Death, Distrust, and Too Few Officers

This 94-year-old Bronx resident was a victim of robbery on Christmas Eve. NYPD Officers Roman & Baez-Veras visited her on her birthday and brought her a cake. Despite efforts like this by police, violence in the borough continues to climb.

Ed. Note: Attention, all you policy wonks. This article from The New York Times is long but worth the read. The reporters spent months interviewing people for their story about some neighborhoods in the South Bronx that continue to suffer with high rates of violent crime, unlike the rest of the city, which is experiencing the lowest crime rates in decades. I have excerpted a good portion of it here, without all the terrific pictures. For the full article, be sure to click the “Read More” link. – Cynthia Brown

Rift Between Officers and Residents as Killings Persis in South Bronx

 

by Benjamin & Al Baker
The New York Times
December 31, 2016

 

After the bullet shells get counted, the blood dries and the votive candles burn out, people peer down from housing-project windows and see crime scenes gone cold: a band of yellow police tape blowing in the breeze.

 

The South Bronx, just across the Harlem River from Manhattan and once shorthand for urban dysfunction, still suffers violence at levels long ago slashed in many other parts of New York City. And yet the city’s efforts to fight it remain splintered, underfunded and burdened by scandal.

 

In the 40th Precinct, at the southern tip of the Bronx, as in other poor, minority neighborhoods across the country, people long hounded for small-time infractions are crying out for more protection against grievous injury or death. By September, four of every five shootings in the precinct this year were unsolved.

 

Out of the city’s 77 precincts, the 40th has the highest murder rate but the fewest detectives per violent crime, reflecting disparities in staffing that hit hardest in some neighborhoods outside Manhattan, according to a New York Times analysis of Police Department data. Investigators in the precinct are saddled with twice the number of cases the department recommends, even as their bosses are called to Police Headquarters to answer for the sharpest crime rise in the city this year. Continue reading the main story Murder in the 4-0 An examination of the life and death of each person murdered in 2016 in the 40th Precinct in the South Bronx.

 

And across the Bronx, investigative resources are squeezed. It has the highest violent-crime rate of the city’s five boroughs but the thinnest detective staffing. Nine of the 14 lowest-staffed precinct detective squads for violent crime in the city are there. The borough’s robbery squad is smaller than Manhattan’s, even though the Bronx has had 1,300 more cases this year. And its homicide squad has one detective for every four murders, compared with one detective for roughly every two murders in Upper Manhattan and more than one detective per murder in Lower Manhattan.

 

In housing-project lobbies and three-generation family apartments, outside methadone clinics and art studios, people take note of the inequity. They hear police commanders explain that they lack the resources to place a floodlight on a dangerous block or to post officers at a bullet-ridden corner. They watch witnesses cower behind triple-locked doors, more fearful of a gunman’s crew than confident in the Police Department’s ability to protect them. So though people see a lot, they rarely testify.

 

And in the South Bronx, as in so many predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods like it in the United States, the contract between the police and the community is in tatters. Some people have stories of crime reports that were ignored, or 911 calls that went unanswered for hours. Others tell of a 911 call for help ending in the caller’s arrest, or of a minor charge leading to 12 hours in a fetid holding cell.

 

This is the paradox of policing in the 40th Precinct. Its neighborhoods have historically been prime targets for aggressive tactics, like stop-and-frisk, that are designed to ward off disorder. But precinct detectives there have less time than anywhere else in the city to answer for the blood spilled in violent crimes.

 

Gola White, who was beside her daughter when she was shot and killed in a playground this summer, four years after her son was gunned down in the same housing project, ticked off the public safety resources that she said were scant in Bronx neighborhoods like hers: security cameras, lights, locks, investigating police officers.

 

“Here, we have nothing,” she said. When it comes to “low-poverty families,” she said, the authorities “don’t really care as much. That’s how I feel.”

 

The Times has been documenting the murders logged this year in the 40th Precinct, one of a handful of neighborhoods where deadly violence remains a problem in an era of record-low crime in New York City. The homicides — 14 in the precinct this year, up from nine in 2015 — strain detectives, and when they go unsolved, as half of them have this year, some look to take the law into their own hands.

 

From hundreds of conversations with grieving relatives and friends, witnesses and police officers, the social forces that flare into murder in a place like the 40th Precinct become clearer: merciless gang codes, mental illness, drugs and long memories of feuds that simmered out of officers’ view. The reasons some murders will never be solved also emerge: paralyzing fear of retribution, victims carrying secrets to their graves and relentless casework that forces detectives to move on in hopes that a break will come later.

