for trouble: Troy’s North Central seen from an SCU unmarked
Photo: Shannon DeCelle
Street Crimes Unit cruises Troy’s tough neighborhoods with
a zero-tolerance attitude, a high arrest rate,
and the occasional charge of brutality
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.
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
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.
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.
of photos: Pictures of Jamel DeWitt and Marquese Hill
after their arrests.
Photo: Shannon DeCelle
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
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.
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
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?”
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,”
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.
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.
SCU has been effective in North Central,” Kaiser says. And
he suspects that it can replicate that effectiveness throughout
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,
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, 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.
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.”
In its first month, under Sgt. David Dean’s direction,
SCU made 100 arrests.
Photo: Shannon DeCelle
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.
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
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
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
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.
was mummified,” she says. “The boy was barely walking.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
too early,” one says. “Most of the people up here aren’t even
there’s nothing for hours. Sometimes it’s nonstop.” Zero to
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
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
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.
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
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
Back in the SCU office, Dean continues his tour of the photos.
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.
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.
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.
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.
are they going to be in 10 years?” he asks.
He points to a photo of a scrawny young woman. She looks stretched
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.
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