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Welcome to Newburgh, Murder Capital of New York

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If grit and ambition were prerequisites for the job, Gagliano possessed both in good measure. He has a long résumé of tough tactical operations, with experience working undercover, supervising SWAT operations, and serving in an elite federal paramilitary outfit known as the Hostage Rescue Team. Throughout his career, his family has lived in the suburbs of the Hudson Valley, and three years ago Gagliano was happy to be reassigned to a case so close to home. But even so, he says, nothing could have prepared him for the long odds he would encounter in Newburgh.

New York City’s success in reducing crime over the last two decades has led some to liken urban crime to a vanquished disease—a deadly affliction that ravaged the country until, miraculously, we found a cure. No one agrees on what precisely that cure entailed, and from The Tipping Point to Freakonomics, a cottage industry of competing accounts has explored whether we should credit the “broken windows” theory, the burgeoning prison system, or for that matter Roe v. Wade. But most analysts concede that one of New York City’s most significant assets was its gargantuan police force. William Bratton couldn’t have cracked down on “quality of life” crimes or developed CompStat without abundant funds and personnel. Even now, New York City employs 35,000 police officers.

Newburgh’s Police Department, by contrast, had just over 100 officers prior to the recession; today it’s down to fewer than 80. The city is nearly broke: Earlier this month, local officials proposed laying off another fifteen cops. “I don’t think Bill Bratton could do anything in Newburgh with the resources that we presently have,” says Frank Phillips, the Orange County district attorney.

The physical layout of downtown Newburgh puts this diminished force at a further disadvantage. Broadway, the once grand central thoroughfare, is wide and open, but the graffiti-scarred residential streets running off it are narrow and one-way, which creates a claustrophobic intimacy between the gangbangers and the local constabulary. “They know every car when it makes the block,” says one Newburgh police officer. “They know which cop is going to jump out of his car, which cop is going to keep driving. It’s like prisoners watching prison guards. They know the cops by name.”

Gagliano estimates that when he took the job, gang members in Newburgh outnumbered police five to one. So his first priority was to augment the local authorities with a hand-picked team of federal agents, but also, in a process he calls “force multiplication,” to provide money and matériel, in the form of overtime payments, surveillance equipment, and a steady rotation of rental cars, so that undercover officers could cruise the streets incognito.

This emergency transfusion of federal dollars was crucial, but, as Gagliano knew as well as anyone, rental cars and overtime payments would not be enough to stem the violence. To permanently restore order to Newburgh, he would need to take down the gang leadership today, but also to cut off the supply of fresh recruits who might run the streets tomorrow. Achieving that would require a tricky mix of blunt force and empathy—an unusually compassionate law-enforcement strategy, but one which Gagliano was well positioned to administer.

Shortly before Gagliano first took over the task force, a lanky 15-year-old named Jeffrey Zachary was murdered on Dubois Street. It was a Tuesday evening, just past ten o’clock. One minute, Jeffrey was laughing and joking with friends. The next, a silver sedan cruised down the darkened block and slowed long enough for someone to point a pistol out the window and squeeze off a few shots.

That a young black man would catch a bullet in Newburgh was not in itself unusual; by that point, gang-related homicides had grown almost routine. But Jeffrey Zachary was not a gang member. He was a good kid who had avoided the internecine conflicts that ensnared so many of his contemporaries; he was murdered by accident, when a Latin King gunman mistook him for a Blood. This tragedy was compounded by an appalling coincidence: Three years earlier, Jeffrey’s older brother Trent had been gunned down in much the same fashion. Both Zachary boys expired in the same emergency room.

On his first day on the job, Gagliano took a clipping of Jeffrey’s obituary and placed it under glass on his desk. He shows it to me when I visit his office. “Now, I cannot bring him back,” Gagliano says. “But I can find the assholes who did it.”

If the murder of Jeffrey Zachary hit Gagliano especially hard, it was because he happened to have known the boy; he had encountered him on the basketball court. Gagliano may be the only FBI agent in America whom gangbangers and drug dealers call “Coach.” In 2001, he ventured into Newburgh with his son in search of a better basketball league than could be found in the suburbs. They discovered a rec league that played in a cramped gym at the back of St. Mary’s Church on South Street. The team was looking for a new coach, and Gagliano volunteered.


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