Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Safe for Some: Policing the "New" Lower East Side

At 3:50 p.m., the officers on the third watch in Lower Manhattan's seventh precinct get ready roll out and start their shifts. It's raining and one of the patrol cars has stalled in the parking lot, so several officers gather to push it into a nearby spot. This isn't an unusual occurrence. These cars are in service 24 hours a day and, since this is the second smallest precinct in the city, funding for repairs is limited. A fireman – the station house is in the same red-brick building as Ladder Company 11 – stands on the corner and flashes a bemused smile.

A call comes in: A newspaper delivery truck has knocked over a fire hydrant outside Seasons Market on Allen and Rivington, causing gallons of water to flood the restaurant's cellar. "Who's responding?" asked Officer Eworth Pryce to his partner Sal Tamburello. With the incident involving both a hit-and-run driver and damage to city property, there's a question of jurisdiction. Eventually, a fireman shuts off the water and the officers agree to arrange for the disposal of the broken hydrant.

Back in the patrol car, another call comes in. It's an EDP – Emotionally Disturbed Person. "These can be the worst," said Tamburello, 27. "You never know what you'll find. They could be violent." But when Pryce and Tamburello arrive at Orchard and Houston, there's neither a disturbed person nor a complainant.

Such innocuous incidents might give the impression there's no "real" crime in this small Lower East Side neighborhood, stretching from East Houston on the north and Allen on the west to the East River on the south and east. The latest statistics from CompStat, a relatively new crime-tracking report, do show a significant downturn in murder, rape and felony assaults. This is not the same Lower East Side photographer Clayton Patterson documented in the 1980s, full of drug dealers, police beatings and violent murders. "I heard this area used to be real bad," explained Pryce, 33. "Open drug trading, street fights." Pryce has been in the precinct – and on the job – for only two-and-a-half years. Tamburello, with three-and-a-half, has seniority.

But to say there's no serious crime left in the 7th district would be to miss the larger picture. Robbery and grand larceny are still major problems here. The latter because the affluent young people who now come to the area's trendy bars often leave their bags and purses unattended. "By the time the victim notices she's been robbed, they're long gone," Tamburello explained. "All we can do is try to make the owners and patrons aware of the threat."

Robbery, however, is the bigger threat, since it's often coupled with assault. In the past several months, a number of delivery men – mostly from nearby Chinatown restaurants – have been beaten and robbed while delivering bogus orders made by their attackers. Just last week, a delivery boy was stabbed with a screwdriver for what amounted to less than $30. This kind of crime is difficult to solve because the assailants strike quickly and many Asian immigrants are reticent to speak to cops.

Most of the attacks occur in or near housing projects, like the one on Cherry Street, where, tonight, Pryce and Tamburello are making an unannounced walk-through.
Without keys to the building, they must wait to be let in. They pace anxiously – tenants have been known to throw garbage down from their windows when the police approach. Last year, according to Tamburello, a patrolman was killed by a cement block that crushed his skull.

Inside, the tenants appear courteous, if a little apprehensive. A young woman asks Tamburello if he goes to the Dunkin' Donuts on Delancey. He gives her a sideways glance and she quickly explains that she works there and knows most of the officers from his precinct. Patting his belly, he says he's watching his weight. On the 19th floor, a couple found smoking cigarettes in the stairwell make their apologies and head back into the hallway. Finding no wrongdoing inside, Pryce and Tamburello make their way to the roof.

In the projects, rooftops are No Man's Land. Just being up there is an arrestable offense. It's where the dealers go to sell and the junkies go to smoke or shoot up. Rapes and assaults are common here, as well. Pryce draws his revolver as he slowly pushes the access door open. He does a quick reconnaissance before waving for Tamburello to follow. They make a full sweep, peering slowly around ventilation shafts and dark, faceless structures. Tonight, it seems, the rain is keeping everyone indoors and out of trouble.

Back on the street, night has fallen. Pryce and Tamburello get in their squad car and return to headquarters for their dinner break. At a red light, Pryce explained his irritation with people who think his job must be dull compared to the "heyday" of New York's crime-ridden streets. Just two days ago, he broke up a fight between two friends, one of whom had knifed the other. "I wish it was boring," he said. "There's more than enough going on around here. It's just not where some folks can see it."