NYPD Blues

Kenny Watson walked around on a chilly Friday night handing cards to anyone who would take them, greeting each person he passed with “Hotep,” the Egyptian word for peace. The cards said “Stop Killing People.”

When he walked past the corner of Van Siclen and Stanley avenues, Watson remembered a man shot in the face at the Quick Mart the week before, a few doors down from his office. On Vermont Street, which “used to look like Beirut,” he recalled the story of a man shot and killed last year in front of a nearby elementary school. It was the end of summer, the first day of the school year. Students saw the dead victim on the sidewalk. “I could probably walk around the neighborhood and just point out different killings,” Watson said.

At the end of his tour of this rough section of East New York, Brooklyn, Watson stopped and asked, “How many police cars have you seen?” Aside from one making a traffic stop on the busy Pennsylvania Avenue, Watson knew the answer:

Police in East New York are facing a quandary, one faced by many of the economically disadvantaged neighborhoods of New York City: residents want a police presence, and they want to feel safe, but they fear — and protest, in great numbers — an overbearing and disruptive kind of law enforcement. The NYPD feels the pressure to adapt. Mayor Bill de Blasio swept into office last year promising to reform the department, but so far, many say, the pace of change has been too slow. Meanwhile, in oft-overlooked parts of town, where violent crime remains a part of daily life, the police still have to keep the peace.

At a community meeting on Nov. 5, Inspector Michael Lipetri, the commander of the 75th Precinct, which encompasses East New York, pleaded for the community’s help in fighting crime, asking for tips: “Any time you hear anything, see anything.” He read off the details of nine shooting incidents in the past month: “Yesterday, 2 o’clock in the afternoon, we had a very nice day out, lot of kids out, Election Day. Numerous shots fired … Shell casings all over the place. Probably two groups shooting at each other, but you know, when I get to that scene, I look down the block and all I see is young kids and families.”

East New York is “at the center of a dilemma,” said Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociologist who has studied the area. “On the one hand, folks are unhappy about aggressive and what they sometimes feel is racialized policing, and on the other hand they appeal to the police to solve their crime and disorder problems. So you’ll get people saying, ‘We want more police, but we want them to be more respectful of the community. We want them to do community policing.’”

But in a neighborhood where mistrust of the police dates back generations, is “community policing” even possible?

De Blasio was elected in 2013 amid growing discontent over the NYPD’s policing tactics, in particular the practice known as stop-and-frisk, which surged under his predecessor Michael Bloomberg. Stop-and-frisk disproportionately affected black and Latino residents of lower-income communities, who voted in great numbers for de Blasio, in part, some have speculated, because he said he would curb the practice. Beyond stop-and-frisk, de Blasio promised bigger overall changes to policing: “real reform.” An endorsement in the New York Times lauded de Blasio’s pledge to restore the NYPD’s “frayed ties to the community.”

To do that, he brought on William Bratton as his police commissioner. Bratton, who ran the NYPD from 1994 to 1996, promised “a new day”: he and de Blasio would “get it right” on stop-and-frisk, and they would “bring the police and community together.”

Bratton is known for his devotion to the “broken windows” strategy, based on the idea that the proliferation of petty crime creates a perception of lawlessness which, in turn, promotes more serious offenses. This strategy is controversial. As it’s enforced now, officers issue a high volume of citations and make many arrests for offenses on the order of turnstile jumping, graffiti, littering, and the possession of even small amounts of marijuana, according to Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project (who also spoke with Bklynr in October). These citations and arrests disrupt people’s lives, damaging police-community ties — the kind of ties envisioned in de Blasio’s “community policing” worldview.

According to a U.S. Department of Justice publication, “Community policing, recognizing that police rarely can solve public safety problems alone, encourages interactive partnerships with relevant stakeholders”: other government agencies, residents, non-profits, private businesses, and the media.

Vitale agrees that current policy is at odds with efforts to promote this kind of policing. “The problem is,” he said, “if you’re going to have a war on drugs and pursue broken windows-based policing, you can’t do respectful community policing. They’re contradictory. And I think a lot of that’s starting to come to the surface right now, with this heightened awareness about broken windows policing.”

