New York City Being Swamped by ‘Crack’ : Authorities Say They Are Almost Powerless to Halt Cocaine

Times Staff Writer

This is the long hot summer of “crack” in New York City.

The highly purified and rapidly addictive form of cocaine is so prevalent that law enforcement officials say they are almost powerless to stop its spread.

Courts are jammed. Drug treatment centers are filled to capacity. Addicts seeking help must often wait weeks or months to enter rehabilitation programs. Some drug counselors report that children as young as 10 years old are using the drug, and young teen-agers are dealers.

Prosecutors agree about the scope of the epidemic.

“We’ve got a serious drug problem here, and it’s getting more serious day by day,” said Manhattan Dist. Atty. Robert M. Morgenthau. “We cannot cope with the level of drugs that is coming into the city at this time.


“Our citizens are angry and frustrated by the seeming inability of local law enforcement officials to control narcotics trafficking. I share these emotions, although for different reasons. Once I thought we were treading water; now I feel we are drowning.”

“Drug enforcement is one of the most frustrating jobs in the world,” lamented Sterling Johnson Jr., the city’s special narcotics prosecutor, who calls the crack crisis “the most serious problem in New York City today.”

“It’s circle-the-wagons time,” Johnson added.

Crack has become a prime political issue for candidates seeking office at all levels of government. No politician wants to be perceived as the slightest bit soft on crack.

To dramatize the situation, Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.) and U.S. Atty. Rudolph Giuliani donned disguises to buy crack on the streets. But, like some other tourists in drug land, they were taken in; laboratory analysis later showed that some of the crack they purchased was phony.

In May, the New York Police Department formed a special squad of 110 experienced narcotics officers to fight crack. Last month, Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward announced that the squad would be expanded by 100 more policemen. But he admitted: “We have a long way to go.”

The crack squad has made more than 700 arrests and has seized 4,178 vials of purified cocaine. But drug marketplaces continue to flourish and police say they are frustrated because most crack arrests result in misdemeanor charges. Even when many vials of crack are confiscated, each may contain only a tiny amount of the highly-purified cocaine. Thus the total weight of the drug adds up only to enough to constitute a misdemeanor.

To make matters worse, only six judges are available to try 107,000 cases of all types a year in criminal court. In Manhattan, only one out of every 200 crack misdemeanor cases reaches trial. Drug sellers routinely request a jury trial, knowing the odds are bleak for prosecutors. It is the perfect position to plea-bargain, and the result is that sellers often beat policemen back to street corners.

‘Drugs . . . Everywhere’

“Once confined to the city’s poorest neighborhoods, drugs are now everywhere,” said Morgenthau. “No neighborhood or individual is immune. The dealers can be found in the city’s business districts and even in the parks of elite neighborhoods.”

Crack--crystallized cocaine that is cut into tiny pieces called “rock”--can be produced for enormous profits using ingredients found in any kitchen. The tiny crack crystals, which are smoked, are sold in vials originally designed to hold computer chips. Vials sell for $4 to $20 on the street. Because crack’s high lasts only 20 minutes and is followed by intense depression, many users make multiple purchases in an effort to prolong the euphoria.

The economics of drug dealing has produced entrepreneurs in all sections of the city. Cocaine costing $1,200 can yield crack worth $4,000 at street prices.

“They chip it off like a piece of soap. We have a few spots where there are brand names (for the drug),” said Johnson, the special prosecutor, “but it isn’t necessary. It sells itself. Merchandising is not a problem.

‘A Cottage Industry’

“A crack house is any place where you get some coke, some ammonia or baking soda and a skillet and a blender. It is a cottage industry--mom and pop. There is not a neighborhood in New York City that does not have a crack house. There are more crack stops than bus stops and more crack houses than community houses in New York.”

Police have even arrested 16-year-old dealers with chauffeur-driven new BMWs. The teen-age drug sellers were too young to drive but old enough to deal.

“We don’t see any end in sight,” said Lt. Joseph E. Lisi, an eight-year veteran of the police narcotics squad. “When you arrest someone, there are more than a handful of people waiting to take his place.”

The tragedy is particularly stark for those attempting to convince youngsters that crack can be deadly.

In a basement classroom of All Angels Episcopal Church, just off Broadway in upper Manhattan, Robert Ellis, juvenile justice coordinator of the Dome Project, a community-based drug prevention program, squeezed his adult frame into an elementary school chair. With a small sigh, he described seeing kids as young as 10 who smoke crack.

