NYPD detective and author Edward Conlon shares the story of a drug-dealer bust that almost went wrong and why it gave him serious doubts about the risks on the street. His new book, Red on Red, is out now.
No one should get killed over this. That was my first thought. It wasn’t the last. Another early impression was that there was nothing sharp or shady about the kid who brought us into the situation. He was in his mid-twenties, soft in voice and face, gigantically lumpy and looming—6-foot-seven, 380 pounds, all babyfat—with an affably dim manner, as if he were willing to be led by the hand by any stranger who said he’d take him to school. News of what had happened to him arrived in a way that was all the more persuasive for its reticent and roundabout disclosure, when he confided in a neighbor, a cop in the Narcotics Division, and the cop called detectives in the Bronx precinct where I worked.
Two men had stopped him in the lobby of his apartment building, stuck a gun in his back, and snatched a chain from his neck—straightforward enough, so far—but the two were former partners of his drug-dealer brother, who was in prison in Pennsylvania. They told him that he’d inherited his brother’s debt to them, and they’d be back next Wednesday to collect. The kid said he’d never met them before. He didn’t know their names or how much money they wanted. The chain, he said, was worth about $1,200. There was superb security video from the building, a massive old Art Deco pile on the Grand Concourse that covered half a city block. The clip played with the belabored simplicity of a silent movie—one lug and two thugs, brandished gun and chain-snatch. Evidence is rarely so available and compelling. There was no question that it had happened, exactly as described.
It wasn’t my case, but the robbery squad guys were relatively new—Brian, Carlos, Dante—as was the sergeant, Ralph. Most of us learned of the deadline hours before the gentlemen from Pennsylvania were scheduled to arrive. Possibilities were discussed, and plans were hashed out. The perps would probably come through the front door to the lobby, but while the two elevators were close together, the three stairwells were set apart at greater distances, zigzagging through the structure. Hopefully, the perps would be lazy enough to disdain the stairs, and the elevators would be working. We decided to try to take them at the third-floor elevator door, to avoid risk to passers-by in the lobby. Carlos, who had watched the tape almost constantly since he’d acquired it, stayed with the video monitors in the superintendent’s apartment, because he’d be better with the faces. Also Ralph, who would coordinate with whatever other cops were around to watch the block for the tan-colored, probably-a-Toyota, kinda-old-car with Pennsylvania plates. Dante, Brian and I waited in the kid’s apartment with him.
At four o’clock, they were due. We were there before, though not by much. The kid let us in, and we did a walk-through. The apartment had the tangled layout of old places, with odd rooms that that wrapped around to fit in like Scrabble tiles when you’re running out of words. All empty, which was anticipated, since the kid had been told to send his family away for the night. I knew he had a mother and father who lived there, plus the brother elsewhere housed. It was ramshackle and a little messy, but they were neither very poor people nor evidently moneyed. The living room had a comfortable old couch, a decent TV. We settled in, three armed strangers, in our off-the-rack suits and bullet-resistant vests. The kid was polite but indifferent to us, accepting of the situation as if we were there to fix the sink. He turned on the TV and offered the remote control to Dante. Dante declined it, and the kid flipped around the channels before settling on a reality show.
The men from Pennsylvania didn’t come at four. At five, either. That wasn’t a surprise, or cause for doubt. Organized crime is often less business-like than is commonly assumed. Three cops smoked cigarettes, one after another, without asking whether we could. I didn’t want to pay attention to the TV show, but after a while, I did. A 16-year-old girl shrieked at her parents as they prepared for her birthday, an elaborate party that was ultimately spoiled by a drunk boy who threw up on other guests. I took the remote control and found a nature channel, where bighorn sheep collided against each other in alpine meadows. A minute or two later, one of the other cops—Dante, I think—took the remote and changed back to the reality show. After a while, I got a call from Carlos, who was waiting downstairs.
“Tell him to call the guys, tell ‘em to hurry up!”
The kid had a cellphone number for one of the perps, but computer checks hadn’t revealed any information. I thought a while, and then decided there was no advantage to the contact, just yet.
“I don’t think you can really call the people who are going to rob you to complain about them not being on time.”
“Can he call to see where they are?”
“Let’s wait a while.”
Not long after, there was a knock at the door. There was no time to check with Carlos or Ralph about who might have come through the lobby. The three of us leapt up, guns out, and made clumsy hand signals to each other about whether we should let the kid answer, or to cover the door ourselves. We let him look through to the peephole—Who?—and it was a teenage girl, a neighbor, dropping by to say hello. She was sent away. An hour later, there was another knock—another scramble, guns out—but before we could sort out the shooting-gallery possibilities, the risks and tactics, the kid strolled past us.
