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Looking for trouble: Troy’s North Central seen from an SCU unmarked car.

Photo: Shannon DeCelle

The Street Crimes Unit cruises Troy’s tough neighborhoods with a zero-tolerance attitude, a high arrest rate, and the occasional charge of brutality

By Chet Hardin

Photos by Shannon DeCelle

Sgt. David Dean points to the pictures of three miserable, disheveled middle-aged white men. Their grim portraits are surrounded by hundreds of similar photos, printed off an office inkjet, and taped to the walls of the Street Crimes Unit. The unit’s office is a cramped room on the second floor of Troy’s police headquarters filled with ramshackle desks and tables. There are taser-gun belts and bullet-proof vests, boxes of files from a cold investigation, a radio playing 103.1, and a dry-erase board that boasts the tally for the unit’s weekly arrests and citations. And, of course, the photos.

These three men were down from Brattleboro, Vt., says Dean, to buy crack.

“Easy pickin’s,” he calls them. They fit the profile: the beat-up pickup truck rolling down from the mountain, the guy with his arm out the window, big bug eyes, looking to score. Every cop knows that look, and SCU knows where the deals go down. They sit and wait, watching the corners. The trucks sidle up, the out-of-towners score their crack, and pull off onto a side street to smoke it. “They pack that pipe right there,” he says, “cause the demons are talking to them. We roll up, grab the pipe out of their hands, and lock them up.”

Maybe he doesn’t say that in a way that gives the disease and its implications their due, he admits, “but I gotta be honest, we aren’t here to make them healthier. We want them gone. Out. They are the ones who aren’t indigenous to Troy. They are just the crows coming down to pick at the bones of the skeleton.”

Tonight, these same pickups will rumble in from Hoosick Falls, Bennington, Cambridge, Watervliet, Albany—from all over—to buy crack in North Central. “They are really the people exploiting the neighborhood. They keep the guys on the corners, and those are the same guys that gotta hide the gun a few feet away because they don’t want to be ripped off.”

Last August, SCU was initiated in response to a slew of violent crimes and felonies in North Central. More than a half-dozen reports of shots fired, attempted murders. Dozens of robberies and assaults. Untold numbers of drug sales. Troy police wanted to interdict the drug market, he says, before people started dying. They wanted to crush the market.

“And we did.”

North Central is delineated by Hoosick Street up the hill to Frear Park and along River Street north to 101st, beyond which lays Lansingburgh. It’s the most impoverished community in Troy, one of the most depressed in the Capital Region. It is marred by plywood-covered abandoned buildings, decrepit brownstones owned and neglected by out-of-town landlords, littered streets, and a vibrant drug trade.

It is home to some of the most crime-plagued blocks in Troy.

Wall of photos: Pictures of Jamel DeWitt and Marquese Hill after their arrests.

Photo: Shannon DeCelle

“We weren’t doing our jobs right,” says Troy Police Chief Nicholas Kaiser. “When I first became chief in 2003, we were doing these long-term drug investigations, trying to go for the big score.” But that took the attention, and the force’s finite resource—cops—off the streets. Quality-of-life issues had taken a hit. “I felt that we needed to mitigate the street-level dealing, the thing that the average person looks out their window and sees,” but the strategies they were coming up with weren’t as effective as they had hoped. North Central was overrun.

“Everyone who was in tune, who had their head in the game, knew that we were moments away from bodies dropping,” Dean says. There was a brainstorming session with the boys up top, the captains and the chief. No one got to leave the room before a decision was made on how to fight the growing crime wave. The decision was reached that they needed a street-crimes unit.

Dean was called up to start the team. They did the logistics planning, researched the data, found the busiest days when violent crimes were occurring, and where they were occurring. They let this data drive their schedules, their strategies.

SCU was initiated as a unit of six officers, plus a sergeant, all in plain clothes and unmarked cars. The unit’s mission was simple, flexible. Proactive. Drive the streets, track suspicious behavior and bust any illegal activity, no matter how minor or innocuous: open-container violations, loitering, noise infractions. Everything.

“We discussed the normal expectations that people have,” Dean adds. “If you are living in North Central, you don’t want people drinking on your porch. That is important to us. It offends us.”

The officers are encouraged to get out of their cars. To talk to people. Get to know the names, faces, stories, connections. “We want to take people to task,” says Dean. “Approach them and ask, ‘Who are you and why are you drinking on this porch?’ Take time to educate them: ‘There are people living here. Get away from their property. Where do you belong?’ ”

The first arrests the unit made were a husband and wife who were smoking weed on their own porch. Nothing sexy about that, no headlines, no guns off the street. But, as the theory goes, that is exactly the kind of quality-of-life violation that drags a neighborhood down and makes it vulnerable to more serious crime. If the windows are broken, if people are throwing trash on the street, people start to think, “What does it matter if I drink on the street or sell drugs on the corner?”

