Martial arts trainer Dennis Torres excitedly flipped through pages of his photo album, stopping occasionally to point to images of him orchestrating a grimace in reaction to a student's move on him.
"You see. That's how simple it is to defend yourself," smiled the head of the Washington Heights chapter of the Guardian Angels, an international group that provides free civilian crime prevention and self-defense training.
Battered by the twin blows of a steep rise in crime and a depleted police force, the neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood are increasingly turning to Torres' "defend yourself" mantra to stay safe.
Elected representatives are lobbying the police to allow civilian patrols, residents are increasingly queuing up for self-defense classes and even the police are suggesting that residents could undergo training meant for fresh recruits.
"It is important to be proactive, rather than waiting for things to get worse," said Ibrahim Khan, spokesman for State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who represents the neighborhoods and is both organizing self-defense classes for women and advocating civilian patrols.
Crime decline spurred headcount cuts
The 34th Precinct, which covers most of Washington Heights and all of Inwood, has received 871 crime complaints this year, up 20 percent from the 723 last year.
Complaints have risen across crime categories, but murder and burglary have witnessed the steepest rise. Crime complaints across New York City have remained almost constant over the same period—67,469 in 2011 compared to 67,468 in 2010.
The crime spurt has coincided with the precinct losing about 50 officers since 2009, according to neighborhood elected representatives. These representatives, while encouraging community anti-crime initiatives, have also written to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly to bring officers back.
Ironically, the chief reason for the reduced police strength is a drop in the precinct's crime level from earlier years.
By 2010, crime complaints under the 34th Precinct had fallen by almost 90 percent compared to 1990. The precinct received just 1,206 complaints in 2010 as compared to 10,027 in 1990. Many officers were transferred to other precincts grappling with high crime.
"While we are very excited about the community initiatives for the neighborhood's safety, the most important thing is to get back 50 officers to the precinct," Khan said.
With crime rising steeply again, the precinct commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Barry Buzzetti, has ordered officers on clerical duties to hit the streets, and has managed to get some temporary, additional officers to bolster his force. But they aren't permanent assignees to the precinct, and will eventually leave.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg's abolition of a tax introduced in the early 1990s to raise the strength of the police officers has meant a cut in the force by about 1,000 officers, said State Assembly Member Herman Farrell. This means the officers lost by the precinct will not be easy to replace soon, he said.
That's why the community's self-defense strategies need to kick in, proponents are arguing.
Calls for civilian patrols
One strategy the police are suggesting is for residents to join the Citizen's Police Academy—where ordinary citizens undergo the training fresh police recruits are put through.
Buzzetti has also hinted that he was not averse to civilian patrols. "Managed properly, these patrols can work really well," he said at a recent public safety meeting.
Civilians need no permission to informally get together and walk through their neighborhood, keeping a lookout for crime or suspicious behavior.
But formal civilian patrols—of the kind proposed by Espaillat and others are proposing—consist of groups of unarmed residents authorized by the police to roam the neighborhood, acting as their eyes and ears, with a hotline to the precinct community affairs officer. These patrols can move in cars using flashing lights.
Inwood had such a civilian patrol, and many residents give it some credit for the reduction of crime during the 1990s and 2000s. It was disbanded two years ago because of squabbling between members and with the precinct.
But some residents are concerned that civilian patrols risk spiraling into vigilantism. Assemblyman Farrell hinted that he harbored his own concerns. "Walking around the neighborhood is fine, but anything more than that leaves me uncomfortable," he said.
Khan, Espaillat's spokesman, however said he was confident there were no major differences between the state senator and Farrell. "These patrols have a long and successful history in the city and across the country. We are not reinventing the wheel," said Khan.
At Torres' center, senior citizens, often the most vulnerable in high-crime zones, are queuing up for basic self-defense classes. The class for senior citizens last year had 15 people when it started in the third week of September. This year, two weeks before the class was to start, 25 people had already registered.
A special self-defense class for women last week had 50 attendees, compared to about a dozen normally, organizers said.
"People are definitely worried about the rise in crime," said Torres. "This year's going to be busy."