“This is crack cocaine seized a few days ago by drug enforcement agents in a park just across the street from the White House. It’s as innocent-looking as candy, but it’s turning our cities into battle zones, and it’s murdering our children. Let there be no mistake: This stuff is poison.” —President George H.W. Bush, Sept. 5, 1989
A U.S. News & World Report story in August 1991 made the claim that William Hopkins was the first official to spot crack in New York City. Hopkins, a former Bronx narcotics officer, was heading a state research unit that monitored drug trends on the street level and reported its findings to police. The article has Hopkins overhearing a mention of crack during a ride through the Tremont section of the Bronx in 1983:
They said it was “rock cocaine.” It was almost another year before Hopkins got a firsthand look at a man who was smoking it. “I learned for the first time it was done with baking soda, not ether,” says Hopkins. “And I examined what he had, and it was in vials. I knew we had something new on the market.” Within a year, crack had saturated the city.
That same article—entitled “The Men Who Created Crack”—largely attributes the introduction of crack in New York to “a canny street tough named Santiago Luis Polanco-Rodriguez.”
Polanco-Rodriguez grew up in Washington Heights and, by the age of 20, was involved in a pretty successful cocaine business, selling the powder in small glassine envelopes he stamped with “Coke Is It,” a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the Coca-Cola slogan. Sometime in early 1985, “Yayo,” as PolancoRodriguez was called, started hustling crack. A Nov. 29, 1985, article was the first time that the New York Times wrote about this new drug.
“A new form of cocaine is for sale on the streets of New York, alarming law enforcement officials and rehabilitation experts because of its tendency to accelerate abuse of the drug, particularly among adolescents,” the article read. “The substance, known as crack, is already processed into the purified form that enables cocaine users to smoke—or ‘free-base’—the powerful stimulant of the central nervous system.”
News articles only speculate how Polanco-Rodriguez was introduced to crack. One theory held that the Jamaican gangs he was involved with in the cocaine business introduced him to crack soon after it first arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of 1985. “Another,” the Times wrote, “is that the Medellín cartel in Colombia recognized Mr. Polanco-Rodriguez’s marketing talents and taught him how to cook the drugs.”
In any event, along with his mother, sister and three brothers, Polanco-Rodriguez is credited with starting what law enforcement officials called the first large-scale, organized crack operation in the city. He called his business Based Balls. In his book “New York Murder Mystery: The True Story Behind the Crime Crash of the 1990s,” John Jay College of Criminal Justice sociologist Andrew Karmen wrote, “Crack was an immediate success.”
“It could be marketed in smaller, less expensive units that seemed deceptively affordable to a younger, lower income clientele—who unfortunately had weaker commitments to conventional lifestyles, less to lose, and fewer resources at their disposal to help them cope with drug-induced problems,” Karmen added. “As the pleasurable practice caught on largely among the most vulnerable and marginal of inner city residents, especially in New York, Los Angeles and Miami, the news media likened crack smoking to a ‘plague’ that emanated from the netherworld and threatened to invade and destroy suburban sanctuaries. This imagery was reinforced nightly as news broadcasts featured action clips of narcotics squads raiding crackhouses, busting down doors, and carting off young black and Hispanic men in chains.”
According to a 1987 indictment, Yayo employed as many as 100 workers and each day hustled up to 10,000 redcapped vials of crack for $10 apiece ($20 for the “jumbos”), mostly in Washington Heights and Kingsbridge Heights in the Bronx. The group was said to offer buy-one-get-one-free specials to keep addicts loyal to their product. Employees passed out business cards with “Based Balls” and “Cop and Go” that listed the locations to buy, or “cop,” their crack. Officials estimated that the family made somewhere in the vicinity of $36 million a year. Employing a full-time accountant, Polanco-Rodriguez used a wire transfer store, a pharmacy and a nightclub as fronts to launder his drug money through a finance company in his native Dominican Republic. He ruled his crack empire through violence; his organization was connected to at least five murders of rivals and out-of-line employees over a two-year span.
