Crossing The Line

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“We used to be able to just chill in front of our door,” says Jermaine, 22, who lives in Fort Greene’s Ingersoll Houses. He can’t anymore. The neighborhood’s too safe. “I had a cop come up,” recalls Jermaine. “He told me I cannot sit in front of my building. He said if I’m there when he comes back in five minutes he’s gonna arrest me.”

Jermaine spent his teenage years in and out of juvenile institutions and jail for robbery and assault before moving back in with his mother four years ago. In the years since, Jermaine, tall with a scraggly beard, a blue headband and a silver earring in his left ear, has been given tickets for spitting on the sidewalk. He has received more tickets–most of which he says courts subsequently dismissed–for owning dogs without a license. He has also been picked up by the police and held for questioning about his friends’ involvement in crimes.

As far as the cops are concerned, Jermaine deserves the extra attention. Last year, he was arrested for petty larceny–he says, vaguely, that he was running a small internet scam–and put on three years’ probation. Since then, he says the police have arrested him four times, all on charges relating to his dogs.

In recent years, Fort Greene has become known for its swift gentrification–for increasingly pricey historic brownstones and a blossoming of new cafes and bars. Close to half of all small residential buildings have changed owners in the past six years. None of those are rent-regulated; the newcomers are paying market rents and mortgages. All of that was made possible by a tremendous drop in crime–over 60 percent since the early 1990s.

Jermaine and about 15,000 others living in public housing on the north side of Fort Greene have shared in the benefits of reduced crime. But for them, it has come at a stiff price. Crime may be down, but arrests and confrontations with police have become a part of daily life.

“The cops, they harass you,” says one local 21-year-old African American man, who asked not to be named, working as a counselor at a summer jobs program near the projects. His hip-hop image–gold chains and rings, gold teeth-coverings, long hair and bandanna–puts him firmly into the police profile of a likely criminal. “You can’t even walk outside peacefully without having to pull your I.D. out. I look like an average boy in the hood.”

Although he claims he’s never been convicted of any crime, is on his way to college and has never gotten into real trouble, he says that he has been arrested 14 times in the past three years. “They run up on you. Frisk you for no reason,” he says angrily, as coworkers nod in agreement. “I ain’t got no record. Fourteen times for bullshit. Dismissed. Dismissed. Dismissed. Wasting taxpayers’ dollars putting us through the system. You want to run, just to avoid the contact.”

It’s not just the police. At the instigation of the NYPD, parole officers have become sometimes-reluctant players in aggressive crime prevention efforts in the Fort Greene projects–part of a push to target people on parole. “Maybe half my friends are on parole or probation,” says Jermaine. “One of my friends got violated. He had two years of probation left. He got locked up for riding a bike on the sidewalk. He had no I.D. on him.” Police have found other friends of his in violation of their parole “for trespassing. Being caught in a sweep. Being somewhere you’re not supposed to be. A lot get locked up for weed, for drinking outside.”

Inevitably, people here in the projects blame it on the newcomers on the other side of Myrtle Avenue, who have met extensively with the police to demand a safe neighborhood. Both the public housing and the brownstones are part of the 88th Precinct. Darnel Canada, 42, a one-time prisoner who served seven years for assault, now heads the Fort Greene Empowerment Organization, a group that seeks employment for residents in the projects. “Ten years ago,” says Canada, “you’d hear shots for a while and no police. Now, anything you call the police for now, there’s an over-response. Since property values went up there’s a difference. The police response is, ‘You’re messing up our block and we’re not having it.’ A lot of people in the development feel it’s a property issue. Now the police run in here like crazy.”

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The September 11 attack dramatically altered police priorities. For a while, it also muted what had been a torrent of criticism of NYPD practices. The attack and its aftermath highlighted just how vital the police are to the city’s survival, and how brave officers can be in times of danger.

The NYPD did not return numerous phone calls and interview requests relating to this article. But clearly, policing a tract of public housing is a task as complex as any the police take on. “Many residents have social issues that need to be addressed–employment, poor health care, poor diet, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, lack of maintenance to buildings they live in,” notes Eric Adams, a lieutenant at Fort Greene’s 88th Precinct and co-founder of the group One Hundred Blacks In Law Enforcement, a longtime critic of Giuliani administration police leadership. He believes that many residents “look at police officials as representative of the authority figure preventing some of these other issues being addressed.”

