City Journal

William Andrews and Patrick J. Harnett
How New York Is Winning the Drug War
The secret is to uproot the local drug gangs, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Summer 1999

Who says the war on drugs is unwinnable? Over the last four years, we have been winning it in New York. Using an innovative strategy that author Harnett put in place when he became head of the New York Police Department's Narcotics Division, the NYPD has dismantled some 900 drug gangs citywide, crippling the street drug trade. And the strategy has helped fuel New York's overall crime decline, as well. From 1996 through 1998, it accounted for nearly a third of Gotham's homicide decline.

Up till now, narcotics cops across the nation have been fighting the war on drugs on the wrong ground. They have been playing a numbers game, measuring success by how many street dealers they arrested and how much dope they seized, chasing the ever-elusive Kilo Fairy. But no one can ever win the war that way: the street dealer is the most easily replaceable commodity in the entire drug trade, and the major drug organizations simply factor even the largest local drug seizures into their cost of doing business. No matter how many street dealers the cops arrest, no matter how much dope they seize, drug-afflicted neighborhoods are bound to continue their downward spiral, ravaged by drug-gang turf wars and the other violent crimes that drug-dealing areas breed, along with the constant threat to children and the disorder that addled addicts create.

Based on this frustrating experience, little wonder that police brass have pessimistically concluded that they'll never be able to uproot the drug trade—contain it perhaps; but drive it out of neighborhoods, no. And with the front-line experts so gloomy, no wonder that responsible thinkers from all over the political spectrum have assumed that the drug war was lost and that the legalization and controlled distribution of narcotics was the only viable course.

But in the years since 1995, New York City has shown that, with a major shift in our narcotics-enforcement strategy, we can uproot the drug trade, restore safety to neighborhoods, and drive down overall crime. We can win the drug war by shifting the ground on which we fight from entire boroughs or a whole city to individual neighborhoods and even individual streets.

The drug war isn't a conventional military campaign against a unified enemy. In reality, it is a neighborhood-by-neighborhood effort to disrupt and dismantle the business activities of dozens of decentralized local gangs. It requires narcotics investigators to pay extremely close attention to the particular conditions in specific neighborhoods and to the personnel and structure of the individual gangs controlling the local trade. After every victory, it also entails working closely with the community to prevent the dealers from coming back.

Working under this novel theory, Harnett assigned narcotics units to specific geographical areas and to the drug gangs active there. Their job wasn't merely to bust street dealers or confiscate product but—more important—to analyze, penetrate, and eventually eliminate the local drug gangs operating in their areas. They were to knock out the critical intermediary organizations that connect the street dealers with major drug distributors and importers. Street dealers are expendable, and product is replaceable, but the drug-gang infrastructure that hires the dealers and supplies the product is not so easy to rebuild, especially if narcotics investigators continue to work an area. In other words, since the local drug trade is rooted in local drug gangs, to uproot the trade, you have to uproot the gangs.

In the 43rd Precinct in the Bronx, about two blocks from where Amadou Diallo was shot, is a place once known as "the Hole." When Harnett was the precinct commander in 1990 and 1991, the Hole—literally, a hole in the wall of an abandoned building—was a notorious drug-dealing spot. A dealer would sit looking out of it, selling drugs like a pharmacist in a dispensary. Early on, Harnett had led a couple of raids on the Hole, but he soon learned that arresting the dealer—a pathetic junkie who sampled the product when he wasn't selling it—accomplished little. Arrest him, and there was someone else sitting in the Hole the next day, equally pathetic, equally expendable. Year in and year out, the Hole remained a fixture in the Four-Three.

For Harnett, it came to symbolize the frustration he felt as commander of a precinct with a tough drug problem. He had almost no power to do anything himself about the drug gang supplying the Hole. True, he could establish a Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit (SNEU) made up of precinct personnel, but headquarters gave very little encouragement to do so, warning that it was more trouble than it was worth. Still, Harnett persisted, but he found his SNEU tied down, like Gulliver, by petty constraints. SNEUs had to operate in uniform, and they could target only outdoor locations. Unfortunately, in a bright blue uniform it's not easy to make observations of drug activity without being observed yourself, and once dealers figured out that SNEUs worked only out of doors, they began steering clients to hallways and vestibules, where SNEUs couldn't go. So SNEUs caught only guppies, not the bigger fish—and only guppies too dumb to adjust to the SNEUs' tactics. It wasn't quite what Harnett had in mind.

