Categorized | Bronx Neighborhoods

Bronx Residents Harbor Mixed Views on New Community-Policing Initiative

Recently, on a Wednesday afternoon in August on Gun Hill Road, a produce vendor was ticketed and fined for not having a permit. He had to dismantle his tent and all of his produce was carted away by a City Harvest truck.

Officers on the scene stated that somebody had issued a complaint to their local police officers.

“Somebody’s snitching,” said an onlooker at the bodega across the street.

“It was probably the grocery store next door,” he added.

A new NYPD community policing initiative, scheduled to be implemented throughout New York City by October 2018, aims to improve police-community relations. But reactions from residents in the Bronx, where the initiative first began more than three years ago, have been mixed. Some see the program as a way to snitch on neighbors, while others view the program as a way for the police and community to work together to increase residents’ quality of life.

In 2015, the NYPD launched the Neighborhood Coordination Officer (NCO) program as a way to build better relationships between communities and police while increasing the NYPD’s effectiveness in its efforts to lower crime. The 47th Precinct, which covers the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, was the first precinct to pilot the program. Since then, about three-fourths of NYPD precincts have followed suit, according to Erik Hernandez, Deputy Inspector of the 47th Precinct.

Under the NCO program, residents can call, text, or e-mail police officers directly to file anonymous grievances rather than calling the precinct or 311. This direct communication is said to result in faster and more targeted action on behalf of the police, especially around issues where residents feel that they are not always heard.

The NCO program divides each community district into distinct sectors, with two police officers assigned to patrol a particular sector. In total, there are eight NCOs in the 47th Precinct.

While NCOs are still regular police officers with the power to issue arrests or summons, they are not required to be on call for incidents that occur outside of their assigned sector. This is meant to provide them with greater time and opportunity to get to know the people in their neighborhood.

The program has had unintended consequences on the relationship between residents of Williamsbridge.

Indeed, some view the program as an attempt by the NYPD to increase summons, fines, or arrests while circumventing the anti-snitching culture of the neighborhood, since residents can secretly and anonymously communicate with officers.

One restaurant owner, who asked to remain unnamed, believes his restaurant has been inspected 10 times in the last two years because somebody from the neighborhood is contacting the police. In fact, his restaurant was inspected seven times in 2018, and three times between 2016-2017, according to the New York City Department of Health and Hygiene. As a result, he’s received multiple violations, some of which he believes were unnecessarily harsh.

The initiative, spearheaded during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure, demonstrates a marked shift in policy from the stop-and-frisk era of the Michael Bloomberg administration, which attracted widespread criticisms. Many claimed Bloomberg’s approach to policing unfairly targeted minority neighborhoods, especially the African-American and Latino men living in them.

Raymond Ogilvie, 59, a Williamsbridge resident who works as a bank security officer, lauds the NCO initiative against this historically tense relationship between residents and the NYPD. “The police is supposed to be your friend, somebody you can talk to,” he said.

“I think it’s a good idea for the police and the community to work together.”

Officer Charles Alexander, NCO in the 47th Precinct, described NCOs as “quarterbacks between the community and police officers,” not only in terms of the NCOs’ role as a liaison but also insofar as granting residents a direct line of communication with the NYPD.

“It’s like having a cop in your pocket,” he said.

The 47th precinct has the highest concentration of police officers of all New York City boroughs due to its high volume of criminal activity, influenced in part by its 5.6 square mile size and high population density. At the same time, police-community relations was cited as one of the top three pressing issues in Community Board 12’s latest needs statement for the 2019 fiscal year.

According to Alexander, 60% of all crimes in the 47th Precinct come from Sector A. This is in part circumstantial: for example, the bustling commercial strip of White Plains Road runs through Sector A, and as such, is more prone to robberies, he explained. Similarly, the presence of more densely-populated high-rise buildings in Sector A translates to higher incidents of crime overall, said Alexander. But in August, at the Williamsbridge Public Safety Meeting, Alexander stated that Sector A was down 42% in all major crimes as of August 21. This number, he said, was based on a 28-day-period.

“We are out there, we’re figuring out what’s going on in the command, and gaining the trust of people so that they know that when they call me, it’s never going to make the news.”

There has been a 27% decrease in robberies but a 25% uptick in felony assaults in the same two-year-period (2016-2018), according to a 2018 NYPD CompStat report for the 47th Precinct.

While overall crime might be down, there is an increase in certain kinds of crime.

Alexander couldn’t provide specific data outlining the correlation between the NCO program and crime rates, but he believes the NCO initiative has had a major impact.

“Because of the eyes and the ears, we’re getting a lot more information,” he said.

Ashley Hargrove, 27, business partner at Maleah Monaie Hair—a designated safe haven in the neighborhood—hadn’t heard of the NCO program.

“It’s a great idea to increase police and resident connections. Because usually, when you see police you want to go the other way. Imagine if they’re just working to help you and better you,” Hargrove said.

Hargrove was impressed by the fact that residents can call their neighborhood cop directly, stating that in certain situations, a delayed response could mean life or death.

She doesn’t think the program is to blame for snitching.

“It’s a give and a take. I don’t think officers have an impact on who is going to snitch or not,” she said.

The community, whose population is approximately 92% Black, Caribbean, and Hispanic, still struggles with the aftermath of two high-profile police shootings.

In 2012, Ramarley Graham, an 18-year-old unarmed black teenager, was followed into his home and shot in his bathroom by an officer from the 47th precinct; his family is suing the NYPD to release police records and no involved officers have been charged or dismissed from the NYPD. The precinct is also home to the first NYPD fatal police shooting caught on a bodycam in the fall of 2017. Miguel Richards, 31, was shot by NYPD after his landlord requested they do a wellness check on the mentally ill man. Richards was wielding a knife in one hand and a gun in the other.

Some residents believe the NCO program can heal old wounds through on-the-ground community-building while simultaneously empowering residents to speak up on what bothers them without the threat of retaliation from their neighbors. Whereas in the past residents would have to call the police station to report complaints and risk their neighbors seeing and hearing police presence outside of their home, now residents can covertly text or call NCO officers’ cell-phones. In turn, the NCO officers investigate the scene, and if necessary, the precinct sends out more police—both uniformed and plainclothes—to patrol that area with the intent of resolving the issue.

The goal of the program isn’t to write more tickets, Alexander said. The goal is to gain the community’s trust.

“It’s not a numbers-driven thing,” he said, referring to the enforcement of arrest and summons quotas, which the NYPD says it has abandoned.

“There’s nobody telling me to go out there and make an arrest.”

Still, Alexander believes that it will take time for everyone to embrace and understand the program’s long-term impacts.

“In the big picture, four years for a police department that has been around for a hundred—it’s still a baby.”

At the August 23, 2018 Public Safety Meeting, one neighborhood resident paused to express gratitude before sharing her sanitation-related complaint.

“Thank you Charles for always helping me when I text you about any issues in my building or on the street,” she said.

Deputy Inspector Erik Hernandez addresses attendees at the 47th Precinct Community Council meeting on Wednesday, September 13, 2018 at Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Bronx. (Credit: Seyma Bayram)

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