On the Prowl With the Sanitation Police

Two officers search for illegal dumpers in New York City, and a Monitor photographer and reporter go along for the ride

Officer Lonnie Kornegay spots the "midnight dumper" first. In a deserted warehouse district, a red Ford Bronco is cruising the streets with a living room couch tied on the roof.

Kornegay and his partner, officer Efraim "Frankie" Acosta, know what is happening: The driver is looking for the darkest street to jettison the couch on city property.

Now, the pair has to keep the Bronco in sight. They accelerate down streets, halting to look around corners. Finally, as Kornegay peers around a building, he watches as the headlights go off on the Bronco. Two men push the couch off the roof. Acosta turns on his flashing bubble light, and moments later Efren Negron is trying to explain to the two Sanitation Police Officers why he would risk a fine as high as $20,000, or confiscation of his car, to get rid of the old piece of furniture. He's lucky, in a way, since Acosta charges him with a "throw out," the next step up from littering and only a $100 fine.

Dumping appears to be on the rise, says Judith Enck, senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group in Albany. "As the price of disposal increases, you have people looking to get rid of garbage in the cheapest and easiest way, and if they have no social consciousness that means finding an empty lot," she says.

Illegal dumping is also a major problem in rural areas. Ms. Enck says it is not unusual for a farmer to find a truckload of debris spread over his fields. Twenty-eight years ago, Arlo Guthrie wrote his famous song "Alice's Restaurant," which detailed how he got caught dumping illegally.

Catching Mr. Negron came at the end of a day of driving through some of Brooklyn's "mean streets" in an effort to find that split second when independent contractors, tire dealers, and the Negrons of the city decide to unload their unwanted debris on the streets or one of the 55,000 vacant lots in the Big Apple. This is the story of that day and the city's efforts to deal with the problem.

3 p.m.

The shift begins for the two officers and two other teams who will patrol Brooklyn for the next eight hours in unmarked vehicles.

On the stationhouse wall is a computer printout of 22 repeat offenders. A few of the individuals have two convictions for illegal dumping. Lt. Edward Arso says the dumpers will lose their vehicle plus face a stiff fine if they get caught a third time.

The odds of getting caught, however, are in favor of the dumpers. There are only 31 Sanitation Police checking for illegal dumping in the city. Because the force is short-staffed, officers don't work on Sundays. Not surprisingly, a lot of dumping takes place on Sundays.

Acosta says the dumpers are also getting smarter - hiring homeless men who push supermarket carts around the streets and dump the debris.

"We've caught guys who got paid $3 to dump 60 tires," says Acosta. Although the officers are not adverse to arresting the homeless violators, they realize the city is never going to collect fines from them. "It's frustrating," Acosta says.

For the last fiscal year, the city's Environmental Control Board, which hears dumping cases, adjudicated 1,796 cases of illegal dumping - dismissing 522 of them. Violators were fined an average of $600 - the legal minimum last year.

For the shift, Acosta will drive an unmarked van while Kornegay acts as his eyes, watching for vans that are weighed down or pickup trucks carrying debris.

Sanitation officials say New York City has the only sanitation police who are armed and wear bulletproof vests. The police need the guns because they patrol areas of the city that are deserted, crime-ridden, and well-known dumping grounds.

3:30 p.m.

On the way to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the men stop to watch a homeless man pushing a large canvass laundry cart along a street. He's not a dumper - today. Instead, he seems to be collecting scrap-metal, which he may sell to a scrap metal dealer. Some men specialize in aluminum. Others, just pick up iron that will be smelted down and recycled. Homeless men claim they can make $10 a day collecting the metal.

Later in the shift, Acosta complains, "They have got to do something to regulate these push carts" since they can also be used for illegal dumping.

4 p.m.

As they cruise the streets of Williamsburg, the men point to piles of debris - plastic garbage bags, rolls of old carpeting - along the side of the road. These are called "throwaways" since it takes only seconds to open a van door and toss the garbage out.

For larger loads, Kornegay says, the dumpers sometimes put the debris on a blanket. By attaching one end of a rope to the blanket and the other end to a light pole, the polluters can pull the truck out from under the garbage in seconds. Kornegay calls it "the blanket caper."

4:20 p.m.

The van stops outside a vacant lot filled with old tires. "We've caught a lot of dumpers here," Acosta says.

The tires are a disaster waiting to happen. "Imagine the toxic fumes if these caught fire," Kornegay says.

Lieutenant Arso will ultimately report the lot to the cleaning division "We've reported this lot 100 times," he says. The city will eventually clean up the tires, which will be chopped up and sent to the city's landfill on Staten Island. "I'd be a rich man if I could get a quarter for every tire dumped in the city," Acosta jokes.

New York Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty hopes to cut down on the tire dumping somewhat by requiring every company that has tires as part of its waste to use a private carting service that is licensed to handle tires.

But he says the city does not support a "tire deposit" bill in Albany, since business has a lot of concerns about the proposed legislation. That legislation, he claims, is aimed at recycling. "There is not enough capacity out there to recycle right now," Mr. Doherty says. But he concedes it might cut down on tire litter.

5 p.m.

The van is now cruising in Bushwick, a predominately Spanish section. Although some of the lots are fenced by the city, many are not. Acosta points to one lot that had new fences two weeks ago. The fencing has already been stolen.

Another lot is the final resting place for stolen automobiles. The cars have been stripped to their sheet-metal skeletons. A Hispanic man, who calls himself John Doe is trying to take the rear axle off an upside-down Nissan Sentra. As Acosta questions him, he denies being on crack cocaine. Instead, he says, "I'm on parole. I'm not breaking the law. I'm in a drug program."

