Law and Water

The leatherback frogmen of the NYPD Scuba Squad patrol a hellish world beyond noir, where body parts abound, the water's filthy, and mob victims wear concrete shoes. And get this—they love it.

Mar 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
It's another sunny New York morning, and NYPD Scuba is back, preparing to resume the search for the missing homicide weapon in the Hudson River. Mud-crawling is slow, tiresome work, and everyone is in a surly mood. There's some sense that this is an exercise in futility.

"They don't even know the date the guy threw it in," McLaughlin complains.

Collins says, "Yeah, and there's a ship called the Titanic. It sunk somewhere." He spits into the water.

McLaughlin and Collins tie the boat to a stanchion at the North River sewage plant, one of 17 facilities that discharge sewage-treatment water into the Hudson. The infamous North River plant is a classic New York creation: a sewage facility with a public park built on top. Over cyclone fencing there are basketball courts, trees; curious kids stare down, trying to figure out why the police are docking beneath them.

Cummings and Collins walk over to huddle with detectives. Over on the Jersey side of the river, beyond the George Washington Bridge, the white cliffs of the Palisades look like a distant glacier. A large CNN billboard above the West Side Highway proclaims, "You Are What You Know." Around the boat, tiny fish navigate among miniature oil slicks, leaves, a floating Ho-Hos wrapper, and a wave-tossed porn mag. Pellegrino's sitting up front in the bow, eating another chocolate pudding.

An hour later, Pellegrino and McLaughlin are in the river, working what's called a pattern line, a 100-foot rope that is stretched along the bottom and secured with a grappling hook on each end. "We go up and down the line, keeping it as taut as possible," Collins explains as we look for the divers' bubbles. "When you get to the end, the lead diver moves it a few feet over, and they start all over again." It's a tedious process, but not without its rewards. "When you're looking for a gun, all you're thinking about is what you might feel," he says. "But we'll come across other guns, knives, shopping carts, fences, cars, anything you can imagine. Bodies. Recovery's fucked. You got rebar, typewriters, you name it. I love bodies—they're big. You can't miss 'em."

After a couple of hours, the men return to the boat empty-handed, frustrated, and hungry (they'll find the gun two days from now). As we set off for lunch at a waterfront deli in Hoboken, Pellegrino tells me he has one last point he wants to bring up: money.

"We should be getting special time," he declares. "Put that in your article. We do something the average guy on patrol can't do. First thing other cops say is, 'You jump in that scum? What the fuck's a matter with you?'" Unlike their state police scuba colleagues, who get a $25 bonus for every day they dive, NYPD divers receive no hardship pay.

"Police officers all make the same money," NYPD spokesman Detective Walter Burnes tells me when I ask him about the pay scale later. "Only way to get a change is to get promoted. That's just the way it works. If a guy who's out on patrol every day gets shot, who's to say he's got an easier job than a guy on the bomb squad?" Point taken. "Yeah," Cummings acknowledges when I relay this information to him. "It's an unfortunate footnote."

As we speed down the Hudson toward Hoboken, Pellegrino makes it clear that he's resigned to the pay policy, too. Clearly, these guys aren't in it for the money. "Bottom line?" he says. "I get to do a hobby and get paid for it. How many guys can say that? If the alarm goes off right now and I jump out of the helicopter and save someone? Boom—that's a rip. That's a lot of fun. Other days, you gotta look for a gun, and dive, dive, dive, dive."

He cranes his neck at a plane passing overhead. "That ain't so fun."   

Andrew Essex, a freelance writer who lives in New York City, has written for the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Rolling Stone.


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