Getting Out of Dodge

Young cops in Far Rockaway recite the NYPD blues and try to flee to suburban jobs

There's no mystery why NYPD Officer Adam Deoliveira talks about his stock-market fortunes while he patrols the housing projects in the 101st Precinct in Far Rockaway.

"I play the market like it's my job," the 25-year-old cop says during a recent shift. "More I play, the sooner I get out of here. My whole life is a countdown."

His partner, Lisa Bonsignore, similarly uses downtime while on patrol to try to get out of Dodge. Between calls from dispatch, she talks on the phone with fellow students in her geography class at Suffolk Community College. She is working toward an associate's degree, which she hopes will help her get a higher-paying job.

The two are part of a growing number of young cops who would rather work for suburban police departments than for the NYPD. Last June, they were among the 28,000 registrants for the Suffolk County police test—competing for about 500 open slots. Both also applied for jobs in Nassau County. They are currently awaiting their results, and if accepted, they plan to leave the NYPD. Deoliveira has been with the department for three years, Bonsignore for a little less than two.

Low starting salaries are to blame, according to both department and union officials. Since a 2005 settlement between the city and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, recruits are paid $25,100, and earn $59,588 after five years. In contrast, recruits earn $34,000 in Nassau and $57,811 in Suffolk, and they stand to make more than $90,000 annually in five years.

"In two more years, I'm done, I'm out of here," says Deoliveira. "The pay is there, not here. It's that simple."

The NYPD has said that it missed its recruiting goal by nearly 75 percent for its July 2007 academy class, attracting only 800 people to fill 2,800 slots. Fourteen percent of the recruits dropped out before hitting the streets. Of those who made it through the academy in recent years, hundreds have already left the department. A recent PBA report noted that 820 cops defected in the first 10 months of 2007, mostly for other law-enforcement agencies in the area.

It doesn't help that the NYPD's youngest officers often find themselves in the city's most dangerous precincts. For those reasons, many young officers like Deoliveira and Bonsignore view their jobs with the NYPD as detours in careers that will ultimately take them to safer departments.

"It's hard feeling like you're putting your life on the line for so little," Bonsignore says. "It wears on you, I guess I'd say."

On a late November afternoon patrol, the two young officers spoke candidly about their frustration and their detachment from the areas they police. Like most other cops in the 101st, Deoliveira and Bonsignore commute to this mostly African-American and low-income area from middle-class Nassau County towns. Their feeling of detachment—which some of the people they serve have picked up on—is compounded by the fact that they both hope to leave the NYPD ASAP.

"This neighborhood would be great, if they got rid of some of the people," Deoliveira says. "The good people, the people who work and do right, they're not the ones we see. We see everyone else—the ones who don't work, who are on welfare."

During their patrols, Deoliveira and Bonsignore are surrounded by signs of Rockaway's struggles: dense and dimly lit public housing, unkempt beaches, vacant lots, drug addicts, and large numbers of people with nothing much to do. The 101st is one of the city's smallest precincts—it covers only 2.5 square miles and 100,000 people—but it has a disproportionate amount of crime. Its 2006 per capita murder rate (seven per 100,000) was almost twice the borough average. Crime is on the rise: After years of downward trends, crime in the NYPD CompStat's seven primary categories jumped more in the Rockaways in the first half of 2007 than in all but one of New York City's 76 other precincts.

"I don't like anything about living here," says Tanika Gamble, 26, who lives with her seven-year-old daughter in the Hammel Houses, one of the most dangerous projects in the Rockaways. She has lived in Hammel her whole life. "There's a drug war going on&mdasheveryone fighting about 'Why you taking my customers, why you taking my girl, why you looking at me that way?' I can't take my kid outside, even in broad daylight."

On this early-afternoon shift, the officers respond to a half-dozen drug and domestic-disturbance calls. On one call, both watch silently as a young woman accused of attacking her mother with a knife is led out in cuffs by another officer who looks to be in his early twenties. Tears run down the girl's face from behind thick glasses. After she passes, the small group of officers breaks into conversation.

"Yo, you try Guitar Hero III yet?" Deoliveira asks a different officer after he pushes the young woman into a patrol car and closes the door behind her. "What system are you using, Xbox or Wii?" Meanwhile, Bonsignore chats on her cell phone.

Deoliveira says he never saw himself as a cop, and he seems to find his situation strange and occasionally amusing. But he and his partner are also aware that some people in their area obviously distrust the cops as outsiders.

"When you get on this job, and that's all you ever see, you almost get biased," Bonsignore says. Some longtime residents say the lack of positive connection with the NYPD has worsened the area's gang problems.

"Some of the teens here feel messed with," says Chaleene Nash, a Parks Department employee who runs the Sorrentino Recreation Center, named in honor of an officer from the 101st Precinct who was killed in the line of duty in 1980.

Deoliveira and Bonsignore aren't always detached. Toward the end of the shift, they patrol the stairwells in public-housing high-rises and occasionally come in contact with tenants. In one building, they ride up in the elevator—it's working that day. Then they take the stairs down, peering around corners with guns at the ready. Gangs use the stairwells for drug sales.

"Please, please, don't rob me!" Deoliveira jokes to a middle-aged woman carrying groceries to her third-floor apartment. He raises his arms in mock surrender.

"I'm just hoping nobody rob me," the woman says, shaking her head.

Afterward, what Deoliveira says in reflecting on his job shows that his own barriers are up. "You can't feel bad for anybody," he says. "You'd go crazy. You can't bring it home with you. Just be thankful it's not your family."

He added: "And do whatever you can to find a way out."

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