by Steven Sarao
We sat on the rooftop for hours, watching a group of Bronx drug dealers on a building stoop known for heavy drug sales. Plaguing the community, our assignment at 0400 hours was to eliminate such illegal activity as part of a New York City Police Department (NYPD) SNEU team, an acronym for the Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit.
We watched as buyers walked up to young men in front of the building and complete what was known as a “hand-to-hand” drug transaction. From my unobstructed view, money clearly passed to the dealer. I transmitted over the radio, “One buyer, in front of location, male, blue jeans, approximately twenty-five years of age, thin build, red baseball hat, and white sneakers.”
My partner, a more experienced officer named Joseph Lemm, serious and forever silent, spoke up and transmitted over the radio, “Disregard the last transmission guys.” Joe looked at me sternly, “Shut up and watch—get off the damn radio, rookie.”
I have to admit, this made me angry. At this point in my career, I felt like an experienced police officer. I had made numerous arrests, including many for narcotics, while on patrol. I was new to the team, but this was a prestigious next step in the career ladder, and I was willing to work hard, listen to senior team members, and learn the craft of street-level narcotics investigations.
The reality was I knew very little and just couldn’t keep my big mouth shut, trying to convince Lemm, “Look, the guy is walking up to the dealer and giving him money, what’s the problem?” Joe just shook his head at me, “Look at the big picture, guy.” Joe’s gaze went back to his binoculars.
I will be honest, Joe didn’t appear to me as the sharpest tool in the shed, and after I got to know him, we would often joke within our team about his simple country bumpkin ways. Jokes ran deep among our team and members were required to have thick alligator skins. But make no mistake, Joe Lemm was one of the best cops that I would ever work with—consistent, hardworking, and willing to do anything to help both cop and community.
A Nebraska Huskers native, Joe was big, brawny, and the guy you wanted backing you up when you needed help. Try to act like a smart know-it-all and Joe was all over you, with a tough resilience earned by street know-how built from years of active police service.
Joe understood police work from grinding it out day after day, watching, observing and making solid, successful arrests. No short-cuts; just hard, tedious work. I would later learn that Joe had learned his investigative craft from some of the best street narcotics cops in the Bronx, including John “Skippy” McCrossen and Tommy Bracken. For Joe, he was merely paying it forward. Tonight—and on many other occasions—I would benefit, as would many other officers from the 48th Precinct.
Just then I saw it. It was if my eyes opened just a little bit more to let some Beemer, Nebraska, sunlight in. The man that I saw earlier walk to the dealer and hand him money was now on the other side of the building, near what appeared to be a side window on the first floor of the apartment building.
The dealer’s hand appeared from the window and dropped a small pink Ziploc bag to our guy with the red baseball cap. “Holy shit, Joe, that’s it, red baseball hat has the drugs.” Joe began to laugh, a quiet, mocking laugh, “Now you see it, right, tough guy, now you have a complete transaction before you had just the money, half of the transaction, which equals absolutely nothing. Now you have something, college boy. Open those NYU eyes and learn—see the big picture.” Joe had this huge smile from ear to ear; his lesson to me for the tour of duty was complete, from the wise mentor to the rookie cop, our classroom a Bronx rooftop.
Joe put it over the radio and had our catch car pick up the buyer about three blocks away. We were able to keep the man in our sights until the team scooped him up. We responded and made a confirmatory identification. The drugs were recovered exactly from the right front pocket that we had observed the buyer place them in. The pink Ziploc bag of crack cocaine was recovered, and the buyer even spoke to Joe, indicating that he had purchased the drugs.
Even among those arrested, Joe offered a welcoming smile and later a sandwich from the local deli, some cheese doodles, and a cold Pepsi from the 48th Precinct vending machine. The drug dealer that night was ultimately arrested and prosecuted. The community was just a bit safer, thanks to Lemm.
My story isn’t unique; many cops from the 48th Precinct have similar stories. Stories of laughter and learning. Stories of early mistakes and studied success, all of them from Detective Joe Lemm.
Joe moved to New York City from Beemer, Nebraska, to join the NYPD, a small-town boy who wanted to serve and became another example of the NYPD’s deep diversity among its members. He was a kind soul, willing to give of himself, offering a Clark Kent smile to brighten your day. I suspect that was part of what nudged Joe to serve our country in multiple overseas tours. Lemm doubled down on service to his country, offering a dual commitment in both law enforcement and military service.
Those officers deserve twice our countries gratitude. Lemm was mostly silent as we drove through the early morning streets of the Bronx, the sun barely awake. Silent because he was looking and watching, observing nuance, ready to spring to action.
As I have advanced in my career, I continue to remember Joe Lemm, whose lesson that night on a Bronx rooftop has kept me both humble and mindful. Things are not always what they seem. The answers to our community’s problems aren’t always right in front of us, and as police officers, we owe it to our profession and those we serve to give it a second look, a more thorough and watchful eye.
Saying thank you to Detective Joseph Lemm isn’t enough. Not for his colleagues, and certainly not for the country he served. For those that knew him, it is all that we can muster, it’s all any of us can reveal, amidst the pain, the shock, and utter disbelief over his unfortunate death. For me, Detective Lemm will always remain a mentor and hero, who on one cold early morning gave me a gift—the gift of humility—and a valued lesson in what it truly means to be a member of the NYPD.
Rest in Peace, Joe. You were more of a cop and public servant than many of us will ever be.
Steven Sarao is currently a Lieutenant for the New York City Police Department assigned to The Office of Management Analysis and Planning (OMAP), a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School, and a 2014 recipient of the New York City Public Service Fellowship.