Project Patrol: Crime in Public Housing, Past and Present

Print More
The tenant patrol office at the Robert Wagner Houses in East Harlem.

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

The tenant patrol office at the Robert Wagner Houses in East Harlem.

In 1971, the New York Housing Police Department’s annual report noted that its new recruits were being trained in such street combat techniques as “hip shooting.” Think that sounds quaint? That year, the Housing Police reported 29 homicides in the city’s public housing developments. NYCHA chairman Joseph Christian wrote in 1974, “The rate of crime in our developments is far below that of New York City as a whole.”

By 1989, the Housing Police counted 182 murders in the projects. Granted, this was at a time when crime increased dramatically citywide and NYCHA grew in size. But the number of murders in public housing had risen five times as fast as the city total. That increase contributed mightily to the deteriorating image and reality of life in the projects.

Police captain Nicholas Witkowich patrolled the projects during that period, winning the department’s Medal of Honor after a 1981 shootout in which he killed a suspect who had wounded his partner. Some of Witkowich’s recollections from his days on the beat jibe with conventional wisdom about public housing. Drugs were the root of much of the crime, he says now. Dense, high-rise projects were the hardest to patrol—these “were virtual cities that could not be policed with normal resources.”

But the projects, recalls Witkowich—who has been retired since 2000—were often in better shape than the neighborhoods around them. “The experiment of public housing in New York City cannot be considered a failure because it has provided a basically safe, secure location for [nearly a half-million] people at any one time,” Witkowich says. “From 1973 till today, there is no project in New York City that a solitary police officer could not perform foot patrol in.”

As it has across the city, crime on NYCHA properties has fallen over the past several years. The number of felonies is down 13 percent since 2004. NYCHA’s share of the city’s crime is now lower than its share of the city’s population.

Witkowich attributes the recent success to the 1995 merger of the Housing Police and the NYPD, which lent more resources to the fight against crime in the projects. Some residents, however, say that the merger resulted in a loss of officers’ familiarity. Veteran housing officers, whose only concern was the walkways and stairwells of the projects, made way for cops with broader beats. And residents are often of two minds when it comes to a heavy police presence in the projects: They appreciate the NYPD’s efforts to protect them, but they see excesses, such as officers arresting young men for trespassing merely for being in a different building than they live in.

NYCHA can and will evict people who commit crimes. From 2000 through 2006, NYCHA bounced 207 people who had been convicted. In its monthly NYCHA Journal publication for residents, the authority publishes a “Not Wanted” list of former residents who are barred from NYCHA property because of their offenses. Like any publication, the Journal occasionally prints a correction, as in March 2001: “Apologies to Dwayne Stewart of Bushwick Houses in Brooklyn. Mr. Stewart was mistakenly identified in last month’s ‘Not Wanted’ column.”