When the light changed at 96th Street and Park Avenue, I looked around to make sure all four doors were locked, and then I stepped on the gas. My car shot across the Great Divide, up the narrow lane between the medieval wall and the bombed-out tenements, into Harlem. I was going to 119th Street between Lexington and Park, to the 25th Precinct, home of the Sixth Homicide Zone.
Sixth Homicide eventually became so much a part of my life, so much a home away from home, that it’s hard for me to remember just what my expectations were at the beginning. Having watched the trial of Nicky Barnes, I wanted to see his former theatre of operations with my own eyes, as close up as possible, and I didn’t want to get hurt while I was doing it. At first I thought that the narcotics police, both federal and local, would be the ideal people to take me around, but it didn’t take me long to find out that their work is secretive by nature, and the last thing they wanted was a reporter meeting their informants. There are some very decent people in the narcotics enforcement business, but their work tends to make them paranoid, and about the time one of my sources gave me a code name to use whenever I called him up, I concluded that I was going to have to get help from some other quarter.
Around the courthouse, people talked about detectives from Sixth Homicide in tones of awe usually reserved for Scotland Yard. The impression I got was that they were in Harlem because they were the toughest guys the department could find, and it appeared that if anyone could take care of themselves, and me as well, it would be the people in Sixth Homicide. Whether they would be interested in doing that was another question. The answer is that they were. Sixth Homicide became my base camp, and I want to describe what the base camp was like before getting into my few treks up the mountain.
The 25th was a fairly new building, but like most precinct houses, it smelled of ammonia and had the battered look of a subway car. A cop at the front desk, who was reading the Sporting News, told me that Sixth Homicide was on the third floor. It was a big room with cinder-block walls and grimy tiles in the ceiling, and a detective in shirtsleeves asked if he could help me. I told him I was looking for Herman Kluge, the commanding officer, and he pointed me to a little office on the far side of the room.
Lieutenant Kluge turned out to be a vigorous, compact man, with clear blue, red-rimmed eyes, a sharp chiseled nose, and sandy hair that was gradually giving way to a handsome freckled pate. It was Ash Wednesday and he had a gray smudge on his forehead. His office had maps and charts on the walls, a couple of steel cabinets, and an old desiccated palm tree cowering in the corner.
Kluge and I hit it off right away. He wasn’t in the least anxious to impress me, because he seemed totally confident that if I got to know his operation and his men, I couldn’t fail to be impressed. I told him that I wanted to do a follow up on the Nicky Barnes trial, and expressed interest in the chart on his wall of “Drug Related Murders,” which listed six major drug dealers and the murders associated with them. He tried to warn me off that tack, telling me if I started trying to trace down every drug-related murder it would take me years. Of course, I didn’t believe him. He said that his office was completely open to me (with the one proviso that I couldn’t write anything that would blow a pending case) and he was a man of his word.
Encouraged by Kluge’s hospitality, I began dropping into the office several times a week, and he invariably gave me a warm welcome. “Hey, Timothy,” he would say, “just give me a minute and we’ll sit down and bullshit.” How I loved listening to him talk! He had a sharp, tough voice with a wonderful hybrid Bronx accent — a product of the intersection of University and Tremont avenues, a German Catholic grown up on a Jewish block. He would sit at his desk, nursing a cup of tea, and talk about politics, press, police, and the New York City of his youth — “the greatest place in the world,” a green and ordered land that had vanished forever. He told of skiing on barrel staves in Van Cortlandt Park, of snooty Bronx Irish Catholic girls known as BICs, and of 20 hotdogs for a dollar. He had grown up in a parish where the cops tapped you behind the knee with their nightsticks if they caught you standing idle on the corner. Before the war the city had been clean and safe, he said, but since the ’60s, you couldn’t take your wife to Times Square without the pimps insulting her. He lived in Yonkers now, but the pre-war Bronx remained such a real place to him that he sometimes had the air of a wistful exile.
Kluge became my sponsor with the men. “We like you,” he told me early on. “Which I can’t say for many people in your business.” And gradually I began to relax, and forget about the drug dealers, and look around at the amazing place I’d fallen into.
