How they cleaned up Precinct 75

It's time to revise New York City's reputation. Even the toughest, craziest, most murder-ridden zone in town is a shadow of its former nasty self
OVER A LATE lunch at Aldo's, a neighbourhood Brooklyn pizzeria, the cream of the New York Police Department discussed danger. There was lots of it, for example, in Los Angeles, more, quite honestly, than they would care to confront. Washington was bad. And what about Bosnia and the poor American soldiers there? Africa entered the conversation too, by way of some observations on the perils posed by the hippopotamus.

Detectives Neil Tasso, Richard Barrios and Paul van Eyken talked about everything but the subject at hand. Preposterously, on the face of it. For at no point did they pause to reflect where they were or what they did for a living. Precinct 75, within whose boundaries Aldo's falls, has a long-established reputation as the most violent police district in New York. The detectives who work here are seen by their peers as the toughest, craziest, most overworked officers in the city. Detective Tasso, who is 58 and has spent the last 19 years working at "Seven Five", could have spent the entire lunch reeling off the names of colleagues shot on duty, of murder cases he has investigated.

Yet there was a certain logic behind all the easy banter. They had spent much of the day cruising the Dead Zone ("dead because of all the empty lots and all the bodies we find there") and were in need of some light relief. But, more to the point, they had cause to be relaxed, and quietly proud, for over the last couple of years they have helped bring about something of a miracle in Precinct 75.

It might still have the highest number of murders in New York, though one precinct in the Bronx lodged a serious challenge in 1995, but nowhere in the city has the decline in the homicide rate been more spectacular: down to 47 for the year just ended, from 87 in 1994, and 129 in 1993.

These are no isolated statistics. It is time to revise the perception of New York City as one of the world's most incorrigibly dangerous places. The same might be said of the United States as a whole. FBI figures for the first half of 1995 reveal that murders declined nationally by 12 per cent, the largest drop in 35 years. But nowhere has the decline been sharper than in New York. Overall the city had 1,156 murders in 1995, compared to 1,555 in 1994. And most of these were in the poorer parts of the city. The smart, densely populated Upper West Side, for example, registered just three.

Criminologists have come up with a number of theories as to why violent crime is on the way down. They say the market for crack cocaine has dropped off; the drug gangs have consolidated their turfs; the proportion of young people in the population has, briefly, turned down; the prison population of the US has doubled since 1985.

Lieutenant Kevin Perham, the commanding officer of the detective squad at Precinct 75, sees things more simply. The explanation lies in what he calls "the new strategies" put into place two years ago when Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican, became mayor and instructed his new police commissioner, William Bratton, to clean up the city. Whereupon the commissioner had a good look at Precinct 75 and decided this was the place where he would begin.

"The basic idea was to be proactive," Lt Perham explained. "Not just doing the typical, lengthy Sherlock Holmes investigation because when the homicide rate reached 130 we saw that just wasn't enough. So we became more focused.

"We started by going after guys who committed the sort of crimes that before we'd kind of ignore. Like drinking beer on the streets; smoking marijuana; jumping turnstiles at the train station; playing loud music late at night. This way we found guns, because we often found that the sort of guys who do the little stuff are the guys who do the big stuff. We debriefed them much more than we would have done before, and built up a whole stock of information.We've targeted drugs and guns and we've improved the overall situation dramatically."

He turned to a copy of a front page of the New York Post from May 1993, that was pinned, alongside photographs and commendations, on a board next to his desk. "The Post takes you to NY's deadliest neighbourhood with a murder every 63 hours," read the strapline. Underneath, over three-quarters of the tabloid page, the headline: "KILLING GROUND". The memento brought a smile to the lieutenant's face. Clean-shaven, tall, lean - a young 38 - he looked as if he had just stepped off the set of NYPD Blue. The rest of his officers, 32 in total, favoured the Bogart look, mac over suit and tie. He was turned out in a short black leather jacket, dark polo- neck, black denims and cowboy boots.

"It used to be a murder every two and half days. Now it's less than one a week. You can't argue with the numbers. We locked up 700 people last year. I like this stuff. Aggressive, fast, and furious. I like arrests. I like locking up bad guys. I've always been sceptical, but this place, now, is remarkably quiet." And remarkably eerie, as a tour of the Dead Zone with the lieutenant and the three pizza-loving detectives who were afraid of Los Angeles would reveal.

It was freezing cold, a landscape of empty lots, cruelly thin dogs, solitary old women, shifty-eyed youths, houses with windows cemented over, abandoned supermarket trolleys piled high with masonry and rusted car parts.

Around the corner from a grocery called "los Primitivos", a young man in a green army jacket three sizes too big for him stood at the entrance to a tenement house with a high fence. "That's a steerer," said Detective Tasso. A steerer? "White guys from Long Island come and the steerer takes them to the drugs. He won't do hand to hand, but a good steerer will make $500 a day. "The detectives get out of their cars. The steerer finds a brush and starts sweeping snow. They ignore him, pause to pick up from the pavement a couple of little broken vials with tiny blue plastic tops. "They're called 'jumbos'," Detective van Eyken said. "Crack - $20 a pop."

In a small block across the road a year ago a white man of 30 was found dead of an overdose. "The guy wasn't from here. He had a mortgage of half a million and a beautiful, a really beautiful wife," Lt Perham said.

He pushed open the door and stepped inside the building, brushing past a woman who was high on something and squealing, "It wasn't me officer, I wasn't there!" On the staircase, more cracked vials. Detective Tasso pointed through a window to a courtyard. "We found a woman lying dead there. She'd been tied up and thrown from an upstairs window."

Back on the street a couple of sallow prostitutes stroll outside Patricia's Superette, a sad little corner store with a metal-grilled window. "It's a front. They sell drugs there - even if the owner doesn't want to. If he says no they burn the place down."

Next to Patricia's a mural commemorates Antonio who was murdered aged 19. There are several such murals - the locals call them "memorials": spray-painted, psychedelic elegies to murdered drug-dealers, they provide the only splashes of colour in a sea of grey. This one bears a message. "I shall not listen when they say that life is short and brief".

"This is the way it is," said Detective Tasso. Yet this is where he has chosen to stay for 19 years. "If you want to be a good doctor you go to a good medical school," said Detective van Eyken. "If you want to be a good detective you come to Seven Five." Whereupon he and the other good detectives stepped into their cars and headed for Aldo's, passing among the ruins on the way a white building, alone upon an empty lot, with a sign in Spanish painted in big black letters on the wall. "Area de Salvacion", it read. A couple of years ago it might have been a bad joke.

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