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riday, Feb. 25, at 5 p.m., there wasn't a single narcotics officer on the streets of Harlem. Everyone was being held inside on standby in case of a race riot. The Diallo verdict was about to come down.
On East 107th Street, at the police headquarters for Harlem narcotics, cops gathered around several televisions to watch the verdict, a couple of hundred plainclothes officers in two big rooms, maybe a third of them black and Hispanic. They appeared from interviews to be split racially, much as people had been by the O. J. Simpson case. The whites -- officers like Sgt. Maria Brogli and Detectives Lee Macklowe and John Montes -- hoped the four Diallo officers would be found not guilty. The blacks -- detectives like Johnny Gonzalez and the undercovers Derrick and Rob -- felt they should be found guilty on at least some counts. "Forty-one shots," said Derrick. "That's excessive."
Feelings ran deep. No case in recent years has hit the police closer to home. As Sergeant Brogli said, "There but for the grace of God. . . ." Every officer with any sense, white or black, fears mistakenly shooting an unarmed man like Amadou Diallo. Talk about jamming up a career.
All eight members of Sergeant Brogli's narcotics team have stories about almost squeezing the trigger. In Detective Gonzalez's case, he remembers running after a drug dealer, Earl Thomas, on 143rd Street, and as he got close, the man dropped to the ground and with his back to Detective Gonzalez, reached into his waistband. "MAN WITH A GUN!" is what flashed through Detective Gonzalez's mind. In a split second, the detective had to decide: shoot, or jump him and risk being shot. He risked it. This time, Earl Thomas was reaching in to dump his drugs before being arrested.
"I almost shot an unarmed man in the back," said Detective Gonzalez. "It would've been the end of my career. I would have been like the Diallo cops."
But dark-skinned plainclothes officers have a second, more chilling fear: that someday, a white officer will accidentally shoot them. And that, they said, made them view the Diallo case differently.
Several years ago, before going undercover, Derrick recalls being in street clothes, on his way to work at the 63rd Precinct in Brooklyn, when he saw an elderly woman being robbed by two teenagers. He managed to get the woman into his car, subdue the attackers (though he had no handcuffs) and persuade a passer-by to call 911 -- an effort that would win him a hero's medal. But as he waited for backup, he was scared. Most officers at the 63rd were away at a funeral that day. He feared that the officers who showed up would not know him, and that he would be in danger -- a black man in street clothes with a gun. Seeing a patrol car approach, he waved his police ID over his head and kept screaming: "I'm a cop! I'm a cop!"
Race colors everything for Harlem narcotics detectives. It
lies beneath the surface in a dispute over tactics between a
white sergeant and a black undercover detective. Race is out
there in the neighborhood where Sergeant Brogli's team pits
African-American informers against Dominican drug dealers.
Race is in the police radio descriptions ("suspect is a
dark-skinned Dominican, mid-20's . . . "), and race amplifies
the anger on the street when the police drive up and arrest
yet another dark-skinned man.
Angel Franco/ The New York Times
Lieutenant Byrne and
Sergeant Brogli on Sherman Avenue after an arrest in a
long-term case. Ramon Mendoza, rear, in handcuffs, was
indicted on a drug conspiracy charge.
The biggest police race case in New York City in years, Diallo -- the 1998 killing of a black man standing in the doorway of his Bronx building by four panicky white policemen -- touched every Harlem narcotics officer in the room that day to the core. And yet Sergeant Brogli's team had never discussed it. Cops do not discuss race. It's too risky. They need to get along.
As the Diallo verdict was read charge by charge that rainy February evening and it became evident that the four officers would be cleared on every count, Sergeant Brogli was so delighted she felt almost as if she had been personally exonerated, and Derrick was so bitter he could not stop pacing. But despite the enormous emotion of the moment, the whites did not cheer or whoop; the blacks showed no outrage. There was barely a sound in the room.
Working a Brown Neighborhood
When Sergeant Brogli sees a dozen brown-skinned Dominican men standing on the corner of 141st Street and Broadway in Harlem, she thinks, "Drug dealers."
"Most are involved in drugs, probably," she says. "That's the best assumption I can make."
And even though she is a five-foot-tall woman dressed in everyday clothes and driving an ordinary van, the moment they see her, they give the warning whistle that means "cops on the block, 5-0, policĀa."
"La Terrible," they whisper as she approaches. "La Bruja" ("the Witch").
The very visible, white Sergeant Brogli could not do her work without her undercover detectives, whose dark skin renders them invisible on these streets.