Criticism of broken windows in New York reached new heights after the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner in police custody in July. Garner, who had been arrested several times for selling loose cigarettes, refused to cooperate with the officers trying to detain him. “This ends today,” Garner said, protesting what he said was constant harassment by officers. One of them put him in a chokehold. Garner had asthma; his last words were “I can’t breathe.”

According to Gangi, the incident illustrated the harmful impact of broken windows policing. Garner was, “in effect, responding to the harassment … Even the merchants, who might wish he wasn’t selling loose cigarettes in front of their store, they know he’s not a criminal; he’s not dangerous.” By repeatedly arresting Garner (or people like him) and locking him up for a day or two at a time, the police “haven’t done anything to stop his selling loose cigarettes — he’s continuing to do it — but you’ve inflicted real punishment on him, and you’ve helped to further marginalize him,” Gangi said.

As tensions simmered over the slow pace of reform in the wake of Garner’s death, de Blasio’s administration made a surprising announcement in early November. Soon, officials said, the police would be instructed to no longer arrest people for carrying small amounts of marijuana, but to issue tickets instead. Gangi said the change in policy is a positive sign, but far from a solution: “it signals that de Blasio and Bratton are feeling the political heat on racially biased and abusive policing … The content of the policy itself is highly problematic. It still leaves the marijuana issue in the hands of law enforcement. There’s questions about how the summons process will work, there’s questions about whether police officers are going to follow the new policy.”

And there’s no concrete sign the police plan to slow enforcement of other forms of broken windows violations, at least not in East New York, where tension remains high. “This change does not get at what we consider to be the heart of the problem: the everyday harsh application of broken-windows policing that targets low-income people of color and focuses on low-level infractions,” Gangi said.

Lipetri said in a recent interview that he’s “a firm proponent in the broken windows theory. We don’t ever want to create any sense of lawlessness.” Despite the criticism of the program, Lipetri said he’s “absolutely” committed to broken windows. “It’s something that’s extremely important to me,” he said. The explanation he offered was that “a lot of big arrests start as small infractions,” although he stressed that he encourages his officers to use discretion.

Perhaps nowhere else in the city does policing stir up as much controversy as in East New York. In the first half of this year, the NYPD’s Civilian Complaint Review Board fielded more complaints against East New York’s 75th than any other precinct.

Part of the reason for the high volume of complaints, Lipetri noted, is the precinct’s size: with around 350 officers, it’s the largest of the city’s 76 precincts. But it also has a reputation problem, according to many of the neighborhood’s residents, which can make it hard for the precinct to keep crime down.

“Nobody likes the 75th,” said Dara Cruz, a 27-year-old lifelong resident. “They’ll stop you for no reason … If you call them, they’ll take forever to get there, but when they get there, they’re not friendly,” she said. “I don’t think one person can tell you anything good about that precinct.”

Denise Cosom, 51, a social worker who also runs a mentoring program in prisons and juvenile detention centers, said the officers of the 75th Precinct are often disrespectful toward residents. “I’ve seen, and witnessed myself, a lot of harassment. Instead of talking to the people, you’re talking at the people,” Cosom said. “A lot of police officers, from what I’ve seen, they’re very cocky. So therefore, you’re not going to build a relationship with the people. You’re going to build a resentment toward you. And the people resent the officers. They just do.”

Gustavo Bahena, 17, wishes the officers from the 75th were more visible. Giving me a tour of his neighborhood, he, like Kenny Watson, pointed out that he hadn’t seen a single officer all day. The police “should at least be on foot, you know, greet their community people,” he said. “They’re always in their car. If they see a suspicious person, they stop at every corner that you stop and just look at you, stare at you, see your next move like a stalker. I’ve had it before, and it feels like you’re just being followed, stalked. It’s not a comfortable feeling.”

Gustavo Bahena, left, with his uncle, Fernando Poncho, who co-owns a tattoo parlor. Photo by Christopher Looft.

Bahena, like many others, said he often has more trouble with officers who seem younger and less experienced. Under the Operation Impact program, which de Blasio has touted as part of a wider effort toward community policing, rookie officers are deployed in high numbers to trouble spots. Most neighborhoods with Impact zones have only one; East New York, Lipetri said, has two, each staffed by about 50 officers. In addition to providing a surge of manpower, Operation Impact serves to train the young officers.

