Law & Borders: The New Community Policing Turns Neighbors Into Cops

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One Friday night last April, Monica T. walked out of her home on Valentine Avenue in the Bronx and was surrounded by a circle of drug dealers. “You better get out of here,” one of them said to her. Another referred meaningfully to her family. Monica (not her real name) had lived on the block for 25 years. A community activist, she had been working for years to organize her neighbors to rid the block of drugs. But nothing like this had ever happened to her before. She was terrified–“shaking like a leaf,” the local priest said later. A week later she moved off the block.

This was never supposed to happen. The block Monica T. used to live on was a model block, one of 24 chosen by the New York Police Department for a special high-profile program that was supposed to reduce crime, crack down on drugs, and, in the language of its press releases, “take back control of the block.”

The plan was this: The police would go in using military-style barricades, routine ID checks and special agreements that allowed them to patrol inside private buildings. They would shut down the drug dealers and wipe all the criminals off the block. After that, a team of community organizers would come help the residents organize block associations and neighborhood watches, training them to work with the local precinct to make sure the problem–in this case, drug dealers–didn’t come back.

The idea was that the police would help the community and, in return, the community would help by policing itself. “Who’s going to stay around and make sure the drug dealers don’t come back?” asks Michael Clark of the Citizens Committee of New York City, the NYPD’s nonprofit partner in the program. “Well, who’s around 24-7? The bottom line is this: The neighborhood residents are part of the thin blue line.”

For a while, it seemed like it was going to work. Valentine Avenue between 194th and 196th streets was in lockdown for two months during the winter of 1998-99. Around the clock, police officers guarded the corners of the long, narrow block, demanding ID from anyone they didn’t recognize. Meanwhile, the people of Valentine-194th formed a block association and successfully petitioned to get trees and some much-needed lights for the end of the block. Some formed a neighborhood group, the Ravens, whose cleanup of the infamous drug market a block away in Poe Park was hailed as a turnaround for the Bronx. “The groups that started were to stabilize the neighborhood, and it worked,” says Ena Nemley from the 52nd Precinct Council, the citizen’s group that works with the local precinct.

But trees on the sidewalk and lights on the block couldn’t stop the drug dealers from coming back again. With the spring of 1999, the barricades and cops were gone, and the heroin dealers re-emerged. Alberto Roman noticed that Valentine was getting crazy again. “It was when the weather was just turning over,” he recalls. “My kids were going to school, and you’d see them on the avenue, people that you know don’t live on the block–40 or 50 of these guys, just waiting there at seven o’clock in the morning!” Then one day Roman, who rises at six-thirty, looked out of his ground-floor window and saw his young son chatting with a junkie who had wandered across the street. “It scared the hell out of me,” says Roman. “My son is very friendly, he’ll talk to anybody. I saw them talking and it scared me to the max.”

Even worse, the residents who had taken part in the community organizing were now being openly threatened by clusters of dealers on the block. What happened to Monica reverberated throughout the block as her neighbors, the priest, and even the cops repeated the story. The citizens who answered the call to organize felt simultaneously exposed and betrayed. “After working with the Police, the Block Association feels more unsafe than ever,” one of them wrote in a letter to Police Commissioner Howard Safir.

With the Model Block program now in its second year, awaiting the go-ahead on funding for a new batch of blocks, few would agree that it met the NYPD’s official goals or measured up to Safir’s triumphant proclamation that “we’re taking back our communities, block by block.” The remaining question is whether the program achieved what the Citizens Committee hoped it would do: build lasting, effective partnerships between communities and police.

The big theory behind community policing is that cop work should be an intimate part of everyday life. Model Block takes that idea literally, blurring the lines between neighborhood organizing and law enforcement.

But on Valentine Avenue, turning that idea into an effective crime-fighting strategy is clearly going to take more than a couple of months of intense patrols and several months worth of workshops. As people citywide clamor for more cops, more community cops, and more understanding from the police department in general, this small program has a big load to carry. It has yet to succeed in either turning cops into citizens or citizens into cops. But in order for it to work, it has to do a little bit of both.

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This isn’t the first time this embattled stretch of Valentine has been put in the floodlights of a high-profile NYPD anti-drug initiative. In 1995, Valentine Avenue was the territory of community policing beat cop Kevin Jett.

Community policing was a nationwide movement that sprung up during the late 1980s in criminal justice circles. Its aim was to address the unhappy fact that most of the innovations in policing–911 calls, more patrols–weren’t working. Police had to partner with the community in order for policing to really work, especially against drugs, the theory went. And the person on the front lines would be the beat cop. In 1990, the Dinkins administration made the city that promise with the slogan, “The beat cop is back.”

