Neighborhood watch groups may be associated with gated communities in the suburbs, but New York City has some of its own. And now, some in Brownsville are trying to fashion their own local law-enforcement effort.
Brownsville has long contended with a reputation for high crime. In 2014, the rap is not as apt as it used to be because crime has declined in Brownsville along with the rest of New York. But violence in the east Brooklyn neighborhood remains stubbornly higher than that of the rest of the city.
According to NYPD’s CompStat, the citywide felony crime rate decreased by about 31 percent between 2001 and 2013; in Brownsville, it decreased by about 19 percent over that same time period. But violence, while less common, persists in Brownsville. This year, there were 22 shootings recorded by the precinct, up from 14 at this point in 2013. Last year, the community was rocked when a toddler in a stroller was shot and killed outside a housing complex.
That is why Margaret Brewer, the chairperson of the public safety committee of the neighborhood’s community board, is trying to create “safe zones” around Brownsville’s schools and shopping areas.
For Brewer, the idea is rooted in her belief that people will view their well-meaning neighbors differently than professional uniformed police officers—and that residents need more resources to resolve conflict.
“We can’t wait anymore,” she says. “Summer’s coming in around the corner.”
Eyes on the street
Brownsville currently has police officers stationed at schools. But Margaret Brewer thinks that the police presence is psychologically detrimental to children. Instead of fostering a learning environment, Brewer says, the police presence makes it more difficult for children to learn.
At each of the neighborhood’s 22 schools and its shopping areas, Brewer wants to station volunteers around a four-block radius, with one police car for support. Her idea is for patrol members to be trained to give detailed eyewitness accounts if crimes do occur. Brewer also wants to teach residents skills in conflict resolution, first aid and CPR.
“Anything that shows presence through the power of actual residents on the streets is an automatic good,” says Daniel Murphy, the executive director of Brownsville’s Pitkin Avenue Business Improvement District.
But the initiative has been slow to move. Even though Brewer hopes to roll out the program by September in time for next school year, Brewer says, “I don’t know exactly if they [the community] understand what it is we’re trying to put together.”
Brewer’s safe zone initiative is not the only law-enforcement initiative led by communities. An NYPD program called Blockwatchers was created in 1973, with 63 volunteers. Over the years, the number of volunteers and precincts has fluctuated with the crime rate and public interest.
Participants complete training sessions, then receive confidential identification numbers that they use when they call to report problems or crimes in the community. The 81st Precinct’s Community Affairs office said that a training session could last around an hour and a half; the 110th Precinct said that training consisted of a manual that explained how to give detailed observations of their surroundings, like people and vehicles.
Calling the COPs
More aggressive than Blockwatchers are the Civilian Observation Patrols, dubbed COPs or civilian patrols. While not armed and not authorized to arrest, these organizations look and behave more like professional police forces. (Asked for information on the COP and Blockwatchers programs, including the number of such programs that exist, the NYPD did not respond.)
According to Frank A. Kotnick, Jr., the president of the Glendale Civilian Observation Patrol in southern Queens, the civilian patrol’s purpose is to assist the police force, primarily through observation.
Kotnick says that patrol members must fill out applications with the patrol itself and with the NYPD. Applicants also need to give fingerprints and submit to a background check. The board of directors has final say on whether an applicant is approved.
Civilian patrol members perform patrols in their neighbors, equipped with jackets, vests, lights and radios which, along with marketing materials, are paid for through donations from the community, Kotnick says. They are not allowed to make arrests and, if they witness a crime, must call it into police. “We’ve been instrumental in stopping a lot of crimes from happening just from being out there,” he adds.
Glendale’s crime rate has significantly decreased over the years; the 104th Precinct, which includes Glendale and the surrounding neighborhoods of Ridgewood, Middle Village and Maspeth, reported that the felony crime rate had decreased by about 44 percent, outpacing that of the rest of the city. But, according to one civilian patrol member, graffiti remains a problem in the neighborhood; on one Friday visit, at least two different establishments had been tagged.
The Glendale civilian observation patrol promotes itself as the oldest and largest branch in New York City. It was founded in 1976 and, according to Kotnick, has 67 active-duty members. At the neighborhood’s recent Easter parade, one civilian patrol member said that they had been involved for a decade. Some of the founders of the organization appeared to still be involved.
