De Blasio’s misguided “gang takedowns”

May 12, 2016

Dorian Bon reports on the impact and implications of militarized law enforcement sweeps in New York City housing projects in the name of stopping gang violence.

SECTIONS OF the Bronx were on lockdown April 27 when a militarized force of 700 officers from the NYPD and four federal agencies descended by land and air on the Eastchester Gardens public housing development at the crack of dawn, sweeping up 87 suspects in what Mayor Bill De Blasio lauded as the biggest "gang takedown" in the city's history.

Geovanni Martin, a 21 year old, died during the raid. Though he was not a suspect, Martin thought the cops were after him and fell six stories to the ground while attempting to flee. Witnesses reported that officers held Martin down even as he lay dying on the street after his fall.

Far from disciplined organizations of traffickers and criminals, the targeted "gangs" were in reality more like loose networks of local youths, which fell periodically into cycles of violence and retribution, at a high human cost to the community. Judging by the personnel involved in carrying out the raid, though, one would think the 120 defendants indicted in this record-setting operation were members of the world's fiercest drug cartel.

Police lead away another youth arrested at the Eastchester Gardens
Police lead away another youth arrested at the Eastchester Gardens

U.S. IMMIGRATION and Customs Enforcement (ICE)--the federal agency whose primary function is to monitor, imprison and deport undocumented immigrants--led the effort and was on the front lines of the raid, charging through the halls of Eastchester Gardens with military gear and battering rams.

ICE's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) collaborated with the NYPD, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and U.S. Attorney's Office of the Southern District of New York to examine social media posts and telecommunications as material to build indictments against the defendants.

The leading role of ICE in this massive raid sets a dangerous precedent for increased partnership between ICE and New York City police in future gang-busting operations, which could put immigrant families at risk of more intense scrutiny.

HSI is legally authorized to investigate and police drug trafficking or "gang activity" so long as these activities have "cross-border" dimensions. But ICE's press release on the Bronx raid does not specify in what way the activity of the targeted youth groups constitutes "cross-border" violence, and the official justification for the agency's involvement in this high-profile case remains unclear.

Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the federal department responsible for ICE, had nothing more to offer to reporters in justifying his department's activity. But Johnson did make clear that he considered "multi-jurisdictional" collaboration between ICE and the NYPD to be the most effective approach to tackle "criminal gangs that threaten public safety," and that he hoped the two forces would continue to "learn how to train and respond together."

Mayor de Blasio won praise from many immigrants rights groups in 2014 when he signed legislation "dramatically limiting New York City's cooperation with overbroad federal immigration enforcement practices," as one report described it. The law did make an exception for cases involving "public safety," but there has been no information released about why ICE was involved.

That murkiness hasn't prevented city officials from heralding this latest "gang takedown" as an exemplar of urban policing. The mayor's press release triumphantly announced that, as a result of the raid, "New York City is safer today than ever before." De Blasio's statement thanked the NYPD, U.S. Attorney's Office and Drug Enforcement Administration--but made no mention of ICE, which claims it was the lead agency in the operation. The mayor's office went on to say:

To those involved in gang activity in our city, our message today is clear: you will be found, and you will be quickly prosecuted for your actions. Our city continues to lead the nation in innovative and sophisticated anti-crime efforts, and today's gang takedown is another example of the NYPD's extraordinary work.

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton glorified the massive sweep as "the single-largest takedown in modern New York history," and emphasized that residents should expect more raids soon, adding that "the message is loud and clear: we are coming and we are intensifying our efforts."

THE VIEW from the Bronx is far less enthusiastic.

Conditions in the Eastchester Gardens Houses, reflective of those in the broader New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), are difficult. The unemployment rate among the over 400,000 official residents of NYCHA almost tripled in the three years after the 2008 financial crisis, shooting up to 27 percent--a spike which contributed to a 31 percent increase in violent crime, according to estimates. There is scant reliable information available on job recovery since then.

The entire NYCHA system is under federal investigation over fears of unsafe environmental conditions, including dangerous lead levels in the building infrastructure.

Under these trying circumstances, residents of Eastchester Gardens and the surrounding neighborhoods have suffered the effects of an often violent rivalry between competing groups of youths, which led to eight recorded deaths, including that of a 15-year-old child named Jeffrey Delmore and a 92-year-old woman, Sadie Mitchell, who was fatally hit by a stray bullet while in her living room.

