and nonsensical. There is beginning to be an edginess to the crowd of men and women, adults and teens. Pairs in argument are getting a little too close to each other, and voices are in a higher octave than a few minutes ago.
“God is dead,” says a passing middle-aged woman. “Repent!”
People are beginning to slap each other’s arms, and grab at clothes. Officers are leaning in and motioning with spread hands, palms downward, trying to physically direct the arguing to a lower level. Some have a billy club in their hands.
The noise of the crowd has now risen to the level of a thunderstorm. Fifth-story fire escapes along the streets are filled with children riveted by the scene.
“You can’t come out here with no gun for some religious shit,” someone calls into the crowd.
From a building entrance, people are escorted into some newly arrived ambulances.
A mother has been stabbed in the eye and is bleeding profusely. Her teenaged son has a swollen eye, possibly some broken ribs, and has been maced. A 13-year-old girl was also physically assaulted. Three people are arrested. None of the police officers seem to have a clear idea about what started all of this. Something about a family conflict…something about religion…
After twenty more minutes, the crowd clears slightly. A staccato of “fucks” and “motherfuckers” punctuates the descending din. People are angry, but moving on. Ten minutes later, there are still a few people waving their arms wildly and yelling at others.
“Lock them all up,” says a forty-ish woman to her friend as they walk past. “Coming to my block, cutting up drugs…”
Officer Perez and Officer Rivera arrive back at the station a half hour after their shift was supposed to be over.
At exactly midnight, Rivera tosses the keys to car 1896 to the next driver. There is still at least an hour’s worth of paperwork to do. Sitting at a collapsible card table with the papers for the three recent arrests spread out before him, Rivera still has no understanding of why these men physically attacked people on Edgecombe Avenue. He deems one of the most uncooperative men “John Doe.”
Rivera suddenly jumps up from the table.
“Let me call my wife before she kicks my ass,” he says as he scrambles to the phone. He almost forgot to tell her he’s going to be home late once again.