“The gap between what you learn in the academy and what you need to do on the street is probably wider in policing than in any other profession," said Harry Levine, a sociologist at Queens College who has studied the neighborhood. “So you send these rookie cops, invariably in groups, into low-income, overwhelmingly minority neighborhoods. And they stop a lot people, do a lot of pat-downs and searches, they write a lot of summons for minor quality-of-life offenses, and they find a lot of marijuana, and they can make an arrest and so on.”

Making marijuana arrests, in particular, Levine added, is “a fantastically good tool for training rookie cops,” so it’s a focus of Operation Impact units. “It keeps them safe, they’re less likely to shoot someone, they’re less likely to get hurt. The only downside to this is that it entirely ruins the lives of the young black and Latino people they’re doing this to.”

James Brodick, who is working in an adjacent neighborhood setting up the Brownsville Community Justice Center, said inexperienced officers working in high-crime, low-income neighborhoods sometimes get intimidated when they encounter angry young people, and “instead of de-escalating a situation, they escalate it.”

As Gustavo Bahena said, the younger officers are often more aggressive. “Rookies, you know, they’re just starting; they want to feel hardcore just to get a higher rank,” he said, “and that’s why they make so many arrests: because if you make more arrests, then they see you, like, ‘OK, you’re a dedicated police officer; you’re bringing something to the table; here’s a higher rank or whatever.’”

When the police are respectful, Bahena appreciates their presence, even though he’s been arrested eight times, seven times for graffiti and once for jumping a subway turnstile. It’s an important reminder that despite the tension in the neighborhood, residents still want the police around to keep them safe. But the police face a challenge: it’s hard to do that when confronting deep mistrust from the neighborhood.

Denise Cosom said she has a great deal of respect for the NYPD. Her great uncle, William Bracey, was the department’s first black three-star chief. Her brother was a cop. But she thinks that, in East New York, the department has lost its way: “It’s sad that it has come to what it has come to.” Things weren’t always this way in the neighborhood, Cosom said, but “today, when the kids are in trouble, they want to run away from the police officer.”

And a lot of the kids are in trouble. In a particularly horrific example, 18-year-old Dashawn Cameron was mobbed and beaten by several men while eating at a Domino’s on the night of Nov. 11. One of the aggressors stabbed him in the torso, killing him. As of Nov. 9, 64 people had been killed within the 75th Precinct’s territory so far this year. At least 65 had been shot.

The police can’t stop this kind of violence on their own. According to Carol Kayser, an assistant U.S. attorney who has worked on anti-gang prosecutions, it’s getting increasingly difficult for law enforcement to crack down on youth gangs. Unlike their well-organized forebears, many of the “crews” and “cliques” of today’s deprived urban communities don’t sell drugs and don’t have strict command structures. They’re more like social clubs; they give their members a sense of community and family that many don’t get at home, Kayser said.

And as the cliques get younger and younger, they’re defying the usual logic of organized crime. It’s much harder to invoke the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, on gangs that don’t actually make money or pass down orders through a rigid command structure, Kayser said.

Where gangs fought throughout the crack epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s over access to drug markets, many kids in the deprived urban communities of today are locked in a cycle of tit-for-tat violence often stemming from personal disputes.

For his part, Lipetri, the 75th Precinct commander, said violence is “usually motivated by territory” and sometimes by competition over drug-dealing and other criminal activities. But Lipetri also said the gangs were smaller, with members as young as 13, and that “it’s moved away from the typical Bloods and Crips mentality.”

The landscape of violence is complex. Residents of East New York’s Louis H. Pink housing development recently held a meeting to discuss a violent feud between young residents of that project and those of the nearby Linden Plaza Apartments, across Linden Boulevard. The night before Halloween, a mob of kids from Linden Plaza forced their way into one of the Pink Houses buildings, looking for a young man they wanted to kill, residents said, although nobody at the meeting knew why they were after him. The teen’s mother was at the meeting, although she didn’t say a word for the duration, possibly in fear of retribution if she spoke out.

Later, Kareem Hamilton, 42, who grew up in the neighborhood, said it’s “the same type of shit … Pink Houses and Plaza, they been at war since back in the day.” But it’s not that simple. At the Pink Houses meeting, one person noted that the conflict wasn’t just between Pink and Plaza. Violence still breaks out, of course, between kids living in the same development.

