Police Line–Do Cross

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Standing in the half-light from the altar candle, Josefina Edwards, wearing a trim cloth coat, talks about her neighborhood while the members of her Charismatic prayer group file into their empty church. This Friday, as they have for the last five years, she and around a hundred of her fellow Our Lady of Refuge parishioners will make a procession around the church, at 196th Street and Briggs Avenue. At each street corner they will pause to sing hymns and offer a public witness to Jesus Christ over a hand-held loudspeaker. It’s a social occasion as well as an act of worship–or was until recently. “Now we go right home,” says Edwards. “There are so many people on the street you can’t even walk down the sidewalk.”

In the last two years the streets of the northwest Bronx neighborhood of Fordham Bedford have grown increasingly chaotic. At night, knots of drunken young men, many in their teens, lean against SUVs, stereos blaring at indescribable volume. Empty beer bottles explode against the sidewalk, and angry voices echo off brick walls, making sleep impossible.

During the day, junkies crowd the porch of a tumble-down house on Decatur Avenue, prepping their arms, while at a nearby Police Athletic League “play street” at P.S. 54, run by Fordham Bedford Children Services, kids and staff are bombarded by eggs, batteries and ice cubes hurled by mocking rooftop gangs. According to residents, dealers and their crews are creating what John Garcia, director of Fordham Bedford Children’s Services, calls “an atmosphere of lawlessness.” Citizens haven’t seen such blatant trafficking since the bad old days of the 1980s. Elsewhere on Decatur, surly teenage crews camp out on doorsteps, glaring at passersby. Over on Creston, a beauty parlor is raided for chairs so dealers can conduct street-level business in style. “We made it through the crack epidemic okay,” says Garcia, who grew up on the street where Edwards lives. “But now it’s starting to look bad again.”

The police from the 52nd Precinct are trying to maintain order. The latest citywide anticrime initiative, called Operation Impact, has flooded high-crime spots with cops and made foot patrols a visible presence on the street. Still, there’s a perception among neighborhood residents that the police aren’t taking action. “I see cops on the corner writing out tickets for seatbelt violations while there’s dealing across the street!” scoffs Edwards’ son Remy, who runs Fordham Bedford’s Heiskell Learning Center.

The truth is that these days, it’s getting harder for police to handle the drug problem–to make arrests and put dealers out of business. The 52nd Precinct, covering Fordham Bedford, Bedford Park, Norwood and University Heights, has always been known as a “busy” area for the police, particularly notorious for burglary and armed robbery. In some respects, things have gotten better. Consistent with a decline in reported incidents throughout New York City and the nation, for the last 10 years crime in the 52nd Precinct is down–at least according to Compstat, the data-tracking system the NYPD uses to identify trouble spots.

Since its inception under the Giuliani administration, Compstat has provided a statistical profile of crime in New York City. But it measures some crimes and not others. Burglaries, robberies, assaults, rapes and, of course, murders are counted. The spectrum of offenses related to the drug trade–possession, sale, loitering and so on–is not. Since the department uses Compstat to determine where to assign its personnel, this has a direct effect on how police do their jobs on the street.

These decisions are now more important than ever. The NYPD has been losing cops at a steady rate since the end of the Giuliani administration, down to 37,000 from a high of 40,000. The 52nd Precinct itself is at a 10-year low. At the same time, Operation Atlas, New York City’s anti-terror effort, is putting new demands on the department’s manpower. Not only are thousands of uniformed police from precincts like the 52nd subject to immediate deployment during an alert–such as the May 22 bomb scare on the Brooklyn Bridge–but more than a thousand detectives have been shifted away from the Organized Crime Control Bureau (which oversees the citywide Narcotics Division) and ordinary precinct assignments to the NYPD’s intelligence activities.

As the police shift their manpower to high-profile terror targets, neighborhoods like Fordham Bedford are losing many of the men and women who have kept the drug business at bay. “It’s creeping back,” admits Community Affairs Officer Mark Morisi, a 12-year veteran of the 52nd Precinct. “We’re doing more with less. People don’t want to believe it, but it’s true.”

