Two weeks ago, Manchester police brass held a news conference to announce the arrests of some 30 people, people described by Police Chief David Mara as street-level dealers of heroin and other narcotics.
Mara was flanked by his own top officers, an FBI agent and the Hillsborough County sheriff, all an effort to show that police are taking the scourge of cheap heroin seriously. The roundup even had a name — Operation Clean Sweep.
Three things were missing:
• Drugs. The heroin seized in the bust amounted to about 60 grams, about 2 ounces, far too small an amount to spread out on a table for cameras. The street value — about $6,000.
• Kingpins. Many of those arrested had previous records involving small amounts of drugs; Mara said many were likely users. The following day, a judge reduced the bail for several. One said he was starting a job. Another had a baby on the way.
• Stephen Coco. The fired detective, who spent most of his 17-year career as an undercover narcotics cop, never showed up at news conferences about drug busts. His name wasn't included in news releases when police announced major drug busts and federal indictments.
His absence this time, however, was real. If former busts were media splashes, the one two weeks ago was a kerplunk, a pebble whose ripple will be an annoyance at best in the city's drug trade.
By now, we've all seen Coco's face when he shows up at court hearings about his hit-and-run accident last year, when he took off after hitting two teenagers in Bedford. His eyes dart about like a doe during hunting season; his once-beefy cop body is lost in a loose-fitting suit.
His career is already over; as will his freedom probably be. The career is what I take note of.
In 2009, Coco received two FBI director awards. One was for his work to break up Bloods gang members who were selling drugs and getting high while using guns and home invasions to enforce their enterprise.
The other was the Easter Sunday 2009 arrest of a Mexican drug operation, where members sold cocaine by the pound and exchanged six-figure cash payments in duffel bags. Also, New England narcotic officers recognized his work in arresting a high-level heroin dealer in Manchester, and his work in solving the 2007 homicide of Aaron Kar.
"He was fantastic undercover," said New Hampshire State Police Lt. John Encarnacao, who worked alongside Coco in the multi-agency efforts that are the staple of police drug investigations. "He knew the talk. He was sincere. He was able to come across and make a connection with people."
Coco's undercover cop work was different from that of Hollywood cops. One of the biggest challenges to a narcotics cop is to keep up the nerve of the confidential informant — the low-level dealer who's working with police to avoid a big sentence, Encarnacao said.
The biggest danger isn't when the identity of the undercover cop gets blown. What's most frightening is when his cover is working, Encarnacao said. Robbery, assault — even murder — are enticing when bad guys handle kilos of white powder and duffel bags crammed with twenties and fifties.
"It's a criminal world we're dealing with. That can be dangerous in and of itself," Encarnacao said. He noted that the murder of Greenland Police Chief Michael Maloney took place at the conclusion of an undercover drug operation.
"It's not like putting a uniform on," said Steven Maloney, the president of the Manchester police union. The uniform gives an officer some degree of recognition and safety.
"It's a job I couldn't do," Maloney said. "It's dangerous, hard work, and tough on the family."
An undercover cop doesn't go to a bar after work and banter with cop buddies. He can't tell his children what he does for work. He doesn't shop at the supermarket with his family, in case he bumps into a drug dealer who knows him. He may go to his son's hockey game, but in his uniform of the scruffy, drug-dealer.
The fact that Coco was promoted to sergeant in September 2012 meant he had done a good job, Maloney said. Furthermore, Coco was staying on the narcotics unit as an administrator, another sign of his value to the force, Maloney said. (Most police officers bounce to a different unit and a different shift after promotion.)
While Encarnacao and Maloney said the loss of Coco is a setback, they said police will still be able to work up the ladder and go after traffickers and kingpins.
"I can assure you there's still big investigations going on," Maloney said. "It's not like all we can do is street level."
Through his spokesman, Mara wouldn't comment for this article. A Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI, which could shed more light on Coco's awards, is pending.
I don't write this to hit the high notes for Coco on a violin of sympathy. There are certainly aspects of the Coco saga that sour everyone — the plea bargain that got torpedoed, the parsing of words by his lawyer, his excuse that he was distracted by a cell phone.
He has drawn the scorn of bloggers, media types and all self-appointed judges whose verdicts come with a few clicks of a computer keyboard. Many would add extra time just because of the uniform (or non-uniform) that he wore.
No doubt Coco committed a crime. And no doubt this state no longer gives quiet slaps on the hand to errant cops. Yet, Manchester police has lost a good one, and few people find comfort in that.
"I'm sure he will pay for it; he's paying for it right now," Encarnacao said. "That doesn't diminish the good things he has done."