A Dark Corner Prompts A Fateful Gamble

Nicolás Medina Mora Pérez PhotoIt was 1 in the morning, and Officer Martin Feliciano was running as fast as he could through Farnam Courts’ labyrinth of alleyways.

The man he was chasing turned a corner. Feliciano had seconds to think. Should he stop and risk losing the suspect? Or go ahead and risk finding a gun in his face?

He went for it. Minutes later, the suspect was on the ground—and Feliciano (at right in above photo) had in his hand a Magnum .44 with a 10-inch barrel.

For someone not used to chases in the dark, that moment could have proved terrifying. For Feliciano and his partner Lou DeCrescenzo (at left in photo), it was just another night on the job.

Paying For The Holidays

The moment came early this Tuesday.

The night had begun uneventfully. After finishing their Fair Haven walking beat, the cops were doing overtime at Farnam Courts, the isolated and crime-ridden housing project by I-91 which the housing authority has scheduled for demolition. The police are trying to post walking cops on duty there nightly.

Feliciano had just come back from a two-week holiday with his family, which he spent horseback riding and eating well. He welcomed the opportunity to make some extra money on the beat Monday night.

“I have a lot of debt now!” Feliciano said with a laugh. “I need to pay back all the bills for what I spent over two weeks. So when I got a call from the Sgt. nthony Zona, Fair Haven’s top cop] asking me if I wanted to work Farnam Courts, I said sure.”

It was around 12:50 a.m. Feliciano and DeCrescenzo were driving around Grand Avenue when they saw a Honda heading north on Hamilton Street, in Farnam Courts.

Something about the car looked off. It was heading towards a dead end. With the lights off. At high speed. It screamed “suspicious.” So the cops decided to stop it.

It turned out that the driver did have something to hide—a half ounce of marijuana. The officers wrote him an infraction ticket and let him go.

Then the night got interesting.

The officers were driving back towards Grand Avenue when they saw two men they hadn’t seen before. Someone else might not have given it a second thought. DeCrescenzo and Feliciano have been trained to pay attention to the slightest anomalies.

Policing a housing project is not easy, the cops explained. You need to become familiar with the community, sort out the people who live there from those who may have other, darker business in the complex. It’s a matter of instinct, they said, a kind of sixth sense.

The cops’ instincts proved right. As soon as they parked by the strangers, one of the men panicked.

“He went all deer in the head lights,” said Feliciano. “He opened his eyes real wide. So we got out of the car, and then he grabbed his waistband and started running.”

All of the sudden the situation had become dangerous.

“The last thing you want anybody to do is grab their waistband,” DeCrescenzo said.

That 90-Degree Blind Spot

The officers knew exactly what to do—which served them well, because there wasn’t any time to think. Since Feliciano’s door was closer to the sidewalk. He became “the lead.”

“The lead is the first guy who gets out of the car, and he just runs,” DeCrescenzo explained. “He doesn’t stop for anything. So my job was to get on the radio and notify dispatching and everyone else where we were, where we were going, and who we were chasing.”

While his partner stayed behind asking for backup, Feliciano followed the suspect into the concrete maze that is Farnam Courts. They ran through courtyard after courtyard, crossing basketball courts, down alleyways and into backyards. The yellow light of the street lamps made every shadow fall sharply.

Then came the nightmare of any cop involved in a foot chase: a 90-degree turn around a corner.

A corner creates a blind spot in the officer’s field of vision. If there’s enough space between him and the suspect, that gives the latter a moment to catch a breath, a place to take cover, and—most dangerously—the element of surprise.

“If you cut a corner and he’s way ahead of you, it’s a risky issue, ‘cause you don’t know if he’s holding the gun,” said Feliciano. “The closer you are during the foot chase, the better.”

How do you know if you are close enough? Training and experience can help, sure, but in the end the decision is a gamble made in a fraction of a second.

Feliciano made his mental coin flip—and decided to follow the suspect.

Yet again his instinct proved right. The man crossed a small door into one of the side courtyards. He fell face-first on the concrete floor, with Feliciano’s weight holding him down.

An Eternal Minute

By then, DeCrescenzo had caught up with his partner. Feliciano was struggling to subdue the suspect, who just wouldn’t give his hands.

“He fell down face first. He had his hand inside his waistband,” Feliciano said. “So I didn’t know if he was going to pull out the gun or whatever it is. Then is when you need to use a little bit of force to make him comply.”

When the cops finally managed to subdue the suspect, they pulled a gun from his waistband. No surprises there. Except that it wasn’t the nine millimeters they were expecting. It was a Magnum .44—a gun powerful enough to shoot and kill a polar bear or even an elephant.

The cops laid the gun on the grass, a long metal snake, and began documenting the scene with photographs.

Then they looked up and noticed 30 pairs of less-than-friendly eyes staring right at them.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” Feliciano said of the crowd. “Anything could go wrong. There might be one gun; there might be several guns. They are either going to come and try to take the arrestee from you, or they’re going to try to hurt you. So at that point we requested backup.”

The situation grew tense. The seconds grew longer. The crowd kept coming closer to the officers, yelling at them, threatening and insulting, according to Feliciano and DeCrecenzo.

Then, finally, came a welcome sound—a police siren. The first unit of backup arrived.

Less than a minute had gone by. It felt like an eternity.

“It was only one minute, but one minute in that kind of high stress feels like forever,” said Feliciano.