“There’s not a single detective in that office I don’t like,” Kluge once told me. “Can you believe that?” I could. They were a likeable crew. I could never quite get over just how cheerful and open they were. The place always felt like the newsroom of a good raunchy tabloid, and not just because of the typewriters and steel desks. It was also the constant wisecracking and the nature of the work. What were these guys, after all, but a bunch of investigative reporters with guns?
The room was too small for the 50 men who worked there, even broken up into shifts; it had been designed as a clerical office and was hopelessly inadequate to their needs. Certain detectives gravitated toward certain desks or telephones, but nobody owned anything. They were constantly getting in each other’s way, and the only thing for it was to make a lot of jokes, and take things as they came.
After a couple of weeks, I began to know their names and recognize them: Walter Johnson with his sly cat face; Jimmy Wilson, the magnificent dresser; Tom McCabe, the muscle-bound leprechaun; Tommy Mansefield, the silver fox, with a bit of his ear heroically missing; fast-talking Fred Capetta; Billy Lundon, of the piercing eye and thick brogue; and big Al Grant, whom I once saw flinch at the door of a victim’s apartment when he rang the bell and heard children’s voices inside. The detective with moist pink lips who looked like a grown-up Katzenjammer kid was Gunther Muller; they said he was good, especially at doing the mean cop act, and one day I saw him on the phone, talking around his cigar: “She stuck him with a fork, right? We have statements to that effect and there’s no point in your laying back.”
I knew that Steve Leinen, who also favored cigars, was working to get his Ph.D. in sociology, because Dick Marcus was always kidding him: “Hey, Durkheim, you got a phone call.” The other men kidded Marcus about his alleged hypochondria — he never had been the same since the day he’d had to fingerprint a syphilitic. And I kept hearing how good this Lionel Tuckett was; the whole office was impressed with the great job he’d done putting together a woman’s dismembered body. He’d found some kids in Marcus Garvey Park playing with one of her hands, and when it came over the news that a head had been found floating down the Hudson, everyone assumed it must be Tuckett’s head; and it was.
There were also fixtures in that office who weren’t detectives, like Wilbur, the car-washing wino, who could frequently be found leaning on the steel entrance gate, with a cigarette drooping from his toothless mouth. He bragged that he was 62 years old and had been on welfare for 45 of them. Once, while he was supposed to be waxing Kluge’s car, he took a nap in the back seat, and by the time Kluge found him, the sun had baked the wax permanently onto the trunk and Wilbur’s bouquet permanently into the interior. On Saturdays, he would appear in the office dressed to the nines, in big hat and dicky bow tie. He had a rival named Sweetwater, a retired bank robber, who had been wired during the Knapp investigation with orders to record himself selling swag to cops. He never came up with any evidence, which was why he was still tolerated around the precinct.
When it was possible, I would go up to Sixth Homicide at the times of peak activity. If you hit the office at certain hours, 10 in the morning when the detectives were going out in their cars, or four in the afternoon when the shifts changed, it sounded a lot like a paper on deadline — phones ringing, shouts, laughter. In the middle of the day, it was sometimes dead, and then I would pull up a chair and study one of the black case ledgers.
Reading up on the cases was all very well, but of course I wanted to get out and “catch a homicide,” as they say. This was my great failure. During all the time I spent in Sixth Homicide — and my visits went on intermittently, for nearly a year — I never once saw a corpse. Well, I did see one, but she had been frozen stiff for over a week, so that didn’t really count. I spent long days waiting, and several times I camped out until two or three in the morning. Almost without fail, the call would come five or 10 minutes after I’d left, and they would tell me the next morning that I’d missed another one. It got to be a minor joke around the office and I think some of the men began to believe that Harlem was immune from homicides as long as I was sitting there.
One of my detective friends tried to console me by saying there wasn’t ever that much to see, just a guy lying on the floor with a little blood on him. But I had seen some of the photographs in the folders, and knew better.
