A tip came in and it was a good one, from a known informant willing to give a sworn statement. The civilian informant had smelled weed and seen a pistol and what looked like a sawed-off shotgun in a Town of Poughkeepsie apartment. That got the police department’s attention. So they passed it on. Surveillance was set up immediately. After eight hours or so, enough people and vehicles with a history had been spotted to apply for a search warrant.
It must not be known how big the Dutchess County Drug Task Force is, how it works, or where its offices are. Save for its supervisor and his assistant, the identities of its officers mustn’t be revealed, either. Nobody’s looks or mannerisms can be described. This is a clandestine, plain-clothes unit and law enforcement’s primary line of defense against the flood of heroin. Only the City of Poughkeepsie has its own drug unit in its police department. So, in cooperation with the State Police, the Drug Task Force covers the entirety of a vast and diverse county.
The Drug Task Force was set up in 1989, during the crack epidemic. It borrows whatever officers can be spared by departments across the county, even though they can’t really spare any because of cutbacks. They work in the shallows, the spaces where the drug trade briefly bobs above the surface to deal, handling some 140 cases per year. Their job has changed as well. It used to be dealers killing each other; now, it’s mostly the users dying. Heroin has proved even more disruptive than crack was in the late 1980s and early ’90s, says Assistant Coordinator Frank Tasciotti, who was around back then, too. “It causes more problems socially than the other drugs,” adds Sgt. Joe Cavaliere, the coordinator. “It causes more problems all around.”
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The morning after the tip, on July 13, 2012, the Drug Task Force had its warrant. Getting a warrant is hard; the police can’t just walk in wherever they like. The district attorney has to review it and endorse it. Then a judge has to make a difficult call, deciding whether he will let 20 or so men with families walk into harm’s way; and, conversely, whether he will let a potentially unarmed and innocent private citizen’s home be invaded by 20 or so men dressed in black and armed with fully automatic weapons. The threshold of necessary evidence is high.
Preparing for a raid is stressful. There is pressure to deliver on the tax dollars spent. And there’s no telling what will happen. Intelligence can be scant and there often isn’t the time to practice. Nobody wants to get hurt; nobody wants to hurt anyone. They all know each other’s kids. Hearts beat into chests at up to 180 times per minute — that’s three times per second. It’s a certain kind of routine that never becomes routine. There are no rituals or anything; that’s TV stuff. The only upper hand law-enforcement has is the element of surprise, buying them a few precious seconds to gauge the situation.
That afternoon, the day after the good tip, 14 members of Poughkeepsie’s SWAT team assembled near the suspect apartment. They would lead the charge, followed by the Drug Task Force. First, two of the targets got in a car and drove away from the apartment. Once they were out of sight of the apartment, they were pulled over. It was a couple. The man had an unlicensed semiautomatic silver pistol with a black handle on him. He tried to put it in his girlfriend’s purse as police surrounded them; it turned out he already had a criminal record. They were also carrying a small amount of heroin. They were arrested.
Next came a blur of action — an “explosion of police,” as Tasciotti puts it. The front door of the two-bedroom apartment was rammed in. POLICE! SEARCH WARRANT! GET DOWN ON THE GROUND! HANDS OUT! The place was sparsely furnished. The living room contained only a couch, a TV, a card table and some fold-up chairs, and a coffee table, on which lay a .357 Magnum. The first SWAT member through the door kicked over the table to take the gun out of play before the suspect lying on the couch might think of reaching for it. Two more suspects sat at the card table, cutting up heroin. Everybody was put in a prone position on the ground and handcuffed. Nobody resisted. Two men and a woman were arrested. One of the men trembled with fear. The other defecated himself.
As police searched the apartment, turning over couch pillows and checking every closet, there was a knock on the door. Through the peephole, the Drug Task Force identified a known drug dealer. He asked to buy, so they let him in and arrested him, too. He was carrying heroin of his own.
In the first bedroom, the most lavishly decorated of the two with nothing but an air mattress and a TV perched on a pair of fold-out chairs, they found a backpack. In it, there was a World War II-era Sten submachine gun which had once been decommissioned but was put back together — surprisingly, it functioned — and which was probably what the informant had mistaken for a shotgun. Needless to say, there was no license for this weapon, either. A plastic bag contained dozens of rounds of ammo.
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By the time all six suspects were taken into custody, transported to a facility, booked and interviewed; all the evidence had been secured and entered into the system; and the case was prepared and filed to the DA, the Drug Task Force had been working about 48 hours straight. But for their troubles, the yield was huge. They captured 293 baggies of heroin with the usual .03 gram dosage and another 1.5 ounces of it that was still uncut. In all, they took about 1,700 hits of heroin off the market, with a street value of almost $10,000. They also recovered $4,000 in cash, seven grams of cocaine, and a little weed — the smelly but practically worthless substance that led the Drug Task Force to its biggest heroin bust ever. After more than a year of prosecution, the six perpetrators pled guilty — all four men had had prior convictions. One defendant was sentenced to a year in prison. The other five were given anywhere from three years and three months to 12 years.
But while this outfit and their heroin were caught, other dealers carrying more drugs moved quietly through the region, pushing product to their patrons. The math is irrefutable. Only a fraction gets caught. “There’s no way to minimize the numbers,” says Tasciotti. “You try to do it as expeditiously as you can while still staying in the parameters of doing everything absolutely correct — it does make it difficult.”
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