_________________________________________________________________ NYC UPDATE: DOWNTOWN DRUG WAR ESCALATES AGAIN

By Paul DeRienzo
Published March 1996 in `High Times' Vol. 247


Manhattan's Lower East Side was jolted by two drug-related shootings within 48 hours that left two dead and a police officer paralyzed on the same block. Police say the men were both shot by officers when they fired at police attempting to arrest them.

But neighbors and family of those killed, Vincent Curto and Abe Richardson, don't accept the cops' version of the events.

On October 10, Officer Keith Prunty was shot just before midnight by robbery suspect Curto in a grocery store on East Third Street near Avenue C -- a block long at the center of a thriving drug trade fueled by the proximity of a highway and numerous bridges and tunnels that funnel heroin-chic suburbanites to the mean streets of lower Manhattan (see "Cop Murdered in New York Pot Bust," HT Aug. 1993). Police first reported the incident as stemming from a robbery with no drugs involved, but later said that 50 bags of "Knockout" brand heroin were found at the scene. Curto had no police record, and his friends and family insist he was not involved with drugs.

Prunty was flagged down in his patrol car by a man who said the bodega, a well-known drug location, was being robbed. Prunty called for backup, entered the store and handcuffed a suspect. Just as the backup arrived, a gunman -- allegedly Curto -- emerged from the store's backroom. The backup officers opened fire, killing local resident Curto, 33. Prunty was hit twice in the side, penetrating his bullet-proof vest. All the shots came from the officers' guns. Another gun recovered at the scene had not been fired. More than 30 bullets were discharged in the incident, adding to the local controversy over the NYPD's new hair-trigger semi-automatic 9mm. pistols that hold up to 15 bullets, compared to the slower-firing traditional six-shot revolvers now being phased out.

The new weapons were approved by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's get-tough police commissioner, William Bratton, whose crackdown on "quality-of-life" offenses has led to a dramatic increase in arrests for small-scale street drug possession, panhandling and drinking. (Currently the NYPD Commissioner is former DEA agent Howard Safir who is carrying out the same policies as Bratton). The campaign has sparked an escalation of prison overcrowding and police-misconduct complaints.

The second incident occurred at the other end of the same block two days later. Police were carrying out a "buy-and-bust" operation, and say Abe Richardon, 22, was one of the dealers. Witnesses, however, claim he was watching from across the street. Police say Richardson fled, and during the chase fired a round at the cops. The chase ended in a hail of police gunfire just feet away from the housing project where Richardson lives.

Witnesses agree that Richardson fired at the police, but claim that he was on bicycle and fired in the air to scare the police.

Police fired at least 50 shots, and witnesses say they continued to fire after Richardson had fallen wounded from the bike. At a protest organized by Richardson's friends and family, New York high-profile activist Rev. Al Sharpton said, "When cops run through a neighborhood and let loose 50 shots, its not good police work -- it's urban terrorism."

Immediately after the shooting, hundreds of angry residents gathered, and riot police and helicopters were called in -- as they had been a few months earlier when the NYPD evicted squatters just a few blocks away. Several arrests ensued.