Police are supposed to monitor local activities, such as the actions of convicted larcenist Jermaine, but also convince neighborhood residents that the cops are there for their protection. They must balance legitimate crime prevention strategies with equally valid local concerns about excessive, and selective, police interventions.

As a new mayor and an old police chief take office, basic concerns over police unfairly targeting different groups and neighborhoods have hardly gone away. During his campaign, Mayor Michael Bloomberg claimed that racial profiling didn’t even exist. Not surprisingly, his recently stated commitment to end such practices hasn’t convinced reformers that he’s serious. “Problems like racial profiling do not disappear just because a great tragedy has hit the city,” says Adams. “The officer who profiles pre-9/11 didn’t suddenly turn over a new leaf.”

The police once had every reason to identify Fort Greene as an area where crime demanded an overwhelming response. During the Reagan years, the city’s infrastructure came apart at the seams: The crack wars started, and the tree-lined streets, whose historic brownstones had already started to attract gentrifiers, became some of the most violent in the city. In 1987, the 88th Precinct saw 26 murders, 49 rapes, over 1,500 robberies, nearly 650 felonious assaults, 1,350 burglaries, close to a thousand auto thefts or break-ins, and a multitude of other crimes. That year, 5,583 felonies were reported within the neighborhood. Locals started calling Myrtle Avenue, the dividing line between the projects and the brownstones, “Murder Avenue.”

“Drugs started flowing heavy in this community in 1987,” remembers Darnel Canada. “Real deep. The next thing you knew the crime statistics flew crazy high. The 16, 17 year-olds grab a gun and they develop a feeling of invincibility. And then you have a whole bunch of bystanders being shot.” By the end of the 1980s, 88th Precinct and Housing Authority police were making over 1,700 felony arrests a year.

The brownstone-dwellers were hardly immune from violent crime. “My husband was mugged in the park once,” recalls one longtime homeowner. “A bunch of kids jumped us. We were jogging on a Sunday afternoon. His front teeth were knocked out with brass knuckles.”

Though it existed barely a decade ago, that crime-ridden neighborhood would be almost unrecognizable to people moving to Fort Greene today. Through mid-October 2001, COMPSTAT figures indicate only seven murders in the 88th Precinct, 15 rapes, 359 robberies, 177 felonious assaults and 192 burglaries, with a total of 399 arrests in the seven major felony categories. Similarly, in 2000 the precinct experienced nine murders, 19 rapes, 422 robberies, 198 felonious assaults, 267 burglaries and 358 car thefts or break-ins. Murders, robberies, felonious assaults and burglaries have all fallen by between 58 and 75 percent over the past seven years.

Crime has declined by a similar amount throughout the city–by 62.7% percent citywide in the last eight years, according to police department figures. But because Fort Greene started this period with a particularly high crime rate, the fall to more manageable levels has had a significant effect on the psychology of the neighborhood. And increasingly, what crime does remain in Fort Greene is contained within the sprawling public housing in its northern section.

Newly arrived Fort Greene residents are aware that their now-thriving streets haven’t been safe for very long, and they’ve gone out of their way to make sure that those streets stay safe. Even as crime has fallen, new residents and business groups continue to insist that the police do even more. “More demands are put on the police already and even more are going to be put on the police in the future,” says one local homeowner who has been involved in meetings between residents and police. At some of these invitation-only meetings, homeowners have asked neighbors, police lieutenants, detectives and local political figures to sit down in their living rooms and discuss how best to lower crime on their streets. “You have people moving into the neighborhood who expect better levels of service than in the past. It’s an economic issue,” says the homeowner.

With his partner, Richard M. bought a house in the late 1980s for $400,000. He could now sell it for more than double that. The 48-year-old chef and caterer won’t give his last name for fear of reprisals. He’s well aware that crime could be much worse than it is: Mugged at knife- and gun-point six times in his life, including once in the Fort Greene area, he has not been victimized in the past five years. But he remains adamant that the police must protect his property and his quality of life. “I [have been] asking them to make more arrests. Drug arrests mainly. Now they’re making quality-of-life arrests, which is great,” says Richard. Graffiti and drug dealing are two of his chief complaints. “From a police point of view there has to be more vigilance,” he says.

In the spring of 2000, in the wake of a drug-related shooting on his street, Richard organized a large meeting in his house. Over 40 neighbors attended, as well as representatives from the police precinct and the local congressional and state assembly offices. The locals’ demands appeared reasonable: They didn’t want stray bullets whizzing past them when they stepped outside their doors, and they wanted the police to do whatever was necessary to make the area safe. “We asked them to be more responsive to what was going on in the neighborhood,” Richard remembers.

