Crime fighting SCUBA divers – check it out.
This article from:
NEW YORK POLICE DEPARTMENT: SCUBA TEAM
Copyright 2002: Joe Cocozza
It is a summer day offshore of the greatest city in the world. Sun light reflects off the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan. The polarized light glares off the waters of the Upper New York Bay. Container ships, garbage scows, commuter ferries and pleasure boats, make it the sea-going equivalent of a New York City traffic jam.
With blue lights flashing, a NYPD dive boat cruises through the pandemonium. The boat then slows its speed to a crawl. Wearing a black Viking Drysuit in the 100-degree heat, Police Diver Frank Pelligrino prepares to enter the water. Sweat is pouring down his face as he puts the AGA mask in place. At the helm, Detective Diver, Tom Kelly steers the boat into position and idles the engine. The boat is set, he calls out, “Go Frankie GO!”
Just a mere two hundred meters off the Liberty Island seawall, Officer Pelligrino backs rolls off the gunwale, splashing into green water. The Statue of Liberty looks on as he descends to the bottom.
The NYPD Scuba Team is unique among police dive teams. The most obvious difference is the area of operation. New York City is a center of global finance and the media capital of the world. An international city; it is the headquarters of the United Nations. Moreover, every ethnic group on the planet earth is represented among New York’s residents.
New York also is one of the world’s busiest seaports. Manhattan itself is an island. Moreover, the five boroughs are surrounded by water. According to NYPD Lieutenant John Harkins; “ New York City has 184 miles of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, and we have over 546 square miles of inland waterways…. (and) the city is a major hub of international ship borne commerce.”
The policing of New York’s waterways are provided by the men and women of the NYPD Harbor Unit. The Harbor Unit is on the cutting edge of marine law enforcement. From its 3 bases and 27 boats, the Harbor Unit provides the City of New York with a marine force that is equipped to handle all water borne security, public safety and rescue concerns. This includes: enforcement of maritime laws, missing persons in the water, evidence recovery, air-sea rescues,, narcotics interdiction, anti-terrorism and security for United Nations. To accomplish this mission, the NYPD Harbor Unit works closely with state and federal law enforcement.
Within the harbor unit is the elite NYPD Scuba Team. The team is unique among police dive teams. At any time of the night or day, there is a dive boat and police divers ready to answer the call. In addition, The NYPD Aviation Unit can deploy two scuba divers into any waterway in New York City within 8 minutes. The NYPD dive team is the only police dive team in North America to have scuba divers assigned to helicopters 24/7/365 .
*** The Missions ***
In a police department with 40,000 uniformed personnel, The Scuba Team numbers only 30 police officers. But the scope and depth of the team’s mission is remarkable considering their small size.
The Scuba Team is based at Harbor Unit Headquarters Marina at the old Brooklyn Army Terminal. It was there that I sat down with team’s Dive Supervisor Lieutenant John Harkins.
*** Evidence Recovery ***
“ We have multiple missions” Says Harkins. “However, the traditional mission of the Scuba Team is fighting crime. Under this heading comes the task of evidence recovery. Evidence recovery is a big part of what we do. In a homicide where a gun was used, perpetrators might ditch the weapon in waterway. Under this scenario, the local detective squad will call us in to recover the weapon. Because we know what questions to ask that will help in the search, we try to get to crime scene while the perpetrator is still there. We take that data with info from the on-scene field report. We then take bearings and begin the underwater search.”
Why would suspects cooperate so readily with police when it came to evidence recovery ? Harkins explained.
“ Perpetrators will often cooperate to a get lighter sentence or as part of deal. For example; the former organized crime Under-Boss, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano helped us find murder weapons and bodies that where submerged off of Brooklyn’s Sheep Head Bay.”
The bays of New York are not pristine aquatic environments. Industry, dense human population and development create a harsh diving environment. How do the divers actually find something as small as a gun in river bottom of an urban waterway? Harkins elaborates.
“Evidence recovery is a is very time consuming and it requires a methodical search process. This important because were we dive the bottom is covered with muck and debris. Our search patterns are done using what we call a “pattern line” A pattern line is two grapple hooks connected by approximately 75 feet of polyproline line with an up line connected to one grapple hook which is buoyed by a gloseter ball. The two divers descend down the up line and pull one grapple hook until the pattern line is taught on the river bottom. They slowly search each side of the pattern line until they get to the other grappling hook. Then one diver moves the hook approximately one to two arm lengths in a predetermined direction and they double back to the original hook. This process is repeated until its time to ascend. One diver in the buddy team is always covering the same area that the lead diver just searched, so that even if he misses the object, the other diver will find it. This is a very productive way to do black water search and recovery. When a gun or evidence is there, we will find it, our guys are that good.”
*** Narcotics ***
Thousand of ships enter and leave the Port of New York every week, making New York is a major conduit for the drug trade. When it comes to narcotic interdiction, competing law enforcement agencies sometime have overlapping interests that often erupt into turf battles. However, as Lieutenant Harkins puts it “We have a long history of cooperation with the State and Federal governments. We have always gotten along with the DEA, Customs Service and The US Coast Guard… we have an excellent relationship with the federal government.”
As an on-going joint operation, the NYPD Scuba Team provides dive services for the US Customs Service. Because of this, all members of the scuba team are cross-designated as US Customs Agents.”
When the Customs Service gets a tip that a New York bound cargo ship is smuggling drugs. Customs leads an inspection with the assistance of the Coast Guard, the DEA, NYPD Narcotics Division and NYPD Scuba Team. In these Joint operations, it is the dive team’s function to inspect the ship below the water line.