Trying to get outside help was equally frustrating. By 1990, when the crack epidemic had pushed violent crime to unheard-of levels, including two drug-related murders of cops on a single night in October 1988, the NYPD had doubled its Narcotics Division's ranks to 1,600 (still only 4 percent of all cops). These trained investigators worked in eight-man teams under the tight supervision of a sergeant, to guard against the notorious corruption that had riddled the Narcotics Division in the sixties and early seventies. Half the teams, each covering several precincts, were supposed to work on precinct drug problems, investigate drug complaints, and maintain contact with precinct commanders.

In reality, however, these teams were too few to cover their territory, and they tended to "chase the case," going wherever their informants and other evidence led them. Investigators officially assigned to the Bronx might end up doing most of their work in Manhattan. As for investigating citizen complaints, the teams did so only haphazardly, for they were swamped by the huge volume of complaints that the crack epidemic generated—61,000 in 1987. At best, they might close a complaint by arresting a dealer in the general vicinity, who didn't fit the complainant's description at all. More often, they ignored complaints altogether, dismissing them as "kites," a term of obscure derivation, which seemed to imply that if you let a complaint go, it would fly away by itself. So though in theory Harnett should have been able to get help from one of these teams, in practice he had almost no contact with the sergeant of the team officially assigned to his and two other precincts.

The best hope for a precinct commander with a drug problem was that a contingent of the Tactical Narcotics Teams (TNTs) that made up the other half of the Narcotics Division would come to his precinct, but Harnett had no way of knowing when the brass would grant his request for TNT reinforcements. Nor could he be sure that the TNT, which provided intensive anti-narcotics enforcement in a precinct for 90 days before moving on to the next troubled precinct, would succeed once it did arrive. After all, Harnett knew, TNTs focused almost entirely on arresting street dealers in "buy and bust" operations. As a result, they could suppress street-narcotics conditions for a while but couldn't permanently uproot them. Their 90-day limit was also self-defeating. Dealers caught on, lay low for three months, and came back when the TNT was gone.

When a TNT finally arrived in the 43rd Precinct, Harnett told the team's captain about the Hole. If someone is still in the Hole after 90 days, he remarked, then this whole thing will have been a failure. The TNT made its arrests for the next three months, then picked up stakes and moved on. A street dealer popped back up in the Hole as if TNT had never been there. And this was only one of the 12,500 or so drug locations that flourished in New York City in the mid-nineties.

By the time Harnett took over the Narcotics Division, Commissioner William Bratton and his deputies had already made major changes in the NYPD and its strategies, and they understood clearly that attacking the drug trade would keep overall crime headed down, since a quarter of the city's homicides from 1989 to 1993 were drug related.

Harnett's shrewd predecessor, Chief Martin O'Boyle, had shaken up the division, requiring investigators to work nights and weekends and imparting a new energy and purpose to drug enforcement. The department had also begun to encourage precincts to establish Street Narcotics Enforcement Units, even allowing SNEU observation officers to work in plainclothes and supplying them with binoculars, night-vision devices, and nondescript vehicles, so that they could watch drug operations closely without being observed themselves.

Remembering the 43rd Precinct and the Hole, Harnett came into the Narcotics Division determined to redefine its entire mission. He abolished the TNTs and their 90-day sweeps. Instead, the division would pit its turf-based narcotics teams against the turf-based drug gangs and keep the teams in place until the gangs were out of business. The teams would work closely with precinct commanders, detectives, and SNEUs and share information freely. In fact, their first task wasn't to arrest the gangs in their areas but to analyze them, learning who controlled which streets and who worked for whom.

"We changed our pattern from buy and bust to making cases against drug gangs, and we finally saw results," says Lieutenant Jay Rivera, one of the first supervisors to apply the new model. "For me, the old way was very frustrating. If something came our way—if we had an informant—we would go with it. But as far as, 'Tony is running this operation; let's get Tony,' we didn't do that. It was just buy and bust, get the numbers, and move on."

Between 1995 and 1998, Harnett's troops dramatically doubled, from 1,600 to 3,200 officers. In 1996, he began to send big contingents of investigators into the Lower East Side, the Bronx, and

Brooklyn North, all neighborhoods overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of gangs. The investigators, experienced cops who knew how to talk to people, started working their neighborhoods, meeting community activists, doormen, superintendents, and store owners, tracking 911 calls, and investigating drug complaints. They quickly identified the gangs they were targeting. "Once I started working in one precinct, within eight weeks, I knew all the organizations, what they were doing, and how they were doing it," Rivera recalls.

