News | West Harlem

Relationship between police, Harlem locals remains tense

  • COPS AND ROBBERS | Dunia Diaz, an employee at Express Laundromat, feels uneasy despite police response to her robbery in June.
  • NYPD BLUE | The 26th precinct, whose oversight spans the Columbia campus and much of West Harlem, has tried to reach out to the neighborhood in light of increased crime.

In October, Harlem resident Marisol Alcantara and her partner were parking their car when two police officers stopped them.

“I thought they were going to shoot us,” Alcantara said. “One was yelling so loud—she was ranting at us [about] how she’s overworked, how she works more than 12 hours a day, and at the end of the whole thing, they didn’t even give us a summons.”

As chair of the local Community Board 9 Uniform Services Committee, Alcantara has heard her fair share of police harassment stories. But the relationship between police officers and the residents they serve continues to be a source of tension for some Harlem locals.

According to a report released in October by the Center for Constitutional Rights, police officers in Manhattan’s 26th Precinct pull aside blacks 24 times more often than whites in stop-and-frisk searches. In order to stop a person, officers must believe a suspect is carrying a weapon, but the report said that 45 percent of the time, officers cited “furtive movements” as legal justification.

In her role on CB9, Alcantara has spoken with locals who corroborated the report’s findings by alleging unprofessional behavior from police, especially targeted toward minorities. She cited specific examples she had heard from fellow residents: a black teenager was told by the police that he couldn’t loiter on a corner while waiting for his father after school; adult Latino men drinking non-alcoholic beverages on their stoop had to empty their cups in front of officers.

According to James Harper, the community affairs officer for the 26th Precinct, which includes Columbia and most of West Harlem, incidents like these are isolated cases that the New York Police Department takes seriously.

“Things like that always come up,” Harper said. “People have to remember that police officers are individuals as well. In any group, you’re going to have people who may act inappropriately at times, and the police department is certainly not immune to that.”

In such instances, after a case is filed and reviewed, officers may need to be retrained or disciplined, he said.

The 26th Precinct has been making a larger effort to reach out to the community, but Harper said neighborhood turnout “has kind of been underwhelming.”

“I’m a little surprised,” he said. “I think for the most part people actually still feel safe in their neighborhood, despite the fact that we are seeing a slight increase in crime.”

To increase their visibility, police officers regularly attend community board meetings.

“They keep us abreast of what’s going on in regards to how many arrests and how many crimes are going on,” Alcantara said.

The Precinct also holds a Community Council meeting the last Tuesday of every month to go over recent crimes.

Residents have mixed opinions about the police’s responsiveness to complaints and commitment to accessibility.

CB9 member Gladys Tinsley said she feels she is in good hands. “Recently, some officers came by and put up some signs in my building indicating us to be careful, not to leave your window open, things like that,” she said. “Between them and our 24-hour security guard, we’re pretty safe.”

But Dunia Diaz, an employee at Express 1 Laundromat at 129th Street and Convent Avenue, said she still feels nervous in the area. This June, three men came around the corner as she was opening up shop and stole her purse.

Police officers added security cameras outside her store the day after she filed a report, but Diaz said she’s still uneasy.

“Now I come [to work] a little later. I’ve changed my schedule,” she said. “I don’t feel secure like I did.”


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