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Captain Midnight

With arms like bazookas and a reputation as a warrior, Precinct Commander Mike Marino battles morale problems and an elusive serial-stickup man. But the crime numbers tracked at one Police Plaza are what really make him reach for his tums.

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"You wanted to see me?"

Mike Marino, commanding officer of the 77th Precinct in Crown Heights, stops studying the activity records of his cops, rocks back in his swivel chair, and looks up at the veteran officer fidgeting before him. In his drafty first-floor office, Marino wears just a Yankees T-shirt and blue jeans; a silver-barreled, black-handled Smith & Wesson rides his right hip. The 43-year-old commander's bazooka arms and thickening middle tell of a weightlifter fighting middle age.

"I want to talk about your activity," Marino says, his voice a velvety purr, a result, he tells people, of speaking in the intimate space of a patrol car.

"What about it?"

"You're not doing your job."

The 77th Precinct -- "the seven-seven," within the department -- covers the streets along the north side of Eastern Parkway from Flatbush to Ralph Avenue and is notorious as the setting for the corruption scandal described in the late Mike McAlary's book Buddy Boys. In 1986, the precinct was "dumped": Almost every single cop was transferred and replaced with new personnel. Then, in 1991, the Crown Heights riots blew the neighborhood apart. In January of this year, a patrolman from the 77 pleaded guilty to a series of crimes in 1997, including armed robbery and conspiring with another 77 officer to murder a precinct detective.

But during the two years Mike Marino has been CO, arrests are up, crime is down, and, for the first time in memory, the Crown Heights community and the police seem to be on the same page. Balancing the conflicting priorities of the 100,000 or so predominantly African-American and Caribbean-American residents and the precinct's 243 mostly white cops is a delicate proposition. But Marino is not a delicate man. He tells the bald truth to five-star NYPD chiefs and community activists alike, exhorts the cops under his command like a football coach, and rides the streets to make arrests personally. For his courage alone, Marino is wildly popular with many of his troops, who have nicknamed him "Elephant Balls."

For Mike Marino, being a New York City cop is not a job, it's a calling, "like being a priest," he often says. But some of the rank and file, embittered by recent contracts allotting "zeroes to heroes," don't see it that way, and they're lying down on the job. The officer Marino has called on the carpet has been making no arrests, writing few summonses, and disappearing from his foot post. "Let's talk about you being off your post," Marino says.

"We are blessed to have Mike Marino. He is fair. You look in his eyes and you know he is like us."

The cop stonewalls: "I refuse to talk about that right now."

Marino takes off his gold-framed aviator glasses, squeezes his eyes shut, and tries hard to control himself. "You're talking to your commanding officer," he says. "I have the power to take days" -- suspend without pay.

The cop shifts his weight and takes a breath. "I thought we could talk about this man to man."

"If this was man to man," Marino says, almost inaudibly, "you'd be on your ass right now."

The first time I saw Mike Marino, in 1991, he was doing three things at once. It was in a Brownsville housing development. I was researching a book about Housing cops, riding with them on the midnight shift. Shots rang out; in the ensuing chase I made a wrong turn in a hallway, got separated from the officers I was with, and came upon Marino, then of the 73rd Precinct. He had caught the shooter and was holding him down with his knee. A battered Tec-9 semiautomatic lay on the floor not far away. With his gun in one hand and his radio in the other, Marino was talking to me while he called on the radio: "73 sergeant on the air. Raise my partner. I've got one under arrest, and the only guy with me is a fuckin' reporter."

Later on that night, the Housing cops spoke of Marino in hushed tones. He had "that glow" about him, they said. Every time they responded to a shooting, he was already at the scene, they swore. They had seen him stride into the middle of street brawls like a samurai.

Almost ten years later, after Marino had been named commanding officer of the 77th Precinct, I asked for and received permission from the NYPD to watch how he was dealing with the pressures of a command. In his fourteen years on the midnight shift, Marino had been shot at, clubbed with a pool cue, and, for a time, blackballed within the department for the same action-hero image that made him a legend in Brownsville. Could a street fighter recast himself as an effective administrator, a bridge between a brigade of bitter cops and a neighborhood of wary people?

It's November 9, two days after Election Day, and Captain Mike Marino is still juggling multiple tasks. He sits at his desk fielding phone calls and poring over reports of a series of robberies at the west end of his precinct while he banters with a stream of officers taking advantage of his open-door policy. Unlike that night in Brownsville, though, it's Marino himself who's under the gun.

Pockets of middle-class whites have settled in renovated buildings east of Flatbush Avenue, and one robber, a team of thieves, or a series of different stickup men have been following these residents home from the subway and stealing their money and credit cards at gunpoint. In each incident, the robber is well dressed and so smooth that, to witnesses on the street, the crime looks like a conversation between friends.

Marino has responded by posting officers on the side streets off Eastern Parkway. It's too dangerous to send one of his cops out as a decoy to get mugged at gunpoint, so Marino himself has been wandering the area in plainclothes trying to draw out the robber. But the ruse has little chance of success: Marino would look like a New York cop if he was walking down the Champs-Élysées in a beret. Besides, the gunman almost seems to know where the police are going to be. On Election Day, when many of the 77 officers were watching polling places, the thief struck again. In the past 28 days he's hit fifteen times.


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