For five years Detective Johnny Gonzalez, himself Dominican-American, was an undercover for Sergeant Brogli, posing as a drug user, a brown man disappearing into a brown neighborhood. He'd buy the drugs, leave the scene, radio in a description of the dealer, and then Sergeant Brogli and her team of mainly white investigators would speed their vans up the street and grab that one man from the dozen on the corner.
So deft is the whole thing when done properly that dealers don't have a clue which person they sold to was the undercover cop. Often they don't figure it out until months later, when they go to trial and the undercover is there on the stand.
"Can I ask what you're taking me in for?" a surprised Victor Figueroa said when arrested during a buy-and-bust one evening in May as he stood at 141st Street and Hamilton Place with $2,650 in his pockets.
Sergeant Brogli always has the same answer: "You really don't know what you did? You'll find out."
Smart cops like Sergeant Brogli and Detective Gonzalez know how to use race wisely, how to turn race to their advantage to enforce the law.
For five years, Detective Gonzalez -- nicknamed Johnny G. -- returned over and over to the same five blocks, 140th to 145th Streets, sometimes making $5 "nick" buys, sometimes buying thousands of dollars in cocaine, and never was he found out. Among Harlem drug cops he is a legend, an easygoing, jokey, charming, streetwise man who, occasionally, when things went wrong, got in fistfights with dealers but took pride in never having used his gun. Dealers loved Johnny G. They invited him into their apartments, they kidded with him, their mothers fed him, their girlfriends flirted with him and most important, they trusted him, enough to sell him their drugs, more than 500 buys, hundreds of arrests, hundreds of guilty pleas and convictions.
On the streets, Johnny G. used whatever he could to get an edge. Usually he pretended to be African-American, acting as if he knew only English. Then the Spanish-speaking dealers would talk openly in front of him, sometimes spilling their secrets. But other times he bought from Dominican dealers who hated blacks, who would make blacks wait for their drugs, who would tell their steerers in Spanish, "Have all the monkeys stand over there."
"Then I'd be Dominican," said Detective Gonzalez. "To get done faster."
He was so smooth at switching it on and off, from Dominican to African-American, from cop to cokehead, that at times his wife, Sonia, would catch him slipping into a street character as he played with their two little sons and would gently remind him, "Johnny, you're home now, you're not working."
The Perils of Going In Cold
Detective Gonzalez may be Dominican, but when he sees those young Dominican men on that corner, he has the same reaction as Sergeant Brogli: "Ninety percent are working in drugs."
Still, he insists, he does not stoop to racial profiling. He would not go cold into a corner full of black and brown men and try to make a buy, he says, unless his investigators had gathered evidence that a specific dealer was operating there. They should be able to tell him whether the dealer is selling in grams or ounces, crack, coke or heroin, whether it's shiny "fish scale" or powdery, whether the brand name is New World Order or Bazooka, so he knows what to ask for.
That is where Detective Gonzalez draws the line between good police work and racial profiling. "It's insulting to walk up to a guy just because he's black or Dominican standing on a corner and say, 'Who's working?' " That is the distinction he makes between using race fairly and misusing race.
At times, he says, white sergeants have told him, "Go over
to that group of Domos and see who's working."
Angel Franco/ The New York Times
Detective Gonzalez on his
police radio while waiting to take in Raymond Munez,
rear, leaning against car guarded by Detective
Christopher Vaughn at Broadway and 137th Street. Mr.
Munez was arrested and later indicted for drug
"You can't say no to a direct order," Detective Gonzalez said. "You just go up, walk past and tell the sergeant nothing's going on." A dozen black and Hispanic undercovers working with him in Harlem said in interviews that they had defied a sergeant's orders in the same way.
Among these undercovers, Sergeant Brogli is a favorite, the rare white sergeant with a reputation for listening to undercovers and speaking up for them. "Maria has a mouth on her," says Rob, one of her undercovers. On May 9, as the team put together a list of buy-and-bust locations, a white investigator, Lee Macklowe, said he had a tip that cocaine was being sold from a street-level window on 140th near Hamilton.
"Just bang on the window," he said. But Sergeant Brogli was upset. She made him call his informer. "Find out if they're selling nicks, grams, dimes," she said.
Later, the undercover making that buy, Nelson, quietly thanked her. "Way to go, Sarge," he said.
Going in cold increases the risk. Some narcotics officers, including Sergeant Brogli, suspect that is what went wrong earlier this year when Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed black man, was killed during a buy-and-bust by an undercover near Times Square. It may have been a case, they say, of a narcotics team working late, one body short of the nightly quota of five arrests, approaching a group of black men cold and having it blow up in their faces.