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Running roughly from 183rd to 198th Streets, from Fordham University to Jerome Avenue, the neighborhood of Fordham Bedford represents about one-fifth of the total area of the sprawling 52nd Precinct–and more than 40 percent of its crime.

There’s been no shortage of recent efforts to try to turn that around. In 1999, the NYPD’s Central Bronx Initiative flooded the 52 and two adjoining precincts with special anti-narcotics teams. That same year, on the crooked two-block-long stretch of Valentine Avenue from Kingsbridge Road to 196th Street, the NYPD set up road blocks and floodlights as part of its Model Block Initiative, which sought to purge dealers from the area, and organize residents to keep them out.

Both efforts yielded mixed results. Despite a temporary respite for residents, dealers simply moved off the block for awhile, then moved back. Community organizing under police auspices collapsed beneath constant intimidation from drug crews.

A sense of mistrust between the police and community residents, not uncommon in high-crime neighborhoods, complicates police efforts. “Cops here don’t know where they are!” complained Garcia at a September Neighborhood Security meeting, which until recently has been held the first Tuesday of each month in the auditorium of Our Lady of Refuge Church. Residents are torn between a desire for a strong and accessible police presence and the predictable apprehension bred by 20 years of roadblocks, “stop-and-frisk” and no-knock warrants.

What they want is a cop they know and who knows them. “Beat cops would be ideal,” agrees Officer Morisi, “They know the good guys on the block from the bad guys.” But community policing died with the Dinkins administration.

If the neighborhood has a public face when it comes to its relations with the NYPD, it’s that of Monsignor John Jenik, pastor of Our Lady of Refuge. Jenik has always been defiant of the drug business–and has often taken his parish into the streets in an effort to put public pressure on the police department, which he sees as indifferent to the neighborhood’s concerns. In the 1980s, he held vigils and even said mass at drug-dealing hot spots. CNN broadcast one (and all the tires of its news truck got slashed). On another occasion, Jenik brought Cardinal O’Connor on a tour of the neighborhood, forcing panicked cops to line every rooftop. Through actions like these, Jenik got the city and the police department’s attention during the critical years of the crack epidemic.

He’s also the chair of the board of Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation (FBHC), the parent organization of John Garcia’s group. More than two decades after a small group of activists started rehabbing a handful of abandoned buildings scattered throughout the neighborhood, the corporation has emerged as one of the city’s more successful community development nonprofits. It has fixed more than 70 buildings, started a loan fund for neighborhood residents and built a nursing home from scratch. When it opened a shelter for women and children in 1983, it was Jenik who secured funding from the Diocese to keep it afloat.

Jenik is caustic, often withering, in his assessment of police efforts in his neighborhood, and he rarely misses an opportunity to point out what he sees as the NYPD’s shortcomings. Contemptuous of efforts like the Model Block, he calls police brass who tout complex solutions “modern-day Gnostics” who believe themselves possessed of arcane knowledge inaccessible to ordinary citizens. When he hears talk of making “big busts” to flush drugs from the neighborhood he replies sharply, “I’ve been hearing that since [former Police Commissioner] Ben Ward!”

Jenik cites the case of Wilson Ramos as a particularly egregious example of police incompetence. In May 2000, Ramos was standing on Briggs Avenue drinking a soda when he was struck in the head by a stray bullet during a shootout between officers and a man who had robbed a pot dealer’s house, then hijacked a bus. “We had been vigiling in front of that house for months and it came up at every one of our monthly meetings!” insists Jenik. The shooting remains a black eye for cops and a sore point in the community. The priest has battled with three of the last four commanders of the 52, and he doesn’t give a fig how the cops view him: “I’ve never been liked at the precinct and I don’t care.”