 

Frustrations build on all sides. Detectives’ phones rarely ring with tips, and officers grow embittered with witnesses who will not cooperate. In the meantime, a victim’s friends conduct their own investigations, and talk of grabbing a stash gun from a wheel well or a mother’s apartment when they find their suspect.

 

In the chasm between the police and the community, gangs and gun violence flourish. Parents try to protect their families from drug crews’ threats, and officers work to overcome the residue of years of mistrust and understaffing in communities where they still go racing from one 911 call to the next.

 

Appeals Gone Unanswered

 

The streets around St. Mary’s Park were the scene of two fatal shootings logged in the 40th Precinct this year. Both are unsolved.

 

James Fernandez heard talk of the murders through the door of his first-floor apartment on East 146th Street in a public-housing low-rise, the Betances Houses. He lived at the end of a long hallway strewn with hypodermic needles, empty dope bags and discarded Hennessy bottles. A half-dozen young men who spoke of being in a subset of the Bloods gang had made it their drug market, slinging marijuana and cocaine to regulars, flashing firearms and blowing smoke into the Fernandez apartment.

 

When Mr. Fernandez, 40, asked the young men to move, they answered by busting up his car. This kind of crime, an anachronism in much of New York, still rattles the 40th Precinct, even though murders there have fallen to 14 this year from 83 in 1991. It has more major felony crimes per resident than any other residential district in the city. It is also one of the poorest communities in the country, and many young men find their way into underground markets.

 

Mr. Fernandez was not one to shrink from the threats. When he was growing up on the Lower East Side, he rode his bicycle around to the customers of the drug dealers he worked for and collected payments in a backpack. After leaving that life, he got a tech maintenance job and, three years ago, moved into the Betances Houses with his wife and daughter, now 11.

 

He had two choices to get help with the drug crew: call the police for help and risk being labeled a snitch, or call his old Lower East Side bosses for muscle and risk violence. He chose the police.

 

Again and again, he walked into a local substation, Police Service Area 7, and asked for protection. His daughter was using an inhaler to relieve coughs from the marijuana smoke. Mr. Fernandez and his wife got terrible headaches.

 

“There’s a lot of killers here, and we are going to kill you,” a sergeant’s police report quoted a 15-year-old telling Mr. Fernandez in August 2015. A second report filed the same day said a 16-year-old warned him, “I’m going to shoot through your window.” Mr. Fernandez told the police both the teenagers’ names, which appear in the reports, and then went home.

 

He said one of their friends had seen him walk into the substation, and they tried to intimidate him out of filing another report. Three days later, the same 16-year-old propped his bike on their door, “then said if I was to open the door and say something, they would body slam me,” Mr. Fernandez’s wife, Maria Fernandez, wrote on slips of paper she used to document the hallway ruckus and the inadequate police response.

 

The boys made comments about how easy a target she was and about how they would have to “slap” her if she opened the door while they made a drug sale, and they threatened to beat the Fernandez family because “they are the ones snitching,” her notes say.

 

But another walk-in complaint at the substation, 10 days after the first, brought no relief. A week later, feeling desperate, Ms. Fernandez tried calling: first to the substation, at 8:50 p.m., when one of the boys blew weed smoke at her door and made a profanity-laced threat to attack her, and then to 911 at 10:36 p.m. The police never came, she wrote in her notes.

 

She tried the 40th Precinct station house next, but officers at the desk left her standing in the public waiting area for a half-hour, she said, making her fear being seen again.

 

Officers put her in worse danger some months later, she said, when they came to her door and announced in front of the teenagers that they were there on a complaint about drug activity.

 

Mr. Fernandez started doing the work that he said the police had failed to do. He wired a camera into his peephole to record the drugs and guns. The footage hark back to the New York of the 1980s, still very much present to some of the precinct’s residents.

 

High Pressure, Low Morale

 

Around 6:30 each morning, Sgt. Michael J. LoPuzzo walks through the tall wooden doors of the 40th Precinct station house. The cases that land on his metal desk — dead bodies with no known cause, strip club brawls, shooting victims hobbling into the hospital themselves — bring resistance at every turn, reminding him of an earlier era in the city’s crime-fighting campaign.

 

“I haven’t got one single phone call that’s putting me in the right direction here,” said Sergeant LoPuzzo, the head of the precinct’s detective squad, one day this summer as he worked on an answer to an email inquiry from a murder victim’s aunt about why the killer had not been caught. “And people just don’t understand that.”