During my first days up there, a small-time drug distributor got shotgunned to death in the bedroom of his railroad flat by robbers who made off with the small stash of heroin he kept in his closet. The man had half his jaw blown away, the detectives said; he left bloody handprints on either side of the narrow corridor as he tried to stagger to the front door. Around the spot where he collapsed, the floor boards were squishy underfoot, like a marsh. I never really knew how I would have reacted to something like that, and I never saw how the men reacted to these scenes. Aside from that, I couldn’t have been happier up at Sixth Homicide, hanging around with all those gentlemanly, intelligent, unbelievably friendly men, and I often said to myself, “The department must be doing something right, for all this cream to have risen to the top.”
The men called Kluge the Monsignor — not only because in his black cardigan, with his reading glasses tilted forward on his nose, he looked the part — but also because he had a great gift for helping people to confess.
I once asked Kluge about his monsignor role. “We play with people’s heads,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you. It’s cruel, it’s inhuman, it’s strange, but these are killers we’re dealing with. You’ve got to show them that you’re not afraid, that’s the first thing. Then you can talk to them nicely. I play the father figure, the confessor, the boss. I give them something to hold onto, some excuse, some justification for what they’ve done. Hey, you’ve got to give a man some dignity, I don’t care what he’s done. Then he can finally give it up, he can let it ease out, he can unburden his soul.… Look, we do what the public wants us to do. People wanted us to stop beating people up and we stopped. If tomorrow the public decided that we ought to start beating people up again, then we’d do that, too.”
In the meantime, they became experts in the art of jollification. Nobody makes small talk as easily as a good homicide detective. Sitting outside the grand jury room with a witness, they can blather on for hours about anything — hockey, the world market, movies, sex — whatever will keep the witness’s mind off the irrevocable step about to be taken. And when it comes to getting a statement, the assistant district attorneys just haven’t caught up to them in technique. The detectives will get some killer all softened up and ready to talk, and then a serious-faced A.D.A. shows up trailing a stenographer. While the A.D.A. solemnly informs the witness of his rights, the stenographer, like an executioner sharpening his blade, removes a black machine from its case. “They go about it all wrong,” said the detectives. “They don’t know how to talk street talk.” Sometimes the suspect is so freaked out that he will cling to his old friend, the detective, begging for advice. “Should I talk to him? How much should I say?” And sometimes the suspect clams up forever.
The detectives con people, string them along, pretend to be their friends, but they don’t frame people — at least not that I ever saw. After I’d spent a while around the office, I honestly began to wonder why not. There were people in Harlem who were inveterate killers, who presented an enormous danger to the community, and the thought of jiggling a little evidence against these menaces began to strike me as reasonable. But the detectives didn’t see it that way.
“If you put a guy in just because he’s got a bad reputation,” one said, “how you gonna live with that after it’s over? That kind of thing catches up with you, people talk and it gets around. People aren’t going to tell you anything if they think you’re a snake or a dirty dog.
“No,” he said, “I don’t want someone doing time on a lie. If you get them good, they don’t hold that much of a grudge. I see them on the street after they come out. They wave at me, I wave at them.”
There is one important factor that defined the nature of the work in Sixth Homicide — the zone is entirely in a ghetto, and the ghetto is overwhelmingly black. Most of the victims, witnesses, informants, and perpetrators are poor blacks, and this fact produces a different pattern of crime than you find in downtown Manhattan zones, all of which contain some substantial proportion of the white middle class.
A lot of people in Harlem carry guns, and the poverty tends to produce a general air of desperation that makes tempers short. A dispute over a leg of chicken can easily result in a murder — and such a killing, committed totally without forethought, tends to be easily solved. Such cases are known in the business, slightly contemptuously, as ”grounders” and they make up a sizeable percentage of the caseload in the Sixth. There are very few of the “mystery” murders which occur amongst a leisure class with plenty of time for careful planning. There is, however, a large criminal class in Harlem which is responsible for all of the drug-related murders — which make up 30 per cent of the homicides in the zone. The perpetrators of these crimes are experienced professionals, and their standard practice is to kill anyone who threatens to testify against them. Thus, many of the murders in Harlem are either very easy to solve or close to impossible. You can canvass a block until you have holes in your shoes, but it does no good if all the witnesses are afraid of getting shot. Harlem is a very frustrating, ugly, tragic, and dangerous place to work.