To understand these kind of dynamics, the police need to build close ties with the community. “We — when I say we, I mean the community and the Police Department — have to work together to try to suppress gun violence. Like I always say, it’s the community working with the police department. The police department cannot do it alone. A lot of times when we make these good arrests, when it comes to shootings or homicides, it’s because the community spoke up and gave us some information,” Lipetri said.

But Vitale doesn’t think the kind of person who would typically be willing to talk to the police would know much about violent crime. The kind of people who would know anything, he said, would be unlikely to talk to officers.

Hamilton agreed. Many don’t even call the police when they’re in danger, he said. “The police come, they end up fuckin’ shootin’ your ass — that’s how it happens out there,” he said. Even when his brother Kirk was killed, Kareem didn’t cooperate with officers. He didn’t say a word when he was shot himself, either. “When shit happens, I don’t call the police. When they killed my brother, of course they came or whatever, detectives, all that bullshit, I didn’t know shit, and that was that. When I got shot, same thing.”

Hamilton thinks that’s how kids are growing up today, “if not worse, yeah. I think that, definitely, there’s more guns out there, there’s more guns in the street than when I grew up… They still don’t have nothing to live for.”

Hamilton’s brother was shot in the back and killed in 1994 while leaving a Chinese restaurant with his girlfriend. The gunmen were from the Linden housing projects and were looking for someone from Kirk’s part of town, the other side of Linden Boulevard. Hamilton said he would happily have traded years in prison for a chance at revenge. After all, the crime was egregious — his brother hadn’t done anything to deserve to die; he was just from the wrong side of town.

Twenty years ago, gunmen from the Linden housing projects killed the brother of Kareem Hamilton. Despite the frequency of violence in the area, Hamilton says, those affected by crime are hesitant to involve the police. Photo by Anna Gianfrate.

Even the threat of jail, the incentive of law enforcement against committing violent crime, wouldn’t have stopped Kareem from getting revenge, if he had known he would have gotten the same sentence his brother’s killers did. He would have done the years. “I would do ten to twelve years on my head, on a handstand. I would do that shit for my brother,” he said.

Like Denise Cosom, Hamilton has family on the police force, and he respects a lot of them. “I’ve met some cool cops, just like I’ve met some asshole cops, just like in everything else,” he said. But he pointed out that the broken windows strategy, which Bratton swears by and which Lipetri is implementing, can be counterproductive. A focus on low-level offenses, in some cases, discourages kids from having fun in ways that, even if they’re not strictly legal, aren’t all that harmful. And for a lot of kids, today, “there’s not a lot of shit to do out there,” not a lot of positive or at least harmless outlets. But it wasn’t always this way.

“We used to be in the park till 12 o’clock, 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock in the morning, playin’ basketball, doin’ whatever,” he said. “And the police, they didn’t use to come around and tell us to get out the park, nothing like that, but nowadays, the police come and tell you to get the hell out the park.”

By kicking the kids out of the park, for example, while perhaps improving the perception of lawfulness, “you directing them to go do some other shit,” Hamilton said. “Don’t get me wrong, you ain’t put no gun in their hand, you ain’t tell them to go sell drugs, but if they’re doing something like this, playing basketball, and you’re gonna fuck with them, what else they gonna do?”

Reflecting, perhaps, the concerns of advocates and East New York residents who say that the police are motivated by a perverse incentive structure that encourages making frivolous arrests, Lipetri has acknowledged in public meetings that the officers of the 75th can’t arrest their way to making the community safer.

In general, he said, residents need to step up themselves. In part, he’s talking about giving the police information, but he also encourages people to, when appropriate, take things into their own hands.

The idea of taking things into one’s own hands in East New York recalls the infamous Death Wish 3, a nihilistic 1985 action movie starring Charles Bronson as an architect turned vigilante killer who wages a war on the vicious gang terrorizing the neighborhood’s innocent residents. Some of the scenes were shot on the same block as Kareem Hamilton’s junior high school.

“I was just going down the block the other day, thinking about that,” he said. “It was kind of crazy like that. Gangs, they didn’t give a fuck. They did whatever they wanted on the street … You had the bad people, doin’ whatever, people trying to protect theyself, doing whatever they can.”