Underwater inspections include checking the hull of the ship for “parasites”. Parasites is the term for steel tubes that are tack welded to the hull of the ship. These tubes are filled with drugs and contraband. Drugs can also be smuggled in sealed PVC pipes that are lashed to the running gear or fin stabilizers.
The most bizarre method of smuggling involves using the rudder compartment. When a cargo ship is unloaded, the 5’ x 8’ rudder compartment rises above the water line. When the ship is loaded up, rudder compartment sinks below the water line but a pocket of air remains. This is an ideal place to stash drugs. During a recent inspection, divers found 110 kilos of cocaine in two duffle bags.
A surreal incident occurred a few years ago when an NYPD diver surfaced in the rudder compartment not only to find a stash of drugs but two drug smugglers sleeping on hammocks. The ship had departed from South American a week before and the smugglers survived in the dark cramped area by eating peanut butter and crackers.
Now before a police diver surfaces into a rudder compartment, they use a pole-mounted video camera to visually inspect the compartment and Divers are armed with Smith & Wesson semiautomatic 9mm. hand guns which have fluted firing pins so they can operate in a submerged environment.
*** Air –Sea Rescue ***
The Scuba Team has important rescue function as part of their day-to-day operations. At all hours of the day or night, three divers are assigned to 55-foot dive launch. Additionally, two divers are assigned to the NYPD Aviation Unit at Floyd Bennit Field. Last year they where responsible for saving over twenty lives at sea. Once such rescue was when a sailboat sank offshore. The NYPD and the US Coast Guard searched all day for the victims. At dusk, an NYPD helicopter spotted the victims, immediately police divers where deployed in heavy seas and the victims were hoisted into the helo.”
Lieutenant Harkins told me of one rescue in particular. “A commuter helicopter crashed and sank in the East River. One of the pilots was killed in the crash but the other managed to escape. The helicopter inverted and sank to bottom of the river. Within minutes, an NYPD helicopter deployed our divers into the fast currents and low visibility of the river. The divers descended to 50 feet and found the sunken commuter helicopter. The divers where able to recover two passengers. The passengers where revived on the scene.
Unfortunate, many rescues do not have the same conclusions. Submerged body recoveries are an unpleasant part of the rescue mission. Emotionally Disturbed Persons (or EDPs), are persons who jump from bridges or piers. Each year dozens of people drown in the water of New York City. Harkins adds.
“The search for a submerged body is similar to the process of evidence recovery . When we arrive on scene, we look for an eyewitness. Rather than just send divers immediately the water, we get bearings from eyewitness and use our knowledge of local currents and tides to narrow the search area. We do this in an organized and systematic fashion; it is a more efficient use of resources.
For example, a few years ago a prisoner escaped from the Rikers Island Detention facility and attempted to swim the East River to freedom. A Corrections Guard spotted the escaping prisoner as he submerged in the raging current. The Guard gave Scuba Team the bearing and distance of the submersion. Our divers then deployed a pattern line and recovered the body of the prisoner on the second pass. I was glad, this could have been one of those situations where we could have been out there all day. This emphasizes how important it is to get a good eyewitness.”
*** Anti Terrorism ***
The Dive team has always had an anti-terror mission but that has expanded since the World Trade Center attacks.
The President of United States visits New York as many as 14 times a year. In addition, when the president visits, he usually lands at the Wall Street heliport. Since the Heliport is on the water, the Scuba Team along with Navy and the US Secret Service do underwater searches of the heliport’s piers and seawalls. The team also does bomb sweeps of the UN seawall and uses side scan sonar for detection of objects on barges and pilings.
To respond to possible terrorist threats, all NYPD Divers are heavy weapon certified on the following firearms: Ruger Mini–14 Assault Rifle, H&K MP-5 submachine-gun, Savage 12 gauge shot gun, and Smith and Wesson 9mm. semiautomatic pistol. The Scuba Team works with the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force and is trained in bio-chemical warfare.
Because of this increased threat level, Officer Frank Pellegrino states. “We are giving more attention to inspections of bridges, tunnels and national land marks. This adds more functions to our mission; because of this, we are now actively recruiting for more team members.”
Officer Pelligrino is the team’s training officer and he along with fellow training officer John Drazal are developing new course work to help the team adjust to the new realities. Pelligrino adds. . “Because of recent events, we need to help our divers become better acquainted with the different types of underwater explosives. US Navy’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal divers are currently educating Scuba Team members.
Navy EOD are the experts in underwater bomb detection and removal. Our job is to assist them as spotters. We have a have a good rapport with those guys and a good track record of working with them. Training the Scuba Team divers in underwater explosives does not mean that we are going to be EOD divers. But, during our bomb sweeps, we need to be able to identify the different kinds of threats and make it safer for our spotters. This will make us more adept at methods of terrorist activities. We want to know how these guys operate; what to do and more importantly, what NOT TO DO! This will enable us to better assist Navy EOD in their mission.”
*** Back to Base ***
There are many aspect to providing security for a city like New York. The Scuba Team is a small but important part of that. It is a challenging and demanding job but its definitely not boring. After all, how many divers get to dive at landmark locations like seawall off the Statue of Liberty.
So after finishing the dive operation off the Statue of Liberty. Officer Frank Pelligrino, exits the water and gets back on the boat. Detective Kelly turns on the blue flashing lights and the rigid hull inflatable rockets across the water heading back to the base in Brooklyn. As we pass a 100 yards off Manhattan’s Battery Park, the skyline seems like it is missing something. The absence of the World Trade Center is an invisible scar. Like an amputee that still feels his phantom limb, I still except to see those towers rising above the cluster of Manhattan skyscrapers. Without it, New York’s skyline seems so generic.
Frank is removing his gear, he gives me a nod, as he comments. “ I am on these waters every day and after all this time I still can’t believe those towers are gone.”