With the gangs identified, the work of meticulously gathering evidence began. Instead of just arresting street dealers, the investigators would "buy up" into the organization, purchasing increasingly large amounts and winning the confidence of gang leaders. If undercover officers couldn't penetrate the gang, they'd use informants to make controlled buys and to gather evidence. Sometimes they would arrest gang members for the large sales they had made to undercovers and "flip" them—that is, turn them into informants—offering to help get their sentences reduced. Surveillance, to identify gang members and document their lawbreaking, was also key. And though it was no longer their primary measure of success, the turf-based teams made increasing numbers of arrests to help develop information about drug-gang leaders. They also executed a flurry of search warrants, seizing ever more drugs and guns.

Harnett, an ex-detective, required the teams to investigate citizen complaints methodically, like detectives investigating a serious crime, and to report on their response to each one. Investigators grumbled but soon found that even anonymous "kites" were flying straight to the target. Two investigators checking out an anonymous complaint in the 44th Precinct in the Bronx found a long line of drug buyers stretching down a building hallway and heard the mad scramble inside an apartment as dealers opened windows and pitched drugs out. Not surprisingly, the victims of drug crime in the community knew a great deal about where, when, and how narcotics trafficking was taking place.

The capture of Hector Santiago, a canny drug dealer who for years controlled East 7th Street between Avenues B and C, perfectly illustrates the new strategy. Officer Jimmy Mantone, the narcotics investigator who finally arrested Santiago, remembers hearing about him when he first joined the police force as a uniformed cop back in 1982. Over the years Santiago and his operation had effortlessly weathered every police-enforcement effort. "The word on the street was that Santiago was tough to get to," Mantone says. "He didn't deal with anyone he didn't know and was extremely methodical in his operation."

A martial artist and a tough guy, Santiago had the whole block terrorized. His minions deployed with almost military precision—a lookout at each end of the block, a kid on a bicycle riding up and down, and a rooftop lookout with a walkie-talkie to spot police observation posts, since Santiago knew that SNEU officers often used rooftops to observe drug deals without being seen. Gang members challenged strangers on the block, asking what their business was and intimidating them if they tried to park their cars there. The sellers wore ski masks and maintained strict discipline among their buyers; police observers once even saw a seller whacking buyers into line with a stick. Santiago also continued to pay his employees if they were arrested, as long as they didn't squeal.

For three months in the spring of 1996, Mantone and his team worked every angle against the Santiago organization. Three undercovers established themselves as buyers and bought repeatedly from the gang's ski-masked street sellers, eventually learning their names and building solid cases against them. Mantone had a confidential informant who had known Santiago for years and who agreed to make buys from him directly in increasingly large amounts. (Investigators develop a stable of such informants, who are sometimes paid but more often are "working off the case," that is, trying to earn a lighter sentence for their own drug-dealing activities.)

From an apartment on East 9th Street, which had an unobstructed view of East 7th Street across an empty lot, Mantone and his team videotaped Santiago's entire operation, documenting the role of each seller and lookout. They repeatedly watched Santiago crossing the street at the same time each night, going from the apartment where he lived to the "stash" apartment where he kept his drugs, to pick up the day's receipts. His minions would stop the traffic as he came back with the cash, and he would hurry across.

When Mantone's team had assembled their evidence, they swept down on Santiago one night in June as he crossed the street carrying drugs and cash. Mantone remembers with relish the astonished look on Santiago's face, after having operated with impunity for at least 14 years. He also remembers people on the street applauding and cheering as cops led Santiago and his gang away in handcuffs.

Faced with the massively documented case against him, Santiago pled guilty and is serving a 12-year term. The entire gang pled guilty also, with some members providing evidence against their boss. Exit a supposedly untouchable dealer and his entire entrenched gang.

This same drama took place again and again over next three years on the Lower East Side, in the West Bronx, and in Brooklyn North, and then in northern Manhattan, southeast Queens, and the East Bronx, as the drug initiatives spread there. Narcotics investigators built case after case and took down gang after gang. Sometimes a handful of arrests would close down a small operation; sometimes investigators would round up as many as 40 people in a single day, uprooting an entire gang infrastructure from a housing project. Gang investigations became the primary work of the narcotics teams, and drug dealers who had been too clever to be caught by an SNEU or a TNT, and too small to concern major case units or federal agencies, suddenly found themselves under extremely thorough and persevering scrutiny. Between 1996 and today, the turf-based teams have dismantled nearly 900 New York City drug gangs. In Harnett's old precinct, 15 drug teams now work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They have closed the Hole, by the way, and the building has been reclaimed for residential apartments.

