Do Big NYPD Drug Busts Just Target the Little Fish?


A troubling pattern is emerging around the NYPD’s recent “big drug busts.”

Last month, after years of surveillance, the NYPD concluded that gangs on the Lower East Side had sold “$1.2 million worth of coke in two years.” On April 12, the NYPD arrested 41 people from the neighborhood, mostly from Baruch and Campos projects. Upon closer inspection however, the numbers don’t add up to much: $1.2 million over two years means $600,000 annually in drug proceeds, which is not so impressive when you factor in the 41 arrests. That means that cops squandered at least two years of resources and manpower busting individuals making an average of $14,634 annually selling drugs. That’s downright measly.

Compare the LES sting to one in Gramercy Park on March 28, when an eight-man operation was busted for moving $10 million in prescription pills in a mere 15 months. Next to that haul, the LES bust hardly seems like a cause for Commissioner Ray Kelly and District Attorney Cyrus Vance to thump their chests in triumph at the press conferences that took place after the sweeping arrests.

Even curioser, the DA is hitting some of the LES arrestees–most of whom are in their late teens and early twenties–with the criminally severe “Drug Kingpin” statute: According to a press release from the District Attorney’s office, Sean Steele Jr., 25; Anthony Alvarez, 20; Adrian Rivera, 24; and Michael Austin Rodriguez, 24, are named as major traffickers. The provision was established in 2009 during a long-overdue overhaul of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. While the changes in the laws curbed penalties for several lesser offenses, they also increased sentences for those deemed to be major distributors, including making life in prison applicable to people who control four or more suppliers and collect $75,000 or more per year in illicit drug sales, or people who collect $75,000 over six months through drug-dealing.

Mathematically, it’s not likely that the four individuals charged were able to surpass the designated amount to be deemed kingpins. The foursome would have to clear $300,000 annually, leaving the remaining $300,000 of proceeds to divvy up among 37 workers. It gives the kingpin charges a sensational air and puts some of the arrests into question. Especially since it’s come to light that a slew of the drug ring’s alleged buyers are being arrested as well, adding to the already high number of individuals charged. As more and more customers are charged, the $1.2 million appears more and more paltry.

This is not an isolated incident. In March, 18 young men were arrested for selling marijuana in candy wrappers in East Harlem. The Daily News reported that the “gangbangers” were making $200 to $1,000 daily. Again, not so impressive when you divide even their top earnings by 18 individuals. Nevertheless, in April alone, similar investigations ended with 122 members from six gangs being arrested around Manhattan.

Again, the numbers of arrests may look impressive, but they do little to improve the neighborhood and community. In fact, they actually weaken already fragile family ties and even displace entire households.

“To ignore the hardships the people unrelated to the actual “drug deals” endure is [shameful],” says Aisha Lewis-McCoy, public defender and immigration attorney with the Legal Aid Society. “NYCHA can evict the whole family if one of the kids on the lease is convicted of a drug charge, but we’ve seen, as a matter of practice, that NYCHA starts the investigation as soon as the arrest occurs. I personally know of at least a dozen incidents where hearings are started before the conviction.”

More than 41 families in Baruch and Campos Houses will be affected by these mass arrests. Lewis-McCoy also sees another troubling pattern. “Too many people–from the police filling their quotas to the lawyers who defend these to the private prisons who monetize off mass incarcerations–benefit from these mass arrests.”

With young, low-level criminals making up the bulk of the arrests, the drug problem in neighborhoods like East Harlem and the Lower East Side is not likely to get any better. As long as the drugs are finding their way into these neighborhoods due to major drug traffickers operating with relative impunity, there will be a drug problem. As long as unemployment is high, school budgets are slashed, and little to no resources are available in the community, it’s not difficult to imagine there will be scores of young men to replace every entry level drug dealer taken off the streets. Aim higher up the food chain, Chief Wiggum.