Dark-skinned undercovers are touchy about racial profiling because most, including Detective Gonzalez, say that when off duty, in their neighborhoods or out driving, they have been targets of white officers. One undercover, Tyrone, says that while driving home from work to Brooklyn he gets stopped an average of one night a week. Two of Sergeant Brogli's black undercovers, Derrick and Rob, describe standing outside Rob's home in Brooklyn after work, having a beer, and being approached by a man who asked, "Who's working?"
Derrick and Rob didn't bother explaining to that plainclothes cop that they, too, were cops. They just shook their heads and waited until he left. "You know it's because we're black," Derrick said.
"You develop thick skin," Detective Gonzalez said. Besides, working with Sergeant Brogli for seven years -- first as an undercover and for the last two years as an investigator -- he has learned there are harder things than being a black policeman. "Females on the job have it worse," he said.
He thinks it is what makes Sergeant Brogli a fairer boss than most whites; a female officer knows what it's like being in the minority.
Lately, he has been worried that she may be leaving narcotics and he may be assigned a new sergeant. And in an office where the top boss, the captain, changes every few months, where conditions are so cheesy that officers have to bring in their own toilet paper and lock it in their desks, your sergeant is often your only protection.
A Trained Eye Sees Blue
Maria Brogli is no bleeding heart. She is an aggressive Italian-American cop who has tackled men resisting arrest and slammed others against walls, who has been kicked and punched, had her nose broken and a flowerpot dropped on her head, and still got the collar. She thinks race is overblown as a police problem, but will not watch "The Sopranos," the television series on the Mafia, because she feels it is biased against Italian-Americans.
Going up cold to blacks on a corner doesn't bother her because it's racial profiling. It bothers her because it's lazy and risky.
And she cannot abide laziness. In recent years, her team has ranked first or second, among the 45 units working northern Manhattan, for felony arrests, search warrants, drugs confiscated. While most sergeants are satisfied doing buy-and-busts, twice she has undertaken complex yearlong investigations that involved extensive wiretaps.
When asked about dealing with race on the job, she says, "I don't see black and white, I see blue." But she is not blind about blue. In the mid-1990's, during a scandal at the 30th Precinct, two informers fed her tips on corrupt officers. She drove the informers to the internal affairs office in Harlem, contributing to the convictions of Officers George Nova and Alphonso Compres.
She is a short, stocky, unglamorous 38-year-old woman who has attained respect in a department dominated by white men. Her lieutenant, James Byrne, likes to smoke a cigar in the van and offer comments on young female passers-by. ("Wouldn't you like to spoil that one?" is a favorite.)
She never expected to be a cop. After attending racially mixed Bronx public schools and scoring 1400 on her SAT, she was pre-med at New York University. But her father, a commercial photographer, suffered a stroke, and she needed a job to support the family. She applied in 1983. A requirement then was clearing a five-foot wall -- no easy task for a woman who claims to be five feet tall. She practiced, she prayed to St. Anthony, but on the first of two tries she failed. "There was a tall black instructor," she recalled. "He says: 'What's the matter, munchkin? You can get over the wall. When you're running, don't look at the wall, look beyond the wall.' "
That is a pretty fair metaphor for her rise in the department. As a rookie, she was repeatedly given the complaint room, traditional duty for women, typing forms. Whenever possible, she traded for patrol, working her way onto the streets. In 1990, after passing the sergeant's test, she was sent to the 28th Precinct in Harlem, hard duty for any white, let alone the first female supervisor assigned there. As is the rule on the force, a separate supervisor's locker room was provided, by moving a wall of lockers to partition off a corner of the women's room for her. "You could hear them laughing on the other side of the lockers and you're alone," she recalled. She learned to bang her locker when she entered, so cops on the other side knew she was no snoop.
In narcotics she gets impressive numbers, in part because no one puts in longer hours. A single woman living with her widowed mother, she often stays past midnight.
But her success also comes from pushing hard on the street. It is because of officers like Sergeant Brogli that men in this neighborhood learn always to carry identification. Though there is no law saying they must, they know if they don't, and are stopped, they can be hauled into the precinct for a few hours, their names run through the computer for outstanding warrants.
On May 9, her team did a buy-and-bust at 141st and Amsterdam, arresting Pedro Pereira and confiscating $1,374. Standing on the same corner was Juan Payano, 30. He didn't have drugs or much money. Nor did he have identification; he said he couldn't remember his address.
"He don't know where he lives?" Sergeant Brogli asked. "He's got no ID?"
"He says he's only been here 15 days and he's legal," said her senior detective, Felix Berrios, interpreting the Spanish.
"Does he know he can be arrested for no ID?" said Sergeant
Brogli, who kept him standing there about 10 minutes. "Ask him
if he wants to go to jail." He didn't. "Ask him where he lives
Angel Franco/ The New York Times
Crack cocaine was found
during a raid at this apartment building.
