MORRISANIA — At his last post, hunting drug dealers in Upper Manhattan, NYPD Capt. Steven Ortiz found that protecting civilians sometimes required keeping them in the dark.
During a 15-month undercover investigation of a Harlem drug ring, while residents begged police to rescue them from the gang, officers could say little more than, “We’re working on it,” without risk of tipping off the dealers, Ortiz said.
Residents “felt that their complaints were falling on deaf ears,” he said.
But in his new perch, as the commanding officer of the 42nd Precinct, Ortiz is freer to communicate openly with residents, which he has already set out to do, earning some early praise in the process.
“This captain that we have now has shown in the short time he’s been in office that he really cares about the community,” said the Rev. Joel Bauza, a local pastor and community board member. “He actually comes out to the meetings in the community, which is unprecedented.”
A 22-year NYPD veteran, Ortiz took over the 42nd Precinct last month. The previous commanding officer, Capt. Jon Bloch, was transferred to the Bronx Patrol Borough.
Before that, Ortiz spent about four years in the Manhattan North Narcotics unit, where he helped bring down Harlem’s “Kings of Dust” drug ring with the 15-month investigation, which led to a 268-count indictment and a takedown in January 2012.
That bust netted nearly three dozen suspected members of the group, which had allegedly raked in more than $1 million a year in drug sales and used an 8-year-old boy as a lookout.
“They felt like they were untouchable,” Ortiz said.
In the past, Ortiz served for five years as a lieutenant in the Bronx’s 48th Precinct, which sits directly north of his current territory.
In Morrisania’s 42nd Precinct, which covers 1.6 square miles and includes about 80,000 residents, major crime is down by about 7 percent this year.
Several neighborhood crews, which are more loosely organized than gangs, still operate in the precinct, but do not appear to be involved in any drug trade, Ortiz said.
But they can trigger violence: Ortiz suspects crew tensions may have spurred a 14-year-old to shoot a 15-year-old in the precinct last month.
Still, shootings have decreased in the precinct by 37 percent from the same period last year — from 19 shootings in 2012 to 12 this year, Ortiz said.
“We’re going in the right direction,” he said.
If Ortiz has been gifted some encouraging crime statistics in the 42nd Precinct, he has also inherited a sometimes fraught relationship between its officers and local residents.
Last year, a video surfaced showing a group of 42nd Precinct officers beating an unarmed teen, Jatiek Reed, during an arrest.
In a separate incident in the precinct last year, an officer accidentally shot and killed a bodega worker as he fled an armed robbery. Some critics charged that the cop must have assumed the 20-year-old worker was up to no good — an overreaction they compared to the shooting of the unarmed teen Ramarley Graham.
Despite any lingering tensions, Ortiz said that during his first few weeks in his new post, residents have seemed willing to give him a chance.
“So far, everybody’s been receptive and willing to work with us,” he said.
That appeared to be the case at Community Board 3’s general meeting last week, where Ortiz’s presence drew commendations and warm applause from board members, who said 42nd Precinct officers rarely attended meetings in the past.
“It sent a message to me that we’re on the right track,” said CB3 District Manager John Dudley, “from the top down.”