by Sarah Armaghan and David Olson
September 17, 2016
Residents in Brentwood — reeling from the brutal slayings of two teenage girls — are demanding action from local, state and federal officials to combat the gang violence that has plagued their streets for years.
Their anger — mixed with fear and frustration — is spurring a grass roots push toward solutions that reach far beyond beefed-up police patrols.
In the past week, there have been vigils and tributes to the victims — 15-year-old Nisa Mickens and 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas. The next step, to air the public’s many concerns, will take place Tuesday night at a community forum.
“This is our battle cry,” said Liz Cordero, 53, a longtime resident and activist. “Please don’t let us fall to the wayside.”
“It’s sad that it takes this situation, which is absolutely horrific, to shed light on what’s happening here,” said Cordero, a parent and former PTSA president. “This should be something that we take seriously, and as moms — as parents — proactively. We don’t want to put a Band-Aid on it.”
For many, the killings renewed — and strengthened — a call to action.
“We need to get out there. We need to march,” said Nelsena Day, 67, a community activist who has helped police identify drug and gang hot spots in Brentwood and Central Islip.
“We need to take our streets back,” she said. “We need to protect our children.”
Residents and many local elected officials, including Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, agree that a comprehensive, cohesive effort is needed to address the problem.
Community advocates in neighborhoods ravaged by gang violence say the recent bloodshed is further evidence that solutions are urgently needed.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that gangs have been a problem here for years, since way back in 2007 and 2008, when they started with the graffiti,” said William King Moss III, a Brentwood native who heads the Islip Town branch of the NAACP.
Moss said the community wants more visible police patrols, but residents have to also step up and play a more active role in keeping their neighborhoods safe.
“There definitely has been a lot of talk about increased discourse between the police and the community, and that has started somewhat, but it gets down to the nitty-gritty, which is putting in place the nuts and bolts, like a community watch program . . . and training residents to work with them,” Moss said.
The killings stunned the community, drawing hundreds to makeshift memorials and a tearful Friday night vigil held at the Brentwood High School football field.
A law enforcement source said members of MS-13, considered one of the most violent gangs in America, are suspected in the slayings.
Cuevas and her best friend Mickens were beaten to death, police officials have said. No motive for the attack has been disclosed and no arrests have been made.
Mickens’ body was found on a street Tuesday evening by a passing motorist; less than 24 hours later a woman spotted Cuevas’ body nearby, in a wooded area behind her home.
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said earlier this week that the Brentwood High School juniors were left with “some of the worst wounds I’ve ever seen.”
Fear over the killings is palpable, with some parents questioning on social media whether it’s safe to keep their kids in school.
One mother said she plans to leave Brentwood to protect her children.
Danielle, 30, who has lived nearly her entire life in the hamlet, said she never used to be afraid of taking a walk at night.
Now, she said: “You fear for your children to be out playing, because you never know.”
Danielle, who asked that her last name not be published, has two sons, ages 7 and 9, and is deeply concerned that they could become victims of violence or later be pressured to join gangs.
“There was a time when people used to say they were proud to be from Brentwood,” said Danielle, clad in a green-and-white Brentwood High sweatshirt as she attended the Friday vigil. “Not anymore. Now people ask me, ‘Aren’t you afraid to live there?’ ”
Bellone said new initiatives to prevent crimes like the murder of Mickens and Cuevas are needed, and they should be part of “a comprehensive strategy that is not just law enforcement-based, but is focused on community empowerment, youth empowerment.”
“When something like this happens, you have to step back and take stock on what are we doing across the board at the schools, in the community, at the county and at all levels of government? What are we doing, and what could we do better?” he said. “Because clearly we need to do more. Clearly we need to be better.”
Bellone said he welcomes community input and will have officials study possible solutions and come up with recommendations.
Increasing the number of police officers assigned to the area would be a necessary first step, Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood) said.
“The police presence has not grown to match the increase in population,” said Ramos, a retired Suffolk police detective. The hamlet’s population has risen from about 45,000 in 1990 to nearly 64,000 in 2015, according to census figures.
