In the pitch-black darkness, Derek Gartner turned down his police radio. He stood silently still, kept his eyes on the adjoining yards. He was betting that the fleeing suspect would return. And he was betting that the man had a gun.
Gartner (pictured) bet right on both counts. By the night’s end, the police had in handcuffs a 19-year-old man wanted on six different warrants. And they had an illegal 9mm revolver taken off New Haven’s streets.
Gartner built on a record of sorts with his backyard nab that night. It was at least the tenth illegal gun he’d recovered in three months.
A cop who snags fewer than half that many in a year is considered to be on a hot streak.
“You’ve got cops that are great with motor vehicle enforcement. You’ve got cops that seize guns and drugs. He’s a guns and drugs guy,” said Gartner’s supervisor, Fair Haven District Manager Lt. Luiz Casanova. “If I had a couple more like him, we’d be the safest district in the city.”
“In my 15 years here I’ve never see so many gun arrests from one cop. He can smell them out,” observed another district manager, East Shore’s Lt. Jeff Hoffman.
In an interview, Gartner talked about how his “hot streak” came together. In some cases it entailed spotting “nonverbal cues” like shaking hands or stuttering. In others cases, it took cobbling together a plan or picking up a tip from a street informant.
In all cases, Gartner said, “You’ve got to put your body on the line.” He came up with that motto recently after slipping and falling while chasing a suspect. He did capture the man, and confiscated drugs.
Among Gartner’s friends on the force, the motto stuck.
He ended up putting his body on the line during that backyard stakeout. The evening ended in the hospital.
It began around 8 p.m. on a recent Monday. Gartner, who’s 25, usually patrols Fair Haven on the 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift. That evening he was assigned to cruise Newhallville with another officer, Pedro Colon.
Gartner was in the passenger seat when he spotted a 19-year-old man walking by the corner of Newhall and Ivy streets.
“He was looking over his shoulder, really nervous, holding something in his waistband,” Gartner recalled. The man spotted the cops; he ran into a yard.
Gartner hopped out of the car and ran after him. Colon drove around the corner to try to meet up with them on the other side.
They lost sight of the suspect; he never emerged from the block. Maybe he went into a house? Maybe he was hiding in a yard?
Gartner had an idea. He slipped into the first backyard where the chase began. He found a spot behind a tree, by the back porch. It was enveloped in darkness; it offered a sight line into three different yards.
Colon drove several blocks away to ditch the car. Then he slipped back into the yard to meet up with Gartner.
Radios turned down, they remained motionless.
“Not even ten minutes later we heard a chain-link fence” rattle, Gartner said. The suspect jumped over the fence into the yard. He ran toward the street.
“Stop! Police!” Gartner yelled from 15 feet away, as he ran after him.
The suspect tossed the silver 9 mm revolver to the ground then jumped another fence. Gartner jumped it too. The suspect slipped; Gartner caught up and tackled him.
“The fight was on. He started swinging his arms” and kicking, Gartner said.
According to versions Gartner and Colon later wrote in police reports, the man fought hard. The two cops had him on the ground, but couldn’t get control of his hands. When the suspect slipped his hands in his clothing, and Gartner thought he might have a second gun, Gartner pulled out his Taser X26—only to have the man grab it before he could use it. When Gartner put the Taser away, the man punched Colon in the face. The man kept swinging his arms; he tried to “head butt” Gartner. Colon got his arms around the suspect; Gartner tried to grab his hands. The suspect then “lunged his neck and head forward and bit the rear tricep” of Gartner’s arm. At one point a woman ran onto the scene and jumped on Gartner’s back.
“Get ‘em mama!” the suspect allegedly told her; the police got her to leave.
Gartner drew the Taser X26 again and fired two five-second blasts at the suspect’s body. Colon finally got the man in handcuffs.
He had the suspect under control; still, Gartner said, the man bit him on the right bicep. He bit hard enough to cut through Gartner’s clothes—and through his skin.
Back-up officers arrived. Even in handcuffs, the man “was still trying to get away,” Gartner said. A later look at his record offered a possible explanation: he had six outstanding warrants.
Meanwhile, Gartner went to the Hospital of St. Raphael, where he had his wound cleaned and he received a tetanus shot. The next morning, he said, he awoke to find his “hamstring killing me”; he ended up missing a week of work.
Another foot chase on a Monday night a month earlier ended without a body blow.
That incident began with a tip from a confidential informant Gartner ran into in Fair Haven. The man told Gartner about someone who was supposedly carrying an illegal weapon at Humphrey’s East. He described the man’s car.
Gartner was patrolling that night with Officer Michael DeFonzo. He worked with DeFonzo for a few months, making the gun busts together, while Gartner’s regular partner Krzysztof Rusczyk, was out injured.
Gartner and DeFonzo found the car outside Humphrey’s. They waited for the bar to close at 1 a.m. Two men came out to the car. The cops followed, then pulled them over at Grand and Hamilton.
Gartner concluded he didn’t have cause to stop the car on the basis of the tip. Instead, he stopped it because it had illegal tinted windows. In such cases, he then looks “to see what the reactions of the driver and the passenger are.”
The passenger reacted by immediately hopping out of the car. He threw a purple button-up Champions winter jacket on the ground. Then he ran west on Grand.
Gartner, who played basketball and baseball at Our Lady of Lourdes High School in his hometown of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., managed to keep up with him. “I think he ran out of gas.” He handcuffed the man. At the original scene, cops found a 9mm Glock on the passenger side floor of the car and a .32 Keltec automatic wrapped inside the discarded Champions jacket, not to mention drugs and thousands of dollars in cash.
Not A Gun Hobbyist
Until he became a New Haven cop, Gartner didn’t know a whole lot about guns. The son of a (now) retired IBM engineer and a senior-center activities coordinator, he grew up more interesting in shooting baskets than in shooting bullets. “My mom was very against guns when I was growing up. She didn’t like them.”
Gartner learned his way around a weapon in the New Haven police academy. He’s learning a lot more about them these days as he pulls guns off the street—not just about Keltecs and Glocks, but about Loricin .25 automatics and Hi-Point 9mm semiautomatics (from this early February bust) as well. One recent snag produced a “black powder revolver,” he said. “You actually have to load it with black powder, like in the old days.”
With so many illegal guns on the street, does Gartner feel he’s making a difference removing ten, even in such a short time?
Removing one illicit weapon from a felon makes a difference, he said.
“He’s got the gun for a reason,” Gartner reasoned. “There’s no better satisfaction than when you go home and say, ‘I got a gun off the street.’ That’s one less guy that can shoot someone he has an altercation with, or an officer.”
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• Maneet Bhagtana
• Scott Branfuhr
• Dennis Burgh
• Sydney Collier
• David Coppola
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Bertram Etienne
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
• Dan Hartnett
• Ray Hassett
• Robin Higgins
• Ronnell Higgins
• Racheal Inconiglios
• Hilda Kilpatrick
• Amanda Leyda
• Anthony Maio
• Steve McMorris
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• Luis & David Rivera
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• Stephan Torquati
• Gene Trotman Jr.
• Kelly Turner
• John Velleca
• Alan Wenk
• Michael Wuchek
• David Zannelli
• David Zaweski
(To suggest an officer to be featured, contact us here.)