Times Square. In its colorful and danger-filled heyday of the 1970s and ’80s, porn shops, drug pushers, prostitutes and pistol-toting stickup men were the price of admission. But the venue has been a tourist-friendly commercial strip for some 15 years. In early April, for few minutes, that changed.
On Easter night, a series of brawls and violent confrontations broke out in Times Square and nearby Herald Square among roaming bands of youths, reportedly resulting in the shooting of three women and one man, whose ages ranged from 18 to 21. A 20-year-old Bronx man was arrested in two of the shootings. The New York Police Department alleges that a rowdy group, including some who are gang-affiliated, caused the mayhem after flocking to the area for the annual New York International Auto Show at the Jacob Javits Convention Center. More than 50 youths were arrested or given summonses for disorderly conduct. Although some who were picked up later claimed that they were wrongly apprehended at the scene, what isn’t in dispute is that while the injuries among the wounded weren’t life-threatening, the incident—which garnered newspaper and television coverage worldwide—stoked old fears. The mayor called it “wilding.”
Some of the old anxiety had already been creeping back. The citywide murder rate rose nearly 23 percent in the first 11 weeks of the year compared with 2009. Despite multiple economic challenges facing the city, the mayor in his executive budget reversed proposed cuts that would have reduced the NYPD head count. Ostensibly, the move was a reaction to the failed May 1 terrorist bombing. But the proposal to cut cops had people anxious well before Faisal Shahzad left his SUV parked in Times Square.
For many New Yorkers, however, crime isn’t news. While peace has prevailed in much of the city for most of the past 15 years, there are plenty of neighborhoods where the presence of guns, as well as their deadly consequences, are routine. And it’s a reality that no single demographic in New York City knows quite as intimately as its youth.
In 2008 more than a quarter of the city’s gun-violence victims were age 16 and younger. Some experts fear that the onset of summer—with more teens out and about, fewer jobs available and budget-busted services—will contribute to a rise in youth-related gun violence. Those observers point to cases like the fatal shooting in May of two teenage bystanders in the Bronx—Marvin Wiggins, Junior, 15, and Quanisha Wright, 16. Two Bronx men in their 20s have since been arrested in the case. “The story is not that something—for all practical purposes—‘unprecedented’ happened in Times Square,” says David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “We still have poor communities of color where mothers are afraid, kids are getting shot, kids are getting killed, and every young man knows somebody who has been killed. That’s the story.” It’s not all about numbers. Individual shootings have an impact that a digit (there were 1,800 shooting victims in the city in 2007, the last year the city provided that figure) doesn’t convey.
In July 2008, Brooklyn native Dwayne Hyde—then a 25-year-old employee with the Steve Madden shoe company at the Kings Plaza shopping mall—hopped on his motorcycle and rode alongside several friends to attend a nighttime barbecue in Flatbush. “We were heading out to a different barbecue in Queens because a friend of mine wanted to use our bikes in a music video,” he recalls. “That’s where I really wanted to go.” But Hyde agreed to briefly stop o with his friends at the barbecue being held on the intersection on East 59th Street and Glenwood Avenue. “I saw a lot of people that I knew, so I was just greeting everybody,” he says. “The whole time I was there, I was just keeping my eyes open. Anytime I’m in a large crowd, I’m always aware that something could happen.” Nearly five minutes later, something did. As he sat on his motorcycle and waited for other friends to join him for the ride to Queens, Hyde answered a cell phone call and watched a green Oldsmobile roll by. Within moments, he heard what he initially thought had been fireworks. “I heard, ‘pop, pop, pop’ through my right ear. And as soon as I turned, I got hit by the bullet.”
The single bullet, fired from a .45-caliber weapon, struck Hyde on the right side of his face. “I fell, and then my bike fell on top of me,” he explains. Bleeding profusely as he lay on the ground, Hyde witnessed the chaos unfolding around him. “There was maybe another 12 to 14 shots that rang out. I heard people screaming, and I saw everybody running all over.”
