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

"A few years ago, we nailed this freighter up from Bogotá," says Officer Kevin Collins, a mustachioed, white-crew-cutted, 28-year veteran in his late forties. It's a few days after the weapons recovery search, and Collins is telling one of Scuba's favorite tales as the squad's four-seater launch prepares to depart from headquarters in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The Scuba Unit, which belongs to NYPD's Harbor Department (Harbor mainly monitors what goes on on top of the water), has three boats. Near the slip, there's a flower box of well-tended geraniums that suggests someone with a sensitive side.

"I dove under and found four guys hidden inside the rudder compartment, this tiny space the size of my fucking kitchen," Collins continues. "They had 365 pounds up there, enough cocaine to supply the entire Upper East Side." The rudder compartment, an extremely loud and tight space, Collins explains, sits just above the waterline; it can only be inspected from underwater.

"Strung up in hammocks and rubber rafts," he adds. "All the way up from Columbia with wetsuits and waterproof bags. Boy, were they surprised to see us."

Pellegrino brings out three foam cups of steaming coffee from HQ. The cops all have on navy-blue NYPD Scuba T-shirts, navy-blue cargo pants, and black lace-up boots (except for Collins, who wears Teva sandals). Aside from Collins and Pellegrino, Officer Wayne McLaughlin, a barrel-chested 42-year-old and a 14-year veteran with Scuba, is also on duty today. Their assignment is to inspect the vast underbelly of a Greek freighter anchored in New York Bay for possible signs of contraband. In all cases, Scuba officers carry nine-millimeter pistols; when they dive, they store them on board the launch. No current member of the unit has ever had to use his gun. This will be a labor-intensive, low-adrenaline job, and the men give off the vaguely uninterested vibe of professional wrestlers at a poetry reading. Rescue scenarios are always preferred. "It's a rip to jump into current," Pellegrino says.

Pellegrino is one of several officers who have been assigned to Scuba since the beginning of summer, when local water activity heats up. Since he's not yet a permanent member of the unit, he may have to return to dry land at the end of his tour. Like most cops who try out for the team, Pellegrino has long been a recreational diver—his special interest is "trimix," an oxygen-nitrogen-helium blend that lets him spend extra time on the bottom. He's dying to stay, but the unit is exceedingly difficult to break into. "If they throw me back in the car," he says, "I go back in the car. You gotta be a big boy.

"Out here, man," he continues, taking in a lungful of salty air as he steers the boat out into the bay, "there's none of that he-hit-me-no-she-hit-me shit." With his free hand, he opens a paper bag and removes a pouch of chocolate pudding. There's a note inside from his wife. Pellegrino reads it out loud: "Thanks for a great weekend, baby." He grins and dry-humps the air.

A moment later, Collins squints at some commercial activity on an approaching pier. He frowns and asks Pellegrino to slow down.

"Shallow here, Frankie," McLaughlin says, looking over Pellegrino's shoulder after he comes up from below deck.

"I'm only doing 15 rpm," Pellegrino protests.

"It's not the rpm," McLaughlin replies. "You gotta look at the wake."

Pellegrino feigns a wounded look. "You know how many times I think about cutting his air hose?" he says to me. McLaughlin just smiles.

After passing beneath the gilded torch of the Statue of Liberty, the boat rounds a bend, heads toward Lower New York Bay, and falls into the shadow of an enormous spanking-new tanker called the Antipolis. U.S. Customs is already on board.

"That's a beaut," Pellegrino says. "What's she moving?"

"Could be anything," McLaughlin answers. "Iron ore, sugar, anything that comes in bulk."

"Like drugs," Collins says, peering through binoculars. "No bodies jumping."

"Must be clean," McLaughlin says. "Sometimes Customs gets people running right off the fucking deck."

McLaughlin lumbers slowly up a service ladder like a town marshal. This will be an easy job. Too easy. Pellegrino switches back into storytelling mode as we wait for McLaughlin's return.

"Searching for kids is the toughest," he says, digging out the last of his pudding. "I had one guy, 13 years old. Still in his swimsuit and all rigor mortis and shit." The boy had been wading at Orchard Beach, in the Bronx, where the bottom suddenly drops from four to 12 feet. Even in strong currents, a lifeless body has a tendency to sink straight down. "I found him on the bottom, like seven feet from where he went in."

"City kids don't give a fuck how dirty the water is," Collins adds. "Day like this, the river's beautiful. You only get the floating shit after a storm. They gotta look where they're jumping. I had a kid who dove in and got impaled by a rusty stanchion."

A few minutes later McLaughlin returns. They'll need to give the ship a quick look as a formality. Pellegrino begins suiting up; he'll do a drift dive, letting the current pull him along as he examines the hull.

"Hey, I did a high-altitude dive once," Collins suddenly says enthusiastically.

"What?" Pellegrino says, lifting his mask off his face.

"Sixty-five stories up."

Pellegrino looks confused. Waves plash against the side of the boat.

"He's just being comical," McLaughlin, who has heard the story before, deadpans.

"This guy was burgling an office building—one of those high-rise jobs," Collins explains. "He was stealing pocketbooks and whatnot."

The culprit, an office worker, was robbing his female colleagues, but no one could figure out where he was stashing the purses. Turned out he was dumping the pilfered bags into the building's water tank.

"That water was so clean, I just looked down—there was at least a hundred fucking purses in there!"


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