Not as Easy as A,B,C

Fighting crime in one of Manhattan’s rougher neighborhoods.

The New York City of today is so far from the 1980s version of the city depicted in “Alphaville,” a real-life account of crime fighting in what was then one of Manhattan’s rougher neighborhoods, that many readers may find the stories of criminality and chaos improbable. Hollywood’s version of New York before the mid-1990s ascent of Rudolph Giuliani is a good reminder of how bad things once were. Think only of “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), “Taxi Driver” (1976) or, for that matter, “Alphabet City” (1984), a film about drugs wars on the Lower East Side. Perhaps appropriately, Michael Codella, a former detective with the New York City Police Department, and Bruce Bennett, a freelance writer, tell the story of Mr. Codella’s policing days in an almost film-like fashion.

“Alphaville” opens in the early summer of 1988, when Mr. Codella and his partner, Gio, patrol Avenue D while “sticky black bubbles on a new piece of macadam silently pop and drool.” In those bad old days, locals claimed that among Manhattan’s alphabetized street names—in a warren of east-side tenement blocks stretching down from 14th Street to Houston Street—”D” stood for “Death” and “A” for “Assault.”

The area—a neighborhood of immigrants and poor people for most of its history—became, after World War II the site of public-housing projects, concentrating poverty in government- financed towers. During the 1960s and early 1970s, it became as well the home of counterculture dropouts and, eventually, of a ragtag anarchist community centered near Tomkins Square Park. The neighborhood’s easy access to the FDR expressway and the city’s bridges and tunnels, the authors note, helped to make Alphabet City the heroin crossroads of the world.

Mr. Codella and his partner believed in solid, traditional police work. They guarded their territory like panthers, watching, waiting, ready to pounce. “We size up everybody,” he recalls (deploying a you-are-there present tense), “the steerers calling brands, the dealers making hand-to-hands, and the junkies crawling in feeling bad, hoping to walk out feeling nothing. We audition every face, every swinging arm, every sweating neck, every open eye that we pass.”

Equally important, the pair understood instinctively—maybe every good cop does—the principle that William Bratton, Mayor Giuliani’s first police commissioner, applied to the NYPD’s efforts to clean up New York a decade later. Drug dealing is a business and, like any business, it can be harassed to death. When the 1990s crackdown began, many police officers, not to mention pundits, protested that arresting small-time dealers would serve no purpose. Prosecutors, it was argued, would refuse to prosecute, the courts would order the dealers released, and the dealers would stroll out of their cells at Rikers Island the next day to resume their business. Commissioner Bratton didn’t care: Arrest them, he ordered: Disrupt their sales, cost them money, keep doing it. The strategy worked. Long- standing drug markets—for instance, certain blocks of Manhattan’s Upper West Side where yuppies in BMW’s bought dope from corner dealers—dried up.

Commissioner Bratton would have loved what Mr. Codella and his partner were doing: “We make every possible collar we can. We terrorize customers, hassle the dealing crews, even stake out a store on St. Mark’s Place that sells the glassine dope bags these guys use—anything to make business hard to conduct.” Back in the 1980s, though, such tactics didn’t sit well with the brass or even the detectives’ fellow cops. The partners were rate-busting—bringing in too many arrests. They were also functioning in a post- Serpico, post-Knapp Commission NYPD that was intent on staving off scandal, to the point of policing less than aggressively.

According to “Alphaville,” an edict came down to uniformed police: Do not make street drug-sale arrests. If some beat cops, the authors say, happened to see “a guy with a needle sticking out of his arm selling a quart-size Ziplock of heroin to Mickey Mouse on the corner of Second Street and Avenue D,” they were to do nothing more than write down the pertinent information and forward it to the precinct’s Organized Crime Control Bureau. The act of making a narcotics arrest became “its own trial by bureaucracy.” The laborious process of vouchering evidence and processing drug collars, they say, was a major contributor to the city’s street-heroin nightmare.

“Alphaville” makes another crucial point about drug dealing: As in any business, there has to be a top guy. “Somebody somewhere is enforcing the peace, keeping supplies going, sanctioning necessary killings and earning themselves a generous cut of the profits for doing it.” The search for the top guy on Mr. Codella’s beat—a man named Davey Blue Eyes, renowned for his ruthlessness and cool—becomes a major story line of “Alphaville,” unifying its otherwise scattered vignettes of brutal contract killings and after-hours partying.

The detectives’ most useful device, it turns out, is their network of informants and the federal anticrime money that pays the talkers. Mr. Codella says that because he grew up in Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood, where the mafia’s code of omertà and the police department’s blue wall of silence pervaded the neighborhood’s ethos, he initially had an exaggerated idea of how far people would go to keep secrets. What he learned is that everyone on the wrong side of the law has a price.

The cocky and often triumphant confrontations with bad guys make “Alphaville” a strangely entertaining read. But the book is also a reminder of how far into danger and degradation New York fell in the late 20th century. Today New York is the safest major city in America. Yet the homicide rate so far this year is 15% higher than last, and the numbers for rape and robbery are rising, too. The watchword for urban safety, as for so much else, is eternal vigilance. We never want to return to the bad old days—which aren’t all that old.

Ms. Vitullo-Martin is director of the New York-based Center for Urban Innovation at the Regional Plan Association.


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