Now, at the time I arrived in the Sixth, about a third of the detectives were black, and to all appearances they got along exceptionally well with the white detectives. There was a lot of kidding, and nobody seemed self-conscious about the issue of race. In fact, the place demonstrates that blacks and whites can make some headway toward overcoming the omnipresent racism in America, by being forced to work together at close quarters under intense pressures. This is not to say that there was a total absence of racial tension in the office — I’m not writing a fairy tale. From what I could gather, this tension had come to a head several years ago when there was some kind of confrontation over the fact that throughout the department the Sixth was referred to as a shithouse zone. This offended the black detectives, especially the ones who lived in Harlem. “That’s our home you’re calling a shithouse,” they said, and most of the white detectives at the Sixth learned to catch themselves before uttering the offensive phrase.
The tension continued, in an understated way. A lot of the white detectives kept saying that the cases in downtown Manhattan were “harder” than in Harlem. Some of the black detectives thought they really meant that white middle-class cases were more important. More than once, I heard black detectives say, “Nobody cares about Harlem, it’s just a bunch of niggers.” But I heard some of the white detectives say that too. I also heard white detectives say they didn’t care what color a corpse was, it was a dead human being. And they meant it. In the final analysis, it came down to how hard a man worked, and how many cases he solved.
Two of the hardest working detectives were Marty Davin and Jimmy Coffey, who worked as partners. Everyone said that Davin did a great “mean cop,” but around me he was never anything but the soul of jollity. He had a pear-shaped face, hair the color of pewter, and a paunch. His eyes — light gray-blue, almost mother-of-pearl — were always smiling. I like Davin enormously, but I found myself making a conscious effort to stay on his good side because I never, never wanted to see those eyes stop smiling. Coffey had a ruddy, blacksmith’s face, with coal-black eyebrows and a lantern jaw. He always looked as though his shirttail were sticking out, even when it wasn’t, and the other men teased him about this.
Both men had worked for years in Harlem, in a variety of assignments, before coming to the Sixth. They continued to be amazed by what they saw, and they liked to tell stories. Like many of the detectives, they had a talent for listening and took a connoisseur’s interest in the freshly minted expressions of the street. “Like one great thing they say up here,” said Coffey. “ ‘If you come messin’ with me, man, you’re gonna have the groundhog for a mailman.’ The groundhog for a mailman. I really love that. It’s almost like poetry.”
Davin had a perfect record as a homicide detective. Fifteen of his cases had gone to trial, 15 resulted in convictions. He and Coffey worked together on the 15th, which was neither very easy nor impossible, but a case which required skillful detective work, physical courage, and a certain rapport with the streets of Harlem. This is what happened:
There were four of them standing on 135th and Lenox Avenue — Spider, Dino, Tank, and Bruce — four teenagers hoping to steal some guns from a big warehouse in Middletown, an hour’s drive upstate. Spider had some friends who lived in Middletown, so he was well acquainted with the layout and had hit the place several times before. Now all they needed was a good car — but it was nearly midnight, on Holy Saturday of 1977, and they still hadn’t found one. They were on the point of giving up when a Lincoln Continental rounded the corner.
The Lincoln belonged to the Godfather Livery Service, a Harlem firm which hires out chauffeured vehicles at the rate of $20 an hour and is favored by young drug sellers. The driver, Howard Allen, 54 years old, had been with the company for many years and this was his last night on the job. On Monday, he and his wife were moving to Colorado. Just before midnight, he called her and said, “Baby, I made my night.” On his way back to the garage, he stopped to pick up one last fare.
“It was like Fate turning the corner,” Coffey later observed.
Spider slid into the front seat and gave Allen a $20 bill. Tank got into the seat behind the driver, with Bruce sitting next to him and Dino on the right. They had him drive them around Central Park and then take them to 132nd and Park Avenue, where Spider got out and bought some angel dust: When they started up again, with their hour almost run, Spider pulled out a .357 Magnum and shot Allen twice in the side, shattering the window. Then Tank shot him once in the back of the head with a .32 short. Spider got out, went around to the driver’s side, and pushed the body over in the seat. He drove the car to a spot underneath the 138th Street Bridge where they stripped the body of everything valuable and dumped it into the Harlem River — and off they went.