As friends quickly raced to his side, some got to work on moving the motorcycle away from Hyde while others used cell phones to call paramedics and his mother. “All I was thinking about was my mother. I was just praying, ‘Lord, please, I can’t die like this,’” explains Hyde, who says his father was shot and killed in the city during an attempted robbery in the 1980s.
He was rushed to Brookdale Hospital, and it quickly became clear how badly Hyde had been injured. The bullet shattered the right side of his jaw, damaging his nerves, and lodged near his spine. Fearing paralysis, doctors waited until the next evening to conduct surgery. “I later found out that three other people got hit too. They were treated and released,” he says. “And one of the cops on the scene told me that they found bullets from three different guns.”
The spike in gun violence these days has been rattling some neighborhoods that had enjoyed a relative respite from violence, including increasingly gentrified locales like Clinton Hill, Brooklyn—where the 88th precinct has already seen six shootings this year, including a couple of drive-by incidents in which bullets struck pedestrians, after experiencing none during the first six months of 2009.
Soon after the shootings, Councilwoman Letitia James— who assumed her seat in 2003 after the assassination of then Councilman James E. Davis by a political rival inside City Hall—made a public appeal in March for the area to be designated as an NYPD Impact Zone, which would bring an influx of rookie cops. That request is still under review. But in the meantime, the NYPD has since deployed a mobile unit and skycam to Myrtle Avenue.
Still, James contends that more law enforcement should only be a partial plan of attack. “We need to rearrange our priorities. All the emphasis has been on developing downtown Brooklyn, but we’re seeing blood and death on our streets right in the shadow of all that,” she says. “Our kids need part-time jobs and more after-school programs. If there’s money for the $4.5 billion Atlantic Yards development project,” which James has adamantly opposed, “then there should be money for this. What’s more important?” The question is where that money should go. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes has run a series of gun buyback programs—the latest of which took place in May at six area churches and led to the acquisition of nearly 300 guns— as well as pushed to increase the maximum sentencing penalty for carrying illegal firearms and produced a recent DVD film on the impact of youth gun violence in the borough. But Hynes says he remains “frustrated and worried” by the spike in shootings.
“In Brooklyn, we’ve had three more murders compared to this time last year. Even though we’ve had reductions in crime, this has really been a difficult area to get under control,” says Hynes, who has held the DA post since 1990. “We’ve had many programs, and none of them has been a panacea. But we’re sure as hell fighting to see what works.”
In April the NYPD announced the results of Operation Phoenix, a yearlong probe in which an undercover cop acquired some 150 weapons in Brooklyn. Among the weapons recovered were those that had been linked to the slayings of 18-year-olds in two separate incidents: the October shooting of Brian “Cosmik” Scott, a rising figure in the rollerblading scene, near Prospect Park and the November killing of Isiah Davis, who was found on a Brownsville street corner. Last year two murders were recorded in Harlem’s 28th Precinct, which encompasses the area from West 110th Street to West 127th Street—a zone that has been undergoing rapid economic change in recent years.
To date, two homicides have already taken place in 2010. “For the most part, this is a community of hardworking people. But there’s also a lot that they don’t really see or notice,” explains Officer Joseph Carrasco as he careers his squad car along West 125th Street, with his partner Officer Catherine Melendez seated on the passenger side, on a recent Friday night.
Carrasco, who has served in the 28th Precinct for some five years, recalls once observing a group of youths on a Harlem street corner, including one who appeared to be selling drugs. When Carrasco and other officers went over to the group, he stopped a 13-year-old boy and made a startling discovery. "This kid had to be about 5-6 and 97 pounds. His eyes turned pale, and his whole demeanor changed when he saw me,” says Carrasco. “I told him to get his hands out of his pockets. And there it was on his waistband—a .38 chrome revolver that was almost as big as he was. It’s really sad.” It’s instances like those that Rodney Harrison, a youth-savvy deputy inspector and commanding officer of the 28th Precinct, uses while explaining the NYPD’s “stop-and- frisk” policy during the Harlem youth anti-violence workshops and community meetings that he regularly attends. “A lot of times I’m asked, ‘Why are you bothering us?’” he recalls. “But I tell them that if we get a call about a robbery, and the person’s description is a male black with braids, then guess what’s going to happen now? We don’t know if you did a robbery, but we may have to stop and engage you.”