"Riverside between 136 and 137."
"Is he going to learn the building number now?" Sergeant Brogli asked.
"He says he'll never forget."
Later the sergeant said: "I wanted to see if he changed his story and got nervous and blurted anything out. I think he's lying through his teeth."
A Racial Chameleon
It is as if Johnny Gonzalez was raised to be an undercover. He grew up in a working-class Dominican family (his father was a welder, his mother a beautician), in Brownsville, a tough African-American section of Brooklyn where he would see Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe on the streets.
He attended P.S. 41, a black school, then went to I.S. 302, a Puerto Rican school, where his Spanish helped. "If you met me when I was in elementary school, you'd assume I was black," he says. "But with Puerto Rican kids I became Puerto Rican."
When he began dating Sonia, a Puerto Rican, her dad was nice until he realized this boyfriend was Dominican. "Dad would not answer the door," she said. "My father used to say, 'He's a Dominican man, they don't know how to treat Spanish women.' "
Sonia, who is also a cop, says her co-workers assume that Johnny is black. Sometimes even she teases him, "Johnny, what are you, anyway?"
He applied to the department in 1987, but failed the psychological test. At the time, the test was being challenged in court as biased against minorities; under an appeals procedure, he was allowed to see a nondepartmental psychologist, and was approved after a two-year delay.
The first whites he and his wife knew well were cops. A few years ago, he moved to Long Island for the schools; it took the family time to adjust. "There was a blond boy, Jimmy, across the street," Detective Gonzalez recalled. "When my son Mark saw him, he said: 'Dad, what's wrong with him? He doesn't have any color.' "
More Risks, More of the Time
When Sergeant Brogli needed a new undercover, she looked at photos of two black officers she had never met and picked one.
"It's like the N.B.A. draft," said Rob, a black undercover, who has been traded among narcotics teams a few times. "They say, 'Grab him, he's a big black body.' " There is a logic to it -- the poorest neighborhoods tend to be black or Hispanic and often have the biggest street narcotics problems. A minority undercover is less conspicuous.
But it means that from Day 1, when a team is assembled, race enters the room. Narcotics headquarters looks as racially divided as a school cafeteria. The undercovers sit together. In their free time they play backgammon. They tend to be younger and city-bred; many own motorcycles.
The jobs they do are different, and that sets them apart, too. Most police work can be dangerous, but day in and day out, undercovers take more risks. Detective Gonzalez has been locked in a dealer's apartment with a gun to his head; he has had his jaw broken; he has been accused of being a cop several times by dealers and has had to lie his way out of booby-trapped apartments. Often, he has worked without a gun.
On the other hand, to protect their identities, undercovers are excused from the daily duties that make police work miserable. They do not have to transport sick, angry or foul-smelling prisoners ("stinkies") to jail; execute search warrants; or do crowd control at events like the Diallo protests. They are not allowed to have their full names or photographs used in the press.
While other cops do grunt jobs, undercovers play backgammon. Resentment builds. Race isn't mentioned, but it's there. Returning from executing a tedious search warrant, Detective Macklowe noticed an undercover's car parked in the lot. "How do these kids afford BMW's?" he asked.
Detective Gonzalez would not let the comment pass. "They live at home," he said. "They're not carrying a big mortgage." Indeed, it is a constant gripe among undercovers that they get pushed for more buys by white bosses seeking more overtime to pay off their heavily mortgaged houses out by Exit 68 on the Long Island Expressway.
The two groups of officers do not always communicate well.
"O.K., this is how it's going to work," Sgt. Joe Simonetti said one day last summer, outlining a series of buy-and-busts. He told Nelson, who had been working as an undercover less than a year, to make two buys: a $10 crack buy and a $300 cocaine buy. Several veteran undercovers winced. To do a $10 buy, you dress down, like a crackhead; for the other buy you need to look groomed, moneyed. You can't be both at once.
When Sergeant Simonetti had finished giving orders, several from Sergeant Brogli's team working backup, including Detective Gonzalez, put on bulletproof vests, then piled into the elevator to head out. Just before the door closed Nelson rushed up. Detective Gonzalez could see fear in the young undercover's eyes. "He wants me to do both," Nelson said.
"That's crazy," said Detective Gonzalez. "It's your call. You have to know what's safe and watch out for yourself." As the elevator door shut, Nelson knew what to do.
Same Show, Nth Performance
Narcotics enforcement is a frustrating cat-and-mouse game between officers and dealers who, after years of crackdowns, are savvy about dividing and concealing each step of the operation. Rarely do the police get the drugs, the money and the dealer together. Repeatedly Sergeant Brogli's team arrests dealers, and the next day, standing in that very spot, there is someone else -- or even the same person.