The Shomrim inspire debate
Some of the city’s civilian observation patrols are not just geographically based. Perhaps the most well-known example of culturally-based neighborhood watch groups are the Shomrim, which are affiliated with Orthodox Jewish communities. There are Shomrims in Borough Park, Crown Heights, Flatbush and Williamsburg, as well as in other cities in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Local Shomrim have come under scrutiny over the years for various reasons. Members of some groups have been accused of attacks motivated by sexual orientation.
But the Borough Park Shromrim’s handling of the tragic Leiby Kletzy case has probably drawn the most amount of criticism for its members’ work. Kletzky, 8, was reported missing to Shomrim in the summer of 2011. Three hours passed before Shomrim called the police. Members of the patrol argued that Shomrim receives calls about missing children quite often and, because the children typically turn up safe, the group does not burden the police with calls for most cases.
Levi Aron later was arrested and confessed to the murder of the child. But heat on the Borough Park Shomrim was only intensifying, as the public learned that the group had a file of people suspected to have molested children that it did not share with the police.
However, politicians and police alike have praised civilian observation patrols’ work. The Borough Park Shomrim has received earmarked funds from state and city politicians (including then-Councilman Bill de Blasio, who provided $10,000 in discretionary funding in fiscal year 2008) that have helped the group outfit itself with a mobile command center.
“Having a COP is beneficial towards getting residents to feel better interacting with us,” Captain James Grant of the 72nd Precinct (which overlaps with the territory of a Sunset Park group) said to the Home Reporter News. “Then, once there is a success story, we can acknowledge them and build [even] more trust and outreach.”
Are they needed?
But some may wonder why a civilian observation patrol, or even a Blockwatchers unit, is even necessary in a city like New York that has one of the largest police departments in the world. According to the NYPD’s website, there are 34,500 police officers. The Los Angeles Times reports that NYPD’s headcount amounts to 4.3 police officers for every 1,000 residents, second in the country to only Chicago; Los Angeles employs only about 2.5 police officers for every 1,000 residents.
Meanwhile, in 2013, New York City reported its lowest murder and shooting rate since it started keeping count.
In Glendale, Kotnick says that the neighborhood’s precinct has long been understaffed. During the community’s Easter parade, the traffic detail, which blocked off streets with their cars as the parade passed through the streets, was made up nearly entirely of civilian patrol members. There were about 25 civilian patrol cars on duty for the parade, joining one NYPD vehicle and one NYPD auxiliary car.
A police officer who was at the Easter parade, Tony Jiminez, said that they “couldn’t survive in the precinct without them. They’re an asset to the community.”
Back in Brownsville, a similar civilian patrol appears out of the question given the little enthusiasm the less ambitious “safe zone” idea has garnered. Brewer expressed disappointment in the level of interest for the program, suggesting that some parents did not want to chaperone their children on the walk to school out of fear for their safety.
Murphy, the BID director, says that gathering volunteers for programs like the safe zone project always proves difficult. “That’s always the hardest thing, with people putting their money where their mouth is,” Murphy adds. “Even if it’s not money. Sometimes especially if it’s not money.”
But Brewer hopes that she will see a change with the new program. “The crimes that are occurring are senseless and the community really should respond differently,” she says.
Citizen Law-Enforcement Groups
The NYPD didn’t respond to questions about how many blockwatch and COP groups are currently active in the city. The following list is drawn from news accounts over several years:
47th Precinct – Wakefield COP
49th Precinct – Van Nest COP, Morris Park Community Association, North East Bronx Association 43rd Precinct – Blockwatchers
81st Precinct – Blockwatchers
66th Precinct – Boro Park Shomrim
70th Precinct – Flatbush Shomrim
67th Precinct – Civilian Observation Patrol
77th Precinct/71st Precinct – Crown Heights Shmira, Crown Heights Shomrim
90th Precinct – Williamsburg Shomrim
72nd Precinct – Sunset Park COP
Kings County Patrol
Brooklyn South Safety Patrol
34th Precinct – Inwood Civilian Patrol
19th Precinct – Central Park Safety Patrol (COP)
Northern Manhattan Civilian Observation Patrol
101st Precinct – Rockaway Blockwatchers, COP
110th Precinct – Blockwatchers
112th Precinct – Forest Hills Blockwatchers
114th Precinct – Astoria Civilian Observation Patrol, Astoria Blockwatchers
102nd Precinct – Blockwatchers
105th Precinct – Cambria Heights Civic Association Civilian Patrol
111th Precinct – Bayside COP