Jett, a young African-American officer from the city, became the symbol of community policing for being that beat cop in one of the toughest parts of the Bronx. In 1993, right around when New York’s crime rate was peaking, Jett was assigned to Valentine Avenue. Later, he toured his beat with an ABC news crew, knocking on doors while the narrator intoned: “This doorway, 2682 Valentine, like every address in this neighborhood, has a story. In this case, the story is drugs.”

On January 25, 1994, Officer Jett stood beside President Bill Clinton as he announced the founding of the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, a federal agency that grants millions of dollars to foster community policing strategies. A lengthy profile in the New York Times, a trip to the White House and a the stint on network TV made Kevin Jett a national hero.

It also got him kicked upstairs; nobody saw Jett on Valentine Avenue again. “After that, they moved him up,” says Monsignor John Jenik, the local pastor. Echoing complaints by citizens and community groups all over the city, Jenik sighs, “We haven’t had another beat cop since then.”

And there lies the problem. The NYPD claims that community policing has been integrated into the daily practice of cops. But ask anyone on Valentine, and they will say that the department has simply given up on the idea. When organizers from the block asked then Bronx Borough Commander John Scanlon (now citywide Chief of Patrol) where all the millions from a federal block grant for community policing had been spent, he reportedly told them that “every officer is a community policing officer.”

Criminologists disagree. The number of community policing officers has declined, says Eli Silverman, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor who recently wrote a book on NYPD tactics. With Dinkins, community policing meant that officers were supposed to become part of the neighborhood–meeting with local youth groups, getting to know people, spending all their time on the block. Beat cops like Jett were also supposed to be social workers.

But all that changed with Rudy Giuliani. With his “zero tolerance” dictum and aggressive quality-of-life focus, he shifted the dynamic, and the NYPD’s vision of community policing changed in concert–away from beat cops and toward initiatives like Model Block.

“Community policing can exist on a continuum from hard mitts to soft gloves,” says criminologist Todd Clear of John Jay College. Under Giuliani, Clear says, “the New York version was a very hard version.”

Citizens of rough blocks see it simply: The promise of community policing was that they would have an officer on the street, an officer who knew them, whom they could trust and who wasn’t, as Jenik puts it, “from East Cupcake, Long Island.” Citizens of those blocks–many of them now model blocks–don’t feel like they have that cop to turn to.

“What I would like to see the police do is really be in the community,” says Maria Mendez, who has lived on 194th and Valentine for 20 years. “I want them to talk with people, to say, ÔHow are you doing? What do you need help with?'” Instead, she says, “they act like they’re afraid to talk to you.”

Instead of beat cops, Valentine got the Model Block program. By its logic, citizens themselves are supposed to be that community cop.

The roots of Model Block go back to the late 1960s, when Herbert Von King, an African-American community organizer in Bedford-Stuyvesant, decided to focus organizing on certain blocks, naming them “Model Blocks.” Some of the old signs remain, paint flaking off, on what were then high-crime blocks in Bed-Stuy. Many of them still are.

Years later, the Citizens Committee of New York City used maps of these very same areas of Bed-Stuy to design their Model Block program. First, the Citizens Committee identified all the points of high drug activity, using NYPD data. Then they mapped the blocks that had lots of block associations and community groups. Finding that the two tended to be mutually exclusive, they deduced a causal relationship.

Using grant money from the federal government and private foundations, the Citizens Committee and the NYPD decided to set up a collaborative project in unorganized, high-crime neighborhoods. To begin with, the program was just supposed to concentrate on 10 blocks in north Brooklyn. Late in the game, the NYPD wanted to add 14 more blocks. The project ended up doing 24 blocks with funding for only 10.

“They all staggered out of the back of this program exhausted,” recalls the Citizens Committee’s Clark. “It was a blizzard of work.” Felipe Franco, the former coordinator of the program, was more direct: “We did too much for the NYPD. We overextended ourselves.”

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Long and narrow, Valentine Avenue near 194th Street curves just enough to block visibility from one end to the other. The tall buildings on Valentine, looming over the narrow sidewalks, seem to shut off light. “Canyon streets,” says John Reilly of the Fordham-Bedford Community Housing Coalition, which manages buildings on the block. “They’re tougher than some of the other blocks. They’re very dense; they’re hard to police.” Standing on the sidewalk under thousands of windows, it’s hard not to feel exposed.

For years Jenik had been holding monthly community meetings with the local police precinct to try to solve the neighborhoods’ drug problems. Blunt and stocky, the priest looks like he could be that tough but kindly cop of urban legend. Jenik, who speaks fluent Spanish, came to the neighborhood over 20 years ago. In 1985, he started holding masses in the streets and staging drug vigils where neighborhood residents would sing and pray the rosary, moving from hot spot to hot spot. So when the Model Block program was announced, Our Lady of Refuge, right around the corner, seemed like a natural place to hold the first meeting.