“It leads to people who don’t give a crap anymore,” Kaiser says. “They think that they can get away with it, so they push it a little more.”

The feeling was that if SCU cast a wide enough net, attacked the streets with a zealous zero-tolerance policy, not only would the quality of life increase, but that other, more serious crimes would be affected, too.

One day they will be out in unmarked SUVs, the next, they will be out in cruisers. “We wanted there to be the perception, ‘I don’t know where they are going to come from next. They could pop out of a sewer grate.’ We wanted that omnipotence,” says Dean.

SCU is viewed as a performance-driven unit, and the performance has been startling. Since August, it has made 300 arrests: 100 in the first month alone, and 20 of them felonies. The numbers have recently tapered off, to about 20 a month. In March, there wasn’t a single robbery or violent crime in North Central, and there hasn’t been a shooting in that neighborhood since the unit’s inception.

“That would never happen before,” Kaiser says. “That is the most poverty-prone part of our city, and, in the past, the majority of our violent crimes would occur in that zone, historically. This is huge.”

There are concerns in the department about the displacement of crime. As the crime numbers have dwindled in North Troy, they have seen an increase in South Troy and Lansingburgh. To address that, says Kaiser, SCU will be reassigned to current trouble zones. The unit is malleable, after all. It doesn’t have to answer the regular patrol calls. It doesn’t get bogged down in months-long investigations. It can move quickly and effortlessly from one zone to another.

“Obviously, SCU has been effective in North Central,” Kaiser says. And he suspects that it can replicate that effectiveness throughout the city.

“Of course,” he jokes, “watch, there’ll be a shooting tonight.”

And as though to illustrate that in his line of work no amount of success is ever enough, there is a shooting three hours later—two, in fact—above North Central in Lansingburgh. One of the men shot, Desmond D. Moultrie, a 21-year-old from Manhattan, dies.

On Jan. 18, Troy residents Marquese Hill and Jamel DeWitt led SCU officers in a pursuit from the bottom of Hoosick Street across the bridge into Menands. It ended in the serene middle-class neighborhood along Woods Lane, on the front lawn of Libby Post.

Post, a longtime political activist and president of a marketing firm, was eating dinner with her family when the noise drew them outside. What they saw, according to Post, was the two men lying face down in the yard, their hands at their sides, and police officers above them, striking the men repeatedly with batons. The attack lasted, she says, for roughly 30 seconds.

“They had these guys down on the ground,” Post says. “All they needed to do was put their knees in their backs. They weren’t struggling. That wasn’t professional police work, it was rage.”

Performance-driven: In its first month, under Sgt. David Dean’s direction, SCU made 100 arrests.

Photo: Shannon DeCelle

She says that her family pleaded with the officers to stop beating the young men, and were shouted at, told to go back in their home, and chided that they were “probably on the jury that let that killer go free in Troy,” a reference to the then days-old controversial acquittal of a murder suspect in Troy.

Post calls herself a “law-and-order kind of girl,” but what she saw, she says, wasn’t law or order, it was abuse. “If they had just cuffed these kids and done what they were supposed to do, none of this would have happened.”

Hill and DeWitt were charged with resisting arrest and possession of marijuana. Hill also faces a parole violation and a felony assault charge for allegedly striking an officer, says his lawyer, Lee Kindlon.

“Given Marquese’s status, if convicted of the assault, because he is on parole, he could be looking at 3 to 7,” Kindlon says. “They have had their brushes with the law in the past, sure. But I don’t think that absolved the police.”

Kindlon says that the two men were left bruised and bloodied from their confrontation with the police. “We have pictures from the next day, and Marquese still was bleeding.”

The Troy police department has begun an internal-affairs investigation into the events of the night. The Albany County District Attorney’s office has begun its own investigation into the charges of police brutality.

“My nephew took the worst beating,” claims Pamela Townsend, Hill’s aunt. “All to the head. All to the head. Where does it say that you beat them in the head? You’re supposed to beat them in the head with that baton, or that flashlight? Oh my God. That shit is unreal. It made me lose a lot of respect for police.”

“You beat my nephew like that,” she says, “and then you want people up here to trust the police?”

Hill has claimed that he was dragged out of the car with his hands in the air afraid to move because he anticipated that the officers would interpret any movement as an act of aggression.

Townsend asks why the police didn’t release the mug shots of her nephew and DeWitt to the press. “Why wasn’t it released?” she asks. “Because they didn’t want people to see what they’d done.”

Kindlon has photos, though, “and we have a stable full of witnesses,” he says, “who saw the whole thing go down. It is not just our word against the police officers, as it is so many times. They can testify, and they can testify a lot closer to our story then the police officers’.”

Kindlon says that they intend to fight all the charges. “We are not even going to take a plea to disorderly conduct; we have no intention of taking any deals. We are going to fight this all the way.”