By the time the feds finally brought the ring down in July 1987, Polanco-Rodriguez had fled to the Dominican Republic, never to return despite the minor international incident it caused when the D.R. refused to allow him to be extradited to the United States to stand trial for his alleged crimes. Even though Yayo was gone, the damage had been done. Polanco-Rodriguez, officials say, had established the standard model by which crack gangs were to be run throughout the city.
Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols already had just such an organization up and humming along smoothly in southeast Queens. In 1980, he hooked up with a cocaine dealer named Ronnie Bumps who was buying cocaine from Colombian drug dealers who had moved into Jackson Heights. When Bumps went to prison on a federal case, Nichols became the top man in the crew. According to late Daily News reporter Mike McAlary’s book “Cop Shot,” once Nichols took over, “he figured, what with so much profit to be made, there was no sense dying in a drug war. So Nichols called a meeting with some of the other drug dealers in the area.” After a night of partying with Nichols, the most prominent drug dealers in southeast Queens decided to amicably split up the turf, reported McAlary, but “everyone answered to Fat Cat,” who soon took on a “Robin Hood of the hood” reputation for treating kids to ice cream and candy and helping out people in the neighborhood who needed cash.
Things began falling apart for Nichols when an informant, who was subsequently murdered, set the Cat up in the summer of 1985. A raid on his storefront headquarters nabbed guns, six ounces of high-grade heroin, two ounces of cocaine, 10 pounds of marijuana and $180,000 in cash. The Cat was able to post the $70,000 bail, but his parole officer, Brian Rooney, determined that Nichols had violated the parole he was on for a previous armed-robbery conviction, sending Nichols back to jail. Three months later, Rooney was ambushed and assassinated by members of Nichols’ gang on orders from the Cat.
Then, on Feb. 26, 1988, members of Nichols’ gang murdered a 22-year-old rookie police officer named Edward Byrne, who was sitting guard in a patrol car outside the home of a witness who had been threatened by Cat’s boys. After that, things were different.
Even before Byrne’s death, law enforcement strategies had already been evolving. During the years of Polanco-Rodriguez and Nichols’ ascendancy, the NYPD’s narcotics officers began to shake off the hesitancy they’d felt since the Knapp Commission report. Operation Pressure Point, started in January 1984, brought the NYPD back into the narcotics enforcement game. “Our objective is to retake the streets from the drug possessors,” said Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward, then just starting his third week on the job. “We plan to take and keep these streets with a uniformed force. And if they move, we will follow them.”
Ward’s use of the word “possessor” was telling: The NYPD’s first concerted street-level enforcement operation in more than a decade was not focused on Mr. Big. “I’m not kidding myself,” Ward said. “The drug problem is a national problem, and we will not stop the flow of drugs into New York City. But I can’t not do anything. I must do something.”
Some 231 officers, both undercover and uniformed, were deployed on the Lower East Side and in Alphabet City with the mission, as the Associated Press wrote, of “arresting buyers and sellers, stopping suspicious cars and pedestrians, and strictly enforcing traffic and disorderly conduct laws.” By the day’s end, Ward’s effort to “do something” resulted in 110 arrests, 10 times the usual daily number, and confiscations of 683 envelopes of heroin, 68 of cocaine, 60 of marijuana, a bottle of methadone, 78 pills, 107 hypodermic needles, $6,000 in cash, a car, nine knives and two swords, the AP reported.
Three weeks later, Ward testified before the City Council Public Safety Committee and reported that there had been 1,362 arrests made during Operation Pressure Point’s first 18 days. He told the committee members that the drug dealers had been driven out of the area. When asked where they went, Ward replied, “I hope they go to New Jersey.”
Ward was being facetious, but his answer nevertheless got at the root of the so-called “saturation arrest” strategy of policing. The drug dealers and addicts don’t disappear; they just relocate. Nevertheless, in one form or another, the saturation arrest approach has remained, since 1984, the NYPD’s de rigueur strategy when it comes to narcotics enforcement.