Commander Scanlon was there, as well as head of the NYPD’s Community Affairs Department Yolanda Jimenez, and organizers from the Citizens Committee. They explained the “enforcement” phase of the program, including regular patrols, drug arrests and ID checks. Meanwhile, the residents were urged to attend a 10-week seminar in community organizing and anti-crime tactics, conducted by the Citizens Committee. When the enforcement phase was over, it would be in part up to residents to make sure the drug dealers didn’t come back.

“While we’re having this meeting, they’re locking down Valentine Avenue,” remembers Heidi Hynes, who participated in the organizing of the block. “When we came home, they had put a giant truck with a spotlight on the block. It was lit up like day, and there were cops in front of every building. That’s how it was kicked off. It was like, we’re here, we’re not messing around, there’ll be no more of this.”

Hynes and a few others who attended the Citizens Committee training formed the Valentine Avenue Association, which quickly raised money and helped brighten the block with new lighting and trees. But when it came to enforcement, the neighbors balked. NYPD’s Community Affairs asked the block association if it wanted to get walkie-talkies and patrol the streets, reporting any crimes residents might see and creating a grassroots enforcement presence. But all this time, through Jenik’s monthly meetings, they knew that the very same drug dealers who had earlier plagued the block had simply moved around the corner to Briggs Avenue. “We said no,” remembers Hynes. “I mean, we’re going to be walking around with walkie-talkies and they’re going to be walking around one block away?”

Once the intense police presence was gone, neighborhood residents who had been active, like Hynes, found themselves being followed and harassed even more than before. After Monica T. was threatened, Hynes and her husband went to a meeting at the local precinct to discuss the incident. Walking back, they were greeted with hisses: “Snitch!” taunted several of the drug runners who were gathered on the sidewalk. “We know you went to that meeting with the police!” Terrified, Hynes ran back to the meeting, where NYPD Assistant Commissioner for Community Affairs Eileen Auld was still talking about further organizing efforts on the block. “So I was listening to her talk about youth programs, and I’m thinking about my immediate need. My husband had just been threatened!”

Looking back on the program, Hynes has mixed feelings. “In some ways, it was successful,” she says now. “It helped us get together and establish a more neighborhood-wide discussion about crime in the neighborhood.”

The Citizens Committee and the NYPD think the program as a whole worked. “From our point of view, it was a solid, runaway success,” says Clark, pointing out that 550 people went through the training, forming 37 neighborhood associations, many of which received seed grants from the federal government. And the NYPD is looking to expand Model Block into an entirely new crop of trouble spots.

That’s already proving difficult. Two years after the triumphant inauguration of the Model Block program on 163rd Street in Washington Heights, the NYPD announced it was going to add another model block nearby, on 159th Street. Community residents and organizers angrily refused. Pointing out that, even after the barricades and identity checks, there are still shootings on 163rd Street, some residents felt they would have to surrender their freedom in exchange for nothing. “It doesn’t do what it says it’s going to do, because it doesn’t eradicate the problem,” says Yvonne Stenett of the Community League of 159th Street. “They were offering me a tree in front of my building so they could snatch my civil rights.”

Meanwhile, the residents of Valentine Avenue aren’t sure if their model block still exists. And they don’t feel much safer. “Early in the morning, you see this line of people coming down on 194th Street to buy the heroin,” says Mendez. “You see the kids going to school–the police are out there too, but they’re not seeing it! They look like those horses, with blinders on the sides of their face.”

Jenik still holds his monthly crime meetings in the church gymnasium, and neighbors still complain about the same old drug-dealing hot-spots. “These are sites that are on this agenda every single month,” he thundered at a September 7 meeting, as five uncomfortable-looking cops from the 52nd Precinct fidgeted under the flickering gym lights.

“We had the best of the NYPD to solve it,” says Hynes, “and we still had the heroin.”

If the program succeeded, it was as an organizing effort, not as crime prevention. The organizers concede that the drugs are still there, but say that eradicating drugs was never part of the plan. Ex-coordinator Felipe Franco, who lives on a model block himself, says neighborhood residents are more apt to get involved now. “Now they do something they never did before. They call the police.”

As for the NYPD’s measure of success, and Safir’s pledge to reclaim the city, block by block? “If you walk by the block, they’re still selling drugs on the corner,” says Franco, and he pauses thoughtfully. “I wonder what their goal was.”

Hynes knows what her goal is. “My next-door neighbor is pregnant,” she says, and then laughs, thinking how ridiculous her request must sound. “Can you clean this up in six months, please? I want this to be a good neighborhood for my god-daughter to grow up in.”

Annia Ciezadlo is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.