By Patrick Markey
Just a few yards from the bustle of Lexington Avenue as it cuts through Spanish Harlem, on a side street away from the nimble merengue wafting from nearby stores, is a squat, yellow brick building.
It has few distinguishing features. The spray paint graffiti, the grilled black doorway and scuffed concrete steps mark much of New York’s lower-scale architecture.
Inside, the hallway offers a quiet respite from the hum of neighborhood life. A worn elevator takes the visitor up to what a sign lists as a Department of Transportation office, or perhaps to the fourth floor to the international family center.
But beyond the elevator doors immediately it is obvious that at least in this neighborhood building signs mean little.
The doors open and the quiet surrenders to the din and hustle of a military operation. Brash voices discuss felonies over phones, radios blare, bulky figures in sports shirts and vests strut by, revolver handles peeking from their waistbands. Above the entrance next to a set of black armored shields, a sign reads — "New York Detectives, The Best in the World."
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Luke Waters loves this covert world. An investigator with the NYPD’s narcotics division, Waters is, among other things, a proud Dublin man.
Both his grandfathers were gardai and Waters, a Finglas native, is following in the family tradition at one of several field operations that deal in the investigative and undercover edge of narcotics policing. In nine months, he’ll receive his gold shield that will place him in the ranks of the department’s detectives.
Waters is also following another tradition at least as old as Irish immigration, that of joining the ranks of the local law enforcement.
"They said 20 years ago the brogue was a common thing here and it hadn’t been heard for many years," Waters said recently. "Now everywhere you go, you get cops with a brogue."
Take even a casual glance through the rosters of any precinct that influence is apparent. McCabe, Kelly, Collins, O’Reilly, the police ranks are filled with Irish names, marking a traditional place of Irish America in urban law enforcement. And while the blue uniform provided a refuge for the new arrivals in the last century, and Irish Americans still play an influential role in the police department, new Irish arrivals such as Waters are keeping the immigrant tradition alive.
Edward O’Donnell, an assistant professor in Urban and Ethnic History at CUNY’s Hunter College, believes the classic portrait of the Irish cop came about in the mid-1800s.
"The Irish certainly dominated urban police forces, especially New York, in the 1830s and 1840s," O’Donnell said. By 1855, more than 25 percent of the New York Police Force were Irish-born officers and in addition to those with Irish-born parents, the Irish contingent was probably closer to 50 percent.
It was during this period the "paddywagon" came into use, although experts are still debating over whether the phrase refers to the high rate at the time of Irish arrests or the probability that the driver at the wheel would have been an Irish cop, O’Donnell said.
In the 1930s, the New York Times conducted a survey on the ethnic makeup of the NYPD and found between 30 to 40 percent of the police were Irish or of Irish descent. Since World War II, O’Donnell said, two factors have changed the ranks of the NYPD. Career options for the Irish-American community expanded parallel to the group’s economic ascendancy, and during the 1960s, police officials made a more conscious effort to create a diverse force mirroring the ethnic make up of the city.
While the NYPD’s native Irish contingent is certainly less than it was in the 1800s, O’Donnell said, there is a continuing tradition of new Irish immigrants joining the force. Many who arrived in the 1980s still saw the force as a strong opportunity with a clear career path and definite earnings. Those who signed up in the 1980s may have seen the pension after 20 years as an opportunity to retire back in Ireland, he said. That may have changed with the explosion of the Irish economy in the early 1990s.
For Waters that stability was one deciding factor. After traveling many times to the U.S. for vacations, the 33-year-old Dubliner decided to make it a permanent home. After seven years working as a bartender, he took the NYPD entry test.
"Pretty much I always had it in my mind to be a New York City cop, to be a cop period. My family were cops," he said.
"You have to recommend this job to everyone off the boat. There has to be a interest. I love what I do and coming to work every day. It’s what I want."
That career path has taken Waters from a beat cop into the Manhattan pickpocket squad, sweeping the crowds for light-fingered felons preying on tourists and then in the last nine months into narcotics division.
For Eddie Hayes, a Limerick native, the step seemed a logical progression. Hayes, a native of rural Croom, joined the NYPD after a stint in the U.S. Navy. Police work seemed like a logical progression.
"One day I thought about it and then went and did it," he said.
Hayes, who’s 32, works on a bike patrol team riding through the housing developments in upper Manhattan. It’s a lot of street-level encounters.
"I would hate to go into something where I had to do the same thing every day," Hayes said. "With this you deal with a different situation every day. You see something new every day. You never know what you’re going into.
"You have to look at the humorous side of it. If you go into work every day and think about the serious side of it, you’d never last."
Both men commented on the sense of fraternity among the Irish Americans and the new arrivals. The department’s Emerald Society is a thriving body, with regular meetings, trips and scholarships for children of police officers.
"When I first left the academy, my first sergeant, O’Leary, he pretty much took me under his wing and showed me the job. It wasn’t favoritism or anything like that, but just one of his own," Waters said.
Mark MacDonnell, a patrol cop with the Midtown North precinct, was only 12 when his parents decided to emigrate from Dublin to Bainbridge. Growing up in the Bronx neighborhood he saw a few "friends go the wrong way" through drugs, and that become one of his motivations for entering law enforcement.
MacDonnell, 25, got his associate’s degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and joined up. While he was drawn to the DEA for its anti-drug initiatives, MacDonnell choose the NYPD partly because of an opportunity to work in narcotics while upholding the tradition of the Irish officer.
With his partner, a Belfast native, MacDonnell patrols the streets between 45th and 59th in Manhattan’s a densely populated midsection.
"You see a different side to life," he said. "One minute you’re helping the vice president of a bank the next you’re helping someone’s kid whose overdosed on drugs. People don’t call cops to say hello, they call when they’re in trouble or they have bad news."
Working in a patrol car with another Irishman gives plenty of humorous ammunition for his fellow officers at the midtown precinct. References are often to made to the gardai coming in for a meal or to their patrol car as the IA, Irish Auto.
Older residents who hear the accent still comment on the Irish cops they knew back when the brogue was much more common.
"I didn’t think when I was 12 years old in Dublin that one day I’d be driving a police car in Times Square listening to 90.7 and the Irish music on the radio," MacDonnell said.