If the mass arrests had an impact on reducing crime, it was a delayed one at best, according to the statistics. As drug arrests during the last five years of Mayor Ed Koch’s tenure climbed from 55,906 to 94,243 (a 69 percent jump), homicides went up 38 percent (from 1,392 to 1,927), robberies increased 17 percent, shootings and other serious assaults went up 40 percent, and total felonies went up 4 percent. But, as Ward said, at least police had been doing “something.”
When Byrne was killed, the police had to do something more. Despite what would appear to be a lack of statistical evidence of any success through the strategy’s first four years, Koch and Ward went straight back to the mass-arrest playbook—but on steroids.
Just weeks after the officer’s murder, on March 7, 1988, Ward announced the creation of a state and federal initiative called the Tactical Narcotics Team, or TNT, to focus on one block at a time until the 22-square-mile area of southeast Queens was rid of drug dealing. Once again, Ward did not profess any confidence that the tactic would succeed. “We can’t guarantee it will work,” he said, but added, “The inability to do everything shouldn’t be an excuse to do nothing.”
It did work, at least for a while, says Panzarella, who by then was in the homicide bureau and served as one of the supervisors on Byrne’s murder investigation. In the short run, the TNT operation in southeast Queens “shut the drug markets down completely,” he says.
The strategy had its critics. The Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, a watchdog organization, criticized Koch and Ward, saying that instead of relying on combating drugs and attempting to reduce overall crime by arresting street dealers, special police and prosecution teams should be created to concentrate on taking down the most violent and best-organized drug gangs in the city. The commission also called for increased financing of rehabilitation programs for drug addicts and programs that teach schoolkids about the dangers of drugs. In November 1988, Koch announced plans to expand TNT into six more neighborhoods around the city. Carlton “Chucky” Berkley was part of the first Manhattan North TNT squad. “Oh man, I’m telling you, it was bad,” recalls Berkley, a stocky guy with a thick, muscular neck and forearms like Popeye’s who lives in the same Harlem brownstone where he grew up. “As soon as I got out of the car, I had [dealers] coming right to me, ‘Hey, how ya doing, brother? What do you need?’ Sometimes I didn’t even have to get out of the car. It was so easy. As an undercover, it was like being a kid in a candy store.”
Berkley spent five years, from 1988 to 1993, in TNT. At first, the drugs were being sold so openly on the streets—even in wintertime—that dealers even slung rock to U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Al D’Amato, who were in disguise as part of a silly 1986 publicity stunt. Back then, being a ghost (the undercover who watches the undercover buyer’s back) was relatively easy, Berkley says. All he did was observe from a distance and radio to his back-ups the descriptions of the guys the undercover was dealing with. A short time after the buy, the backups would make the bust.
But within three or four months after he started working on TNT, Berkley says, the deals moved off the streets into lobbies, which vastly increased the dangers to the undercover buyer. Those indoor hand-to-hand deals then gave way to a system in which the dealer would bring the buyer inside, tell a runner how much the buyer wanted and the runner would go into an apartment somewhere in the building to retrieve the desired amount of drugs. That way, the dealer wouldn’t be caught holding large amounts.
After police upped patrols inside buildings, the drug dealers starting utilizing a system of multiple apartments and radios to complete their deals. “They got sophisticated,” Berkley says. This same cat-and-mouse game is played out between cops and dealers today.
Berkley says the goal was always to get Mr. Big, but they rarely did. “We really wanted to get the mother lode on the big men, but nine times out of 10, we wouldn’t get the big men—we’d get the little ones,” Berkley says. But by “big” he means the guys heading the operation in a particular building or project. When their cases led to the truly big men—the guys actually bringing the drugs into the neighborhoods—they were told by supervisors to leave the big stuff to the FBI and DEA, he says “which to me was a crock of shit. If the NYPD wants to stop something, they can do it. We have the resources.”