“Don’t worry, I got pizza.”
He hadn’t mentioned that. He should have. While I hadn’t expected hospitality from him, the failure to warn us about the delivery seemed almost spitefully stupid. When he ambled back to the couch to gobble down his two greasy slices, I couldn’t stand to look at him. I took the remote and flipped around until I happened on a movie channel on which Casablanca was playing. It was the perfect diversion, familiar and inspirational, and the difference between the Resistance and the Occupation was clear. We smoked as much as Bogart, and I had a newfound appreciation for his line, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
When the kid finished his pizza, he changed channels again. I’d decided that we’d had enough distractions. I told him to pick up the phone and call them.
“Find out, now. Find out if it’s for real, if it’s happening today, and—would you do me a favor? Don’t order any more pizza, don’t have any more people come to the door without telling us.”
The kid got on the phone and called, speaking in Spanish. I leaned in to the earpiece to listen in. Though I didn’t understand the conversation fully, I got the point: Shut up and wait. We’ll kill you when we get there, if you don’t have it. Shut up and wait. Car trouble.
The way the man spoke on the phone—abrupt and denunciatory, outraged at being questioned—relieved me of any doubt that it wasn’t real or imminent. That’s what I said when other bosses started to call, concerned about overtime. We had been on time-and-a-half since four o’clock. City finances were not at the forefront of my concerns at that juncture. And it seemed like we’d been there a lot longer.
Seven o’clock, eight. A key sounded in the door, and it opened before we could reach it, before we could jump to a conclusion. It was the kid’s father, who had been drinking. He seemed cheerful and unsurprised by us, offering quick hellos before lumbering through the kitchen and bathroom before going to bed. We didn’t see him again. The kid muttered something about him being a Vietnam vet, and assured us that no other relatives would be coming back that night. Having a sleeping drunk on our side of the door was not a tactical asset. Nine o’clock, 10.
The progress reports had become more frequent, less hostile, charting movement on the Jersey Turnpike, problems with an overheating radiator, traffic at the George Washington Bridge. The updates were enough to satisfy the overtime calls. An unmarked car from the precinct circled the block, maybe with three cops; two of us were with the super and the cameras; three in the apartment. We assumed there would be two perps coming, both armed, but there might have been more. We didn’t really know. If they slipped in a side entrance, we could find ourselves in a standoff on either side of the door. Each call brought a jolt of adrenaline, which cut through the fatigue. We stopped talking about the scenarios that could play out. We were running low on cigarettes.
The last call announced their arrival, and the unmarked police car spotted them on the corner. Dante was able to peek out the window and see two men get out of the car and open the hood, peering and poking underneath. The scene made them look hapless and amateur. If they could barely manage a road trip, how could they pull off this home-invasion-by-appointment, or whatever this was? Though the car trouble may have been real, they’d opened the hood to get two guns hidden in the engine block. Dante saw them coming into the building, and then Carlos called to say they were in the lobby, waiting for the elevator. We left the apartment and set up in the hall.
Dante and Brian stood behind me at angles, guns out.
“Be careful of crossfire, guys.”
I had my gun out, too. I thought about not doing that, to have two free hands to pull them out of the elevator when it opened. Their guns would probably be in pockets or waistbands. They would be surprised to see me, and though they’d know the white guy in a suit wasn’t an accountant, it still wouldn’t have the same effect as a 9mm in the face. If they fought me, Dante and Brian would have jumped in, and then we’d have five armed men brawling in a space the size of a restroom stall. I figured that the best approach was to make the strongest possible first impression.
When the elevator opened, I walked in, held the gun inches away from the closer one’s forehead, and said, “Get your hands up. Step out or I’ll kill you.” The ambush worked: I could see it in their stunned, blank faces. The second one didn’t move, but the first began to flinch, the hands jerking around near the waist. If I shot him, I knew—even then, as I thought it—that it could be described as “execution-style” later on, and it would have been narrowly true, a single close-range shot to the temple. I was ready to shoot both of them, but I had a feeling that what the first one did was just jumpy reflex, as if I’d stuck him with a pin. I grabbed a handful of his jacket and his hands went up. I pulled him out and Dante took him, and then I led out the second one to Brian.
