Vol. 12, No. 18 Sept. 23 - Oct. 6, 1999


Police Initiative Makes Inroads on Drug Problem


Yvel Calderon used to see drug dealers every day peddling narcotics on thexdrug.jpg (14172 bytes) street as she walked to a store near her Fordham Bedford home. But lately, she says she only sees them once in a while.

"It's much better," said Calderon, who has been president of the 52nd Precinct's Community Council for two years. And she gives credit to a new police initiative for the improvement.

About six months ago, the 52nd Precinct joined the 42nd (Morrisania) and the 48th (East Tremont, West Farms) precincts in launching the Central Bronx Initiative, a highly touted enforcement effort aimed at curbing drug dealing. Since then, local residents say that narcotics still afflict many parts of the community, but on a lesser scale.

More Cops, More Arrests
When the drug initiative was launched, the 52nd Precinct tripled its narcotics unit to include a lieutenant, three sergeants, six undercover officers and 18 investigators. The initiative also spawned a 35-member tracer unit -- made up of one lieutenant, four sergeants and 32 officers -- which helps the narcotics unit focus on drug-related crimes. Both units fall under the command of Deputy Inspector Kenneth McGrath, the precinct's commanding officer.

While the narcotics unit performs mainly undercover operations to break up drug dealing, the uniformed tracer unit is visible to residents, according to Deputy Inspector Daniel Carlin, who commands the Northern Manhattan Initiative in Washington Heights, the city's first drug initiative. "The tracer unit is there to stabilize improvement and basically show the flag," Carlin said. "The whole idea is to attack not from one level, but from all levels."

For the two units, a strategic starting point was to focus on well-known neighborhood drug spots. Police on foot, in vans and in cars patrol the areas, paying special attention to known hot spots like Valentine Avenue and 194th Street, Hull Avenue and 209th Street, and Mosholu Parkway North between Knox Place and Gates Place. And police expanded undercover operations to bring down drug networks that hide behind fronts like bodegas and common apartments.

Now, with more cops and increased coordination between departments, drug busts are growing in frequency and size, say police. Just a few weeks ago, a network of 20 people were arrested in Bedford Park for selling guns and drugs out of a beeper and cellular phone store and a private apartment after an eight-month investigation.

Another tactic police employ is the Clean Halls program, whereby, with the permission of the landlord, police patrol buildings known for drug problems and issue summonses to visitors without legitimate reason for being there. Occasionally, searches of suspect visitors end in arrests for possession of drugs or weapons.

Police officials say the initiative has been productive. "Activity was out there," McGrath said. "We just needed more people to go out there and make arrests." Police point to the surge in narcotics arrests to prove their point. So far this year, there has been a 56 percent jump in narcotics arrests as compared to the same period last year, according to New York City Police Department statistics. By September of last year, police made 897 drug arrests, but by the same time this year they made 1,401 arrests.

McGrath also said police are cracking down on quality of life crimes that provide the environment for drug sales.

Police stress that less drug dealing isn't the only noticeable change. All arrests in the 52nd Precinct are up 17.8 percent, as of Sept. 12, to 5,592 in 1999 from 4,745 in 1998, which police see as a direct consequence of the drug initiative. Drugs are inextricably linked to other crimes, McGrath said, and at least 75 percent of people arrested in New York City admit drug use or test positive for drug use.

Seeing results
Most residents agree that the drug initiative is making headway. First and foremost, they say they see more cops now than ever before. "The cops come around like every 15 minutes," said Anthony Jesus, a Valentine Avenue resident for two years.

And Alberto Roman, a member of the Valentine Avenue Block Association, said, "I've never seen as much policing in my community as I have in the past two years." Roman regularly came home from work to find a drug dealer standing outside his building. One day, when he saw the dealer in conversation with his 7-year-old son, he called the cops. The drug dealer hasn't come back, Roman said, but the police occasionally do -- to check up and make sure he stays gone.

For Roman, another indication of progress is that he hears less gunshots. "Up until the middle of last year, I used to hear gunshots every night," he said. "Since the police began the drug initiative, I don't hear them so much anymore."  

Other residents see greater police activity, but say the community is still under siege. Kiesha Garcia, a Valentine Avenue resident, said she saw four people being arrested in front of her building in a recent bust. But the arrests alone are not working for her drug-plagued street, she said, because she still sees dealers right in front of her building when cops aren't around. "People can't come out here and sit in tranquility," Garcia said.

Other residents agree that the local drug trade, mainly in marijuana, cocaine and heroin, is still flourishing in the neighborhood, especially when police turn their backs.

One Valentine Avenue superintendent admitted that people sell drugs out of the lobby in his building. "Sometimes cops come to the building," he said, "but as soon as they leave, after one minute, they're back selling drugs."

Less crime but still too much
Drugs are so widespread, say some, that the increase in arrests is barely making a dent in the problem. "Increase in arrests -- compared to what?" said Monsignor John Jenik of Our Lady of Refuge Church on Briggs Avenue and 196th Street. "They've let this go for years and now they have to get a handle on it. It's grown unchecked."  

According to Carlin, between 1992 and 1995, the 52nd Precinct had only one sergeant, six police officers and two undercovers in its narcotics unit, covering both the 52nd and 47th. And Jenik, who has for years been leading parishioners and community activists in campaigning for safer streets, said the drug problem grew out of control because of the lack of police manpower and because drug initiatives in the south Bronx and northern Manhattan pushed drug dealers to this area.

The precinct now employs about 280 officers in Bedford Park, Fordham, Norwood and University Heights, up from about 230 in 1996 and 260 in 1998, according to Detective Jimmy Livingston of the 52nd Precinct's Community Affairs office, though he pointed out that the numbers can fluctuate greatly as cops are often pulled out of their precincts for special duties, like patrolling baseball games at Yankee Stadium.

Jenik believes even more cops are needed. "What can a few cops do?" asked Jenik. "They work hard but what effect could they have?"

The Safe Streets Committee of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition thinks the drug initiative could pack an even greater wallop if its tracer cops got to know the precinct's neighborhoods like beat cops are supposed to. The committee's five-point plan recommends that the tracer cops establish long-term neighborhood-specific patrol assignments and develop relationships with local businesses and institutions. The committee also suggests that action be taken against landlords, whose vacant or dilapidated buildings have become havens for drug dealers.

Calderon agrees that police should learn more about the neighborhoods they serve and work closer with residents. "I think community policing would help a lot," she said. "When you get to know your community cop, you get things done much better."

Looking ahead
The experience of the Northern Manhattan Initiative may be instructive for the 52nd Precinct.

In the police precincts in Washington Heights, Monsignor Gerald Walsh of St. Elizabeth's Church had nothing but praise for the three-year-old initiative. "They've been very effective," he said. "Things are much better."

Insisting that residents in his area feel a lot safer, Walsh said, "Drug dealing still goes on, I'm sure, but it's not as visible on the streets." Walsh said that the key to the success of the initiative was a dramatic increase in police presence. According to Carlin, in 1994 one precinct split up to form the 33rd and 34th precincts in Washington Heights, adding about 100 cops to the area.

Because of the initiative and increased personnel, "there is dramatically less crime in all three of my precincts," said Carlin. For example, he said, in 1991 the 34th Precinct had well over 100 homicides, but last year there were just 10.

For now, there is no end in sight for the Central Bronx Initiative, according to McGrath of the 52nd Precinct, who is pleased with its successes thus far.

"There's a tremendous amount of drug dealing out there," he said. "But we certainly got a good start."

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