A Mobile Police Unit Takes On Drug Trade

A Mobile Police Unit Takes On Drug Trade

February 4, 1990  NYTimes

WHAT is 36 1/2 feet long, 8 feet wide and 12 feet high, weighs 20,000 pounds and moves on wheels? It is ORCA, the latest addition to Hoboken's police force.

ORCA, an acronym for Operation Remove Crack Attack, is the city's mobile police unit, a customized bus that the police have used since April to fight crime in the city's highest crime area.

Sgt. Fred Ferrante, the supervisor of the mobile unit, said the police chose to call it ORCA, another name for the killer whale, because ''we eat up the bad guys.''

The mobile unit serves Jackson Gardens, a complex of 598 low-income housing units in the city's southeast, built in 1953. Before ORCA arrived, the area had seen six drug-related murders in two years, said Hoboken's Public Safety Director, Thomas Kennedy.

''It's been like a breath of fresh air since the bus arrived,'' Mr. Kennedy said. ''People can go out at night and not be afraid.''

Sergeant Ferrante said he was pleased with ORCA's success. ''We've made more than 120 drug-related arrests through this unit,'' he said. ''Before we were here, when people had fights someone would get hurt. We've broken up knife fights right outside this bus before anyone got hurt.''

But before moving ORCA to other locations, the police will establish a permanent presence in a converted community room at Jackson Gardens. Councilman Edwin Duroy, whose Fourth Ward district includes the complex, said the city's Housing Authority had applied for a Federal grant to finance the new mini-station. He said it would be completed by midsummer if a grant is approved.

Mr. Duroy led the campaign for the mobile unit in the crack-infested neighborhood. He said he got the idea after seeing a similar operation in nearby Union City, where a bus, nicknamed Blue Whale, has been used since January 1988. Hoboken's ORCA was paid for with a $160,000 municipal bond.

William Bierson, a spokesman for the Division of Criminal Justice in the State Attorney General's office, said he believed that Hoboken and Union City had the only mobile units like ORCA in the state.

Hoboken's mobile unit is parked seven nights a week, from 7 P.M. to 2 A.M., at Third and Jackson Streets. Its position is in front of Jackson Gardens and across the street from Westside Plaza, a strip of of eight shops. Two police officers patrol a six-block radius on foot and return to the bus every half-hour or when an arrest is made.

The bus is equipped with two typewriters, a telephone, a holding cell for four prisoners, a lavatory and an office where Sergeant Ferrante watches the street through large windows while monitoring a police radio. The bus's Formica-covered interior is kept emergency-room clean.

Two young men were taken into the bus recently after they were seen driving erratically and pointing a gun out the car window. Two officers stopped the car and discovered that the gun was a plastic toy.

The young men were taken into the bus while one of the officers called police headquarters to request a computer check on them. The driver, 19 years old, was given a summons and released. His passenger, a juvenile, was held until a relative picked him up.

Sergeant Ferrante said the driver was a known drug dealer from Jersey City who had been seen spending a lot of time at Jackson Gardens.

''Because we're here all the time, we get to know who the bad guys are and who the good guys are,'' Sergeant Ferrante said. ''There are a lot of good people here that deserve our protection. And if we can let the drug dealers feel our presence, we can make the quality of life around here better.''

Some of his fellow officers do not envy Sergeant Ferrante's assignment. ''I don't feel comfortable being stationary in one place like this,'' said Sgt. Albert Van Nieuwenhoven, one of 150 officers serving Hoboken, a city of about 50,000. ''I'd rather be in a patrol car because I'd feel too much like a target sitting in the bus.''

Officers in Hoboken have been hit with objects thrown from roofs. Sergeant Ferrante said that someone once threatened to hurl a bowling ball at the bus, although nothing has hit it so far. But just in case, its roof is strong enough to withstand the impact of a tossed cinder block.

Residents and storekeepers in the neighborhood share Sergeant Ferrante's positive assessment of the mobile unit. The manager of Westside Wines and Liguors, Michael Garcia, said sales have gone up since the bus arrived.

''The type of clientele has changed,'' Mr. Garcia said. ''People who were afraid to come here before aren't anymore. It's really made a difference.''

Javier Hernandez, a 17-year resident of Jackson Gardens, said: ''Before, you'd call a cop, and it would be too late. Now, they watch everything that happens. I'm very happy it's down here.''

A crossing guard who has been stationed at Third and Jackson for the last 19 years and who identified herself only as Mary said: ''It's a wonderful thing that it happened. People who don't live here were coming down to buy drugs. Now they're afraid. Also people can sleep at night because there's less noise.''

In the beginning, there was some opposition to the unit from people who felt it was a waste of money. A resident of Jackson Gardens who did not want to be identified said the police were not doing enough to help.

Councilman Steve Cappiello, who voted against the proposal to purchase the mobile unit, said: ''For the amount of money spent, we could have built a structure right there in front of the housing project. And it's too big a monstrosity to move around our streets.''

Now that the bus is in operation, Sergeant Ferrante has become more than a police officer. He is learning to maintain the vehicle. It takes about 15 minutes to park and make the unit operational, which includes getting the generator running and hooking up the phone line.

''It's a little extra work here, but I enjoy it,'' he said. ''And I'm looking forward to moving to other parts of the city.''

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