Though he harbors some frustrations, Berkley, who is running this year for a Manhattan City Council seat, still believes that TNT made a difference during his years in the unit. “Back then, people were afraid to call police because they thought the drug dealers would get them if they found out, and they were afraid of getting shot just walking down the street if these gangs started having a turf battle,” he says. “It was a real catch-22, and I think we definitely made a difference.”
Of course, crack hasn’t disappeared from New York City. It’s estimated that there are about 18,000 regular crack smokers in town. According to OASAS, 69 percent of those treated for crack cocaine addiction in 2007 were black. Forty-one percent had no income source. Crack cocaine users, as a whole, are what they call an aging population, with most over 35 years of age these days. Thirty-four percent of those treated for crack were women as compared with 25 percent of powder cocaine abusers. Crack remains most prevalent, according to recent drug studies, in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, especially in large-scale housing projects within those communities.
And according to the latest report by OASAS, “Crack users report that crack continues to be highly available,” with most people still buying $5 and $10 rocks. “Crack selling operations tend to be clustered in and around public housing developments and street corners,” the report reads. But it continues, “Because of law enforcement targeting crack sellers and selling locations, selling techniques are less overt. There has been a substantial decline in ‘open air’ market activity.”
It’s difficult to separate the actual impact that crack cocaine has had on the city from the drug’s hype. In the book “Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice,” sociology professors Craig Reinarman and Harry Levine coin the phrase “drug scare” (akin to “red scare”) to describe “periods when anti-drug crusades have achieved great prominence and legitimacy.” The period from 1986 to 1992 was in many ways the most intense drug scare of the 20th century, and at its center was crack.
But the truth is, the professors argue, most people who tried crack did not continue to use it, perhaps because its devastating effects were hard to ignore. It was used heavily only by a small percentage of even the people who used cocaine and never became a popular or widely used drug in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world. But politicians and the media, for self-serving reasons, continually portrayed crack “as the most contagiously addicting and destructive substance known,” using words such as “epidemic” and “plague” to describe crack use. Because of this, everyone seems to know that crack is to blame for all the city’s crime problems in the late 1980s and early 1990s, even if the rise in crime—there were 1,800 murders in 1981, well before crack made its debut—and its subsequent fall do not neatly coincide with the arrival and disappearance of crack from the city.
At the same time, while most New Yorkers were not affected by the drug directly, there is no denying that in the poorest sections of New York, the impacts of crack and its sale were severe. It affected both birth and death.
The number of mothers who tested positive for cocaine after giving birth quintupled from 1985 to 1989.
In Manhattan’s predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Washington Heights, there were 57 murders in 1984, before crack entered the scene, and 119 murders in 1991. Brooklyn’s East New York, a 5.6-square-mile neighborhood on the border with Queens, had 55 murders in 1986 but averaged 111 from 1991 through 1993, when it posted what is still considered the record for a precinct, 126 homicides. Yet while East New York was struggling to stanch the flow of blood in its streets, the Upper West Side recorded only one murder, and the Upper East Side had none. One study by doctors at Cornell University Medical College found that of the 4,298 homicides they studied between 1990 and 1991, “87 percent [of victims] were African American or Latino.”
According to Karmen of John Jay, by 1988, when crack had come to dominate the narcotics market in the city, police were reporting that about half of the 1,915 murders (958) were drug-related and of those, 481 were related to crack cocaine. A rise in other serious crime in the city at least seems to have coincided with the crack era, as robberies and assaults (crimes that, like murder, are typically associated with the drug trade) gradually increased from 1985 to 1990, when there were a record 573,813 felonies committed in the city, according to police records.
But how much the NYPD’s mass narcotics arrest policies helped reverse the crime trend remains unclear. During TNT’s most active years, 1988 to 1993, the relationship between drug arrests and overall crime was all over the map. Some years, drug arrests went up and so did overall crime. Other years saw fewer busts and less crime. And sometimes an increase in arrests accompanied a drop in crime.