In the months since then, while Richard still isn’t entirely happy, he thinks the police are now responding more to homeowners’ concerns. “Just getting people from standing on the corner. Drinking. Loitering. Things [the police] feel lead to bigger crimes. They’ve told us they stop card games because that leads to bigger things. Marijuana. Minimal things. There’s much more of a major presence of the police in the area now.”

Could crime return? “I don’t think so,” says Loretta Brown, owner of the Clinton Hill Simply Art gallery and chair of the Myrtle Avenue Merchants’ Association. “I don’t think the merchants or the community would tolerate it. But I don’t know. The elements are here,” she says, talking of local hoodlums. “You have an interesting mix of people.”

Pressures from property and business owners do matter. Jeremy Travis, co-author of the Urban Institute report “From Prison To Home,” notes that in transforming neighborhoods such as Fort Greene “the issue becomes more acute, because the [gentrification] change creates more demands upon the police.” Caught between the urgings of newly arrived property owners and the grievances of poorer residents, the police face a dilemma, says Travis. “Who do you listen to? Who is the community voice that helps you decide your priorities? Just the fact of urban renewal in a community policing environment causes problems that are not new but are accentuated.”

In Fort Greene, says Bob Evans, chair of Community Board 2, the voice often comes from people who weren’t there for the bad times. “You have people who are new to the neighborhood. They perceive the police as benign. Many ask for quality of life pressures–getting people off the street, not letting them sit on the stoop. It’s been driven by economics–as much the call for middle-income minorities as for whites.”

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Fort Greene, of course, isn’t the only place in the city where aggressive misdemeanor arrests have been a leading tool of law enforcement. After all, it was the centerpiece of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s zero-tolerance strategy, aggressive “broken windows” policing that cracks down on even the mildest manifestations of social disorder.

Citywide, as the high crime rates of the 1980s leveled out and then plummeted, misdemeanor arrests–for marijuana possession, public urination, the consumption of alcohol in parks and the like–increased. They went up by about 66 percent between 1987 and 1999, from 150,000 arrests to just over 250,000.

In Fort Greene, the statistics are even starker. In 1987, the local police arrested 1,104 people on misdemeanor charges. Three years later that number had declined to 846–less than one arrest for every four misdemeanor complaints received by the precinct. Then the numbers began to increase. By 1998, despite the dramatic falls in crime, the 88th Precinct received 4,001 misdemeanor reports and made 1,926 misdemeanor arrests–an increase of nearly 75 percent from a decade earlier. In the first half of 1999, that number ratcheted up still further, to 1,014 arrests in a six-month period, carried out by 88th Precinct police patrols, police assigned to the public housing, transit cops and traffic police.

For public housing residents, such policing has become a brutal fact of daily life. “They run up on our kids, slam ’em against a wall and search ’em,” says tenant Edna Grant. According to Wallace Scott, who has been running tenant patrols against local drug dealers for the past few years, the problem runs even deeper: he contends that police don’t conduct foot patrols of the projects to the extent they do on the middle-class streets, thus failing to establish the sort of peaceable community police presence credited with reducing crime in so many parts of the country. When police enter the public housing, they do so with overwhelming force. “We have too many different officers coming into the area who are not familiar with the area or with our kids,” Scott states. “And when they do come in, they come in swinging.”

Misdemeanor arrests have soared during a period in which crime reports have declined 60 percent. This extremely proactive policing can be interpreted as a kind of success: Arresting more people for ever-more-trivial infringements of the law suppresses more serious criminal activity. That’s the heart of broken windows policing.

But critics argue that these numbers also reflect a police culture that promotes a continued, often unnecessary, emphasis on high arrest rates at a time when serious crime has fallen to its lowest level in decades. “They’re so driven by numbers now,” ex-Police Commissioner William Bratton was quoted as saying in 1998, “that as they have less and less crime to work on, they start going after things that are really far-fetched.”

Says Mike Jacobson, onetime city commissioner of parole and now a professor of criminal justice at New York City’s John Jay College, “The cops now make far more misdemeanor arrests than they ever used to make. It clearly comes with huge social and political costs.”

The revolving door of the city’s jail and court system, argue Jacobson and other experts, is leading to people losing wages and losing jobs, breaking down parent-children relationships, making people more vulnerable to homelessness and, in the long-term, undermining the stability of communities.