 

Often it is detectives who most feel the effects of people turning on the police. Witnesses shout them away from their doors just so neighbors know they refuse to talk. Of the 184 people who were shot and wounded in the Bronx through early September, more than a third — 66 victims — refused to cooperate. Over the same period in the 40th Precinct, squad detectives closed three of 17 nonfatal shootings, and 72 of 343 robbery cases.

 

Part of the resistance stems from heavy-handed preventive policing tactics, like stop-and-frisk, that were a hallmark of the take-back-the-streets style under former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly. Near the height of the stop-and-frisk strategy, in 2012, the 40th Precinct had the third-most stops in the city, the second-most stops in which officers used force and the most frisks. Of 18,276 stops that year, 15,521 were of people who had done nothing criminal.

 

The precinct was also one of the high-crime areas that the department flooded with its newest officers. At roll calls, they were pressured to generate numbers: write tickets and make arrests. They had no choice but to give a summons to a young man playing in a park after dark, even if the officers had done the same growing up in the same neighborhood.

 

“I need to bring something in today to justify my existence,” Officer Argenis Rosado, who joined the precinct in 2010, said in an interview at the station house. “So now you’re in a small area, and day after day you’re hammering the same community. Of course that community’s eventually going to turn on you.”

 

The pressure warped the way officers and residents saw each other. Rookies had to ignore why someone might be drinking outside or sitting on a stoop.

 

“Some of the cops that came out at that time probably viewed the community differently, too,” said Hector Espada, a 15-year veteran of the precinct. “Not because they wanted to, but because they had to. Because some way or somehow, you can’t give someone a $115 summons and feel like you guys could still have a civil conversation after that.”

 

Morale wilted in the aged station house on Alexander Avenue, in Mott Haven. Officers felt pressure to downgrade crime complaints to make them appear less serious. Several said in interviews that they had overlooked crime reports from immigrants because they were seen as unlikely to complain, and watched supervisors badger victims into repeating their stories in hopes that they would drop their complaints.

 

The practice of downgrading complaints resulted in the disciplining of 19 officers in the precinct last year, one in a string of scandals that has left officers there feeling overscrutinized for problems that also existed elsewhere. Four commanders in the precinct were sent packing in five years, one of them after officers were found to be “ticket fixing,” or forgiving parking tickets for friends, and another after he was recorded giving guidance on whom to stop and frisk: black boys and men, ages 14 to 21.

 

Some officers fled to other commands. Others became reluctant to take assignments in proactive policing units, like anti-crime, that put them in high-pressure situations on the street.

 

“Whenever I walked through the doors of the precinct, to me, it seemed like a black cloud,” said Russell Lewis, a 17-year-veteran of the 40th. “It was like a heaviness. When you walked in, all you wanted to do was do your 8 hours 35 minutes and go home, because you didn’t want to get caught up in anything.”

 

The precinct covers only about two square miles, but the more than a dozen housing projects there mean that it overflows with people. Methadone clinics draw addicts from around the city. Market-rate lofts on the southern edge of the precinct presage a wave of gentrification.

 

Even as the Police Department has hired 1,300 more officers for neighborhood policing and counterterrorism, officers in the 40th Precinct said they could still rush to 25 911 calls during a shift — a number unchanged from what the new police commissioner, James P. O’Neill, said he was handling in a similar South Bronx precinct 15 years ago. Several dozen calls at a time can be waiting for a response. Residents know that if you want the police for a domestic problem, it helps to hint that there is a weapon.

 

Last year, the precinct drew the second-highest number of civilian complaints for officer misconduct in the city, and the most lawsuits stemming from police actions.

 

The precinct is trying to improve morale under a new commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Brian Hennessy. A cadre of what the department calls neighborhood coordination officers has been on patrol since last January, part of a citywide effort under Mr. O’Neill and Mayor Bill de Blasio to bring back the beat cop, unencumbered by chasing every last 911 call, who can listen to people’s concerns and help with investigations. The precinct has made among the most gun arrests in the city, and officers said they now had more discretion to resolve encounters without a summons or an arrest.

 

At one corner near a school, on Courtlandt Avenue and East 151st Street, that has long spawned complaints about gunfire and fights, Inspector Hennessy and some of his officers painted over graffiti and swept up drug paraphernalia this summer. People said it was the first answer to their complaints in years.

 

But the inspector acknowledged that the residue of zero-tolerance policing lingers. “That perception really sticks,” he said.

 

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