On Nov. 12, they executed a search warrant at the basement apartments at 605 West 141st St., where some tenants are so poor they live in luggage storage bins. In the room of Ramon Ortiz, the superintendent, Detective Rob Arbuiso found drug paraphernalia, including a scale; 100 plastic sandwich bags commonly used to package cocaine; and $132,750 in cash. The money was confiscated as drug profits. Mr. Ortiz was notified that he could reclaim it if he proved he had earned it legitimately; he never has. But they found no drugs, and Mr. Ortiz was quickly back on the street. His misdemeanor charge on paraphernalia possession is still pending.
Weeks later, they searched in the same building, hitting Apartment 21, which was leased to an elderly woman who had recently had a liver transplant.
"We're going to knock instead of banging down the door," Sergeant Simonetti said. "We don't want to give her a heart attack."
Inside, near a painting of the Virgin Mary, were two bedrooms that she sublet, both equipped with locks. In one room was a sleeping Dominican, who was forced into the hall in his underwear, cuffed and questioned. He told Detective Gonzalez he had no idea who lived in the other bedroom, had never seen anyone going or coming. In that second bedroom officers found a plastic bag containing about $60,000 worth of cocaine. The old woman with the new liver said that she had never seen anyone go in or out of that room. And neither she nor the man in his underpants had a key for it.
As Lieutenant Byrne mulled over whom to arrest, a man rushed up the stairs. He said that his name was Alberto Rivera Jr., and that he was the old woman's son.
At first he said he lived there; when he heard why the police were there, he said he didn't. Detective Gonzalez asked if Mr. Rivera had an ID, and before he knew it, Mr. Rivera was reaching into his pants.
"Don't do that until I tell . . . " began Detective Gonzalez, but it was too late. Mr. Rivera was pointing a dark brown wallet at the detective, who started, then relaxed. "Don't be making any fast moves like that," the officer sighed.
In the end the lieutenant compromised. He said he doubted that charges against the old woman would stick and didn't want her dropping dead in the prisoner van; he was suspicious of the son but had nothing. So he decided on the man in underpants. "We don't want to be embarrassed going into the neighborhood and coming out with no one," the lieutenant said. "This sends a message." They would take him to the precinct, check for outstanding warrants, and then, if he was clean, let him go. All of which they did.
To cops, who often feel they're in a losing battle against the dealers, it's a way to apply some leverage, maybe persuade someone to inform; in the neighborhoods, it smacks of racial profiling.
On these streets, dark-skinned man are often stopped, questioned, then let go. On May 4, Sergeant Simonetti's team searched 601 West 141st Street, Apartment 41. As several officers entered the apartment, others detained 15 men standing on the nearby corner of 141st and Broadway. Inside the apartment, the cops reported a rare trifecta: They seized 1.5 kilos of cocaine and about $3,000, and arrested 18-year-old Jorge Rodriguez (who has since fled and is being sought on a bench warrant).
Outside on the street, the police lined up the detained men against a wall to see if any had keys to Apartment 41. Sometimes this works; a few weeks before, on the same block, they caught two dealers this way. This time no one had a matching key. One man had a small amount of coke and was arrested; a second had $2,000 in cash and a Kenwood two-way radio. There was another Kenwood inside the apartment, but the frequency didn't match. He and the other 14 were let go after half an hour.
As the police searched the men, a mainly Dominican crowd gathered, joking with the cops. Pointing at the men on the corner, a young woman called out, "Why are you bothering them? They're just working," and the crowd and cops shared a laugh.
But just as often, the crowd turns nasty. Last August, Flor Blum was arrested for buying $35 of crack. When she realized she would be handcuffed and put in the prisoner van, she began screaming. In the back of the van, she hurled herself against the walls, slamming her body against Detective Gonzalez and his partner, Detective Scott Signorelli. "Please let me go, let me get out of here!" she screamed. "I'm phobic!"
They tried to calm her, but she kept screaming. "I need water! I have AIDS, sir! I swear, I don't want to do this! It's only a job to you. What do you care?" She began hacking up phlegm, spitting all over the back of the van. Detective Gonzalez could not tell: Was she high? Having an anxiety attack? Faking it? Might she go into cardiac arrest? That could end a cop's career fast. They stopped and bought her a bottle of Poland Spring, but she continued to scream and thrash so much, the van rocked. "My T-cells are going down! Please let me go, sir!" When they parked on 135th Street to try to calm her, a crowd gathered outside the rocking van. "What are they doing?" a woman asked. "Are they beating her?"
