2009-01-16 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

There's Lots Of Mistrust On Both Sides Of The Badge
Commentary By Howard Schwach

There is something wrong when three separate New York City juries refuse to convict cop-killers who are patently guilty of the crimes for which they are on trial.

There is something badly wrong when dozens of Redfern Houses residents know the identify of a teen who shot and killed a teenaged girl who was dancing at a party and refuse to provide the name of the killer to police detectives.

There is something wrong when some of our daily papers constantly harp on the fact that police concentrate their enforcement on minorities in the face of the data, which shows that minorities commit the great majority of crimes of all types in New York City.

As the Daily News said recently after a Rockaway man was found not guilty in the murder of Police Officer Russell Timoshenko, "[The jury members'] decisions were infected by the antipolice mentality that has been drummed into the New York psyche by relentless depictions of the NYPD as a force of untrustworthy cowboys."

The depiction of police as an armed force of occupation and the fact that many minorities refuse to cooperate with police even when a minority teen is killed leads to a feeling on the part of many young police officers that the job they do is not only disrespected, but futile as well.

Two years ago, there was an article in one city newspaper in which two young police officers assigned to the 101 Precinct in Far Rockaway talked about their frustration to an intern who they thought was just doing a ride-along.

It turned out that the journalism student was on assignment to do a story about cops in minority areas.

The story was telling. The young cops mistrusted the people they served. All they wanted was a better precinct or a chance to leave the police department altogether. They spoke angrily about "them," the people who live in Far Rockaway and about the area as if it were a war zone.

That story did not do much for policecommunity relations.

There are two things to understand. First, there are cops who are racist and there are cops who do boneheaded things that can easily anger a community.

In fact, you will find racists and stupid people in every profession. You hear more about the cops because they are on the front lines and they are covered by every newspaper in the city. They are right there on the street and visible.

Secondly, the fact that they interact more with minorities than with other community members is directly related to the fact that minorities commit a disproportionate percentage of the crime in New York City.

Look at the statistics.

The murder rate among black teenagers has climbed since 2000, even as murders by young whites has stayed the same, or even declined in some places, the New York Times reports.

In 2000, according to the national report, 539 whites and 851 black juveniles between the ages of 14 and 17 committed murder. In 2007, the number for whites, 547, had barely changed, while the number for blacks, 1,142, was up by 34 percent.

The 2007 statistics for our city are even more striking. In more than 70 percent of the homicides that year, both the killer and the victim were black and both had criminal records.

Police statistics in New York City show that in 2007, the last year for which statistics are available, in 82 percent of the calls to the 911 emergency system in which a criminal was described, he was described as a "black male."

So, then, is it any wonder why police stop and frisk more minorities than white people in Far Rockaway?

To add to the problem locally, for the past several years, the police have been conducting vertical patrols in most of the public housing complexes in Rockaway, arresting anybody they find who does not live there on charges of "trespassing."

That procedure had cut down on criminal activity such as drug dealing and petty theft in those housing projects, but has angered many of the residents who find their friends and relatives who are simply in the buildings to pay a visit under arrest because they cannot provide proof of identity or explain why they are in the building.

I can understand their anger. After all, this is America and people have a right to visit friends and relatives.

I can also understand why the police impact those public housing projects, because a great majority of local crime has a focus in those buildings.

Afew years ago, we did a study of the shooting patterns in Rockaway and came up with a startling finding.

Nearly 85 percent of the shooting events in Rockaway were within ten blocks of a city housing project.

Many of them were in or around the projects themselves, particularly around Redfern, Ocean Bay (formerly called Edgemere and Arverne) and Hammels.

There is another disquieting fact that can be gleaned from the Rockaway homicides.

I have been at The Wave full time since June of 2001. During that time, through 2007, the great majority of black on black homicides in Rockaway, approaching 100 percent, fell into the category in which both the killer and the victim were criminals.

In 2008, however, we began to see a change where, in a number of the murders, the victims were innocent of any crime other than perceived slights.

That might not mean much in the rows of statistics that define the problem, but it means a lot in terms of quality of life in Rockaway.

It means a lot when a community knows who killed one of its own and refuses to tell police.

It means a lot when residents don't trust police.

It means more when the police cannot trust the community.

Last week, the City Council mandated that the police department file an annual report detailing the use of deadly force during the year. The report has to include the race, gender and age of the people who were shot.

Want to bet that the report for 2009 will show that the great majority of people who were shot were teenage black males?

Don't make the bet, it's for suckers only. Everybody knows that the report will break that way, and also that the report will then be used by some politicians and the New York Civil Liberties Union to show that the police force is racist. You can bet that will happen.

The NYCLU and the New York Times will continue to excoriate police even though the statistics show the cops are following the road where it takes them.

Cops will continue to disrespect and mistrust citizens who won't help solve homicides.

That is the way of life in Rockaway, where "Don't snitch" is the core belief.

Something, however, has to change, and the current economic crisis, coupled with fewer police on the street, is going to exacerbate the problem, not solve it.

The dialogue has to begin, and our politicians, civic leaders and religious leaders don't seem to have a clue on how to facilitate the process.

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