On their way upstate they made a wrong turn, and by the time they arrived in Middletown, Easter Sunday was dawning and it was too late to do the job. Disgusted, they drove back to the city, parked the Lincoln in the Bronx, and pledged to throw the keys away and abandon the car forever.
But Spider had a better idea. He tossed the keys into a vacant lot where he knew he could find them again. That night, he retrieved the Lincoln and drove with two other friends back up to Middletown, for no purpose more sinister than to visit his friends there.
Driving back, with no money, they came to a toll booth. The two passengers got out, to wait by the side of the road and see how Spider fared. Not too well. A state trooper, who started by asking for Spider’s license, ended up by charging all three of them with car theft. Panic ensued and Spider eventually gave up the addresses of Dino and Bruce, and helpfully added that Dino would know where Tank lived.
Back at the Sixth, Davin and Coffey got the information over the phone, just before their night tour was up. They drove immediately to the hotel where Dino lived. The radio was blaring inside his room but no one answered their knock.
At 8 the next morning, they returned with another detective, Richard Cahill. Coffey went around to the backyard in case Dino tried to go out the window. Davin and Cahill went in the front. There was still no answer at Dino’s room, and the radio was still blaring. Cahill started back down the stairs, with Davin following. Halfway down, it dawned on Davin that the radio sounded louder than it had the night before. He stopped and yelled, “Dino!” The door opened immediately, catching him unprepared.
“Dino, my man! You know me,” Davin said, as he casually climbed to the top of the stairs. They read Dino his rights down on the sidewalk.
Dino was sitting in the back seat of the car with Cahill, and Coffey and Davin were up front. Coffey was driving. Davin noticed that Dino was wearing a watch that didn’t look right on him, the kind of watch an older man would wear. “I’m warning you now,” said Davin, looking at Dino in the rearview mirror, “don’t bullshit me about this case, because I know everything that happened.” Without turning his head, Davin reached back over the seat and opened his hand. “Give me the driver’s watch,” he said. Dino did.
That convinced Dino that they knew everything, and he began telling them about the murder, adding a few self-serving embellishments. They still needed to find out where Tank lived. “Now, Dino,” said Davin. “Just so I know you’re in good faith, I want you to verify Tank’s address for me.” Dino told them the address, a project house at 132nd and Madison, and Davin pretended to check it on a slip of paper. “That’s it, all right,” he said. “That’s very good.” They drove to the project house. “That’s the apartment on the second floor, right?” said Davin.
“No, man,” Dino said, “that’s it on the first floor in the back.”
“Oh, excuse me, you’re right, you’re right. I had it mixed up.”
Leaving Dino with Cahill at the office, Davin and Coffey went to Tank’s apartment, found him in bed, brought him to the station, and then drove upstate to get Spider.
Meanwhile, the housing police had picked up the fourth suspect, Bruce, and had him waiting for Coffey and Davin when they got back that afternoon with Spider. Coffey, who usually played the nice cop, went down to talk to Bruce in the holding cell on the second floor, and by the time Davin looked in on them, Bruce had made a full statement.
“How good did you really have me?” Bruce said to Davin.
“I’ll just give you one little hint,” said Davin, and he threw the watch on the table.
“That dumb motherfucker,” said Bruce. “I told him to get rid of that watch.” Davin stepped out into the hall and wrote those words down in his notebook. By 9 p.m., everybody but Tank had confessed.
There were two other homicides that evening and the office was a madhouse. The men had to keep shifting prisoners around from room to room and Tank was eventually handcuffed to the wall of the detectives’ bunkroom while Davin and Coffey went on a food run. When they got back with a hamburger for Tank, they found the bunkroom empty. Somehow, he had slipped out of the handcuffs. Rushing to the window, they saw the remnants of a sheet ladder, broken off near the top. Tank was nowhere to be seen. “The guys were really pissed off, because it was their personal sheets,” Coffey said later. The drop looked to be about 40 feet, with the concrete floor of a little alleyway at the bottom. “I get a nosebleed just looking down there,” said Coffey.