For the first time, the NYPD structured itself to fight drug-related violent crime. Narcotics lieutenants began appearing before the department's Compstat meetings, the now-famous strategy sessions where top managers grill precinct commanders and detective squad commanders about crime and tactics in their precincts. Precinct commanders in turn convened their own weekly drug-control meetings of narcotics team commanders, detective squad commanders, and SNEU supervisors, so that enforcement units that had previously ignored one another could exchange information and work together to solve drug-related homicides and clear out drug-related crime hot spots.

Young, reckless, and well armed, small-time drug dealers could cause big-time violence. The investigation of a grisly double homicide in a stairwell of the Lehman Houses at Madison Avenue and 109th Street in Manhattan's 23rd Precinct illustrates how the drug teams helped stop the killing. The victims were a street dealer and his female customer, both shot in the head. Lieutenant George Poggioli, in charge of drug investigations in the Two-Three, was at the crime scene at noon, along with ten police cars, three TV news crews, and about 100 spectators milling on the other side of the street. Suddenly, someone committed a third murder in the crowd, shooting a man walking a pit bull in the chest. Allegedly, the third killing was a payback for the first two, committed by a drug gang so brazen that they didn't even wait until the police had left the scene. The leader of the gang was Jermaine Carter—"Hootie"—a powerfully built, 280-pound, 25-year-old, who liked to terrorize those around him to show his power.

Hootie ran the drugs on Madison Avenue from 106th to 108th Streets. He was muscling in on the Lehman Houses at 109th Street, the territory of two 19-year-old dealers named Mike Peck and Luke Williams, who were, says Poggioli, "like kings in that housing project." To protect his turf, Peck had killed Hootie's dealer and his female customer in the stairwell. Hootie's gang allegedly struck back by killing one of Peck's friends in the crowd.

The narcotics team and the precinct detectives joined forces to bring the murderers down. They couldn't find a confidential informant who knew someone in Peck and Williams's little gang, so an undercover officer went in cold. He went back multiple times to make buys on high floors in four different buildings, risking his life, hanging out with the volatile Peck and Williams, winning their confidence, and ultimately buying $1,500 worth of crack from them in one transaction. Based on his evidence, the narcotics team executed five search warrants and arrested 11 people, including Peck and Williams. In addition to weapons and narcotics, the police seized six rottweilers and five pit bulls belonging to the gang. Williams ultimately gave up Peck as the shooter in the stairwell killings.

Then it was Hootie's turn. This time a confidential informant introduced another undercover to Hootie's people. The undercover went back seven times, buying from Hootie's dealers and asking for more each trip, until he ultimately asked for an ounce of crack. This time, the underlings brought him to an apartment to see Hootie. "Hootie being Hootie, he took the undercover's money and gave him just a quarter ounce," says Poggioli. But that was enough evidence to make the case. The police executed two search warrants and arrested 16 people, but Hootie got away. So the police staked out the apartments of Hootie's girlfriend and his mother, tracked his other known associates, and finally arrested him in New Brunswick, N.J. Some very nasty people were off the streets.

Other innovative tactics subverted the drug gangs from a variety of unexpected directions. Police-department lawyers in the Civil Enforcement Unit, for example, used the nuisance-abatement law to shut down storefronts and even entire buildings where the drug trade took place. Narcotics investigators gathered the evidence needed to make the civil case—usually three or four documented drug-dealing incidents to establish the presence of a nuisance. Unscrupulous landlords who had rented repeatedly to drug dealers had their buildings padlocked and shuttered, unable to reopen them without the NYPD's approval of future tenants. Between 1996 and 1998, Civil Enforcement shut down 1,941 locations.

In another innovation, the Trespass Affidavit program, landlords of buildings where drug dealing was taking place signed affidavits allowing police to patrol their buildings, and they posted NO TRESPASSING signs in their hallways. Police could then target drug customers who had no legitimate reason to be present in the buildings and arrest them for criminal trespass and, if they had purchased drugs, for possession. These buyers often provided the evidence for search warrants to raid the "work" apartments, so that investigators could arrest the dealers who packaged and sold the drugs.

