2007-01-05 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor's Desk

The Beginning of Wisdom, This Time, Could Be A Solution To The Gun Problem
Commentary By Howard Schwach


I have three favorite sayings that I use to guide my actions. The first came from the pilots that I worked with when I was on an aircraft carrier in the early 1960's. Their mantra was "always honor a threat and always check six." What that means is to always watch your back and to not turn your back when somebody challenges you.

The second comes from Colin Powell. When he was an ROTC cadet officer in college, he appointed his best friend to run an important drill even though the friend was unqualified. Needless to say, the drill got screwed up and the team lost. His mantra then became, "Sometimes, to do the right thing, you have to piss somebody off."

I am not sure where the third saying comes from. I have tried "googling" it to no avail. The old saying goes, "The beginning of wisdom is the understanding that there are problems without solutions."

All three sayings pertain to the gun violence problem in Rockaway and what can be done to remediate that problem.

There are those that believe that the problem has no solution, but I don't agree.

When I wrote about the fact that local politicians have shied away from even talking about black on black violence, I got a call from City Councilman James Sanders, who said that I got it all wrong.

He said that marching shoulder to shoulder with Sharpton and the New Black Panther Party does not mean that he agrees with all of their goals, including those reducing the power of the police.

He is wrong. Marching with Sharpton and the Panthers and then not clarifying that he does not agree with their goals leads people, including myself, to the belief that he does.

Sanders said that he had a plan to stop the violence. He has no plan. He had a litany of complaints about the state of Rockaway society, most of which have been around since I was growing up in Rockaway and that goes back to the 1940's.

I often discuss black on black crime and gun violence because they are so much a part of Rockaway life. I often excoriate black leaders such as NAACP President Ed Williams and Councilman Sanders for not addressing the problem. That tends to piss them off. That is too bad,

Sanders told me that he was going to wait until after the new year to talk about the problem, but was sparked to action by three homicides over three weeks at the end of last year. One of Congressman Gregory Meeks' lieutenants told me the same thing.

This is not a new problem. It has been going on for years.

What we get from our black leaders such as Sanders is the same old litany of complaints about Rockaway: education is bad; there is little local business and what there is does not hire young black men; transportation to where the jobs are is poor; there is little after-school activity for teens; there are lots of parolees and prison returnees without the adequate resources to reform them; unemployment is high; blah, blah, blah!

Are all of those things true? Of course they are. Should young black men sell drugs and carry guns that they use regularly on other young black men because those things are true? Of course not!

Yet Sanders' plan says those things have to be changed before guns can be taken out of the hands of young black gangbangers.

That is his plan!

There is nothing in the plan that addresses the fact that people have to start taking responsibility for their own actions rather than blaming the society for all of their poor decisions.

Remember, I taught in the Rockaway community for more than 20 years. You don't know how many times I heard a young, black youth tell me that he was never going to take an entry level job for "chump change" when he could steer people to a drug dealer and make much more money. I can't count the times I heard a student tell me that learning about the Constitution and becoming a voting citizen was "white" and that anybody who acted that way was not a real man.

Listen to the lyrics of the music most of the kids listen to. Listen to Gangsta Rap. All cops are pigs, all women are bitches or ho's. All real men carry guns and beat their women. Real men settle difference by shooting their adversaries. Real men kill and rape. Only "wussies" obey the law.

Sanders believes that the police are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

"Instead of a serious attempt to resolve these problems, we have relied on the police department to 'keep a lid' on this 'pot' that we all know is boiling," said Sanders. "The usual 'fix' to flare-ups [such as this one] involve massive, aggressive policing. This results in the bad and the not-so-bad going to jail for a while as the 'lid' is pushed tighter. Everyone knows that if the pot continues to boil, it is just a matter of time before it blows [again]."

"In light of the uproar over the tragic killing of Sean Bell, this aggressive policing becomes more explosive," he added. "New methods are needed."

In fact, old methods are needed. For many years, there was a specialized unit in the NYPD called the "Street Crime Unit." The cops who were in that unit worked undercover to take guns off the street before they could be used to kill anybody.

They were highly successful and homicides as well as gun events dropped precipitously in this city.

Unfortunately, the cops in the squad made some mistakes. In 1999, undercover detectives from the unit tragically shot Amadou Diallo, a man who was unarmed, but who they believed was going for a gun.

Under political pressure, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly closed down the unit in May of 2001, redeploying most of the 180 officers who remained. In its heyday, more than 400 undercover officers roamed the city, searching for violent offenders and working to get illegal guns off the street. The 30 officers remaining in the unit were tasked with protecting the city's cab drivers from crime.

Kelly said at the time that he neeed the cops for more important duties, but it was clear to anyone who read the papers that the unit had become a political liability despite the fact that it was highly successful in taking guns off the street. Sanders was one of those who was happy to see the aggressive undercover cops go.

He told me last week that he wants "assertive" cops rather than 'aggressive" cops. I wish he knew what he was talking about. He was not taught in the Marines to be assertive. He was taught to be aggressive. You don't win battles without being aggressive and we are in a war against gun crime.

Since the Street Crime Unit was disbanded, gun crimes stabilized for a time and then went up quickly. As gun crime grew, so did the number of homicides. This year, homicides are up about ten percent from last year, the first time the homicide rate has risen since the demise of the Street Crime Unit. Without them, it will continue to grow, I believe.

When I was a teacher, I ran a cafeteria period for more than 300 students. I could walk into that cafeteria and know by the atmosphere and the way the students were moving around that something was brewing. That comes with experience.

There are cops who are experienced in the same way, who "know" that a person is carrying a weapon by the way they move, the ways they stand, the ways they wear their clothing. The Street Crime cops had that kind of experience.

Due to political pressure, the rules engagement changed. Cops were restrained from searching people who they "knew" from their experience were carrying weapons. Guns proliferated. Homicide rates grew.

We need the Street Crime Unit back in Rockaway. We need to aggressively go after gangs and guns.

It might piss Sanders off, but that is the first step in finding a solution to the gun problem. All of the other solutions that include finding jobs for young black men, giving them a place for recreation, finding a way to rehabilitate them after they get out of jail and providing good transportation to job sites comes later, after the problem is stabilized and the guns are largely gone. If that fact angers the black community, it is too bad. I don't think it will, however.

The black people who are the victims of the gun violence will welcome the police.

What Sanders doesn't understand is that people who live in city housing projects are tired of being madeprisoners in their own homes. They are tired of not being able to look out the window for fear of being shot.

They welcome the police.

Sometimes to do the right thing, you have to piss somebody off. That was said by a black man who ran the military and was our Secretary of State. I have to think he was thinking of James Sanders when he said it.

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