The Bronx Beat – A Routine Night at “the 44”

In a worn-down building in a housing project in the South Bronx, two police officers sprint up the stairs to the fourth floor. In the dimly lit corridor, the two draw their 9-mm personal sidearms from their holsters and cautiously approach apartment F46. They knock on the door.

“Who is it?” screams a voice from within.

“Police!” they answer firmly in unison.

A groggy, squinty-eyed man emerges from the pitch-dark apartment. He says the electricity was cut off because he couldn’t pay his bill.

However, officers Jay Balsan and Eddie Vincenzi have arrived for a different reason. They have responded to a 911 call from this apartment, the fifth such “job,” as it is referred to by police, in just over three hours of a standard patrol.

The caller said there was a dispute between two men, each reportedly with a weapon and each threatening to kill the other. The man at the door says he knows nothing. With no hard evidence and no warrant to search, the officers reluctantly retreat to their Chevy Impala squad car.

“This is a routine thing,” Balsan, 26, says with a shrug, as he and Vincenzi, 24, cruise along Morris Avenue. After quickly recalling the past three hours — which included a car accident, a medical emergency involving an unconscious child, an assault of two children at a local mall and another local dispute involving guns — Balsan summarizes their evening thus far.

“Actually, it’s been a pretty slow night,” he says, without the slightest hint of sarcasm.

Balsan and Vincenzi graduated from the Police Academy together in January and were assigned to the 44th Precinct in March. They have been partners ever since, two Mets fans in the enemy Yankees home precinct. However, the precinct is more notorious for being the second busiest in New York City, with a regular dose of crime and violence served to the two young officers on a daily basis. They know that even a “quiet” night like this one can change in a matter of seconds.

Police work is something both of them always wanted to do. Balsan joined the force after eight years in the Marines, a service that took him to far-away places such as Africa and the Far East. As he grew older he felt the need for more stability. He now lives with his fiancée Marisa and their three-month-old puppy Hobbs in Rockland County.

“I work 35 to 40 minutes from where I live,” he says. “That’s far enough away for me right now.”

Vincenzi was literally born into the business. His father and uncle were cops and his younger brother is joining the academy next spring. His dad even served in the same precinct, making Vincenzi one of several second-generation officers at “the 44.” He used to dream of being a baseball player, but once that vision faded he decided to pursue his other childhood infatuation.

“I’ve always wanted to do it,” he says. “I love it. It keeps me busy. I just love dealing with people.”

His childhood flashback is suddenly cut short, as the police radio once again crackles back to life. “Another gun dispute,” Vincenzi says nonchalantly, switching on the roof lights. Balsan floors the accelerator and flies through another red light, siren honking as they make their way to another destination.

Arriving at the scene along with two other units, Balsan and Vincenzi meet up with old friends.

“Hey, you,” one yells with a hearty chuckle at Vincenzi. There is a sense of camaraderie between the officers, responding to yet another “job” which will most likely once again lead nowhere.

However, within seconds, they realize that this “job” is different. As the six officers exit the elevator on the fifth floor, they notice a trail of blood leading to apartment 5B. They draw their weapons and knock urgently on the door. Inside a young black woman is hysterical.

“He’s crazy. He had a gun,” she cries, as her children surrounded her.

“Where is he?”

“6B,” she wails.

The officers look at the floor and see the drops of blood continue up the stairway, all the way to apartment 6B. With sharp hand movements and intense eye contact they coordinate their positions. Once again, they bang strongly on the door, tighten their grip on their weapons and wait for the door to open. A thin white, middle-aged bearded man slowly emerges from the apartment. He is mumbling to himself, blood streaking his forehead, his bloodied hands raised.

“Keep ’em up where we can see ’em,” one of the officers screams, as Balsan and Vincenzi quickly enter the apartment to search for a weapon and interrogate the man’s elderly mother. The officers quickly realize they are dealing with what police refer to as an EDP, short for “Emotionally Disturbed Person.”

The four other officers surround the man and demand that he face the wall. Just then, with a sudden, unexpected move, he lurches towards one of them, wiping a hand full on blood on the bald cop’s face.

“Motherf—–,” the officer curses under his breath, as he wipes away the blood.

The officers immediately put on gloves and try to corner the man, but he heads towards the stairway. Another officer pulls out mace and sprays the man in the eyes. The EDP darts down the stairs. The officers rush after him, the empty halls echoing in a cacophony of stampeding feet, as vapors of pepper gas fill the air.

“That son of a bitch is fast,” one of them yells.

On the street, the supervising sergeant and his driver wait along with fire department paramedics. Six law enforcement officials corner the man against a metal gate.

“Lie down on the ground with your hands behind your back,” someone hollers.

The EDP acts as if he doesn’t hear, waving his hands violently and attempting to strike the converging cops. The officers continue to demand his surrender. The mumbling man continues to refuse.

“Father, please,” he suddenly cries out to no one in particular. “Father, please,” he moans out loud.

Eventually, one of the officers lunges at him, grabbing his wrist. The others quickly join in, but not before the EDP bites the officer on the hand. The man continues to struggle and moan “father, please,” but he is easily pinned down, his bloodied face held against the asphalt sidewalk.

The officers attempt to handcuff him, but he won’t budge.

“Let go of your arm,” they scream, as one of the officers starts kicking him on the ground, attempting to get the arm behind his back.

“We’re gonna have to break it,” another says.

Eventually, the six of them turn him over on his back, handcuff his wrists in an awkward position and strap him onto a stretcher, using restraints.

Now the paramedics take over, calmly talking to the man, who continues to jerk his body in a fit, and tending to his various wounds — both self-inflicted and police-inflicted.

The officers converge outside the ambulance to assess their own wounds. Aside from the bitten officer, another twisted his knee in the chase down the stairs, while a third hobbles after hurting his foot in the battle on the street. Six of the officers are coughing violently and spitting profusely, a result of inhaling the residue of the pepper-gas mace. Balsan vomits on the sidewalk. As the EDP is carted away, the officers look on, their pained faces an eerie mixture of blood, sweat and tears. The tension is finally broken as one of the cops blurts out, “Guys, can we please stop using the goddamn mace,” drawing a laugh from the crowd.

Four of the officers are taken to the hospital to be treated. Vincenzi is the only officer not affected by the mace, so he is chosen by the sergeant to ride in the ambulance and supervise the EDP. He learns later that the man’s name is Rafael. Neighbors on the street report that he is mentally retarded. He had apparently stabbed himself after the incident in 5B, but paramedics were unsure if this was an attempted suicide or not.

On the way back to the precinct, just after 11 p.m., Balsan seems almost unaffected by the evening’s dramatic events.

“You can’t take it personally,” he says of the violent encounter with the EDP. “To take it personally would be a disservice to him. He needed help just like those people downstairs did. Hopefully, now he’ll get it.”

At the end of the intensive eight-hour shift, Balsan still somehow claims that this was a slow night — a testament to the daily grind of his chosen profession. As he heads to the showers before driving home, he allows himself another rare moment of reflection.

“It’s upsetting, but I’ve learned to put it all aside at the end of the day,” he says. “You hang all that stuff up in your locker before you go home. By the time you get back here in the morning, it’s all gone and you’re back to square one. Then it’s time to start everything all over again.”