Commissioner Howard Safir has added a new strategy to the drug initiatives—the active participation of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the IRS, the Secret Service, the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Marshal's Service, and the New York State Police. This idea of coordinating drug enforcement at every level of government is still in its infancy, but its potential is enormous. Imagine the day when the Compstat model for fixing accountability and evaluating results might be applied to federal agencies as well. At "Fedstat" meetings in every major metropolitan area, local police chiefs, the U.S. attorney, the district attorneys, and the special agents in charge of the district offices of each federal agency could work together to focus and coordinate the attack on local drug gangs. In the best of worlds, we would come at the drug gangs from every direction—taking out the gang personnel, confiscating product and cash, closing locations, cutting off sources of supply, tracking fugitives and illegal aliens in the drug business, clamping down on money laundering, and squelching demand—all at once. We would be dismantling the drug trade's entire infrastructure.

Commissioner Safir has also sponsored the development of the next logical step in turf-based drug enforcement at the local level: the model block program, the brainchild of 33rd Precinct commander Garry McCarthy. Controlled by an entrenched drug gang, 163rd Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue was the crime hot spot of the Three-Three. According to local lore, it was actually the place where the drug trade had begun in Washington Heights—the Northeast's drug-dealing capital—back in the 1940s, when Irish gangs held sway. After a months-long investigation, turf-based narcotics units arrested 40 people and eliminated the drug gang that had controlled the block. McCarthy and his precinct team decided to press further: to try to keep the block drug-free and allow the social order to reknit there. "The model block grows out of turf-based enforcement," says McCarthy. "At 163rd Street, we were taking back a particular piece of turf."

"As long as there is demand, supply will eventually come back," McCarthy observes, "but most of the drug buyers in Washington Heights weren't from the community, so we could deter demand." For a seven-week period beginning in August 1997, McCarthy closed the block to through traffic and had uniformed police officers challenge cars seeking to enter, turning away those with no legitimate purpose on the block. Police also explained to pedestrians how they were working to discourage drug buyers. They couldn't deny pedestrians access to the block, of course, but their very presence was enough to deter would-be drug buyers, especially suburban customers.

The precinct team enrolled every building on the block in the Trespass Affidavit program, so that police could patrol building hallways and make arrests for criminal trespass. McCarthy and his supervisors themselves worked the block often during the seven weeks, explaining what was going on and urging residents to cooperate. At first, McCarthy wasn't sure that he could win their confidence. But when he called a community meeting in early September, 300 enthusiastic people showed up, ready to reclaim their street. "It was simply electric," he says of the meeting. "They embraced the idea, and they are running with it."

To help reknit the social fabric, McCarthy enlisted the aid of five city agencies to clean the street, fill potholes, repair streetlights, replace street signs, tow abandoned vehicles, and exterminate rodents. Residents and cops painted over graffiti. With police guidance, landlords took steps to make their buildings more secure. The police helped residents establish a block association, tenant associations in each building, a youth council, and citizen patrols. As precinct teams completed narcotics investigations on 161st Street and 162nd Street, the model block spread there, too.

Even when McCarthy gradually cut the police presence to a single patrol officer on each of the blocks, the program's full impact remained. Fear of the drug dealers and possible reprisals had faded, while confidence in the police—and in the community's own innate strength—had grown. On 163rd Street, violent crime plummeted from 23 incidents in the year before the model block to only one incident in the year after it. People who had lived as virtual hostages in their own homes felt free of the terror and tyranny of the drug gangs. Where gunshots and shootings were once common, children now played ball and rode bicycles. McCarthy argues that the Police Department "literally changed the social conditions" on the model blocks, promoting a vibrant and resurgent community. Commissioner Safir adopted the model block program citywide and oversaw its implementation in 20 other locations.

One day last April, Lieutenant Rivera took a walk down Avenue D on the Lower East Side, where he had served as an undercover and investigator in the 1980s and where he helped implement turf-based narcotics enforcement in the 1990s. He remembers the haunted landscape back in the eighties—the rundown buildings, the dangerous-looking people, the menace in the air.

"What a difference from the old days," he says. "Seeing people outside, the mothers with their kids in the park, you could just sense it—that this was not the place it used to be. There wasn't a single shooting in the 9th Precinct in the first four months of 1999. That's incredible. When I was an undercover, you wouldn't walk down those streets. Now, to see the restaurants and the clubs and the renovated buildings, it made me feel really good. And I thought to myself, 'I was part of that.' "

That's what winning the war is all about.

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