When he calls for people to take matters into their own hands, Lipetri isn’t, of course, advocating vigilantism. Instead, he acknowledges that police alone aren’t responsible for putting a stop to the violent crime in East New York. If residents can safely mediate disputes or set an example to young people that discourages violence, Lipetri thinks they should do so. The people at Man Up!, a local non-profit, are doing just that.

Kenny Watson has been working with Man Up! for two years. As a Cure Violence outreach worker, Watson and his colleagues are adapting a program launched in Chicago in 2000. The program looks at violence as a public health issue rather than a law enforcement problem, according to Marcus McAllister, who trains Cure Violence workers in New York. “We treat violence like you would treat a disease,” McAllister said.

McAllister, based in Chicago, has been with Cure Violence for ten years, including a stint as a “violence interrupter,” charged with intervening during times of crisis to prevent violence from spreading out of control. Interrupters often partner with hospitals, McAllister said, who help them make contact with shooting victims’ friends and families, whom the Cure Violence workers try to convince not to retaliate. “If one person gets mad at another person over something that seems petty to them, it spreads out of control,” McAllister said. “We’re trying to stop one shooting from turning into fifteen.”

Cure Violence workers are often ex-criminals, people with a history of “contributing to the plague,” in the words of McAllister, who was incarcerated nearly ten years for drug and gang offenses. As several Cure Violence workers explained, their criminal past makes them more credible when talking to young people whose lives have been touched by crime and violence.

East New York is “one of the best sites we have in New York, by far,” McAllister says. He and others at Man Up! are no doubt proud of the 363-day stretch in which the twelve-block area they patrol was free of gun violence. It’s an impressive feat considering the area’s reputation.

Asked what could be done to improve the police’s impact in the community, McAllister suggested officers from outside the neighborhood be educated on its history. He said it will take more than just law enforcement to keep violent crime down. “Obviously you need police officers. But we’ve been going that route forever,” McAllister said.

In East New York, one of the people working to apply that alternative model is Kenny Watson. He grew up, in his words, a “church boy, an athlete, a good American kid” in the neighborhood. He played football at Delaware State University. But when he returned to the neighborhood after flunking out, he fell into the street life he’d managed to avoid for so long: hustling, as he put it.

Kenny Watson has been working with Man Up! for two years in East New York, where he’s adapting a program originally developed to curb violence in Chicago. Photo by Christopher Looft.

For the young people of East New York, many of whom are skeptical of authority figures who don’t understand what they’ve been through, Watson sees himself as a credible figure. When he points it out, it’s hard not to notice a small scar on his cheek — a bullet wound, one of three he suffered when he was shot in the mid-’90s. He still carries a slug in his chin.

For all the fast living he did, Watson nonetheless looks like he could be a decade or two younger than his 48 years. He still plays football — rough touch. “Not full-body, but we bangin’.” When the wind blew his hat off, he effortlessly caught it out of the chilly air. “Still snatch ’em out the air,” he said.

Watson, who ran his own business, first selling clothes out of a backpack before graduating to a storefront off the neighborhood’s main drag of Pennsylvania Avenue (“we call it P.A.”), said he feels an obligation to make up for his time spent hustling.

“A lot of the people who was following me with the football, I gave a lot of people that hope … And when I stopped doing me, all those cats, when I went to the streets … They let go of the dream. So I feel like I owe the community.”

His time as a hustler, Watson said, “was a short stint. But anything I did, I did it big. I went from zero to 100, like, overnight. I was like the poster child, the poster kid in the hood, so to speak … I didn’t have no boss. They looked at me, like, that dude! Everybody loved me because I was a football player. I went from an athlete to a hustler to a businessman.”

Watson sees himself as a role model, somebody who took lessons from his years of hustling and used them for something more positive, or at least something less toxic. “You don’t have to sell drugs. Y’all have the right idea, you just selling the wrong product.”

“A lot of people don’t understand, you get addicted to the money just like the drugs. I didn’t like what I was doing, but I liked the money, you know what I’m saying? And with that comes — you have to protect yourself. You have to become a different type of animal. So no more smiling. I had a killer smile. People used to love my smile, but I couldn’t smile no more because people’d take it for a weakness, so I became sad … I had to become distant … But I snapped back, and that’s what people respected,” he said.