Around 9:30, Tank’s stepbrother showed up, asking to see Tank.
Davin instantly turned into a mad bull. “Give me my shotgun, Coffey,” he screamed. “I’m gonna go find that bastard.”
“Hey, wait, man,” said the stepbrother, “what’s going on here?” Davin realized the stepbrother didn’t know that Tank had escaped.
“Listen,” said Davin, “that goddam Tank went out the window and I’m going to issue an all-points bulletin to have him shot on sight.” The brother didn’t know that all points bulletins only happen in Cagney movies. All three started downstairs, with Davin cursing and threatening, Coffey trying to calm him, and the stepbrother begging, “Wait, man, give me a chance to find him.”
Davin went up to a cop at the front desk and said, “I want you to put out a 13-state all-points bulletin.”
“Yeah?” said the cop, looking at Davin as if he’d flipped. “What’s it for?”
Davin winked. “I want Tank shot on sight! I want everybody in this goddamn station out looking for him! Shoot to kill on this hump, you got that!” He went on and on, working himself into a lather, until you could almost hear the motorcycles roaring out of the basement with their sirens screaming, and Davin had to turn away because he was laughing so hard.
Meanwhile, Coffey was giving earnest counsel to the brother: “Listen, I guess you know about Davin, he’s a real sadist. When he goes crazy like this, I have a very hard time getting him under control. I’ll do everything I can to hold him back, but I just hope you can find Tank in time…”
Tank was led in by his stepbrother about half an hour later, walking stiff-legged and gingerly. Both his ankles were sprained. He sat on a chair in the office and they kept swelling up bigger and bigger all night.
Early the next morning, Wednesday, Davin and Coffey went to the bank of the Harlem River with a forensic team. While forensic took photographs and made a plaster cast of a sneaker mark, a scuba diver from the harbor division searched the muddy waters for the body. It was on the bottom, entangled in a rusty shopping cart. They hauled it onto the fantail of the motor launch, feet first like a tuna. “And he rose on the third day,” said Coffey, who was intrigued by the Easter theme.
Davin took the four suspects down to the courthouse for booking and confiscated their sneakers so Forensic could see if one of them matched the plaster cast. Later that week, all but Tank were indicted for murder. Having made no confession, Tank could only be indicted for escaping. The detectives knew he would soon be released unless they could find some evidence to corroborate his accomplices’ statements against him. They asked the other three for names of everyone Tank was friendly with in jail. One of them, after being reminded he was facing a maximum of 25 years, remembered hearing a conversation between Tank and a prisoner who was then on trial at Centre Street. Davin went to see the prisoner in the courthouse, and promised to let the D.A. know if he helped. “Sure I know Tank,” the prisoner said. “We didn’t talk that much, but we discussed our cases, and he said he shot a cabby in the back of the head.”
By the time the A.D.A. got this corroborating evidence on tape, and the grand jury handed down an indictment for murder, Tank had been out of jail a week. A Supreme Court judge gave Davin a court order for Tank’s arrest, and told him to bring Tank to court the next morning.
Late that afternoon, Davin rang the doorbell of Tank’s apartment. There were several young children playing in the hall and Davin didn’t want to risk a direct confrontation which might lead to a brawl; then he remembered the confiscated Puma sneakers.
When Tank’s stepmother opened the door, she recognized Davin as the cop who’d taken Tank away before, and she started cussing him out.
“Listen,” said Davin. “I don’t want to argue with you. I just want to give Tank his sneakers. The rule says I have to give them to him personally.”
Tank came to the door. “Hey, man, where’s my sneakers?” he said.
“You don’t think I’m wearin’ them, do you?” said Davin. “They’re down in the car.” Tank and his stepbrother came down with him; it was all very friendly. “Hey,” said Davin, “I don’t know what you did to that judge from the hearing, he wants to see you.” It was all so friendly that they rode back to the station house with Davin to phone the judge. Davin went into one of the side rooms and pretended to make the call.
