News | West Harlem

Public housing tenants seek to improve relations with police

  • Ethan Wu for Spectator
    IMPROVING RELATIONSHIPS | The tenants of local public housing complexes say that the city needs to look at the relationship between the New York police department and local residents.

Ahead of public housing funding changes that will transfer money from security toward repairs, the tenants of local public housing complexes say that the city needs to look at the relationship between police and residents instead.

As part of last month’s preliminary budget, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed that the New York City Housing Authority should no longer pay the police department for security, and instead use the $52.2 million annual security fees toward the authority’s backlog of repairs. Some tenants, however, think there’s a bigger problem that needs to be addressed first.

“As far as police protecting us, there’s really no such animal,” Sarah Martin, former president of the Grant Houses Tenants Association on Broadway and 125th Street, said. “The only times when Grant Houses has a continuing presence is when there’s a problem—we have a lot of gang violence, so they set up posts for a while, but then it dies down.” 

Carmen Quinones, a member of the tenant association of the Frederick Douglass Houses on Columbus Avenue and 104th Street, also said that the policing system needs to change. 

“They’re short of manpower. That’s really the bottom line,” she said. 

Quinones said that the current situation, in which officers from the New York Police Department Housing Bureau’s Police Service Areas patrol housing complexes, is inadequate at both maintaining safety and developing healthy relationships with residents. While PSAs were autonomous units in the past, former mayor Rudy Giuliani brought the housing police and the transit police under the city department.

“If the 24th Precinct was more involved, we would be fine, but if we’re only counting on PSA 6, it’s not fair,” she said. “If they merged, why aren’t they sharing the responsibility?”

Derrick Haynes, a resident of the Manhattanville houses on Broadway and 125th Street and an advocate against gang violence, said that, to improve security, funding priorities should focus not on repairs but on safety and youth programming.

“We’re spending too much money on building capital expenditures, and not enough money on human capital expenditures,” he said. “That’s what the focus should be on right now.” 

But Victor Peña, crime prevention officer for the 28th Precinct, said that PSA has a role distinct from regular precinct units. 

“We just back up on jobs,” he said. “There’s a reason why there’s separate units.” 

“If you’re talking about regularly scheduled visits, housing would be responsible … their sole focus is the housing developments,” Jason Harper, community affairs officer for the 26th Precinct, said. “There are some people who feel there should be a cop on every corner, and that’s not feasible,” he added.

Before the merger, housing security officers were assigned to specific buildings. Now, Haynes said that the turnover for PSA officers is high, which makes it difficult to form connections. 

“If you see one off in January, a different face in June, and a different face in December, how can you build that relationship?” he said. 

Haynes said that this creates a less welcoming environment in the housing complexes and marginalizes young men in particular. 

“When you’re a young man and you’re not involved in street activities, it doesn’t give you a sense of security when you see an officer,” he said. “If the cops knew the kids and were more involved in the community, you could still stop the kid, but maybe just to stop and have a conversation.” 

Martin also said she has seen a difference in recent years and described police actions as “out of context” with the law.

“City police I’ve found less respectable. They’re accustomed maybe to dealing with street behavior, and not family matters,” she said. “A person goes in the back door of my building, and gets stopped by the police. Why? Because he didn’t go through the front door?”

Harper said it is difficult to strike a balance between strong enforcement and building community relations. However, he added that because NYCHA buildings are publicly owned, police are automatically allowed to search their grounds for trespassers.

“Some people kind of get the impression that they’re being harassed, and you have other people on the other end of the spectrum who believe the police aren’t doing enough,” he said. “There’s some serious criminal activity that takes place in city housing developments.” 

Martin said that de Blasio’s proposed funding changes make sense given the dearth of officers at NYCHA buildings, but she remained skeptical.

“Why should NYCHA pay? We don’t get any private police service,” she said. But, she added, “until I see it happen, I’m not going to clap.” 

Quinones, who described four-hour waits after calling the police, said she was worried that changes would worsen the problem. 

“We don’t have adequate policing now, what will we have then?” she said.

Haynes, however, remained focused on safety. He said he doesn’t want the city to just focus on “taking care of the building, and not on taking care of the youth.” 

“If you spend some money on human capital improvement, then you can have a chance at a better quality of life,” he said. 

deborah.secular@columbiaspectator.com  |  @DeborahSecular

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