Watson is a survivor. Many of the people he grew up around weren’t so lucky. “And it’s a lot, man, it’s a lot. Brother, I tell you … About 40, 50 people I grew up with have been killed by violence, from this community alone. Big E. Sean. Baby Bro. Ronald Perry. Lenny. Antoine. E-Lo. Gully. Reggie. I mean, the list goes on and on. So many cats, man.”

Watson is glad he got lucky and escaped a way of life that nearly ended his own. Now, he sees himself as a salesman. Just like he used to come up with a backpack full of clothes to sell to the hustlers as they worked on street corners, timing it so he’d catch them right after they got paid, Watson is selling the young people of East New York on a life of nonviolence.

Watson stressed that the workers from Man Up! don’t give information to the police. Doing so would destroy their greatest asset: their credibility. But this represents a key dilemma, in which one city agency, the NYPD, is working completely separately from an agent of another, Man Up!, which takes money from the Department of Health. Both aim to reduce violence, but their coordination is limited. When the police make arrests on drugs and weapons charges, that can hinder Man Up!’s work.

“One of the problems they come up against,” Vitale said, “is, they’ll be working with these young people, but they keep getting arrested and put into the juvenile justice system, with the gangs and violence and tit for tat, and they come out and get sucked back into the gangs. It’s a very tense thing, so for that reason most of these folks don’t want to go on the record saying what I’ve just said, because they don’t want to antagonize the police, because for the outreach workers to be successful, they have to have the confidence of the young people. That confidence is necessary because they need to know what the hell is going on.”

Asked about Man Up!, Lipetri said, “if the community is going about it in the way Man Up! is going about it, we support it. Anything helps … Obviously, you know, if they are aware of criminal activity, they should inform the police department. But what they’re trying to do is mentor young men and young women and try to stem the tide of violence. I think it’s a good thing.”

Despite his concerns about the program, Vitale is optimistic about its potential. He credits the city’s government for investing, in August, another $12.7 million to start nine more Cure Violence programs across New York, covering a total of 14 out of its 77 police precincts. At the 75th’s meeting, Lipetri also praised Man Up! but said his officers were also doing highly visible patrols out on street corners at risky times and in risky places, like when school gets out on weekdays.

If the police alone can’t keep the peace, Man Up! is doing their part to help for now. But they have a long way to go. Yet another generation is being raised in close proximity to violence. Watson knows the kids who saw the dead man at the elementary school will remember it for a long time.

He still remembers the first death he saw. “That tall building there,” Watson said, pointing toward one of the high-rises of the Linden projects. “I was, like, 7, 8 years old. Guy got thrown off the roof shot four times in his back. I remember like it was yesterday, guy was down on his knees trying to get up; his head was cracked, blood comin’ out, brains comin’ out the back of his head, trying to get up. Pack of cigarettes on the floor; must have had some cigarettes or something ... He was trying to get up, but he died right there.”

Watson said that, for now, things are calmer in the neighborhood than they used to be. East New York, he said, is “on ice.” And even though traumas like the stabbing of Dashawn Cameron continue, most people say East New York has come a long way. According to the NYPD’s numbers, murders are down 30 percent since 2009. While wary of gentrification, many residents are excited about new construction, like the expanding Gateway Center mall.

Lipetri said the neighborhood’s future is “unbelievably vibrant.” And while he has signaled his support for the controversial broken windows strategy, several residents came out to the 75th’s Nov. 5 community meeting to thank the precinct’s officers for their efforts. “We’re always looking to improve community relations,” Lipetri later said. “And we’re going to continue to look to do that.”

“From what I saw that night,” Denise Cosom said, “he would be someone that you can work with. They can kind of build a relationship with him, to maybe shift this community, but it’s gonna take work.”

Christopher Looft is a freelance writer and graduate student at New York University. He lives in Crown Heights.

Anna Gianfrate is a freelance photographer. Originally from Italy, she now lives in Williamsburg.

Also in this issue

A Beach, a Babushka, and Borscht

Taking in the quiet beauty of Brighton Beach. Photos by Kat Slootsky

Q&A: Tim Thomas of The Q at Parkside

A local blogger finds himself immersed in neighborhood controversies, spurred to area uplift, and jolted by gentrification. Interview by Norman Oder