Despite this, Jenik and Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation have forced the police to listen to him anyway. For the last nine years, the precinct leadership has been coming to monthly Neighborhood Security meetings in the auditorium of Our Lady of Refuge to hear community concerns and figure out ways to respond. Within the NYPD, it’s extraordinary for top precinct officials to meet regularly with an independent community group. It’s all the more remarkable because when they show up to Our Lady of Refuge, the cops often get no mercy from their hosts, particularly Jenik, and spend the nights sitting under fluorescent lights listening to a litany of their sins.

Last September, when the 52’s new precinct commander, Joseph Hoch, attended his first–and last–Neighborhood Security Meeting, harassment charges dominated the evening. As he attempted to deliver a set speech about his philosophy of policing, Hoch was quickly interrupted by angry citizens. Remy Edwards, visibly shaking with rage, described how a simple traffic violation turned into a confrontation as six officers, hands resting lightly on their holsters, surrounded him on the sidewalk. Jenik related how a volunteer at the church’s thrift shop was stopped while walking with her child, called a crackhead, and made to uncuff her jeans by two uniformed officers. (As with many accounts of police malfeasance from Jenik, this one turned out to be exaggerated: The woman in question, Bernice Gonzalez, says she was not with her child when she was stopped on 198th Street and actually was accused of purchasing marijuana from a local dealer.)

Jenik then proceeded to make one of his key points: Cops listen to confidential informants but not to residents. Though the inspector had just taken command, the four-year-old Ramos case was brought up. As Hoch became visibly angry, the auditorium buzzed with tension. At one point an oldtimer in the front row questioned Hoch’s “Bronxhood.” (He was born here.)

But by the end of the night, the dynamic in the room was very different. Far from haranguing the precinct brass, residents were clustering around Hoch to talk with their new precinct commander about problems on their blocks.

It’s this kind of communication between police and the community that Garcia, soft-spoken and diplomatic, has sought to cultivate in his year and a half of chairing Neighborhood Security Meetings. Since Fordham Bedford Children Services works with kids from three public schools, as well as Our Lady of Refuge’s own parochial school, Garcia has a natural interest in seeing that schoolyards, playgrounds and student assembly areas are protected. While he shares many of Jenik’s criticisms, he’s still managed to maintain a close day-to-day working relationship, serving almost as a community liaison with the precinct. He makes a point of saying, “I always find the police helpful and professional when I talk to them.” Officer Morisi has known Garcia for eight years and considers him “honest but fair.”

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Garcia knows that police harassment happens. He’s experienced it himself. “The only time you deal with a police officer here is in a negative situation,” observes Garcia. “Either you’re getting stopped for a traffic violation or because you fit the identity of someone they’re looking for.” Three years ago, in an eerie echo of Diallo, he was stopped by officers with guns drawn as he was reaching under his shirt for his cell phone. “I took it in stride and said to myself, ‘Man, that’s the neighborhood.'”

The Our Lady of Refuge Neighborhood Security Meetings are currently in abeyance. Though Father Jenik doesn’t want the issue to be “Jenik versus the precinct,” there’s little doubt that his antipathy toward the 52 is one of the main reasons that Inspector Hoch canceled regular police participation in the meetings. Says Hoch, “I never understood why one group gets a meeting all to themselves.”

“Mistrust of the police is ingrained in the culture of the neighborhood,” Remy Edwards maintains. But the police also sense that people in the community don’t have cops’ backs. On December 1, during the filming of a video for rap star Noriega on Decatur Avenue, a suspect who had been picked up on a possession warrant broke away from police. As they chased him down the block, cops were pelted with garbage from neighboring rooftops while the crowd cheered. Five shots were fired (no one was hurt, and the shooter was arrested the next day). When it comes to drugs, few residents are willing to come forward with the concrete details needed to make an arrest.

For people who live here, there’s a sense of impotence. Most know who is selling what on which corner, and relations can become almost casual. “Every morning I see the local heroin dealer,” relates Wanda Solomon, who lives on Valentine Avenue. “I say ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’–what else am I supposed to do? Once I saw him sweeping the sidewalk.”