The mix of fear of and hostility to the cops that exists in the projects was out in the open Wednesday afternoon. As they returned to the housing complex to recreate the events of two evenings earlier, they were received with yells from the residents.

“Run!” somebody yelled in the next court as the officers stepped forward. “Cops!”

The Glory Of A Magnum—& The Homeward Imperative

Feliciano and DeCrescenzo took the arrested man into custody, and left the housing complex unharmed. The arrestee, who was born in 1981, faces seven felony and misdemeanor charges. He has previously been convicted five times on narcotics and assault and interfering charges since 2003, according to the state’s judicial website.

“He thought he was Dirty Harry,” Sgt. Zona said of the suspect. “He ran into the wrong cops.”

The officers called Monday night/Tuesday morning a good shift—a night that brought them “glory.” Not every cop gets to take a Magnum off the streets every week.

“Me and Martin, we are in for the drugs and the guns,” said DeCrescenzo. “It is the little things that help the community, but what gives us the most satisfaction is the big stuff.”

Feliciano and DeCrescenzo have had their share of “glory.” Among many achievements in their respective four and three years in the force, the pair has snatched a Mac 11 sub-machine-gun from the hands of a gangster. Feliciano also participated in the largest federal sweep in Connecticut’s history, Operation Bloodline.

Feliciano is not easily intimidated. He cut his policing teeth in the mean streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he served for three years. If you thought New Haven has a lot of crime, he said, you clearly have never been an officer in the island.

“People there just don’t give a shit,” said Feliciano.

Yet the awareness of danger never goes away. With every point they score against the Dwight-Kensington walking beat team, with whom they have a friendly rivalry, the Fair Haven cops put their lives on the line. In the end, coming home is more important than the glory.

“I personally know that there’s big guns in the housing complex,” said Feliciano, his face turning suddenly serious. “Whomever is reaching into his waistband or his pockets—it doesn’t matter. I’m going home at the end of the night, no matter what.”

Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:

Shafiq Abdussabur
Craig Alston & Billy White Jr.
James Baker
Lloyd Barrett
Maneet Bhagtana
Sheree Biros
Paul Bicki
Scott Branfuhr
Dennis Burgh
Rob Clark & Joe Roberts
Sydney Collier
Carlos Conceicao and Josh Kyle
David Coppola
Roy Davis
Joe Dease
Milton DeJesus
Brian Donnelly
Anthony Duff
Robert DuPont
Bertram Etienne
Paul Finch
Jeffrey Fletcher
Renee Forte
Marco Francia
William Gargone
William Gargone & Mike Torre
Derek Gartner
Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
Dan Hartnett
Ray Hassett
Robert Hayden
Robin Higgins
Ronnell Higgins
William Hurley & Eddie Morrone
Racheal Inconiglios
Juan Ingles
Paul Kenney
Hilda Kilpatrick
Herb Johnson
John Kaczor & Alex Morgillo
Peter Krause
Peter Krause (2)
Amanda Leyda
Rob Levy
Anthony Maio
Steve McMorris
Juan Monzon
Chris Perrone
Ron Perry
Joe Pettola
Diego Quintero and Elvin Rivera
Stephanie Redding
Tony Reyes
David Rivera
Luis & David Rivera
Luis Rivera (2)
Salvador Rodriguez
Brett Runlett
David Runlett
Marcus Tavares
Martin Tchakirides
Stephan Torquati
Gene Trotman Jr.
Kelly Turner
Lars Vallin (& Xander)
John Velleca
Holly Wasilewski
Alan Wenk
Stephanija VanWilgen
Michael Wuchek
David Zannelli
David Zaweski

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posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on July 7, 2012  11:26am

Thank You for the introduction to theses officers. God Bless them and keep them safe for their families, the public that needs them, their bravery, strength, and commitment to take the guns off the street. All Officers should be like them, but sadly they are very special,not every police officer can step up to the plate and get a hit every time. They have empathy for people that live in New Haven. I repeat God Bless them.

Hamilton Street Projects have been a gang hideout for 30 years now with over 40 murders and hundreds of shooting, and gun events.

The sad part is the non-criminal residents are largest majority, by around 99 %, yet they still have fear of retaliation by gang members and their family members for speaking to the police, or even worse coming forward publicly to use law enforcement to make their homes safe. It is very sad.

posted by: Dean Moriarty on July 9, 2012  12:40am

JATP, you’re absolutely right.  What the solution may be, I’m afraid I don’t know.  The current climate is to videotape/blame officers for harassment and civil rights violations.  The recent downtown case is a prime indicator of how bad things have become.  I wonder though, what would be the consequences if the NHPD weren’t here to safeguard the suburbanites that like to come to New Haven to party.  For some reason I don’t think that’s something they understand.

posted by: Pardini on July 10, 2012  12:30pm

After reading the activity of Officers DeCresenzo and Feliciano I am filled with pride and respect for our city police.I know every shift does not result in a felony arrest,especially one that is self initiated.I was disappointed but not surprised to read some people were not supportive of the brave and positive activity on their behalf by these officers. What function of society can succeed without the support of its citizens.Time will cause such valiant efforts to be diminished by continued lack of respect from those who are served. Awards from community/Police help but day to day appreciation is warranted and needed. Thank you Officers DeCresenzo and Feliciano for your dedication to our community.