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Polluters, Beware: These Eco-Police Officers Are for Real

The woman at the desk of A & L Collision, an auto repair shop in Brooklyn, eyed Officer Neil R. Stevens suspiciously.

Librado Romero/The New York Times
Officer Neil R. Stevens investigated an oil spill at a traffic accident in the Bronx.
“You’re not from here,’” she said.

“Yes I am,” Officer Stevens replied.

“You dress differently,” she insisted.

She had a point. Officer Stevens’s uniform is olive green, not blue, and he wears a Stetson hat that gives him a friendly Smokey Bear look. But drivers of smoke-bellowing trucks, owners of oil-oozing body shops, vendors of undersize fish and other city dwellers underestimate him at their peril.

As a member of a small force of police officers whose sole focus is enforcing environmental laws, Officer Stevens carries a gun and handcuffs and can haul a suspect off to jail. These environmental conservation officers number barely 20 in New York City, out of about 300 around the state, but issue about 2,000 summonses for violations and criminal charges annually.

And while Officer Stevens, a self-described farm boy from upstate New York who is and looks 24, can be a nice guy, his patience has its limits.

Investigating a neighbor’s complaint, he had come looking for the owner of A & L Collision twice before to get an explanation for the wrecked cars on the sidewalk discharging oil, antifreeze and other noxious substances. When the officer was told that the owner was on the road and unreachable by cellphone — again — he asked for the manager’s driver’s license and wrote the shop a ticket for a misdemeanor. Within minutes, the owner, Victor Debiasi, materialized to apologize profusely and promise that “all this stuff will be out of here today.” The summons stayed written.

Created in 1880, when they were known as “game protectors” and watched over game and fish, these eco-police officers are now part of the State Department of Environmental Conservation and have become more prominent in recent years as public consciousness about the role of pollution in global warming has grown. They now answer complaints and respond to dispatchers’ calls in addition to carrying out spot inspections and longer investigations.

Over two shifts this month, Officer Stevens responded to incidents ranging from fuel spilled from a tanker truck involved in a traffic accident in the Bronx to a store’s refusal to redeem the deposit on cans and bottles.

Violations of the bottle bill, as it turns out, are the most common complaint the officers deal with in the city, said Maj. Timothy Duffy of the environmental police force, who oversees New York City. Over all, he said, environmental complaints in the city almost tripled in 2007 — to 621 a year from 226 in 2006 — and criminal summonses more than doubled, from 993 to more than 2,000.

The numbers stayed high last year, with more than 1,700 summonses and 600 complaints, the major said.

Officer Stevens, who grew up working on his family’s dairy farm in Cayuga County in central New York and graduated from Cornell with a degree in natural resource conservation, said he was drawn to the job because he liked the outdoors. But in New York, the outdoors means not only traditional conservation work like cracking down on illegal trade in fish and wildlife but also things like pulling over trucks that spew smoke in low-income neighborhoods with high asthma rates. It also involves making sure that New Yorkers are able to redeem those empty bottles and cans for a nickel apiece.

So on a Monday morning, another environmental officer, Matthew Baker, 25, dressed in jeans and baseball cap, walked into a Pathmark supermarket in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn with a plastic bag filled with empty cans. When he found the return machines for recyclables locked and was turned away by a store employee, an officer in uniform, Gregory Maneeley, walked in and handed the store manager a summons.

Adina Kornegay, 65, a restaurant hostess, sounded surprised and appreciative when Officer Stevens, who had joined the other officers that morning, called her to tell her that an “enforcement action” had taken place at the Pathmark.

She had called 311, the city’s help line, because she had repeatedly found the machines locked, she said in an interview. And the last time she visited the store, employees were “very rude,” she added.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t think someone would look into the problem,” she said.

The store manager declined to comment.

Yet many interactions between Officer Stevens and ordinary New Yorkers are less pleasant.

Robert Thompson was not at all happy when he was stopped the next day because of blue smoke emitted by his flatbed truck as he drove along McGuinnes Boulevard in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

“Blue smoke?” he asked, looking dumbfounded as he was handed a summons.

“Just make sure the violation is corrected when you come to court,” Officer Stevens told him.

Mr. Thompson looked at the officer as if he should be elsewhere, stomping out campfires
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