These tragedies cast a shadow over the lives of many in the community. Some residents responded to the police raid positively, because it came with official promises that violence in the neighborhood would subside. One mother told the New York Times that she felt relieved that "now my child can actually play in the park." Most press coverage highlighted like-minded reactions.

But journalist Josmar Trujillo heard a very different story from residents when he toured the area alongside activists from Copwatch Patrol Unit just hours after the late-April raid.

Anita, a mother of four, shared that she thought the militarized assault on Eastchester Gardens was outrageous. "This neighborhood has been one of the best neighborhoods in the Bronx," she insisted. "I'm not scared to come out here at night."

A second woman, who wished to remain anonymous, told Trujillo that she thought "the raid was so unnecessary," and that "they took a bunch of innocent people who were trying to change." Her friend commented: "Taking people in the night like that, that doesn't make us feel any safer."

These concerns are validated by the fact that crime rates in and around the Eastchester Gardens Houses do not rank among the highest in New York City public housing. Eastchester Gardens wasn't included in the Mayor's Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (MAP), meant to address violent crime in 15 of the worst-affected NYCHA facilities.

Nor are most of the 120 defendants indicted in this case directly implicated in the eight murders at the center of the prosecution. Law enforcement's priority here was to sweep up whole networks of youths, not to quickly confront the worst acts or patterns of violence.

Community members have many legitimate questions and grievances for the city in the aftermath of this raid, and they deserve a real platform to pose these concerns and demand accountability.

THE GIANT Bronx raid is part of a broader intensification of NYPD mass surveillance and gang sweeps. This approach began to develop with "Operation Crew Cut" in 2012, in which Bill Bratton's predecessor Ray Kelly promised to go after violent "crews" in New York neighborhoods with heavy-handed monitoring, arrest and prosecution methods.

These practices culminated in June 2014 in what was also referred to at the time as the "biggest gang bust in city history": the massive police raid on the Grant and Manhattanville Houses in West Harlem, in which 103 indictments were handed out, largely on the basis of social media and telephone surveillance.

The Grant and Manhattanville raid is in many ways a twin to that of Eastchester Gardens, which has now usurped it as the city's largest-ever "takedown," as de Blasio likes to refer to these maneuvers.

In both cases, law enforcement waited to intervene until extensive surveillance had been conducted, and then swept through the projects, throwing into jail a significant layer of each neighborhood's youth.

Smaller raids have occurred periodically throughout New York City between 2014 and 2016, striking Mott Haven in the Bronx in December, and most recently hitting three East Harlem public housing projects with an FBI-led assault just a week before the Bronx raid.

Although these actions continue and deepen former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's agenda in Operation Crew Cut, Bratton and de Blasio are casting them as part of police reforms that de Blasio campaigned on when he ran for mayor--and that Black Lives Matter protests have continued to keep in the spotlight.

The essence of this supposedly progressive model of policing is twofold: reduce the aggressive "Broken Windows" policies like stop-and-frisks that unfairly ensnare thousands of law-abiding citizens, and ramp up a war against violent "crews" and other bad guys.

In reality, the NYPD is continuing many of the "Broken Windows" strategies that Bratton brought to the city in his first term as police chief--from crackdowns on subway performers to getting people evicted from their homes for selling marijuana.

And while the "gang takedowns" are hyped as targeting super-criminals, in reality they are sweeping up hundreds of young people of color whose main crime is living in housing projects with high rates of unemployment and crime.

AFTER THE Grant and Manhattanville raid in 2014, Bratton laid the ground for further sweeps with pronouncements about his department's new mission to stamp out small, "localized crews" plaguing NYCHA developments with nonsensical feuds, which the commissioner described as "violence for its own sake."

The NYPD also released a map purportedly showing the names and locations of these crews across the five boroughs of the city.

But youth rivalries, feuds and crime are not nonsensical or self-serving, as Bill Bratton would have us believe. They are symptoms of poverty, unemployment and social alienation. Eradicating community violence requires moving funds away from surveillance, police raids and incarceration, vigorously taxing the rich and powerful, and swiftly mobilizing far greater resources than we do today to increase the general social welfare, in areas like housing, education, health care, employment and recreation.

We have to mount a strong opposition to this intensifying surge of police raids, by exposing its hypocrisies and advocating for a different path towards making working-class communities safe and secure.

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