Hill gets frustrated and angry when she thinks of the way her nephew looked the next day, in the courtroom, bruised with abrasions all along his body.

“He was mummified,” she says. “The boy was barely walking.”

“We have had former defendants,” says Kindlon, “brothers of, sisters of, people who have been through the police department in Troy.” They all complain about the use of excessive force. “And it all points back to this unit.”

“I will be happy,” Townsend says of SCU, “when they get them off the streets.”

The SCU cops are filing into the office, getting ready for their shift. They are joke about the warm weather. “It brings out worst in people.”

“Criminals don’t work in bad weather.”

They strap tasers, guns, and batons to their legs and hips. Hang badges outside their shirts, which bulge slightly from the bulky bullet-proof vests.

The officers are “busting balls” on Guido Gabriel, the current sergeant in charge of SCU. “That’s what you look like when you are 10 years past retirement.”

“He’ll only talk about three things,” they say: watches, dragons, and the Navy SEALS. But they’re dead wrong. He’ll also talk a mean streak about Troy serial killer Gary Evans. But wouldn’t you, if you’d grown up best friends with such a bizarre psychotic?

The officers are anticipating a busy day, but it starts out slow. Cruising the streets in their rented SUVs, they find nothing going on in North Central.

“It’s too early,” one says. “Most of the people up here aren’t even up yet.”

“Sometimes there’s nothing for hours. Sometimes it’s nonstop.” Zero to 60.

Sgt. Gabriel eases his car to a stop, a half block up from a group of kids gathered on a porch. They have piqued his suspicion. He thought that he saw a baggie trading hands as he drove past moments earlier. He radios the unit and sits calmly, watching.

SCU isn’t a unit that everyone can handle, he says. You don’t make much money in it, because there’s little opportunity for overtime. Married guys like himself usually don’t bid it because the hours suck: You never get weekends off, or even two days in a row. The guys who bid this unit do it because they love this kind of police work—they love looking for trouble.

It’s been 20 minutes, and there has been no activity. He starts up his car and moves slowly past the porch. The group of kids has moved on. Maybe there was a drug deal, maybe not. He makes a note of the house, the street number. Sees a kid he recognizes from a previous bust walking down the street. Makes note of that, too.

A monotone call chirps through the patrol channel. Twenty-five kids are fighting in Lansingburgh. Gabriel flips the siren, hits the lights, and pushes his unmarked car up to 50 mph down River Street. He calls in that he is backing up the call.

“It we get fight calls, we go,” Gabriel says. “You know, large groups. We back up patrol.” It is one of the few instances that SCU breaks from its regular activity to respond to patrol calls.

Cars pull over to the side of the road as he races past. Coming up to the scene, he slows a bit, looking down side streets, and takes a hard right. His hubcap goes flying off into a parked car. But by the time he arrives, it seems the fight is over.

Back in the SCU office, Dean continues his tour of the photos.

“Let me tell ya, guys like these,” Dean says, pointing to photos of DeWitt and Hill, “pound for pound, these are some of the most violent people in Troy.”

The pictures of the two men were taken the night of their January arrests. DeWitt looks groggy with a headache and squinted eyes. Hill looks pathetic, his head wrapped in a bandage. A blood smear stained behind him on the white concrete wall.

“These guys are just . . . they’re fucking vultures,” Dean says. “They would just as soon you hand them $10 or they will knock your teeth out.”

He points to another photo.

“This guy,” he says, “didn’t have one handgun in his house, he had three. A half a pound of cocaine.” They had the guns tested. One was used in an attempted murder.

“These kids,” he says, pointing to a couple of baby-faced teenagers, “a knifepoint robbery in Watervliet gets reported to us. Then we get a call for a knifepoint carjacking in Lansingburgh.” The kids weren’t even 15 years old.

“Where are they going to be in 10 years?” he asks.

He points to a photo of a scrawny young woman. She looks stretched and desperate.

“This girl, broad daylight at 5 o’clock, right down from the Ale House, her boyfriend has got her flagging down cars so she can blow somebody to feed his crack habit. You can’t help but feel sick about that. I mean, where does she go from there?”

Dean stares at the photos, seems to get lost thinking about the people he has arrested, about their crimes. No longer the sergeant in charge of SCU, nowadays he handles public relations for the force, and has been working the recent homicide in Lansingburgh. But he still seems intimately familiar with the people on these walls: their arrests, social connections, drug connections, family lives.

He is the obvious champion of SCU. He feels connected to it in a way that let’s him amble about in the stories and theories that delve well into the abstract. He comes to the issue of brutality allegations and the proper use of force.

“One thing we didn’t sign on for was to get beaten, stabbed, shot at,” he says. He has seen plenty of officers attacked. Recently, an officer was clawed in the face. “I’ve hit people. I am going to hit other people. I’ve used my knees on them. I am not shy talking about that, because this is rough-and-tumble law enforcement.”

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