Last year the NYPD conducted 575,304 stop-and-frisks (which actually includes instances where cops stop and question but don't actually frisk)—an 8 percent increase from 2008 and the most recorded since 2002. The searches reportedly resulted in more than 7,600 weapon seizures, including 760 guns and 6,000 other weapons. But the vast majority of those stopped were not carrying weapons or doing anything for which the police could arrest them or issue a summons. And while a 2007 RAND study of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy found no evidence of racial profiling, more than 80 percent of those who had been stopped in the last set of figures released were black or Hispanic.
Proponents have long argued that stop-and-frisks have served to reduce gun violence, yet it remains a subject of enormous controversy. Critics contend that the entire policy is in need of an overhaul. “Every one of those stops should be justifiable,” says Eugene O’Donnell, professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “The whole idea being ingrained into the head of police officers is that this year, the number of stops has to be larger than last year. You might get a gun, but there’s a perception that the cops are being heavy-handed. And that’s a serious concern.” Many elected officials echo this criticism.
For Councilman Peter Vallone, who leads the Council’s Public Safety Committee, the mounting criticism of the policy reflects hypocrisy. “I’m getting sick and tired of elected officials who want to have it both ways. They complain about crime and want cops on every corner, but then they want to complain about the tactics already proven to have brought crime down,” he says. “It’s time for them to get off the fence—either they want more guns and shootings or they’re willing to support effective police work.”
The story of youth and guns in the tougher parts of town is not a simple one of killers and the killed. A new movement has sprouted to address the violence and its causes. Man Up, an organization founded in East New York by Andre Mitchell, is one. Another is Not Another Son, launched by Oresa Napper after the fatal 2006 drive-by shooting of her 21-year-old son, Andrell, outside the Tompkins projects in Bedford- Stuyvesant. “The young man that they were trying to get was standing in front of the building. They think it’s the Wild, Wild West. Like it doesn’t really matter,” she says of Andrell’s killers. “A lot of people are talking about how crime is going down, but we’re still seeing a lot of pain. I’m trying to do all that I can to bring this issue to the surface because this really shouldn’t be acceptable.”
Debates about crime statistics and police tactics are easy to handle compared with the question embedded deep in the background of incidents like the death of Andrell Napper: Why?
“A lot of the gun violence is definitely gang-related,” says Carrasco. “You have your Crips and your Bloods, but we have a lot of other crews in the precinct, like the Gun Totin’ Divas, the Gun Totin’ Goonies and the Spartans,” he says.
Of course, that does not mean all the victims are in gangs. One day in mid-March, on the ground floor of the High School for Public Service in Crown Heights, a group of 15 students affiliated with an after-school program run by the gun control advocacy group New Yorkers Against Gun Violence rejects—with some heat—the proposition that most of the impact of the city’s gun violence is experienced by the gang-affiliated.
“That’s not true,” says Christy Bhola, a 17-year-old Canarsie resident, who says she joined the program after her mother and brother were robbed at gunpoint on the front steps of their home. “It’s not as if it’s only gangs just killing each other where they go, ‘OK, I’m a gangbanger, and you’re a gangbanger. Let’s do this.’ It doesn’t happen like that. You could be driving your car, and a stray bullet could hit you.” Others describe instances of discovering guns and fleeing bullets during spontaneous shooting incidents. Sharalee Jones quietly explains how the randomness of gun violence struck close to home last September. “My cousin was shot and killed on the street that he lived on, which was a block away from me,” she says. “You just don’t know.”
Even in individual cases, the motive is not always clear. During his one-month hospital stay, Hyde struggled to regain his ability to swallow. He has since recovered physically. But memories of the shooting itself resonate. “It’s terrible dealing with something that you don’t have any control over,” he says. “The recovery was even worse than the shooting.” No arrests have been made, as far as Hyde knows. “From what I was told, somebody in the car was shooting at two different gentlemen on foot, who were across the street from each other,” he says. “None of this was ever in the newspaper, as far as I know. It was just another night.”