"They're beating her?" yelled a second woman. Suddenly there was a bang on top of the van; someone had hurled an egg off a roof at the police. Detective Gonzalez drove off. Ms. Blum screamed the whole way to the precinct. Later she apologized, saying, "I just get phobic." She was given a desk appearance ticket and took a taxi home. Ultimately, charges were dismissed.
All of this make narcotics officers feel bitter, as if it were the 1920's and they were reliving Prohibition. "Everyone sees this is a joke," said Jason, an undercover. "They know we ain't putting no dent in drugs."
Lieutenant Byrne, who oversees Sergeant Brogli's team, says the only answer is legalizing drugs. "In my humble opinion, we're doing nothing up here," he said after another long day of buy-and-busts.
There Goes the Neighborhood
It's supposedly common knowledge: black New Yorkers distrust the police. But on the streets where Sergeant Brogli works, the biggest supporters of the police are African-American. In the last 15 years, this neighborhood may have changed from primarily African-American to Dominican, but the citizens council that meets monthly at the local precinct, the 30th, is headed by an African-American, Hazel O'Reilly, and dominated by African-Americans. At council meetings it is mainly black residents who attend to ask for more police enforcement, more drug arrests, who want more people jailed for loitering and trespassing.
Detective John Montes, a Hispanic cop who walked a beat for two years before joining Sergeant Brogli's team, says his best informers here were black. On these streets, the African-Americans are frequently the older, better-established families who moved here in the 1950's. Many are middle-class government workers, small-business owners and professionals, and often they are resentful that Spanish is now the primary language spoken in the Broadway shops; that able-bodied Dominican men line the sidewalks all hours of the day; and that the police consider the neighborhood drug trade, controlled by Dominicans, the worst in the city.
At a 30th Precinct meeting, an African-American homeowner asked that the police do loitering sweeps, calling in the National Guard if necessary. The woman, a single professional with a master's degree, complained in an interview about the Dominicans: "They hang out on the corners -- they have so many children. When I go into one of their stores, I try to line up to buy something the American way, but it's all chaos, the Dominican customers all milling, they don't know how to go in order."
In a dozen interviews in their homes, African-Americans complained about Dominicans ruining the neighborhood, sounding very much like the Jews and Italians who once dominated this area and began leaving 40 years ago, complaining about the blacks moving in.
Citing fear of retribution from dealers, all but one refused to be cited by name. The one who allowed her last name to be used, Mrs. Roper, ran a beauty shop but moved "when the neighborhood started going down because of the Dominicans."
"We had a nice building, until we got a Dominican superintendent and every time an apartment came available, he'd put in some of them, and each one looked like a drug dealer," said Mrs. Roper, a great-grandmother and a member of the scholarship committee at her Baptist church. "They'd play their music so loud, and this one time, a Dominican boy ran into our place and stole the money for the electric and a gold chain. I tell you the Dominicans destroy everything."
Dominicans Take the Rap
Everyone at headquarters has a racial or ethnic identity and gets needled about it. Lee Macklowe, a Jew, is introduced to a Jewish reporter as "a fellow member of the tribe." When Sergeant Simonetti treats his team to bagels, he lifts up a dark brown one and yells to Detective Luis Nieves-Diaz, a black-skinned Puerto Rican: "The pumpernickel's for you, Lou! Heh-heh!"
The one slur rarely spoken is "nigger." In a year's time, a reporter did not hear it. Whether that was because, as Sergeant Brogli says, this generation has been conditioned against it, or because, as Derrick, a black undercover, says, racial animosity still runs too deep to joke about the word, it seemed off-limits.
On the other hand, in these streets where most arrested for drugs are Dominican, it's open season on "Domos." Many are from poor, rural parts of their Caribbean island, where record-keeping isn't precise, and officers making arrests jokingly wonder if the Domo will know his birth date.
Sgt. Neil Nappi, who is white, was trying to help Sergeant Brogli's team persuade an arrested Dominican to give up information about a drug ring. In the midst of questioning him, Sergeant Nappi started talking about Dominican women. "They're beautiful, but big trouble," he said to another officer. "You don't want to knock 'em up. There's a couple of little redheaded Dominican kids running around, belong to guys at the 30th. Cops get their checks garnished, it breaks up marriages -- they're dangerous." As the cop spoke the Dominican man stared at the floor; he provided no useful information that day.
But there are times when the stereotype is true -- that the able-bodied dark-skinned man standing on the corner day after day is up to something -- and playing all the obvious hunches may pay off for the police.
Last Sept. 10, Sergeant Brogli's team bought drugs on 141st Street. Soon the van pulled up, and while Hector Espinal stood among a group of Dominican men, Detectives Gonzalez and Montes quietly arrested and cuffed him.
