by John Paolucci
11:30 at night, South Bronx, NYC, in the basement of a Housing Project, a dozen cops congregate in the back of a dingy room. Some are sitting, some standing, talking, smoking, writing in their memo books. Any sign of shoe polish or even the original black dye have been scuffed from their leather boots and gun belts. The leather thumb locks on their holsters have been worn to a suede texture from drawing and holstering their revolvers so many times. The backing plates for their shields are piled high with medals and memorial bars worn to commemorate fallen officers. A Sergeant walks in:
“Thanks for showing up, guys. Time for roll call.”
Housing “precincts” were called “PSAs” which stood for “Police Service Areas”. Each borough had its own PSA, located in the basement of a Housing project. Lesson Number One was to always look up when walking into a PSA. Some of the residents liked sending “Air Mail” projectiles which might include frozen water bottles, paint cans or even bed frames thrown from roof tops and apartment windows, aimed at your head. We joked about saddling up some of the resident “critters” we shared space with — the rats, squirrels and water bugs — and riding them into roll call. The conditions we worked under were light years from CSI New York, but we were proud of what we did.
As the roll call continued, vehicles, partners and sectors were assigned, against a backdrop of raucous shop talk from another room where the previous shift was changing into their civilian clothes. They had survived another day and were getting ready to unwind at a local bar. Nobody walked out the door without their shield, ID card and firearm for the two block trek to the parking lot where their cars were waiting, hopefully none the worse for wear.
The Sergeant finished briefing the “Midnight” or “1st Platoon” roll call and advised us of any extreme conditions to be aware of such as stolen vehicles and perpetrators that we might come across during our tour of duty, then wrapped things up by saying:
“Call me if you REALLY need me. And be safe out there.”
If you were lucky enough to get in your car without a backlog of calls to respond to, you threaded your way to wherever you could get a decent cup of coffee (no easy task in this neighborhood), and downed your first cup of the night. No donut shops where we worked and no offense taken when civilians started making with the cop/donut jokes in an attempt to get under our skin. Generally, by the time I’d be taking the last few sips of that first coffee, my feet would be doing a two-step in one of the puddles of urine that sloshed around on the floor of damned near every elevator in the South Bronx Housing Projects. Just another day at the office for a Housing cop. They kept me busy right from my first day on the job.
“Housing Police! Don’t move! Don’t Laugh!” Jimmy Barnes, my field training officer stood in a mock combat stance with his hands simulating a firearm. Then he laughed. “Don’t worry John, you’re gonna love this job. Just so you know, the first thing everybody’s gonna ask you is ‘Do you guys have guns?’ What do they know? They wouldn’t drive through here in an armoured car! Now let’s go get a collar.”
Summertime 1992, the crack epidemic still in full swing, as Mayor David Dinkins and NYPD Police Commissioner Lee “Out of Town” Brown tried to wrestle with a murder rate that was on track to exceed 2,000 for the year – again. Making a “collar” wasn’t rocket science, and motivated Housing cops were free to make all the self-initiated arrests they could manage. We were far from the political spotlight, patrolling areas that the newspapers paid little attention to. Violence was a part of our daily routine and it would take at least a triple homicide to attract media attention. A Housing cop involved in a shooting was less likely to make the papers than our NYPD counterparts.
Jimmy and I walked through the mean streets amidst death stares and trash talk: “Woop-woop. It’s the Po-Po, yo”. We rounded a corner and Jimmy pulled me into the lobby of a building.
“D’jasee that kid with no shirt and the gold teeth? See that potato chip bag he just tossed, see the way it hit the ground. Somethin’ funny about that bag. Now c’mon. And keep smiling.”
I followed Jimmy while he broke into a boisterous fishing story, complete with animated gestures. We walked towards the “posse” who were fronting a playground, loitering in front of the park benches. I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my legs with each step — ready to pursue, take cover or whatever else the moment called for. This was what I had been waiting for; this was why I’d toughed the training and everything else I’d gone through to get here. With an exaggerated ‘fish this big’ gesture, fast as lightning Jimmy grabbed Gold Teeth’s arm and twisted it up into the small of his back, bending him over the wrought iron fence.
“What’s in the bag Johnny?” I picked up the chip bag and opened it. Small plastic vials with purple tops containing a white rock like substance where the chips once were. Just like that, we had a felony narcotics arrest. As I prepared to cuff the perp, a dirty diaper followed by a sea of water bottles began exploding on the sidewalk in front of us. Jimmy dragged me and Gold Teeth under a convenient overhang and started talking into his radio.
“Housing 9-2-2-5. Show us responding. Have that unit eighty-five us in the rear of 3-1-5 East 1-4-3.” I cuffed Gold Teeth and a short siren blast informed us that we could dash out the back door to safety with our prisoner. As Jimmy, Gold Teeth and I sat in the back seat, the sector car sped through the project playground, jumped the curb and hit the street. Jimmy and the driver made small talk. No lights, no sirens, no stopping on red; we were inspired lawmen in a lawless town.
