NY: Undercover Officers Under Strain, With No Clear Way Off the Beat


nypdAfter a decade spent working the bottom levels of New York’s drug world, Margaret Sasso, an undercover police officer, believed she had done and seen enough. The thought of entering more crack dens made her numb.

She sought a hardship transfer in August, but nothing came of it.

In March, as she sat in her car before a shift, she began swallowing prescribed muscle relaxants. The police found her the next day, unconscious from what she said was a failed suicide attempt.

“I just wanted to rest,” Detective Sasso, 43, said in a recent interview, after her release from a hospital. “Get away from everything and just rest.”

Detective Sasso’s suicide attempt was seen by other detectives as a potent, if extreme, illustration of the difficulties plaguing undercover units at a time when the Police Department’s head count is diminished, but the demand for arrests has never been higher.

Of the 120 or so undercover officers in the Organized Crime Control Bureau, which runs most of the department’s undercover operations, there is widespread dissatisfaction among the ranks, according to interviews with nearly a dozen current or recently retired detectives, including several assigned to undercover units.

About 40 undercover officers or detectives have pending requests to be transferred out, said one police official in Brooklyn who manages undercover assignments, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“Once you’re in, there’s no way out,” said Michael J. Palladino, the head of the detectives’ union.

The job generally attracts young officers with three to five years’ experience. After an interview process, which involves a role-playing component, applicants undergo a month of training, including crash courses on street drugs, and lessons on how to affect the mannerisms of an addict. Most candidates tend to be black or Hispanic; police officials say that many minority drug dealers are more likely to suspect white customers of being undercover officers. Detective Sasso is white. The work is not glamorous. Their efforts are aimed at those who sell drugs or guns, making their jobs inherently dangerous.

They are constantly at risk of being robbed and have been killed by the suspects they hope to arrest; they even face the risk of being shot by fellow officers who occasionally mistake them for armed criminals.

In 1994, a white off-duty officer, Peter Del-Debbio, mistakenly shot Desmond Robinson, a black officer who was working in a plainclothes unit, at a subway station in Manhattan. In 1998, Sean Carrington, an undercover detective, was killed in a Bronx buy-and-bust drug operation. In 2003, two undercover detectives with the Firearms Investigation Unit, James V. Nemorin and Rodney J. Andrews, were executed by a man they believed was going to sell them guns on Staten Island.

Detectives Carrington, Nemorin and Andrews were also black – underscoring the racial disparity between those who work undercover and their supervisors.

“Who are the undercover officers?” Mr. Palladino said. “Hard-working minority men and women who grew up in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city who chose to come into the N.Y.P.D., to try to make a difference. And the N.Y.P.D. uses them.”

For example, in the small but elite firearms unit, which accepts only experienced undercover officers, most of whom intend to make a career out of that kind of work, there has not been a white undercover officer in several years, according to three former detectives from the unit. They say that the nonundercover detectives in the unit, as well as supervisors, are overwhelmingly white.

The organization 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement has long discouraged minority officers from volunteering for undercover assignments – exacerbating the shortage of new undercover detectives; only about a dozen or so are trained each year, one investigator said.

The pressures of undercover work, and the desire to escape it, hung in the periphery of the 2006 fatal police shooting of Sean Bell in Queens.

Gescard F. Isnora, the undercover detective who fired the first of the 50 police bullets at Mr. Bell’s vehicle, testified in a departmental trial that three months before the Bell shooting, he had sought to leave undercover work, even seeking a demotion to return to patrol. He explained at his trial, held last year, how two recent undercover operations had ended violently – one with his partner shooting at a man – and he acknowledged not wanting to buy drugs anymore.

Mr. Isnora was fired because he was found to have acted improperly in the Bell shooting.

Undercover assignments come with the promise of a detective’s gold shield within 18 months, and a transfer out of undercover work after another 18 months, Mr. Palladino said. But some undercover officers end up working several years beyond that before being allowed to “flip,” police parlance for leaving undercover work.

Mr. Palladino is now lobbying state legislators in Albany to create a cap on the number of years that officers spend undercover.

Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the Police Department, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Detectives said that besides low morale and burnout, another downside of such a long stint was an increased chance of being recognized.

“There are only a certain amount of times you can go to the same housing projects,” one Brooklyn detective said.

Detective Debra Lawson, who worked in the firearms unit, said that staffing shortages led supervisors to ask her to switch off between working as an undercover “ghost,” who accompanies the undercover officer or hangs back down the street, and having other assignments in which she might wear a police raid jacket. Straddling both roles, sometimes within a single day, she said, put her and the undercover officers she worked with in danger of being recognized.

Similarly, at one firearms unit in Brooklyn, undercover officers work from a busy police precinct, rather than a covert location, said two retired detectives, who believe the arrangement puts them at risk of being identified as police officers.

On the streets, undercover officers are supposed to be supported by the “ghost” officer and by a backup team of six officers. But the backup team is often short-staffed, said Detective Lawson, who has filed a lawsuit accusing supervisors of having “consistently falsified” the written tactical plans to make it seem as if the undercover operations were fully staffed.

“I couldn’t depend on the field team,” she said.

In interviews, several detectives who had worked in the firearms unit said they wanted the option of working in larger undercover teams, rather than in pairs, saying that the criminals they meet travel in large groups.

Mr. Palladino is also pressing for lawmakers to force the department to replace the transmitters that undercover officers use as a hidden lifeline to a backup team. The transmitters have been criticized for their unreliability and age; some that were in use in recent years still resembled the hip-worn beepers popular two decades ago, Detective Sasso said.

One undercover officer, upset that his transmissions were apparently unheard by the backup team, recently came out of a Brooklyn operation saying, “Where were you guys, they put a knife to my neck,” said the Brooklyn official. Another officer said that in an operation his code word – meant to alert backup officers into action – went unheard, and he had to accede to a dealer’s demands that he smoke crack. He said he had heard of similar episodes from colleagues.

Detective Sasso, a Polish immigrant, joined the force in 1993. Her first attempt to buy drugs as an undercover officer ended in rejection, she recalled recently, probably because she was too polite: Her opening words to the dealer were “excuse me.” She eventually learned to play the role of an addict after striking up a conversation with a Brighton Beach prostitute, discovering she had a knack for the undercover work. Since then, she has been “walking miles for a vial,” slang for street-level buy-and-bust work.

She had an array of answers for dealers who demanded that she smoke crack to prove she was not a cop. Her most inspired response, she said, was to tell one dealer how her dead grandmother was watching through his eyes. She could therefore not smoke crack in front of him.

“How many people can tell you they do what I actually did?” Detective Sasso said about her career. “I was very proud of myself. And I enjoyed it.”

That changed in late 2010, after her parents died in a car accident. Then her marriage began to unravel. A lawyer told her she risked losing custody of her children because of the irregular hours of undercover narcotics work. She sought a transfer to prisoner intake, an unpopular job, for its steady schedule. But she did not get out.

In April, on her first day back to work after her suicide attempt, the department ordered her to attend a month of drug counseling in Pennsylvania. She said that addiction was not one of her problems.

{NY Times/Matzav.com Newscenter}