The New York Police Department is currently made up of some 37,000 men and women. Its Scuba Unit, created in 1967, has just 30 members, all of them men. NYPD proper addresses aboveground crime; NYPD Scuba covers what happens underwater.
The unit's jurisdiction includes the entire aquatic Big Apple, all five juicy boroughs of it. This means pulling people (live, dead, rotted beyond recognition) and evidence (guns, knives, automobiles, limbs) out of some of the worst water in the world—the pungent rivers of the Bronx; the polluted creeks of Brooklyn and Queens; the frozen golf-course ponds in the hinterlands of Staten Island; fetid sewers; even the water towers atop Manhattan skyscrapers. It's a line of work that requires powerful intestinal fortitude. It's not just a job; it's a claustrophobic, god-awful ordeal. And these guys—as they'll be the first to tell you—are the best in the business. "Almost every [police dive] team faces hardship," says Walt "Butch" Hendrick, a former Navy corporal whose Upstate New York company, Lifeguard Systems, trains law enforcement personnel across the country in water rescue. "The big difference is NYPD is exposed to an enormous amount of hazard."
New York water is a special brew of ferocious currents, unforgiving temperatures, treacherous murk, and apocalyptic pollution. In the memorable formulation of Dr. Charles Martinez, the unit's physician, certain New York coastal waters have a bacterial content consistent with "liquid stool." Water pollution was at an all-time high in the early '70s; since then, massive cleanup efforts have improved conditions and restored some aquatic life, but the water still has a long way to go. A 1998 EPA study that included the New York City region listed 104 local waters (from creeks to bays) and found impairments of ten varieties. The Hudson, for instance, boasts high levels of PCBs and fecal coliform bacteria, and the report recommended that further clean-up be made a high priority. The East River, according to Peter Sattler, principal environmental planner with the Interstate Sanitation Commission, which monitors local water quality, is by volume almost entirely sewage-treatment water, pumped from five upriver plants. "It's not drinking-water standards," Sattler says, "but it sometimes meets bathing-beach criteria." Which means you can swim in it and not immediately die.
I first saw NYPD Scuba in action last winter, after happening upon a recovery dive for the body of a woman who'd committed suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. Like most jumpers, she'd died on impact. ("I know about five or ten jumpers that survived because we were right there," says one member of the unit, noting that many times Scuba is called to the scene before a person actually jumps. Surviving a jump "depends on how you land and how lucky you get.") I watched as two police divers plunged into the frigid East River and quickly collected the corpse.
Plucking a jumper from the East River illustrates just one of NYPD Scuba's concerns; last year, it participated in more than 1,000 water missions, 32 of which were rescue operations in which lives were saved. On a given day, it may engage in emergency rescue ops (like capsized boats and downed helicopters), drug searches, and blackwater weapons recovery. No two days are the same.
Each officer spends every third day of duty at Floyd Bennet Field in nearby Rockaway Beach, where Scuba maintains an air-sea rescue team with two divers and a helicopter pilot. On call 24-7, in emergency situations they can reach any local body of water in 11 minutes. As I discovered on many occasions, both on the water and on land, this constant state of readiness makes the men antsy. They get irritable when nothing is happening. As if to compensate, they trade stories—hair-raising, grisly, sometimes mind-boggling stories.