I learned a lot from the old timers, adding my own little twists to their techniques as I became more comfortable in that environment. We would set up observation posts in vacant project apartments and study the activities of drug dealers, observing where they stashed their drugs and their proceeds. Then we’d set out to take-down the perps who either fought or fled. Sometimes we’d get hurt but more often it was them. Whoever made the collar would walk into the PSA with a pile of crack cocaine, money, and sometimes firearms. It was a great feeling to count it all out in front of the desk officer. No need to call a Sergeant; we all knew the protocol.
I recall watching a NYPD foot post standing on a corner with a dealer selling crack vials a few feet away. When I collared the dealer and recovered his stash from the pay phone, I asked the cop, “You guys didn’t know he was selling crack under your noses?”
“We knew. We’re not allowed to make drug collars.”
Many of us carried a bag of tools on patrol to assist with the various situations we’d regularly encounter. Things like pry bars, lump hammers and bolt cutters could make all the difference when the need arose to gain entry to a location in pursuit of some “Skell”. Housing cops knew just how and where to kick a project door in when our subjects proved inhospitable. We resolved family disputes, found missing kids, made arrests for violent assaults with the perpetrator still on the scene, seized large quantities of narcotics and money, all without ever requesting a Sergeant’s response, unless he was the only one available for backup or to give us a ride if we were on foot post. We were treated like grownups, and given a lot of freedom and responsibility which in turn made us feel important, like we made a difference out there in the badlands. The crummy conditions of our PSA and in the Housing Projects, coupled with the violence and danger we faced every day acted as a super-glue, bonding us all together.
In 1995, Mayor Giuliani merged the Housing Police and the Transit Police with “City”, which was the term for NYPD when there were three separate agencies. “Housing” was no more. Our funny looking orange & blue cars were painted blue & white. We went from one Housing patch on the left shoulder to a NYPD patch on each shoulder. Supervisors who never worked the projects were suddenly our bosses and they showed up at all of our radio runs. Roll calls lasted longer and the tone was a lot less friendly. We had to polish our boots but whoever was urinating in all the elevators didn’t even have the decency to stop leaving puddles out of respect for our new image!
Shortly after the merge or “Hostile Takeover” as we liked to call it, I started working U.C. in Narcotics which was like a three year leave of absence from the Police Department. It was there that I received my promotion to Detective, and then passed the test and was promoted to Sergeant which meant a return to uniform duties. I was assigned to the Housing Bureau in Central Harlem, due to my prior experience in the projects. Now that everyone was “NYPD”, the personnel assigned to the projects were considered to be part of the “Housing Bureau”. We were no longer “Housing Cops.”
I was unaware of all the changes that had transpired in the “Post Merge” era due to the fact that I was undercover while all this was taking place. I had an old Housing cop, Bill Parker, as my driver when I first went out on patrol as a Sergeant in the “NYPD”. I went to backup some young cops chasing a knife-wielding perp who had just carved up his girlfriend before committing the rude gesture of locking himself in an apartment. The cops pointed out which door and I braced myself against the opposite wall to get the leverage to perform the old Housing mule-kick. The door jumped but it would take more than a single kick to bust it down.
Bill grabbed my arm: “Sarge, you gotta call the Lieutenant!”
“Really Bill? He must be a pretty strong SOB?”
“No Sarge. You can’t do that stuff anymore. You gotta call the Lieutenant!”
So I did, very reluctantly, and he called the Captain, who called the Duty Inspector, and finally, in a sea of white shirts, the decision was made to call the Emergency Service Unit who have all the official tools to break down a door, just a wee bit more sophisticated than the old Housing tool bags that we had carried on patrol just a few years earlier.
I watched this trend continue and little by little virtually all decision-making power was removed from the line level responders. It spread like a virus into the investigative units where a young Captain who never worked crime scenes or homicide investigations would walk around telling Detectives with 20 years experience how to do their jobs. Units once commanded by a Lieutenant now had a Deputy Inspector as the Commanding Officer and a Captain as the Executive Officer. Morale declined steadily as seasoned veterans had their wings clipped, and the focus shifted from catching the bad guys to scoring points for the Captain at the next Compstat meeting.
We could argue that the homicide rates are dropping, but that’s illusory because once again shootings are way up. Some of the credit should go to the crackerjack ER Trauma teams and the dramatic advances in the medical field. We original “Housing” cops still congregate now and then and tell war stories of how we handled things when we had nearly total freedom, back during that incredibly violent era in New York City history. Ironically, many of us old timers do give thanks to the new style of management for one thing: the decision as to whether or not it’s time to retire has been made a whole lot easier.
About the Author: John Paolucci is a retired Detective Sergeant from NYPD. He worked in the New York City Housing Police in the South Bronx for four years and undercover in Harlem for another three years. After being promoted to Detective Sergeant, he spent his last eight years on the force in the Forensic Investigations Division, four of them as a Crime Scene Unit supervisor. He was the first ever to command the OCME Liaison Unit where he managed all DNA evidence in NYC and trained thousands of investigators in DNA evidence collection and documentation. He developed a strong alliance between the OCME Forensic Biology Department and NYPD. John is currently the president of Forensics 4 Real Inc., where he provides forensic support to private investigations, international and domestic. He also trains students and law enforcement in forensic evidence and crime scene investigations and provides consultations with movie and television writers, directors and developers working on real crime shows and dramas. www.forensics4real.com.
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