Jeremy Travis says that New York has much to learn from Boston’s experience sustaining lower crime rates. There, beginning in the mid-1990s, the police department, in conjunction with the grassroots-based Ten Point Coalition, scholars such as Harvard’s David Kennedy, and a variety of community groups, worked with local teenagers, gangs, and others deemed to be at particular risk of inflicting harm or getting hurt, in an effort to eradicate crime. “It was a very targeted deterrence model,” notes Travis, “involving meetings with police, gangs, churches.” At its peak, Boston saw no teen murders for two years. Its model of interventionist policing is now being taken up by forces in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Portland and other cities. “The lessons in Boston are powerful,” Travis says. Unlike the NYPD’s recent policy of massive sweeps against misdemeanor offenders, Boston’s goal is “not arrest for arrest’s sake. It’s to change behavior.”

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A misdemeanor arrest is a burden for anyone. But for people who are on probation or parole, it can easily mean the end of their freedom. In Fort Greene, the number of people being released from jail continues to outpace the number of those going in. In 1993, 4,497 Brooklyn residents were sentenced to prison, or a full 18 percent of all prison terms issued statewide. In 2000, at the end of a decade in which New York City’s unemployment numbers fell steadily, the city’s economic base expanded, and the crack epidemic subsided, only 1,895 Brooklyn residents were sent to prison, representing barely 10 percent of total commitments statewide.

In 2000, the 88th Precinct registered 262 parolees within its borders; another hundred-plus lived in the nearby Farragut public housing units just outside the precinct borders. Not far to the east, in Bedford-Stuyvesant the 75th Precinct had close to 800 parolees; in Crown Heights, the 77th Precinct included well over 500. Hundreds more, who have either served out their parole, or who were released from prison unsupervised after “maxing out” their sentence or because of good-time credits from the prison system, also live within the area, as do hundreds of others who have spent time in local jails.

Citywide, while fewer than 10 percent of parolees end up back behind bars within the first year of their parole, 40 percent return to prison within three years.

Since 1997, police (whose traditional responsibility has been to enforce the law) and parole (whose job is to monitor and also help ex-prisoners during their years of conditional release) in Brooklyn North and elsewhere have cooperated closely to monitor ex-offenders and find them in violation of parole for any infractions.

In Fort Greene, for example, police, parole and probation officers are going to great lengths to implement law enforcement programs such as Operation JAWS (Joint Absconder Warrant Squad), begun in 1999 to track down parole violators; Operation Gunslinger, which targets parolees for questioning about local drug activities; the Targeted Offenders Program to monitor parolees deemed to be a particular risk to the community; and Operation Nightwatch, a particularly controversial program, started in 1997, that in addition to searches and drug tests involves middle-of-the-night surprise visits to parolees by teams made up of both parole and police officers. All of these are designed to ensure crime statistics stay low. Politically, they also serve to boost the NYPD’s arrest numbers.

Says Willis Toms, council leader for Parole Division 236 of the Public Employees Federation, if a parolee is arrested on marijuana charges, “he is going to be violated. He’ll probably serve another year.” “One of our concerns,” says Milton Stroud, a parole bureau chief working in downtown Brooklyn, “is the number of people being returned to state facilities as a result of drug arrests.” He’s speaking of men like 22-year-old Sace, who served three years in prison for a drug conviction, then had to do another year after a urine test indicated he had been smoking weed.

When the results came in, recalls Sace, “my parole officer asked me to work for them and tell on people on the streets. I’d have to watch them and report on them. I wasn’t willing to do that. I went on the run. I got caught and had to serve the year. It was a terrible experience: In order to stay out of jail, I’d have to put other people in jail.”

The parole officers’ union doesn’t like the crackdown either; they say the NYPD is encroaching on their turf. Members also worry that heavy-handed tactics are undermining community trust in the Division of Parole, with public housing residents increasingly viewing parole officers as informants looking to ensnare more people in the criminal justice system, rather than as allies helping released prisoners stay out of trouble. But with orders from on high, officers have to cooperate. “You drop in on these people, take them to the precinct and make them urinate,” explains one high-ranking parole officer. “Taking them to the precinct allows the cops to question them about their knowledge of criminal activities.”

