January 21, 1998, Wednesday
In New York City Drug War, Risky Tactics and Casualties
By DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI
Its war on crime increasingly focused on ridding neighborhoods of drugs, the New York City Police Department finds itself forced to confront drug dealers at their last sanctuary: inside apartment buildings, where suspicious sellers now commonly pat down their customers and subject them to intense scrutiny.
On Monday night, the dangers of that new battleground became all too apparent when Sean Carrington, an undercover officer not wearing a bulletproof vest, was fatally shot in a gun battle with dealers.
Law enforcement experts say undercover drug investigators are increasingly moving to the front lines of the city's war on crime. As the department's vigorous street policing has forced drug sales indoors, the undercover detectives have replaced street officers as targets.
Equipped with elaborate disguises, but often shunning bulletproof vests for fear of being detected, the more than 1,000 undercover detectives risk their lives by conning some of the city's most vicious, savvy, heavily armed criminals.
Aaron Rosenthal, a retired assistant police chief who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the old buy-and-bust operations aimed at dealers on the street ''are usually not that dangerous'' because they can be easily monitored by backup teams.
''But then there are the ones where you go inside,'' where, he said, officers can lose radio contact with their backup or face being frisked by dealers.
''These are dangerous situations,'' he said, calling the death of Detective Carrington ''another senseless casualty in an unwinnable war.''
As the police have intensified their assault on the drug trade, police officials say, drug dealers have raised the stakes. Five or six times each month, undercover investigators are now forced to use cocaine or heroin at gunpoint, to prove to dealers that they can be trusted. At least twice a month, an officer is shot or otherwise wounded during a staged purchase, say police commanders, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While calling Detective Carrington's death a tragedy, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani fiercely defended the value of the buy-and-bust operations. The Mayor, who credits aggressive drug enforcement with contributing to the city's steep decrease in crime, said he had no plans to curtail such operations and may actually increase them during efforts planned for the Bronx and Queens.
Mr. Giuliani said yesterday: ''This was not only a buy and bust operation, it was an attempt by the police to gather evidence about a murder which took place in January, which is a very legitimate law enforcement technique and something that has to be done. If you want to put responsibility somewhere, don't put it on the Police Department. Put it on the people who are selling the drugs and the people who are doing the murders.''
But some questioned whether the department is taking enough precautions to protect its undercover officers. ''They're not getting the training or the protection they need,'' said Jacqueline Parris, the president of the Guardians Association, which represents black officers. ''The department is asking them to risk their lives, but they're not backing them up.''
The Guardians are particularly concerned about the shooting because 70 percent of undercover officers are black, as was Detective Carrington, or Hispanic. Minority officers are sought for undercover jobs because they tend to have more credibility on the street.
Ms. Parris said many young officers are lured to undercover assignments mainly because they offer a fast track to the coveted detective's shield, in 18 months instead of several years on patrol.
But once inside an undercover unit, the officers can find themselves faced with life-or-death situations they are unprepared for and commanders who pressure them to keep arrest numbers high.
In the field, police officials try to stage their undercover buys in such a scripted manner that the site of the transaction is called ''the set.'' An undercover detective, disguised as a drug buyer and equipped with a hidden transmitter called a ''Kell,'' is assigned to make the purchase, using cash which has had its serial numbers prerecorded. Two ''ghosts'' are assigned to pose as passers-by, to keep watch over the buyer and track the seller once the buy has been made.
Hidden in the vicinity is a sergeant and another 5 to 10 back-up officers whose job is to converge on the suspects, en masse, once the sale has been completed.
During the vast majority of the estimated 5,000 buy-and-bust operations conducted annually, the script works perfectly: the buyer exchanges cash for drugs, the ghost tracks the suspects and the back-up teams make the arrests without firing a shot. But the volatile mixture of guns, drugs and felons means that any operation can become violent, or fatal, at any moment, particularly indoors.
''You never have control of these situations,'' said Robert Strang, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who now heads the Strang-Hayes security consulting firm. ''Especially when you have an aggressive move to take them out. You have to fight them on their own turf. These kinds of things happen every now and then. I wish there were a better way to do it. But there isn't.''
For the rank-and-file officer, however, there are many rewards to undercover work. Successful ones can advance more quickly in the department, and can make $10,000 more a year in overtime in a force that has otherwise curtailed such pay.
But police officials say that the city's ''zero tolerance'' drug policies of the last five years have fueled a kind of race between dealers and the detectives as they try to outsmart each other, with detectives increasingly aggressive and dealers more suspicious.
Undercover investigators are now trained to detect booby traps in drug locations and are constantly updated on the latest slang, street colors and drug brands -- information culled from arrested drug buyers. But the meticulous legal requirements of making a criminal case have also spawned more subtle maneuvers by dealers.
Dealers now commonly use cellular phones to establish a network of lookout posts around their businesses, detectives say. Another tactic is to use division of labor -- one person hands over the drugs, another collects the money -- to make it more difficult for the police to meet the legal standard for a drug sale arrest.
''The drug dealers have gotten smarter,'' said Vic Cipullo, a former undercover officer who is now the borough director for the Detectives' Endowment Association. ''After a while you bust them and bust them and they eventually learn what we have to do to make a case. Then they make it hard for you.''
To detectives in the field, the most dangerous new tactics involve the narcotics themselves. During the last two years, police officials have seen a steep increase in ''forced ingestions,'' incidents in which dealers compel undercover officers to sample the drugs before buying them. In such cases, which number as many as six a month, detectives are instructed to avoid taking the drugs unless their lives are in danger. Those officers who do ingest the drugs are immediately taken to a hospital, placed on sick leave and temporarily excused from the police drug testing program.
By moving their operations indoors in recent years, drug dealers have also become far more likely to frisk potential buyers, police officials say, making it nearly impossible for detectives to wear a bulletproof vest. While all city patrol officers are required to wear vests, most undercover detectives dare not, for fear that they will be detected as a result.
Detective Carrington, who was acting as a ghost during the fatal raid, was hit in the shoulder, where a vest would have been likely to save his life.
''It's such a waste,'' said the investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ''When I was out there, I didn't worry about my own safety, I was more worried that my bosses would get mad at me if I couldn't make a buy. But this guy, 28 years old, for him to have lost his life for a $10 bottle of crack in a building which has been infested for years. It doesn't make any sense.''
Organizations mentioned in this article:
Drug Abuse and Traffic; Murders and Attempted Murders; Bullet-Proof Clothing; Attacks on Police
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