For years, South Bronx high school director Ronald Schutte had been trying to get the neighborhood drug dealers to stop selling across the street.
Schutte would call the police, a patrol car would drive by, and the drug dealers would scatter. But as soon as the police left, they were back on the street corner, less than 200 feet from the entrance to All Hallows High School.
Last month, Schutte heard that the local precinct was reorganizing its patrols, taking officers away from the narcotics and school units for a new community-policing program. He became concerned that the situation on the street would get worse. “We were a little skeptical at first,” Schutte said.
But the two officers assigned to the area in early January, as part of the new program, actually helped things get better. They knew exactly who was causing problems by the school. Jawuan Hubbard and Sean Brown had worked in the neighborhood for five years and had been part of a special gang and narcotics unit. So, during their first week as Neighborhood Coordinating Officers, they stopped by the drug dealers’ apartment and spoke to them “like gentlemen” in their living room, Hubbard said. And when the dealers stopped hanging out near the school, the officers went back to thank them.
Schutte is impressed. He says he has not spotted drug dealers near All Hallows in three weeks. “It’s an incredible accomplishment,” he said. “Generally street corners don’t get vacated like that.”
The New York Police Department rolled out the neighborhood-based policing plan that Officers Hubbard and Brown belong to last year in an effort to improve police-community relations. The NYPD initially piloted the program in four neighborhoods, and expanded it to parts of the Bronx on January 4. In the 44th Precinct, which stretches from below Yankee Stadium to I-95, two officers have been assigned to each of the precinct’s five sectors, and another four have been tasked with addressing housing issues. The officers are expected to attend community meetings, learn residents’ names and become familiar faces in the neighborhood. They have handed out their cellphone numbers, encouraging locals to call when they encounter a problem.
The initiative comes as a series of police-related deaths in the U.S. have sparked renewed debate about law enforcement practices. Just last week, the New York City Council formally proposed a new policy that would give police the option of treating quality-of-life infractions – like public urination and open alcohol containers – as civil offenses instead of sending violators to criminal court.
But in the South Bronx, repairing police-community relations and improving security will not be easy. Residents in the 44th Precinct, which lies in the shadow of the Bronx’s criminal court, were subjected to stop-and-frisk over 1,100 times in 2014, according to NYPD data. Hubbard and Brown estimate that in their sector alone, nine different gangs operate. Drug dealing and robberies are a persistent problem, and locals are often wary of getting the police involved.
“A lot of people in the neighborhood are scared to come to the police, so this gives us the opportunity to take the community back for them,” Brown explained. “I really want to get back to that neighborhood watch thing, have bi-weekly meetings, let them know what’s going on.”
“Sometimes people don’t want to say anything because they’re like, ‘You’re not going to catch him,’ or ‘You’re not going to put in the time or effort,’” Hubbard added. “Now, we’re a living, breathing example of the effort, the time we’re putting in.”
One of the first things Brown and Hubbard did in their new role was to get a list of neighborhood 311 complaints and, when it was relevant, they visited both parties to try to get to the bottom of the issue. The officers can still make arrests if the situation calls for it, but the idea is that they will act as mediators first. They are also off the clock, which gives them the flexibility to change their schedules to accommodate a tenants’ meeting, or make sure they are on patrol when school lets out so students are not mugged on their way home.
For the most part, the community is encouraged by the effort so far. Local merchants, for example, are optimistic that the program can help solve some of the quality-of-life issues affecting their businesses. At Apple Bank near Yankee Stadium, branch manager Jerry Dillon said homeless people often block the doors or come into the lobby to ask for money. He likes the idea of being able to call the officers directly on their cellphones.
“What I admire most about the program is the personal relationships we will be having with the officers,” he said.
Cary Goodman, the director of the local Business Improvement District, also supports the program. “Regardless of what kind of issue you have, these guys are going to be experienced enough to deal with it from a variety of law enforcement angles and community building angles,” he said.
But not everyone is convinced. Several American cities, such as Boston and Chicago, have experimented with community-policing initiatives for decades, and critics argue that the programs often attempt to make policing appear more collaborative without fundamentally changing the way law enforcement interacts with residents.
A big obstacle ahead: Police have to convince locals that they can deliver on their promises. At a January 27 tenants’ meeting in the South Bronx, residents at a public housing building were skeptical that Brown and Hubbard could solve their security issues. One elderly tenant told the officers she had awoken at 3 a.m. one night last year to a stranger attempting to break the lock on her apartment door. Her husband had chased the man down the stairs with a machete, she said, but strangers continue to find their way into the building.
Norma Garcia, 65, a resident who suffers from epilepsy, repeatedly urged the officers to install a camera in the lobby. “I live by myself, just the Lord and me, and I’m a little scared sometimes,” she said, citing robberies and shootings at a bodega up the street. “We need help.”
The officers tried to reassure her. “We’re gonna definitely get you a camera. I don’t see that as being a problem,” Brown said. The officers also wrote down their cellphone numbers and taped them on the building message board.
Two housing officers, who were also in attendance, reminded tenants that the program doesn’t work if no one calls. They said they had met with building residents earlier in the month and had yet to receive a phone call.
On their way back to the police station, Hubbard and Brown greeted a young man standing outside a bodega and challenged him to a basketball game later that evening. “Have your team ready!” Brown joked and the young man laughed.
Out of earshot, the officers explained that they would use the basketball game as an opportunity to talk to the young man, who had been causing trouble in the neighborhood, without their uniforms on.
“It’s helped us gain kind of a respect,” Hubbard said of the community-policing program. “When we go somewhere we don’t really have to say as much or even do anything. It’s just, ‘Oh, that’s Officer Brown, that’s Officer Hubbard, let’s chill out,’” he explained. “It’s definitely brought the confrontations down.”
But Hubbard and Brown acknowledged that it would take time to build the community’s trust, and to change the mindset of some of their fellow officers. “What the department is doing is very good, but it’s like trying to turn the Titanic,” Hubbard said. “You still have people stuck in their old ways, the way we used to do things, but slowly but surely when people see the effectiveness of it, everyone’s going to come around.”