If you can look out your window on a Sunday morning and watch dealers in action, it’s hard to figure out why the police aren’t doing anything. Deputy Inspector Hoch, who took over the 52 last August after a stint leading the nearby 48th Precinct, hears complaints along those lines all the time. He says they are misguided. “I understand peoples’ frustrations, but if you just call up and tell me that drugs are being sold on the corner, what can I do?” he asks. “My officers can’t just walk up to [suspected dealers] and search them. Then they’re breaking the law. At most, they can ask them to move on if they’re somewhere they’re not supposed to be. So the average person says, ‘The cops did nothing.'”

What Deputy Inspector Hoch can do, if his precinct receives enough complaints, is deploy a Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit, or SNEU–a team of six officers and a sergeant–and begin the painstaking task of gathering enough information to make a legitimate arrest, using rooftop observation posts and criminal informants. Says Hoch, “It takes a little longer but it leads to better results.”

Hoch happens to be an expert in this arena. Forty years old and rising rapidly through the ranks of the department, he served in the Bronx Narcotics Bureau before becoming a precinct commander. (He is also one of just a handful of orthodox Jews to hold high command in the NYPD.) The 52, in Hoch’s estimation, merits two SNEU units. But since the precinct has lost close to a hundred officers in the last 10 years, he can only field one.

And that’s not even the most critical shortfall Hoch is dealing with. Detectives from the Bronx Command of the NYPD’s Narcotics Division provide critical support to precinct anti-drug efforts. Officers at the 52 won’t talk about numbers, but David Palladino, vice-president of the Detective Endowment Association–who incidentally grew up in Fordham Bedford, attended Our Lady of Refuge’s parochial school, and served in the 52 as a uniformed officer and a detective before retiring in 1991–explains the extent of the damage. According to his sources, more than 20 percent of Bronx Narcotics Division personnel have been shifted to counterterrorism work. Narcotics detectives confirm that the 52 has had its support teams cut from eight to three.

A shortage of undercover officers is also making a fundamental difference in how the precinct attacks drug trafficking, Palladino claims. Each undercover “module” consists of six officers, a sergeant, and two undercover cops. According to Palladino, there are now only two covering the entire 52 and the adjoining 47th Precinct. “The Bureau is starving for undercover cops,” says Palladino, who maintains that even in the best of times it’s tough to find volunteers for such a dangerous assignment. “They’re the backbone of narcotics enforcement. Without them, cops have to rely on observation, and the dealers do surveillance too so they get ‘made'”–recognized and promoted in the business. “The whole process becomes hit-and-miss.”

What Hoch does have at his disposal are 50 rookie cops, compliments of Operation Impact, the program cited by Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly as instrumental in making New York City “the safest big city in America.” In the 52nd Precinct last year, all of those officers were concentrated within two “impact sectors” (there are currently 22 across the city)–one in the perennial neighborhood hot spot on Decatur Avenue between 193rd and 198th streets, the other covering the area just to the north of that, including the streets around Our Lady of Refuge. Hoch can claim that Fordham Bedford now boasts the largest concentration of foot patrols in its history.

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The 52nd Precinct has reported a double-digit drop in Compstat crime in areas where the Operation Impact police officers have been deployed, and they’re a welcome presence to residents. But they are not deterring “workers”: professional drug dealers, masters of sleight of hand, who manipulate tiny glassine envelopes while surreptitiously pocketing cash.

The Impact cops, after all, are rookies, only months removed from a college classroom. They’re naturally experiencing culture shock, in a multiethnic neighborhood with little to unite it socially or geographically. Nigerians work in the Arab chicken shop next door to the Mexican carnecería. The Cambodian grocery store does steady business. Men in dark suits stand in a long line outside an Albanian restaurant on a Friday night. And at its base, Fordham Bedford is still multiethnic Hispanic: Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican and Central American. It’s overcrowded–doubling and tripling up among the increasing number of immigrants is common–and demographically it’s one of the youngest neighborhoods in the Bronx. Despite Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation’s remarkable expansion, the neighborhood simply lacks much organized community presence–a tenant group, a block association–that makes itself felt at street level.