In what used to be a late model Honda Accord are the business cards of Christopher Hobbs of Hicksville, N.Y.

Mr. Hobbs was in Ozone Park, in Queens, June 23 when he watched four men steal his car. "I got there just as they drove off," he later says by phone. He intends to go to the lot to try to salvage personal papers.

Stripped down automobiles are a serious problem. Forty percent of the 31,163 cars picked up last year were stolen. The rest were abandoned. This is down from a peak of 149,000 cars picked up in 1989.

The city will pick up the abandoned cars, track down the owners, and issue them a summons for abandoning the vehicle if it has not been reported stolen. That results in a $100 to 150 fine.

5:20 p.m.

Acosta and Kornegay spot another stolen car that is still intact on a street corner. The thief will probably return later in the night to begin stripping it. They recognize the handiwork of this particular car thief because he has replaced the rear tires with "doughnuts" the small spares provided by auto companies. "We'll get 'em - it's a just a matter of patience," Acosta says.

5:28 p.m.

A radio dispatcher tells Acosta another team has caught an illegal dumper, a contractor, dumping debris from a bathroom renovation. This could cost the individual $1,500, the new minimum fine for illegal dumping. In addition, the sanitation police will impound his van. It will cost him $10 to $15 per day to get the van back after he pays his fine. In the current fiscal year, the sanitation police expect to impound about 400 vehicles - down from a peak of 1,200 vehicles in 1979 when there were 79 sanitation police officers.

Doherty, the sanitation commissioner, is not certain how to stop the dumping by small contractors who don't want to pay the $40-per-cubic-yard fee at the city landfill. He is trying to get legislation linking nonpayment of fines to renewal of a driver's licenses and vehicle registrations. "A lot of these individuals drive older vehicles that aren't worth the $1,500 fine, so they would rather just default on it," he says.

5:30 p.m.

Acosta has stopped in Bushwick at a vacant lot with eight containers full of debris. A carting company, the Progressive Rubbish Removal Company, is using the lot as a storage facility. The phone number written on the containers is no longer operative. Acosta says the company is owned by the mob.

Someone is living inside one of the metal containers, which is furnished with two couches and a telephone. As Acosta and Kornegay check out the lot, a car slows as it goes past. It happens twice. Perhaps it's the person living in the container. The men write up the lot, which will be further investigated by another sanitation unit that regulates the transfer stations for the private carting businesses.

5:55 p.m.

Acosta drives to another area frequented by car thieves. The street has been cleaned up, but in a nearby wooded area are several late model cars, stripped of their parts. A local resident, Margaret Owsinski, thanks the officers for stopping. "You're the only people helping us," she says.

Some people, however, have a better shot at getting attention. In late May, a Jewish group in Williamsburg held a press conference with Mark Green, the city advocate (an ombudsman) to complain about a rat-infested city-owned lot.

"A three-year old girl was playing near a dead rat the size of a cantaloupe - this place is a magnet for rats and a health hazard for children," Mr. Green says.

With only 132 workers, the city cleans 15,000 lots a year. Half the $10.6 million for the cleanup comes from a community development block grant from the Department of Housing & Urban Development. The city sends out a front-end loader and dump trucks to clear the lots.

In East New York, John Maguire, superintendent of the Lot Cleaning Division recently surveyed a lot covered with about five feet of debris. He estimated it would take 12 to 15 loads - seven tons per truck - to clear the tires, radiators, construction material, mattresses, and household trash. As the debris was moved, rats scampered in confusion. A putrid odor permeated the air.

Local residents were glad to see the eyesore cleaned up. "It's a mess, and there are big rats," said Marlene Anderson as she walked with her daughters, six-year-old, Quanice and 11-month-old Sasha. The lot belonged to the city, which cleaned it up two years ago. But it was mainly used by Clarence Goodman, a local resident, to store his pickup truck and do auto-repair work.

The cleanup crew estimated that Mr. Goodman must have been responsible for 20 to 30 percent of the mess, including much of the oil that had seeped into the property. If the lot were privately owned, the city would have written the owner requiring a cleanup within five working days. If the lot didn't get cleaned, the city would clean it and bill the owner.

6:11 p.m.

Acosta drives past an industrial area of East New York that borders the Long Island Railroad. The street used to be a prime spot for dumpers. But a company located on the road has placed metal poles at close intervals along the road. The technique seems to have cut down on the dumping problem along that part of the road.

6:36 p.m.

"We're in the 'hood," Acosta quips as the van cruises past a new building the city has erected for the homeless. A few blocks away, in a swamp, are more stolen cars, including a new Chrysler van and a Jeep Cherokee.

7:54 p.m.

Acosta has stopped to talk to a man who is moving a family's belongings. He tells Acosta about dumping that is going on at another location. As Acosta leaves, he jokes that the man has become very cooperative ever since his pickup truck was impounded for illegal dumping.

8:28 p.m.

The pair close in on a parked rental truck loaded with debris. As Kornegay walks up to the truck, Acosta talks to a local resident who buys hay and then sells it to people who own horses in the city. The man says he had to clear out 45 stolen cars from his building before he could use it for his hay business. Once Kornegay returns, another sanitation officer reports over the radio that the truck is always in that location. The men leave it alone.

9:52 p.m.

A van is pulled over on the side of the road on the Belt Parkway, an expressway. Acosta pulls over as well. There is often a lot of dumping along the city's expressways. But this van just has a flat tire.

10:15 p.m.

Acosta is heading back to the garage when Kornegay spots the red Bronco with the couch on the roof. The chase is on.

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