“He wants me to bring you down in the morning,” said Davin when he got off. “Looks like you’ll have to spend the night here.”
“Oh, shee-it,” said the stepbrother. “You lied.”
The next morning, when the case was called in court, Tank’s stepmother stood up and pointed at Davin. “That liar said he’d gonna give him back his Pumas and he never did,” she screamed. Davin just stood there and looked up at the ceiling.
Several months later, Tank was convicted of felony murder and got 25 years to life.
That was how it went when everything worked right.
One afternoon toward the end of August, Kluge came into the office in a handsome brown suit with his .38 sticking out of the right vent. He was almost dancing with excitement. It was his last day in Sixth Homicide. His successor, James Doyle, a lieutenant who had distinguished himself in setting up the city’s exemplary sex crime unit, stood behind Kluge’s desk, looking stoically cheerful. Kluge was cleaning out his locker. He took out his riot helmet, fireman’s raincoat, dress uniform with gold trimmings, plastic box full of tape recorder attachments, magnifying glass and several boxes of bullets. I helped him carry them down to the basement garage, and we put them in the trunk of his car. We went back upstairs to say goodbye to Lieutenant Doyle.
“The wandering Jew you can have,” said Kluge. “It needs a lot of water. But don’t fall in love with the palm tree.”
The departure of Kluge precipitated the end of an era in Sixth Homicide. Within a month after his departure, a wave of transfers began which left the office almost unrecognizable. Five of the best men, including Leinen and Tuckett, were transferred to Fifth Homicide, in East Harlem, where the murder rate was rising, largely due to disputes among Dominican drug dealers. Lundon moved to Third Homicide Zone, where murders were also increasing. Others began clamoring for transfers, and the possibility of moving out became the main topic of gossip and rumor.
The last five years had been a very trying period for Sixth Homicide. In 1966, the homicide rate had begun to climb steadily in Harlem, and in 1973 it hit a peak of 293. That was why the Brass threw Kluge into the breach. He was one of the most talented lieutenants in the department, the commanding officer of the prestigious Fourth Homicide Zone (Upper East and West Sides). They told him to stabilize the situation in the Sixth, and they gave him a lot of support. He was allowed to hand-pick his detectives, and he chose men who were both talented and willing to work in Harlem. They gave him a free hand with overtime. And the number of homicides gradually began to decline.
This success had a self-defeating dynamic. The more the murder-rate went down in Harlem, the less the Brass cared about the situation. Then in 1975 came the fiscal crunch, and the whole department felt the pinch of insolvency. Nobody ever made an official policy announcement, but homicide detectives believe that someone high up in the department quietly decided that homicide wasn’t the priority crime anymore. At least, that was what many homicide detectives surmised from the fact that overtime became increasingly hard to come by. It’s axiomatic that homicides get solved in the first 48 hours, while clues are still fresh and witnesses haven’t yet considered the pitfalls of talking to the police. To deny a detective overtime, and send him home at the end of his tour, in the midst of a breaking case, is to hobble his effectiveness. But this was increasingly the trend.
Things were tough all over, but they were always slightly tougher in the Sixth. The sergeants there had to bicker endlessly with the Brass and the D.A.’s office over even the most petty expenses. The men literally had to beg for $5 or $10 to give an informant. They knew that the money wasn’t so scarce in other zones, where the victims were middle class and the murders got more press coverage, and they began to feel that Harlem had been written off as a place where death was the inevitable way of life. This was the deeper meaning of the phrase “shithouse zone.” All of the detectives in the Sixth, white and black, learned what it was like to be treated like niggers.
Nevertheless, the number of homicides declined year by year — 249, 242, 203, 193. “We’ll be lucky to hit 150 this year,” one of the detectives said last fall. They had put a lot of inveterate killers in jail, that was one reason for the drop. But there was another reason, over which they had no control: people were moving out of Harlem. “We’re running out of victims,” the detectives said. ■
This is the second in a series on Harlem:
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 17, 2019