As Increased Citywide Gun Violence Continues, East Harlem Residents Feel Police Are Withdrawing from the Neighborhood

Elizabeth Garcia, 58, sits on a bench near her home in Johnson Houses in East Harlem.

About a year ago, Elizabeth Garcia, 58, moved from the Bronx to Johnson Houses in East Harlem in order to be closer to her family. But after months of frequent shootings in the area, she fears for their safety — and for her own. 

“You can’t feel safe in your neighborhood. You hear shots and you don’t want to look out the window. You don’t know what bullets are going to fly through,” she said. 

Garcia spends a lot of time with her 4-year-old granddaughter Anaya, going on walks and watching her while she plays outside. When she can, Garcia takes her to Central Park instead of the playground in their housing development due to her concerns about the nearby shootings. 

Garcia, who lives on disability, said that she has not seen a strong law enforcement response to the violence. Over Independence Day weekend, she called the police multiple times about people getting into fights and setting off firecrackers, but no one came. She said she is not sure what to tell her granddaughter when she asks about the police. 

“I can’t say to her ‘Well, trust the cops.’ Because I don’t trust them,” she said.  

East Harlem has experienced among the highest increases in shooting incidents in the city at a time when gun violence in New York City is spiking. Citywide shootings have more than doubled and murders are up more than 40% in the first nine months of 2020, as compared with the same period in 2019, according to police data. Although cities often experience summertime spikes in violent crime, experts say this surge is greater than what they would expect from normal annual fluctuations. 

Local residents and community officials attribute part of this increase to police being less responsive to crime in general, including shootings, in recent months. They are concerned that this pullback is a reaction to the protests in New York City and around the nation against police brutality and systemic racism sparked by the death of George Floyd. 

Some residents say that decreased police involvement in the area has made the problem worse by emboldening criminals. 

“I think that people are not dumb. The people on the street that commit crimes, they understand the dynamics, that there’s going to be less police on the streets,” said Kioka Jackson, a lifelong East Harlem resident and president of the 25th Precinct Community Council.

Gun violence is not a new problem in East Harlem. 

In 2019, over one third of shooting incidents in Manhattan occurred in either the 23rd or 25th precincts in East Harlem, according to city data. Economic inequality, the drug trade, and revenge are some of the driving factors behind local shootings. In 2016, the murder of Juwan “Chico” Tavarez, a 16-year-old from Wagner Houses, sparked a years-long series of turf disputes and retaliation shootings between residents of rival East Harlem housing developments that continues to this day. 

Part of the reason for this year’s spike in gun violence is the coronavirus pandemic, local residents and officials say. East Harlem has suffered the highest rate of coronavirus cases and deaths of any neighborhood in Manhattan, according to city health data. The pandemic has left many in the neighborhood struggling after losing jobs and loved ones, creating stressors that have worsened existing problems, including violent crime. And too often, innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire, worried residents say.

In the past, police departments in the U.S. have protested through work slowdowns, a form of unofficial strike in which officers avoid making arrests or issuing summons unless explicitly required. Under New York State law, work slowdowns by public employees, including police, are illegal. However, police slowdowns have been documented in New York City in the past after protests against high profile instances of police brutality, according to Danneile Davis, a field advisor for the National Network for Safe Communities Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  

This year’s perceived police slowdown has left many East Harlem residents feeling abandoned by police, which Davis said could contribute to future violence.

“Violence tends to increase because community members take enforcement into their own hands,” she said, referring to the retaliatory shootings between residents of housing developments in East Harlem as a perfect example of this kind of trend.  

This summer’s protests have also highlighted the history of racism in the U.S., a history that can make it difficult for residents like Elizabeth Garcia to trust the police, explained Davis. 

“There is a long and ugly and complex history with interactions between communities of color and law enforcement, dating all the way back to slave patrols,” she said. 

Police may hesitate to intervene — even if they suspect a crime may be occurring — if they are concerned that their actions may not be supported by policymakers in City Hall or their superiors headquartered at 1 Police Plaza, according to John Nuthall, spokesperson for the New York City Police Benevolent Association, the municipal union for police officers. 

A perceived decreased police presence in East Harlem could be a result of the city’s policy changes inspired by this summer’s protests, Nuthall said, describing these changes as a “tipping point.” 

On July 15, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a new law in response to widespread outrage over Floyd’s death that made it a misdemeanor for police to use restraints that involved “sitting, kneeling, or standing on the chest or back in a manner that compresses the diaphragm, in the course of effecting or attempting to effect an arrest.” In August, the Police Benevolent Union joined a coalition of law enforcement unions to file a suit to overturn the new law but have so far been unsuccessful in court. 

Officers have become more reluctant to make arrests or issue summons unless strictly necessary because of this kind of legislation, said Nuthall. However, he maintained that any decrease in law enforcement responsiveness in East Harlem or elsewhere was not a coordinated response to protests against police or police brutality. 

“The frustration is there, but that’s not what’s motivating a cop when they get a call,” he said. 

However, he admitted that many officers were upset by the city budget passed this summer, which took about $1 billion in funding away from the police department.

The New York Police Department declined to comment. 

“I know that there was a lot of resentment on both sides prior to the budget being passed, and right after. I am sure that there were cases where there was some sort of slowdown,” said Councilmember Diana Ayala, who represents District 8, which includes a significant portion of East Harlem.

Ayala confirmed that she has heard evidence of a slowdown from residents, especially in the weeks leading up the 4th of July, when she received multiple calls from constituents complaining that police were not responding to reports of people setting off firecrackers or engaging in other illegal activity. 

Those with less generous views of cops say that they are pulling back in retaliation for anti-police sentiment in the city and nationwide.

Omar Jackson, whom coworkers describe as “breathing East Harlem,” believes that police have withdrawn from the neighborhood in response to increased scrutiny and accountability in the wake of the protests. 

“The effect that that had on the NYPD, in particular was, ‘OK, these people are fighting us back now,’” said Omar Jackson, director of Stand Against Violence East Harlem, a community organization that works to prevent gun violence through youth outreach in the Wagner, Johnson, and Jefferson public housing developments. 

East Harlem residents like Jackson say that police are responding to crime scenes less quickly because they feel resentful after months of protests against police brutality, and that shootings have gone up as a result. Many have conflicting feelings about law enforcement. Often, they don’t trust the police, but they also don’t feel safe without them due to the high rate of crime in the neighborhood. 

Carmen Colomba, 31, has lived in East Harlem all her life. She too believes that police have become less responsive to crime in the area as a result of increased scrutiny in the aftermath of this year’s protests, and that this perceived withdrawal has contributed to an uptick in shootings. Colomba said that she has had to change her routine out of concern for her safety. 

“I used to go out for night walks and I don’t do that anymore. I’m always a night owl, so walking around helped clear my mind or de-stress, and I do not feel comfortable at all doing that now,” she explained. 

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