Can New York Police Build Trust Among Public Housing Residents?

Can New York Police Build Trust Among Public Housing Residents?

3:42pm Mar 18, 2015
Reginald Britt first moved into the Taft Houses, a public housing complex in East Harlem, in 1976
Reginald Britt first moved into the Taft Houses, a public housing complex in East Harlem, in 1976
Alexandra Starr
  • Reginald Britt first moved into the Taft Houses, a public housing complex in East Harlem, in 1976

    Reginald Britt first moved into the Taft Houses, a public housing complex in East Harlem, in 1976

    Alexandra Starr

  • Up until the late 1980s, residents of public safety logged fewer complaints of violent crime than residents in the city at large.

    Up until the late 1980s, residents of public safety logged fewer complaints of violent crime than residents in the city at large.

    Courtesy of Rutgers Press

Reginald Britt first moved into the Taft Houses, a public housing complex in East Harlem, in 1976

Reginald Britt first moved into the Taft Houses, a public housing complex in East Harlem, in 1976

Alexandra Starr

In New York City, the police department has been re-examining the way it patrols public housing since the shooting of Akai Gurley late last year. Gurley, who was African-American, was unarmed when he was fatally shot by a rookie officer in a Brooklyn housing complex. His death highlighted tensions between police and the people who live in public housing.

Relations between the NYPD and residents were smoother several decades back, when public housing complexes had their own police force. Many of the housing police officers were people of color. Until the late 1980s, 20 percent of the force's officers lived in public housing themselves. Their beats tended to be small, and in many cases they patrolled a single complex.

That allowed them to forge relationships with residents.

Eleanor Britt, 67, and her son, Reginald Britt, first moved into the Taft Houses in East Harlem in 1976. They remember their housing officer fondly.

"He was like a friend of the family," says Britt.

In the 1980s, the housing police force changed. Beats got bigger, which meant officers didn't know residents as well. And by that point, the composition of residents had changed, too. A series of court decisions made it possible for more formerly homeless people and people on public assistance to move into public housing complexes.

"There's this massive community churn," says Fritz Umbach, associate professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "And all of this destabilizes communities and makes it impossible for them to police themselves and to help the police."

Things really changed in 1995, when the housing police and transit police were merged into the NYPD.

"I don't feel safe around the police," Reginald Britt says.

Some of that discomfort stems from what happened to his son, Roman Jackson, six years ago. Jackson was standing in the stairwell at the Taft Houses, talking to a friend, when a group of officers booked him.

His crime: Jackson didn't have his identification on him, which is considered trespassing in New York public housing. Officers completed the arrest, even after Jackson's grandmother told them he lived there and showed them his ID.

"If we had had our regular housing police officer, that would have never happened," she says.

Up until the late 1980s, residents of public safety logged fewer complaints of violent crime than residents in the city at large.

Up until the late 1980s, residents of public safety logged fewer complaints of violent crime than residents in the city at large.

Courtesy of Rutgers Press

Until the late 1980s, the rate of violent crime was lower in public housing than in New York City at large. Now the opposite is true. Eleanor Britt doesn't feel her building is safe. And she believes some of her neighbors are part of the problem. "You have residents here who will open the door and let strangers in," she says. "They let the crackheads in." She wants more police presence, not less. She would just like the policing to be different.

Change may be coming, however. Britt's grandson was part of one of the class-action lawsuits challenging the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program. As a condition of a settlement reached earlier this year, the NYPD will move away from using such tactics in public housing.

Now that New York is one of the safest big cities in the country, the NYPD is moving toward more community-style policing, says Roy Richter, who has been an officer since 1988.

"We realize that in order to be effective, you need to develop relationships and address criminal conduct where it exists versus assuming large groups are guilty of some kind of lawbreaking automatically," he says.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In New York City, the police department has been re-examining the way it patrols public housing since the shooting late last year of Akai Gurley. Gurley, who was African-American, was unarmed when he was fatally shot by a rookie officer in a Brooklyn housing complex. His death highlighted tensions between police and the people who live in public housing. Some residents recall a time when relations with officers were less guarded. Alexandra Starr of NPR's Code Switch team reports.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: On a recent Saturday in East Harlem, Eleanor Britt cooked up a storm for her 67th birthday.

ELEANOR BRITT: I'm having roast duck, collard greens, of course, making rum cake.

STARR: Britt moved into this public housing complex, the Taft Houses, 39 years ago. At that time, she and her son, Reginald Britt, really liked the housing police officer who guarded the building.

E. BRITT: He was, like, a friend of the family.

REGINALD BRITT: And we felt safe, and we felt comfortable with him.

STARR: Back in the 1970s, New York City had three different police forces - one for its streets, one for its subways, and one for public housing. In 1995, though, all three of those forces were merged into the New York City Police Department, or NYPD. Reginald Britt says things changed after that.

R. BRITT: I don't feel safe around the police.

STARR: Eleanor Britt understands that sentiment. She's seen officers be aggressive with young African-American men in the building.

E. BRITT: A lot of times they just grab them and throw them up against a wall before they even question them about anything. And, I mean, the incident with my grandson - that just broke my heart.

STARR: Her grandson, Roman Jackson, was arrested by the police six years ago. He was standing in the stairwell talking to a friend when a group of officers approached him. Jackson didn't have his ID on him. In New York City, if you're lingering in a public housing complex and can't prove you're a resident you can be arrested for trespassing. The officers booked Jackson even after his grandmother told them he lived there and showed them his ID.

E. BRITT: If we had still had our regular housing police officer, that wouldn't have never happened.

STARR: Members of the now defunct housing police were in a unique position to forge relationships with the people they patrolled. That's because their beat tended to be a single complex; plus a majority of the housing police were people of color, and about 20 percent of them lived in public housing themselves.

FRITZ UMBACH: That gives the housing police a sense of life in the projects.

STARR: Fritz Umbach is a historian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

UMBACH: They know how to use their discretion wisely - who's a troublemaker and who's not.

STARR: Until the late 1980s, the rate of violent crime was lower in public housing than in New York City at large. Safety subsequently declined in public housing in part because the residents changed. A series of court decisions made it possible for more formally homeless people and families on public assistance to move in.

UMBACH: There's this massive community churn. And all of this destabilizes the communities and makes it impossible for them to police themselves and to help the police.

STARR: Eleanor Britt doesn't feel her building is safe, and she believes some of her neighbors are part of the problem.

E. BRITT: You have residents here who will open the door and let strangers in. They let the crack heads in.

STARR: She wants more police presence, not less. She would just like the policing to be different. Change is coming. Britt's grandson was part of one of the class action lawsuits challenging the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program. As part of a settlement reached earlier this year, police will move away from using such tactics in public housing. Roy Richter is president of the NYPD's Captain Endowment Association. That's one of the force's unions. He's been a cop since 1988. The early years of his career coincided with the height of violent crime in New York.

ROY RICHTER: And there was a direction to the officers to basically take back the streets.

STARR: Now that New York is one of the safest big cities in the country, he sees the NYPD moving towards more community-style policing.

RICHTER: We realize that in order to be effective you need to develop relationships and address criminal conduct where it exists versus assuming large groups are guilty of some type of law-breaking automatically.

STARR: The old-style housing police won't be revived, but there may be a return to their style of policing. Alexandra Starr, NPR News New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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