"Why'm I getting locked up?" he asked. A woman with a baby said, "He's just standing here." In Mr. Espinal's pocket was a Progressive Labor Party flier, headlined "Racist Cops Kill Workers in Cold Blood."
Back at the 30th, doing the paperwork, two detectives could not agree on whether Mr. Espinal's eyes were hazel or brown. "Hector, look at me," said Sergeant Brogli, getting so close you could barely squeeze a dime between them. "Light brown," she said, and while she had his attention, she mentioned that he might be able to knock some prison time off by cooperating. She did not tell him that based on an investigation, they believed he belonged to a ring run by a dealer with the street name D. B.
"I'm not a drug dealer," Mr. Espinal said.
"We'll go upstairs and talk," Detective Berrios said.
They took him to a windowless interrogation room, where he sat at a table, one hand cuffed to the wall, and sipped a Poland Spring they had bought him. "I go up on that block, but I mind my business," Mr. Espinal said. "I'm not out there with anybody else. All I do is hang out there and smoke weed."
"We're telling you, you sold drugs," Sergeant Brogli said.
"Hector, I'm going to treat you like a man, not a boy," Detective Montes said.
"I don't work for anybody," Mr. Espinal repeated.
"One-shot offer," Sergeant Brogli said. "Talk now or the offer's gone."
"I don't know about sales," Mr. Espinal said. "I'm just trying to get it in my mouth."
"You have kids?" Detective Berrios asked. Mr. Espinal said he wasn't married.
"Yeah," Detective Berrios said. "but you got a kid, right?"
"Saturday he turned 1," Mr. Espinal said.
"You don't think about the kid now," Detective Berrios said, adding that Mr. Espinal could face 15 years. "You won't see him until he turns 17 possibly, and by that time he could have him another daddy." They all stared while Mr. Espinal swigged Poland Spring. "What are you thinking about?" Sergeant Brogli asked.
"You doubt if we are telling you the truth," Detective Berrios said.
"I don't work with nobody," Mr. Espinal repeated.
"You have exactly one minute," Sergeant Brogli said.
Mr. Espinal mumbled something. The cinder-block room went dead as a tomb. Next time he said it loud and clear: He got his stuff from "some cat named D. B."
"So you get it from D. B.," Detective Montes said.
"D. B.'s that chubby kid," Mr. Espinal said. "I'm not big like you think. I just got a lot of years" in the stuff.
They said they knew he had to be a seller, an able-bodied man, with no steady job, hanging on the street.
"I don't got a lot of expenses," he said. "I stay with my mother, plus I had a legal job -- back in '96."
"So you only make a couple of bucks," Sergeant Brogli said.
"Just to feed my child and my mother and my girlfriend and me," Mr. Espinal said. "Not to bring no guns, or no kilos."
"How you get in contact with him?" Detective Montes asked.
"On the block," Mr. Espinal said. "D. B. used to live with his girlfriend, but don't anymore."
"To feed you, your mother, your baby and your girl, he's got to be around a lot," Detective Montes said.
"Even his ex don't know where D. B. lives," Mr. Espinal said.
Detective Montes asked if D. B. lived with his mother.
"I don't be talking to that crackhead bitch," said Mr. Espinal (who has since been indicted on drug-selling charges and is facing trial).
Looking Out for Each Other
Members of a police team spend enormous amounts of time together. They discuss all forms of personal minutiae, including their dental work, their sleeping problems, whether they're having regular bowel movements and which relatives they're not getting along with.
They do not discuss race. They did not discuss Diallo.
And yet when the verdict came down, from interviewing them separately it was clear that each group knew how the other felt.
Neither could afford to offend the other; light and dark, they needed each other to get home safely at day's end.
And so, the eerie silence after the verdict.
Despite the racial divides in that room, at some point, most had helped out when others were jammed up. When Pete, one of the few white undercovers, was new, he had a terrible time making buys. His first month he did only two, well short of the five quota. Detective Gonzalez took him aside and gave him tips about blending in, like finding a group of druggies to stand in line with and taking care to hand over the money in the same wrist motion as the guy before you. But more than that, he leveled with Pete. He told him that as a white, he wouldn't be able to act like a brown Spanish guy. It helped Pete create his own character. Pete changed, from jivey white dude to homeless crackhead.
His record is now 13 buys in a month.
On the other hand, Detective Gonzalez, a gifted street cop, is weak on writing skills and awful about finishing his paperwork. At one point Lieutenant Byrne threatened to dock him a few days, for work that was months overdue, and told Sergeant Brogli to stay out of it. ("I want to put the fear of God in him," the lieutenant said.) Even so, the sergeant called Detective Gonzalez at home late at night and gave him tips on writing the forms in his own words.
