Friday, April 15, 2011

My Crime Beat Column: Riding Shotgun Through The Philadelphia Badlands

 
“Saddle up,” Detective Mark Tartaglia said as he walked towards his unmarked car and motioned for me to sit in the front passenger seat.

His choice of a Wild West expression made me laugh to myself as, unbeknown to him, I thought of this outing as my riding shotgun through the "Badlands." Not the American Wild West Badlands, but rather the thoroughly modern Philadelphia Badlands.

In the Wild West, the front passenger seat of a stagecoach was called the shotgun seat, as the rider usually held one across his lap as they drove through hostile outlaw territory. I took the shotgun seat next to the veteran detective, who said he was counting down the days until his retirement.

In modern-day Philadelphia, “The Badlands” is the nickname the cops gave a 4-square mile section of North Philly. The Badlands are some of the worst neighborhoods in the city. The Philadelphia Badlands can be as hostile as the old frontier and modern-day outlaws rule the open-air drug markets.

I toured the badlands some years ago when I was covering  “Operation Sunrise,” for Counterterrorism magazine. At the time, a massive force of Philadelphia police, state troopers and federal agents rolled into to the Badlands to reclaim the neighborhood from the drug dealers who then dominated it and perpetuated violence on its decent, law-abiding citizens.

According to the DEA, Philadelphia has the dubious honor of having the purist heroin in the country. Philadelphia was a major distribution center, part of a triangle, with New York being one point, San Juan being a second point, with Philadelphia as the third point. Drugs are coming in at every level of sophistication, a DEA special agent told me. Drugs are coming in commercial cargo shipments in the thousands of pounds and people are bringing in pounds in suitcases. The DEA agent told me of an incident where one smuggler swallowed 99 condoms tied with dental floss and filled with 10 grams of heroin each.

The trafficking of drugs within the U.S. was for many decades principally controlled by traditional organized crime groups that lived and operated inside the country. According to The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement (1986), La Cosa Nostra controlled an estimated 95 percent of the heroin entering New York City, as well as most of the heroin distributed throughout the United States from the 1950s to the 1970s.

New York City’s organized crime families brought in heroin from Corsican sources that had French sailors ship the drugs directly to the U.S. The drugs were then distributed throughout the country by regional organized crime families to street level dealers.

The emergence of criminal syndicates based in Columbia and the shutting down of The French Connection, which was dramatized in Robin Moore’s true crime book and the 1971 Academy award-winning film, changed the face of the drug trade. The Colombian traffickers introduced cocaine into America on a massive scale, which set off a record rise in crime and violence.

The DEA reports that today the traffic in illegal drugs, from the manufacture to street-level sale, is controlled by international organized crime syndicates from Colombia, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other countries. Many of the dealers on Philadelphia streets are illegal aliens.

I’ve interviewed the Philadelphia police commissioner, the deputy commissioner, the U.S. Attorney for Eastern PA and the Philadelphia area special agents-in-charge of the FBI and the DEA concerning this problem. But on this day I was touring the area at street level with a veteran Philadelphia detective.

Detective Tartaglia is an Italian-American in his early 50s. Both the detective and I grew up in South Philadelphia. We were raised and continue to live in what we regard as a tough neighborhood, but South Philly is Disneyland compared to the badlands.

Tartaglia is armed with his ever-ready 9-mm standard police issue Glock, which he called “Betsy,” reminding me of the name of Davy Crockett’s rifle “Old Betsy." Tartaglia said he was issued his firearm and a radio and then you were on your own.

“You have to take care of yourself - and your partners.”

Like most police officers, the detective endures long periods of boredom, which can be punctuated with moments of terror. While performing his daily tasks – investigating, interviewing, arresting people – he knows that at any time he could be the target of any insane person or criminal.

“Parts of North Philly up here remind me of war-torn Berlin,” he said. “Look at the blocks and blocks of abandoned and boarded-up homes, empty lots – unbelievable.”

We drove past wall after wall of graffiti, burned-out cars and homes and vacant lots loaded with trash and junk. The detective pointed out the drug dealers, who were so blatant, they needed no introduction. Of course, they are smart enough not to be holding drugs as the police roll by. They rely on an elaborate hide & hand off system to thwart the police.

Driving up a main thoroughfare, I took note that all of the stores on one entire block were closed and boarded up, while the main commerce was of the open-market variety. Heroin packets are sold here with colorful brand names such as “Scarface,” Pure Hell” and “I’ll Be Back.”