The police, however, weren’t the only ones fighting crime. In drug-plagued neighborhoods and public housing complexes, civilians organized themselves to try to oust the drug peddlers, sometimes at great risk. In January 1987, five members of a mosque used a pump-action shotgun and pistol to threaten a man they believed was selling drugs out of an apartment in their Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. “We told the police, if you close [the crack houses] down, we’ll keep them closed,” the imam of the mosque said. “That was the deal.” Though two of the Muslims were eventually convicted on weapons charges, the posse was applauded for its antidrug stance, even by the NYPD, and soon other Muslim patrols followed suit in other parts of the city and on Long Island.
Scores of community anti-drug organizations also popped up during crack’s heyday, groups like Hispaños Unidos de Woodside in Queens, Lower East Side Drug-Free Zone and People United Against Drugs in the Bronx. For two years, Maria and Carlos Hernandez waged their own personal war against neighborhood drug dealers in Bushwick, Brooklyn, not being scared off even after Carlos was shot and then stabbed for confronting dealers. On Aug. 8, 1989, some of those dealers tried to send a message by shooting into the window of the Hernandezes’ apartment building. The bullets struck Maria in the head, killing her.
In 1992, former El Diario–La Prensa journalist Manuel de Dios Unanue met a fate similar to that of Maria Hernandez, gunned down in a Jackson Heights restaurant in retaliation for his exposés on Colombian drug trafficking to New York.
The dual pressure from the police and neighbors didn’t go unnoticed by the drug dealers. A 2002 study by John Jay’s Richard Curtis called “We Deliver” reported “the virtual disappearance of street sales” in the East Village by 1999 and noted that the favored technique for dealing drugs had become the more discreet use of delivery services. Also, Curtis found that the “corporate-style distributors”—the type of large-scale, structured drug organizations like Fat Cat Nichols ran—had been replaced by smaller organizations that eschewed the violence of their predecessors.
Along the same lines, today, “roaming” dealers have replaced yesterday’s “corner boys.” Instead of hanging out on the corners and drawing the ire of neighborhood residents, many dealers now walk a set route, passing by the same places at regular hourly intervals. When they arrive, the buyers approach them, and the deal is quickly consummated on the stroll. “The sellers tend to keep on the move in order to not attract attention,” reads a 2008 report by OASAS.
As the TNT operation was fading and the crack scene was cooling down, new worries about NYPD corruption arose. In 1992 came the arrest of Michael Dowd and five other NYPD cops who called themselves the Loser’s Club and ran a Brooklyn-to-Long Island cocaine ring. Dowd later admitted that he provided protection for Brooklyn drug dealers and even helped set up a rival drug dealer for assassination. Mayor David Dinkins impaneled the Mollen Commission to see if the problems went deeper than Dowd. After a two-year investigation, the commission concluded in 1994 that while there was nothing like the pervasive corruption of Knapp Commission days, “in every high-crime precinct with an active narcotics trade that this Commission examined, we found some level of corruption to exist.” Even today, most of the instances of police corruption that become public are narcotics-related. Four police officers from the Brooklyn South narcotics unit were arrested last year on charges of stealing cocaine out of evidence lockers and using it to pay off their informants having sex with female informants, and stealing cash from drug dealers. The scandal forced the district attorney’s office to dismiss more than 200 pending drug cases. In March, one of the accused cops, Jerry Bowens, shot and killed his girlfriend and wounded her friend. Bowens, who had pleaded guilty to the corruption charges and was set to testify against his fellow officers, was found unfit to stand trial for the slaying for psychiatric reasons in May. Police officials called the Brooklyn South corruption incident an isolated case.
Even as worries about dirty cops resurfaced in the early 1990s, the city was changing. Crime was falling. The crack market was stabilizing. And there was a different—and far less deadly—top drug target for the NYPD to pursue.