As much as possible, Hoch is trying to keep the Impact cops on the same blocks so they can learn the social terrain. But the final say on their deployment is had downtown. At the beginning of each year, assignments are made according to the current Compstat figures. Confident at the beginning of his tour that he would retain his allotment of 50 cops, Hoch now has to cope with a cut to 30, and they will be moved across the Concourse to patrol St. James Park, deserting Decatur Avenue and the heart of the Fordham Bedford drug trade. The best Hoch can do now is deploy an eight-man “post-impact team” to pick up the slack.

Jenik and Garcia maintain that it’s the threat of violence that inhibits community organizing against crime. Cops acknowledge that the concern is legitimate, but Inspector Raymond Rooney, who commanded the 52nd Precinct for three years before leaving to become head of the Operations for the Bronx Detective Bureau, also offers a critique of FBHC’s institutional culture: “Fordham Bedford, the only thing missing is getting their hands dirty.”

Unlike his predecessors and Inspector Hoch, Rooney enjoys a warm personal relationship with Jenik, whom he calls a “catalyst for the neighborhood,” and he credits FBHC and “Chairman Monsignor” as the prime reason that the Fordham Bedford neighborhood has survived relatively intact. But, he asks, “When was the last time the good people in the neighborhood said, ‘Let’s have a block party, let’s clean up this vacant lot…outside of a Fordham Bedford function, something that they just got a grant to do?”

It’s unlikely that the NYPD will have the resources anytime soon to stage another intensive anti-drug effort like the Valentine Avenue Model Block. Operation Impact may be an imaginative use of the department’s limited resources, but–and both the cops and Father Jenik believe this–it’s certainly no substitute for an adequately funded Narcotics Division.

Fordham Bedford can’t do all the work the NYPD needs to help keep the community organized for order and safety, and the police still have a long way to go to connect with grassroots organizations that could also get involved. Mention of police strategies, Operation Impact, or the new commander draws blank looks at the Decatur Avenue offices of Part of the Solution (P.O.T.S.), a community service group founded in the early 1980s. P.O.T.S. enjoys a good reputation with its neighbors thanks to its legal clinic, run by the Urban Justice Center, and its soup kitchen on Webster Avenue, which feeds as many as 450 people a day. The group works with residents on Decatur Avenue below 198th Street–the heart of the area’s drug zone. But even though police regularly visit the soup kitchen looking for open warrants, the organization reports no formal contact with the precinct. John Hoffman, project coordinator of P.O.T.S, has noticed, and welcomes, the increased presence of young officers on patrol in his neighborhood. He’s also grateful for the free turkeys cops drop off around the holidays.

But Hoffman gets more excited about the prospects for street-level organizing. When asked about the possibility of starting a block association, his eyes light up: “Wow, that’s a really interesting idea!” He’s not talking about citizen patrols armed with walkie-talkies. P.O.T.S. founder Ned Kelly is thinking about getting his neighbors together to pick up dog shit.

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Our Lady of Refuge and Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation have gotten the NYPD’s attention, and their efforts have resulted in Fordham Bedford receiving as much attention from the precinct as it does. But they’ve also monopolized the dialogue. There’s little chance, after years of conflict, that anything cops do now will satisfy Jenik. If there is a possibility for real cooperation between the precinct and citizens, it will probably consist of a handful of neighbors wearing plastic gloves collecting trash while a cop quietly stands on the corner, rather than the latest “cutting-edge” anti-drug initiative or “new model” of community organizing.

Few expect miracles. It’s more than likely that 10 years from now, heroin will still be for sale on Decatur Avenue. But the police have no choice but to look on the bright side. “Ten years ago people were worried about getting killed,” notes Morisi. “So there’s been progress.”

Bob Roberts is a Bronx-based freelance writer.