The police are likewise exploiting parole officers’ legal access to private homes. When a parole officer pays a visit to a parolee, he can search only the ex-offender’s bedroom. However, when the police accompany a parole officer–thus bypassing the need to get a search warrant–the cops can search the entire apartment, and even arrest a parolee’s relatives or roommates on gun or narcotics charges. “There was a few incidents like that in Ingersoll,” says Canada. “Where they came in and as a result the family got evicted from city housing. Because there are drugs in the house and he [the parolee] doesn’t admit they’re his, everybody in the house gets arrested. As far as I know it’s a new thing, because they used to come in with a warrant looking for a specific person.”

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New York is not alone in targeting people on parole for crackdowns. Nationwide, in 1980, 18 percent of those admitted to state prisons were put away for violations of parole. By 2000 that percentage had doubled, to 36 percent; almost half were busted for minor drug infractions. According to Travis’ Urban Institute report, seven out of 10 parolees completed their parole terms in 1984, but by 1998 only 45 percent did so. Fully 42 percent of parolees were being returned to prison, the majority of them for technical parole violations. In California, 65 percent of prison admissions in 1998 were for parole violations.

As law enforcement clamps down on increasingly minor crimes and parole violations, parolees are caught in a cycle of incarceration, release, and reincarceration. “The problem is you have parole agencies with no resources,” says Jacobson. “So once [parolees] start to violate, parole officers are in this bind–because they have nothing else, no intermediate steps they can take, they either have to ignore the violation or take the most expensive, punitive step and send someone back to prison. In an irrational environment, it’s a rational decision.”

It is a trend exacerbated by the hard economic truths faced by most ex-cons. According to Mindy Tarlow of the Center for Economic Opportunities, a Lower East Side organization that works with close to 2,000 citywide parolees each year, only about 65 percent of the group’s clients find jobs; of those, fewer than half remain employed six months later. For the vast number of returning prisoners who receive no job placement assistance, the employment statistics are even grimmer. Not surprisingly, many resort to crime. “Eighty-three percent of people who violate probation or parole are unemployed. That’s a staggering number,” says Tarlow, citing state Department of Labor statistics.

Tarlow’s organization sends out about 200 people each day to work as janitors at CUNY campuses and cleaners at city piers, among other jobs. The crews work four-day weeks and are paid from a pool of money allotted by New York State. “It essentially builds a little résumé for them,” says Jacobson. “It’s incredibly successful. In public safety and criminal justice terms these types of public works programs, and education programs, are the things that keep people from going back to crime.”

On the fifth day, the ex-cons meet with an employment counselor, to prepare for finding work on their own. “If more people were employed,” Tarlow argues, “you could break the cycle of incarceration.” She believes public agencies and nonprofits should coordinate to provide services, from job-finding to drug treatment, in neighborhoods with large numbers coming out of jail and prison. “It’s about having a real service delivery system,” Tarlow says.

Jacobson believes that, paradoxically, the recession could help ex-offenders–with money tighter than ever, the state might be persuaded to expand public works programs for the thousands of parolees returning to communities. The potential savings in diverting nonviolent parole offenders away from prison and into jobs, guesses Jacobson, could be up to $100 million a year.

Darnel Canada agrees that the price of doing nothing is high. “I’m seeing old faces,” says Canada. “And they’re coming out [of prison] looking for employment. I know without employment it isn’t going to be too long before the situation arises that got them into prison in the first place. Once I can take care of my three basic needs–food, shelter and clothing–then I can think about basic principles of morality. But until I can, I go into survival mode.”

In a brutal economy, Fort Greene faces renewed challenges. It will somehow have to preserve lower crime levels and higher property values, without an ever-more-coercive police presence in poorer parts of the area. Police have to maintain public order without sweeping young men and women into jail on two-bit charges. Ex-cons need new job opportunities at a time when everyone’s feeling the economic crunch, while drug users need something other than the criminal justice system as a front-line social service intervention. Above all, though, the challenge comes down to priorities: how to fairly provide police services to all residents.

In the summer of 1999, the residences of several Pratt Institute students were burglarized. Police patrols were on practically every street looking for the culprit. Eventually, they caught him and charged him with possession of crack. When a parole violator ran onto the Pratt Institute’s campus a few months later, police from the 88th Precinct surrounded, and cordoned off, the entire institute.

“People don’t pay attention to crime in the projects,” says one local parole officer. “But when someone walks into Clinton Hill and commits a crime, it’s more serious. People take note. What’s happening on the other side of the park, in the projects, people don’t care about. And that’s always been the attitude of Fort Greene.”

Sasha Abramsky is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.

This article was supported by a grant from the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture of the Open Society Institute