In the ‘30s, up to 40% of the New York Police Department (NYPD) was Irish or of Irish descent. Now that figure has fallen to under 100 Irish immigrants. One of them, Finglas man Luke Waters tells Cormac O’Keeffe what it’s like on one of the toughest beats in the world
DOG Day Afternoon began Luke Waters’ career in the NYPD, and Scoobie Doo ended it. Fresh out of police academy, the 1980s emigrant from Dublin had a cushy number: guard duty in upmarket Manhattan, the home of United Nations dignitaries.
One afternoon, a bored Waters was confronted by a lady outraged by a dog peeing on the street. She pointed to a nearby sign proclaiming such activity was not allowed. She demanded to know what he was going to do about it.
To which the Finglas native delivered this piece of wit: “Ah indeed. But, umm, well, you know, maybe little Fluffy there can’t read.”
What Waters didn’t know was the lady in question was Mrs Heinz — the ketchup queen — and she was not amused. Waters was summoned by his bosses. As punishment for, what Waters labelled, Dog Day Afternoon and, in keeping with the cinematic references, he was reassigned to the 42nd Precinct, where Fort Apache, the Bronx was filmed.
It’s one of a long list of nice stories in NYPD Green — Waters’ first hand account of his time in “one of the toughest police departments in the world”.
The book is full of colour, black humour and clever wise-cracks — in what is otherwise a serious and intriguing read. Waters tells us that he always wanted to follow the family tradition in An Garda Síochána, but had twice failed Irish. After he passed Irish on a third attempt he travelled to New York in 1985. He never came back to enter Templemore College.
The Irish-America mafia secured him a job in a pub, but the draw of the uniform was always there and, after securing the Donnelly visa, he entered the NYPD in 1993.
It was not until he was dispatched to the South Bronx — described in New York as “the place where people shoot people” — his story really begins. After a period in the pickpocket squad, Waters graduated to the narcotics division — the “frontline of the war on drugs”.
Waters points out that millions of dollars of federal money is poured into policing the drug problem.
“But as I would discover, Narcotics was all about containment and all about the numbers and money, with set targets decided each day. Most arrests targeted pathetic habitual users carrying very small amounts of drugs, although that didn’t make the perps any less dangerous. We were fire fighting, basically, caught in a revolving door that never stopped.”
Overtime was driven by arrests. Waters says the so-called B&B (buy and bust) arrests were strictly choreographed, like any Broadway show.
“After a few years they became boring and bullshit,” he writes.
In an hour-long interview, Waters, who now lives in Cavan with his family, insists that, despite these criticisms, the overall approach of the NYPD to drugs is the right one.
“We have an extremely proactive Narcotics. There was no such thing as down day. You were out there, on the street, every single day. We were very aggressive.”
He says New York — like Ireland — has a serious drugs problem, New York in the 1990s had a crack epidemic, which Waters says, devastated communities and played a huge part in the upsurge in homicides.
He said that in the 1990s there were around 2,500 homicides a year.
“Crack is here in Ireland, and Dublin and Cork will be like the south Bronx if Ireland doesn’t get its act together,” he warns.
Waters says that while it is a revolving door in terms of seizures and arrests, “you must fight the problem” - through tough policing and educating the youth. “We had a war on crime in New York and the 2,500 homicides per year is now 500: that is a huge percentage drop and that’s because of the proactive policing.”
Waters moved to the detective branch in South Bronx and then graduated to its homicide division.
He details a grim litany of homicides — including the killing of a newborn baby at the hands of his 14 year-old mother and the shooting dead, and subsequent dismemberment, by a young man of his mother and brother.
Waters says the priorities in homicide was a short list: 1. Cop shooting; 2. Dead kid; 3. Case some boss wants solved and 4. Some vic. He can wait.
The workload was “relentless”, he writes. “We work 20 hours a day; day in day out,” explains Waters. “Some days you might have four homicides. You do the best you can. After a while you do get a bit burned out.”
Waters mentions one case that stays with him: how he used federal laws to arrest a witness, Julie Bryant, to a gangland shooting and forced her to testify as to the identify of the killer.
“Our prisoner was presented with an impossible choice: testify and put her life — and the lives of her loved ones — in danger from a man she knew would kill her without hesitation, or refuse to testify and face charges herself, perhaps ending up in the same prison as the perp’s associates who may decide to kill her anyway.
“I never felt lower than I did leading this teenager back to our car. Julie Bryant found herself as the rope in a tug-of-war between the police, the DA, the perpetrator’s family and the relations of the victim.”
A final case Waters documents is that of Scooby Doo. Levit ‘Scooby Doo’ Fernandini was a druglord, whose gang was estimated to be taking in a $90 million a year.
Levit had got his enforcer Hector ‘Hec’ Garcia to shoot dead a couple of rivals. A joint homicide-FBI task force was set up. Waters was a lead investigator and had access to a senior gang informant.
Hector “was keeping a lower profile than Salman Rushdie”, Waters says in characteristic humour that peppers his stories.
They flushed him out, thanks to a simple ruse suggested by Waters. They handed out fliers for a Crimestoppers reward for information on Hector. This had the effect of Levit’s girlfriend ringing Levit, who in turn rang Hector. All the while their phones were monitored by the FBI. Hector was traced to Puerto Rico. Hector turned on Levit and they brought down the whole gang, the bosses included.
But there was a bitter twist to the case, when the District Attorney (DA) was determined to prosecute the wrong man for a separate crime Hector admitted to. Waters eventually got the DA to change their mind, but his faith in the system had taken a serious blow.
After doing his 20 years, Waters retired in 2013. “I left with my head held high. I was getting to the stage that I wanted to leave before I got cynical,” he says. “I never took a dime I wasn’t entitled to, never set a perp’ up for a crime he did not commit.”
NYPD Green is published by Hachette Ireland.
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