One brand of heroin was so pure that it recently killed several addicts. Public service announcements were issued, hoping that the addicts would play it safe and abstain, but the deaths merely acted as an advertisement that the heroin was the good stuff.

Operation Safe Streets, a police plan that followed Operation Sunrise, moved many of the drug dealers indoors or to new areas of operation. Safe Streets, and the new and improved Safer Streets program, were meant to improve the quality of life by creating a partnership with the police, the city’s network of social services, the clergy and community groups.

Operation Safe Streets was supposed to return control of the streets by preventing any open-air drug markets. The police identified more than 200 “drug corners” and the plan was to “disrupt, dissuade, and deter” the drug trade by committing an unrelenting presence of police officers on the corners – which some have derisively call “scarecrow policing.” There have been inroads, but, as the detective noted, the drug trade is a deeply entrenched criminal enterprise. Drugs bring on other crimes as well, such as burglary, prostitution, theft and shoplifting. Drug wars and violent drug-induced altercations greatly contribute to the city’s high homicide rate.

I asked Detective Tartaglia if his daily tours through the badlands depressed him, and he replied that it was good in one way, as it made him appreciate what he had at home. But on the other hand, it was bad, as he saw so many awful things.

“Even in the Badlands, there are many decent people who try to live right,” Tartaglia explained. “I feel sorry for the decent people. It’s the crumbs here who make life bad.”

Tartaglia noted that when you drive through a safer neighborhood, you see young people and mothers with their babies. Kids out of school in the summer time. In the Badlands, the detective said you’ll see able-bodied people on the street selling drugs, hustling, robbing and committing other crimes.

“Here’s a guy and a couple of girls,” he pointed out as we rolled past one street corner. “They should be doing something constructive with their lives, but all they do is scam, sell drugs and drink and take drugs.”

Tartaglia said that he personally doesn’t have many problems or violent confrontations while working the badlands. A cop’s presentation, he said, makes the situation. A cop should be authoritative, yet casual.

“I just treat people like I want to be treated.”

As we cruised around the Badlands, Tartaglia talked about his career. He did not aspire to become a police officer, as he thought he had a future as a baseball player. But he had the opportunity to become a cop, and thinking of the good pay and benefits, he entered the Police Academy in 1981.

He worked patrol in South Philly until he was promoted to detective in 1985.

He married a neighborhood girl in 84, had a child in 85. He said he regretted that he missed out on much of his early family’s life due to his odd shifts and overtime.

“I thought that I was going to save the world, cleaning up whatever district I was in,” Tartaglia recalled. “It took about six months on the job to have that dreamed squashed,” he said, chuckling.

Homicide is the worst type of crime he encountered in his police career. Murder affects so many people and so many of the homicides he saw were horrible. Tartaglia recalled how he came on his first murder victim, a store owner who was behind the counter, wedged in, blood all over the place. They later discovered that the store owner’s partner murdered him. He also recalled his first visit to the morgue.

“You have to bring the body to the morgue and you get that formaldehyde smell – it’s the first thing that hits you – but what got to me was the sight of about six or seven gurneys with bodies on them covered up,” he said. “You eventually get so cold-hearted and callus.”

Another murder that came to mind occurred in the South Philly Passyunk Homes Project. They got the call of a report of a stabbing. He said there was a man standing outside who told the officers that he just came home from court and found his mother dead.

“We suspected him and stuck him in the wagon,” the detective said. “We went into the house and found the woman. She was stabbed repeatedly, blood all over. We checked his alibi and he was legit.”

That was a good alibi,” he said. “You can’t lie about being in court.”

Detective Tartaglia talked about other homicides cases involving drugs, organized crime, rape and robberies, as well as the less-severe crimes he has encountered, such as neighbor and family disputes.

In the Badlands, the police make arrests and then they see the criminals return all too soon to the same corners and bars.

"It’s disheartening," Tartaglia said.

As he swung out and headed back to his office, Detective Tartaglia again stated his sympathy for the good people who have to endure the drug gangs and the other criminals who inhabit the badlands.

The Badlands may be "outlaw country" – to use the Wild West term – but thankfully we have modern-day lawmen like Detective Mark Tartaglia, who “saddle up” every day and ride rough through the Philadelphia Badlands.

Note: The above column originally appeared in the Orchard Press Online Mystery Magazine in 2006.

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