“I feel like I am losing the battle,” Ellis said. “But that doesn’t mean I am going to quit. My father would say: ‘Life is like a pendulum.’ I’m waiting for the pendulum to come back. You get attached to the youngsters. Losing the youngsters to something like this is like losing a part of yourself.

“Young kids are used as runners and steerers and are paid with crack, and they are hooked,” he explained. “We’ve had an ever increasing number of kids. Two years ago, less than half of my cases were drug involved. Now 90% are drug involved, and 90% are crack.

” . . . Kids come out after six months in jail and then go back after six hours to crack. . . . They will say they will stop, but they don’t stop.”

Ellis finds some of his cases hard to forget. One 15-year-old high school student was a very talented artist who designed logos for Dome Project T-shirts. Suddenly, he began having difficulty in school; sometimes he arrived at the community center with cuts on his arms. He told counselors he fell off his bike.

“I saw him in the spring, went to his house,” Ellis recalled. “He was sleeping on his couch. . . . My heart almost stopped. He was like a cadaver. He had been stealing car radios to support his habit. He was getting cuts by reaching under the dashboard.”

Released by Judge

A judge released the youth after the first arrest. Two days later, the boy was arrested again. This time, he was sentenced to six months in jail. But seven days after he was freed, he was caught with cocaine. This time, he entered a drug rehabilitation program. But he quit the program and was arrested twice in one day for stealing to buy drugs. Now he is serving a sentence of up to four years in a maximum security prison.

“I feel I have lost him,” Ellis said. “There is nothing happening for him in prison. There is nothing happening in the community. He will return to the same situation. I feel he will spend most of his life in institutions. For him, the picture is very grim. I feel the lure of crack and the cocaine is so great it’s all he thinks about in prison, the wonderful high, how good he felt.”

Police and prosecutors say the crack epidemic has caused an increase in thefts--and more serious crimes. In July, a young man attempted to leap from the Brooklyn Bridge. He was despondent because he had stolen his mother’s videotape recorder to help pay for his crack habit. Another youth stabbed his mother to death when she objected to his using crack.

In Brooklyn recently, a Transit Authority maintenance worker, allegedly seeking money for crack, was charged with killing a subway token clerk during a robbery. In another case, three suspects were charged with sexually abusing and torturing a 21-year-old man because he lost the $35 they gave him to purchase crack.

The murder rate has climbed dramatically in parts of upper Manhattan, where crack dealers flourish. In a 22.3-square-mile area including Harlem and Washington Heights, there were 169 killings from January through June, versus 106 killings during the same time period last year. Police said 106 of this year’s murders were drug related. Detectives have been able to tie 80 of the killings directly to crack.

A group of defendants recently arrested in Manhattan was given urine tests for drug use. Investigators found over half of those charged with felonies had used an illegal drug within 24 to 48 hours of their capture by police.

Investigations Difficult

Police say crack investigations are particularly hard to conduct. “It’s a cottage industry,” said Lisi, the narcotics lieutenant. “We haven’t encountered any major network. We’re conducting these little skirmishes. . . . It is very frustrating. This is not the French Connection. It is a down-and-dirty, slug-it-out street fight between the drug dealers and the cops.”

Colombian drug rings peddling cocaine are particularly hard to penetrate. In a large measure they are family operated businesses. Police say a common practice is for a dealer to employ people with relatives in Colombia. In essence, the relatives are held hostage to guard against someone in the United States talking.

Police and prosecutors contend that a package of stiff new penalties and procedures is necessary to help fight New York’s crack epidemic. They say the law must be changed to make possession of small amounts of crack a felony and that 40 more trial judges must be added to the criminal court. Some police officers say there should be a law banning the sale of drug paraphernalia in the city.

An Angry Debate

The crisis has spawned an angry debate between federal and local law enforcement officials over who is to blame. Local prosecutors contend that the Immigration and Naturalization Service has been slow to deport illegal aliens arrested for drug offenses. And they say the federal government must step up pressure on nations supplying cocaine and free more federal funds for drug treatment and drug education.

But they also acknowledge that a basic change in attitude about the drug must take place.

After University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died using cocaine, Ellis began to systematically talk with youngsters in his Dome Project about the tragedy.

“On an an individual basis, I talked to kids. One-half were horrified,” the juvenile justice coordinator recalled. “Kids say he was stupid. He didn’t know how to use it right. ‘I know how to use it right.’

“One-half said he (Bias) was stupid--he overdid it. You don’t hear youngsters saying he should not have used it in the first place.”

Researcher Siobhan Flynn also contributed to this article.