It should have been over then, but it wasn’t. I saw the first one fighting first. He and Dante were on the ground, in a static clench, but we didn’t have the perp’s gun yet. I ran over to him and leaned down, putting my gun to the back of his head, and told him that I’d shoot him if he didn’t put his hands behind his back. He relaxed and complied instantly, and Dante cuffed him. When I turned to Brian, I saw that his fight was worse—they were thrashing around, with Brian gripping on to hands that reached for the gun, the perp trying to break free and roll over from belly-down to his side. When his legs were splayed open, I landed a solid kick in the crotch, and then put my gun to his head, ordering him to give me his hands. It had worked so well, seconds before, but neither the kick nor the gun had any impact on him. I took my gun by the barrel and began to smash him in the head with the butt.
The sounds of mayhem drew a neighbor out from his apartment, a man in his early twenties. He called out to us, in a hall-monitor tone of curiosity and warning, “Yo, what’s going on?”
“Get back inside!”
“Get the fuck back in your fucking apartment, now!”
“Nobody tells me what to do, this is my house!”
Despite his defiant rejoinder, he retreated back inside, slamming the door behind him. I kept bashing the perp’s head with my gun until I was afraid it would go off. I was getting tired, and we were deadlocked on the floor. When Ralph and Carlos arrived—I doubt if it was a minute from when elevator doors opened, but it felt like much longer—I slid my gun over on the floor to Ralph. With the four of us, we were able to pull the perp’s arms out, and finally get him in cuffs. Finally, we had both of them, with both guns. No one was shot, and even the second perp wasn’t hurt much: The lumps on his head weren’t visible, and he didn’t walk funny from the kick. He didn’t ask to go to the hospital. As it happened, he didn’t speak English, but I doubt there were real communication barriers at the time. He refused to make a statement. In his mug shot, he looks bored.
At the precinct, the mood was mostly jubilant. The operation was nervy and fairly complex, and had gone almost precisely to plan; we had stopped an armed robbery, maybe a murder, maybe more than one. “Perfect” was a word that was thrown around, but I didn’t use it, and neither did Dante or Brian. We were sweaty and bedraggled, shirts untucked, ties yanked loose. I felt like I was coming down with a cold. I didn’t feel better when I saw the so-called $1,200 necklace, which one of the perps had in his pocket. It looked like a copper pull-chain from an old lamp, with a trinket attached that could have come from a cereal box. That shouldn’t have mattered. Had the stolen jewelry been the Hope Diamond instead of scrap metal, I wouldn’t have been readier to die for it. We weren’t working for an insurance company, in that sense. Still, the difference between actual price and potential cost troubled me. I went home not long after midnight and fell fast asleep.
Months later, Narcotics did a search warrant on the kid’s apartment, crashing through the door we had guarded so fiercely for those long hours, and arrested him for drugs. That he was not an innocent shouldn’t have made a difference, either. There is no such charge as Murder of a Good Person or Robbery of a Bad Person. I was convinced that the kid knew exactly how much money was expected, and that the perps were not strangers to him. The robbery was real, as were the guns, but nothing else was; we were a side-bet in a dispute among dirtbags. We’d showed up when called, like the pizza guy, knowing little more than he had. Dante and Brian each had two young sons. Gambling has never been one of my vices, and the risks taken began to seem increasingly obscene.
Although everyone involved in the misadventure had lived through it, I began to think that some of us shouldn’t have. The rottenness and randomness of it all made for increasingly cockeyed hindsight; the confrontation at the elevator has since struck me as reckless in its regard for thug safety. The justification test for the use of deadly force is whether there is “imminent risk of serious physical injury.” The standard had been more than met, but the question of whether to shoot or not-shoot no longer seemed like an absolute and binary proposition of “You must,” or “You can’t.” The decision to pull a trigger isn’t a matter of casual speculation, like choosing to carry an umbrella if it looks like rain. But what chances should I have given them to kill or maim us: Fifty-fifty? Ten percent? One? I didn’t know then, and I still don’t, still haven’t taken the full measure of acceptable threat and unacceptable consequence. And the next time? I couldn’t say until the situation arises, with its own roulette wheel of possibilities, contingencies, and necessities, assuming that the game hasn’t been fixed in advance. Until then, I’d have to try to be grateful that at least I’d been allowed my choice of regrets.
Edward Conlon is a detective with the New York City Police Department. A graduate of Harvard, he has published articles in The New Yorker and Harper’s and his work has been included in The Best American Essays. He is the author of a memoir, Blue Blood , a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, a New York Times Notable Book, and a New York Times bestseller. His debut novel, Red on Red, is out now.