'It's a great idea ... not being implemented'
NEW YORK >> When Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced the next New York City police commissioner this month, he said he wanted someone who could make neighborhood policing a reality and help ease the distrust that persists between officers and residents in many predominately minority communities, like Far Rockaway in Queens.
"I believe it's going to change this city," de Blasio said when he announced that James P. O'Neill, the chief of the Police Department, would succeed Commissioner William J. Bratton in September. "I believe it's going to become a model that'll be looked at around the country because it really answers what people are aching, everyone's aching for it."
In the days that followed, de Blasio and O'Neill described their visions of residents being on a first-name basis with the officers who patrol their neighborhoods and even having their cell phone numbers. The goal is that the police and neighborhoods would work together to solve percolating issues before they grow into bigger crimes. Bratton has championed this policing method since he was an officer in Boston in the late 1970s, and it is now embraced by de Blasio, a Democrat. O'Neill has been credited as the architect of the current model.
In the 101st Precinct in Far Rockaway, a former beach resort dotted with public housing projects and pockmarked by poverty and crime, a pilot program has been underway for 15 months and the reviews are mixed. Some residents said they were unaware of the program, while area leaders and others praised it.
"I've never heard of it," Noel Cora, 35, said as he buzzed a man's head at Franco's Unisex Salon in the downtown area, where a planned $91 million redevelopment project is expected to bring mixed-income housing, new businesses and beautified public spaces.
But Councilman Donovan Richards Jr., a Democrat who represents Far Rockaway, said that in areas patrolled by neighborhood coordination officers, or NCOs, "they are very effective."
He recalled that after the arrests in June of 22 people, including several members of a street gang on drug charges at the Redfern Houses, a public housing complex, the officers attended a tenants' meeting to discuss the arrests and address concerns.
"It's amazing to see these people, the tenants and the civic associations, know who their NCO officers are and have their cell phone numbers," Richards said. "They really are making the effort."
While it is difficult to assess the success of the program, crimes that include murders, shootings and robberies have declined in the precincts in the pilot program compared with 2015, according to police data, a drop that mirrors decreases citywide. The Police Department, however, has little evidence that the program has helped bridge the searing divide between officers and the public, kindled in recent years by police killings of civilians, especially black men. The Police Department has yet to conduct a long-awaited survey meant to gauge the sentiment of residents.
O'Neill said, for now, officials would judge the program's efforts based on crime statistics and anecdotal evidence.
"By the numbers, we are doing well," he said at a crime briefing this month at Police Headquarters. "And anecdotally talking to the cops, we're doing well, and in talking to people in the community, I know we're doing very well also. And again, this is a program that has just begun, so we have a long way to go."
Leaders and activists in Far Rockaway said one reason residents may be unfamiliar with the program could be its size: Of the roughly 200 uniformed officers in the 101st Precinct, just 12 officers and a sergeant are neighborhood coordination officers. Eight officers are assigned to four patrol areas and another four work in public housing developments, where they replaced a precinct satellite.
Jazmine Outlaw, the president of the 101st Precinct Community Council, a group that meets with precinct commanders, said the police officers were rarely visible except at scheduled events and meetings, which residents who are skeptical of the police in the predominantly black, Latino and Caribbean neighborhood do not attend. Officers also rarely step out of their patrol cars to talk to people on the street or inside businesses, she said.
"It's a great idea," Outlaw said. "It's just not being implemented, and I don't know where that disconnect is happening."
Milan Taylor, 27, the founder of the Rockaway Youth Task Force, said the disconnect was obvious. He said race was "the elephant in the room." The officers in Far Rockaway are mostly white, Taylor said, unlike the people they encounter on the streets.
"They seem very uncomfortable with everyday folks," he said. "Until we actually see people who are comfortable in this community, I don't think much will change with the NCO program."
The police commander in Far Rockaway, Deputy Inspector Justin C. Lenz, said officers' personalities can matter more than their race.
"We've made a few changes since we started; it's not the same group," he said. "And we feel that we have the right mix of officers."
The neighborhood policing program has now been rolled out in 32 precincts and public housing areas across New York, and police officials plan to expand it to 44 total commands by October, or just under half of the city's police precincts and all nine of its public housing complexes.
Lenz said the public housing complexes were his biggest challenge because after the precinct satellite disbanded, residents worried that they would not be protected. But, he said, they were eventually won over by an increase in police patrols and in the accessibility of the coordination officers.
He credited the changes to a drop in shootings in the 101st Precinct, which have decreased this year to eight from 12 during the same period in 2015.
"Every month," he said, "it's getting better and better."
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