In the two years between Amadou Diallo's death and the announcement of the verdict, Sergeant Brogli spent perhaps 5,000 hours with Derrick and Detective Gonzalez. They may never have discussed the case, but she knew their hearts. "Derrick's thinking it could have been him standing in that doorway," Sergeant Brogli said after the verdict.
Those were the very words Derrick used when asked later. "It could have been us," he said. "It could've been an undercover."
Up the Ladder
Several weeks ago, the new civil service list for lieutenants came out. Sergeant Brogli has friends all over the department, and one who got an early peek called her at home: "Is this Lieutenant Brogli?"
"Ma!" she called out. "I made the list!"
The police bureaucracy moves in inscrutable ways, and it could be months before the promotion takes effect and she is transferred. Fearing her departure, Detective Gonzalez has been looking around. He is not a good test taker, did poorly on the sergeant's exam. Like a lot of blacks and Hispanics, he took the undercover job because it put him on a fast track for a detective's shield and higher pay. It is a common avenue for minorities who either aren't good test takers or don't want the responsibility of being a sergeant.
But at 35, after doing five years as an undercover and two years as an investigator, he says he feels too old to return to that life, and now the options are less glamorous. Ideally he would like to stay with Sergeant Brogli until she changes jobs, and he said to her, "Maria, if you just tell me to stay, I will."
That's what she wanted, too. She's crazy about Johnny G., even if his paperwork is a nightmare. But she knew he had a couple of offers pending and it would be unfair to ask. "The door that opens now may not be open later," she said, and they laughed because she sounded like one of those fortune cookies that come with the Chinese takeout they order on the overnight tour.
Out With Prejudice
Years ago, when Detective Gonzalez was on uniformed housing patrol in Red Hook, Brooklyn, white officers couldn't tell what he was by looking at him and were guarded until reading his name tag. "Then they'd say, 'Oh, you're Gonzalez -- these blacks, aren't they like animals with all their kids?' "
"Now I'm in a Dominican neighborhood," he said. "I'll hear some sergeant, not knowing I'm around, talking about Domos this, Domos that."
"I had a white cop ask me, 'How many in your family are drug dealers?' " said Detective Gonzalez, who doesn't drink alcohol. "I told him, in my family, nobody."
If the police can be too quick to label, Detective Gonzalez says, they are only reflecting society.
On a warm afternoon, dressed as usual in plain clothes, he met downtown with a prosecutor about a case, then stopped in a deli near Chinatown for an iced tea. One sip and he nearly spit it out. He knew immediately it was the extra-sweet tea that heroin addicts on methadone often crave. "Sorry," said the Asian woman behind the counter, exchanging the drink. "This is junkie iced tea." An honest mistake? Or had she assumed he was a junkie from a nearby methadone clinic because he is brown-skinned?
You could go crazy trying to get to the bottom of every slight, says Detective Gonzalez, and he doesn't bother. He is an upbeat family man. His view of the narcotics officers he deals with each day: "There's not that much prejudice in the room."
A Poor Homeland
Making assumptions about Dominicans and drugs is not wholly an act of racism. Federal officials consider the Dominican Republic a major drug depot. In part that is because it is halfway between Colombia, where the cocaine is grown, and the United States, where it is snorted. And unlike Haiti on the other side of the island, the Dominican Republic shares a language with Colombia. But the most common reason that Dominicans join the drug trade, Detective Gonzalez says, is that most are very, very poor. He visits the island a few times a year to see his mother, who has retired there, and tells this story:
He is driving on the island with his 2-year-old son, Mark, when the car breaks down. There is a shack nearby, and he walks to it carrying Mark. Inside there is a single light bulb dangling from a cord. He asks the woman living there to use a phone. She takes down the number, and before he knows it he sees a boy running through the fields; the woman has sent her son to the nearest phone, a few miles away. Then she disappears out back and kills a chicken. She pulls plantains from a tree and makes the New York City detective and his boy a meal. A lost afternoon turns festive. Finally a mechanic arrives with the detective's mother, but when they try to give the woman money, she will not take it. She says it would be an insult.
Now every time he visits the island, he stops by her shack to drop off some small gift, like clothes his children have outgrown, and is greeted like a rich man.
"You drive around the D. R.," he said, "and in the middle of rows of shacks, you see one big house, a big car, a satellite dish, and you know it's drug money. These Dominican kids see it, too, and they have no other way and they take a chance. Most are not bad people. They come up humble, country people. It's a choice of living in a shack or getting something better for their families."
When Detective Gonzalez sees the brown men lined up on 140th Street, he thinks drug dealers, he says. But he also thinks of the bare light bulb and the boy running miles through the fields to the nearest phone.