But he cautioned: “Neither the police nor teachers nor elected officials can raise one’s kids. That starts in the home and we need motivated parents to seek help if they’re having problems with a young person.”
Sini, in response to Ramos’ call for more officers, said the Suffolk police department is capable of protecting Brentwood and the rest of the county. He pointed to an additional 60 recruits who have entered the police academy in recent weeks and another 115 who will do so in the fall.
Sini said violent crime in Brentwood this year through Sept. 10 is down 25.6 percent compared to 2015, although those numbers don’t include the double-slaying.
Arrests of people associated with gangs fell between 2012 and 2013, but nearly doubled between 2014 and 2015, from 32 to 61, statistics show. There were 166 violent crime incidents in Brentwood in 2015, up from 139 in 2014.
Earlier this year, a Brentwood gang member was convicted of fatally shooting a man whom fellow gang members had already beaten unconscious. Another gang member, part of MS-13, pleaded guilty to the execution-style murders of members of the same crew. Prosecutors said the gang had been concerned that one victim had been distancing himself from other members and that the other victim — his brother — would retaliate for his killing.
At the Friday vigil, several of the officials who spoke in front of a crowd of more than 600 praised Brentwood for its “beautiful” and “resilient” community.
The hamlet, sandwiched between the Long Island Expressway and Southern State Parkway, is dotted with tidy-looking homes with broad lawns.
The community grew quickly after World War II, with many people of Italian, Irish and Puerto Rican descent moving in between the 1940s and 1960s.
Over the past 25 years, Brentwood’s Latino population has grown significantly, from just over a third of the population in 1990 to 63 percent in 2015, according to census estimates.
The hamlet has pockets of poverty, but its $76,941 median annual household income, although below Suffolk County’s, was above the typical income statewide in 2015, the census reported.
Sociologist Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at Manhattan’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said combating gang violence requires a multipronged approach that includes both enforcement and prevention.
“There’s no single solution,” he said. “Every community that gets serious about this realizes they have to work on multiple fronts and multiple angles.”
He said a key is to work with young people to prevent them from being recruited into gangs by instilling a sense of belonging and helping them repair relations with family and friends, building a sense of hope and finding out if there are problems at school and, if there are, finding out why.
Sini said the deaths of Cuevas and Mickens are spurring him to talk with the Uniondale-based youth-advocacy group STRONG — Struggling to Reunite our New Generation — and with schools and the county probation department about bringing a gang-prevention program to third-grade classes in Brentwood.
“The person or persons who killed Nisa and Kayla are not people who would benefit from a gang-prevention program,” Sini said. “They’re people who need to be locked up and put in jail for the rest of their lives. But if we can get involved and intervene with kids who have not become so horrendous, but who are growing up in a tough neighborhood and may not have all the support they need at home, . . . that will be a real victory.”
Pastor Lawrence Mosley of Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Brentwood said religious institutions need to be more involved in working with kids and their families and promoting “peace and healing in the community.”
“We need to be more of a support in the community,” he said. “We need to be more in the community and less in our churches. We’ve got to be involved with the people.”
Some residents, however, said the gang problem is too big for Suffolk County to handle on its own. They called for help from federal authorities, including the FBI’s gang unit.
The FBI did not respond to requests for comment.
In response to the slayings, Sini said the police department is planning to launch a new program in Brentwood and elsewhere in the county in which police hold meetings to teach parents how to spot signs of gang involvement.
Police officers already are going door-to-door in Brentwood to ask residents for help in solving the murders and for information on gang activity, he said.
Police also are speaking with people associated with gangs and informing them about job programs, group therapy and other resources to help get them out of gangs, Sini said.
To start a fresh conversation, Brentwood school officials are hosting a community forum at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at South Middle School to create “an opportunity for the Board of Education to gauge the temperature of the community regarding the recent tragedy” and to “inform parents on steps the district is taking to continue to ensure safety on campus at all district sites,” a district spokesman said.
During Friday night’s vigil, among the tears and hugs and chants of “RIP: Nisa and Kayla,” Bishop Donald Hudson offered the mourners a measure of hope.
“Let’s join arm and arm,” said Hudson of Common Ground Christian Life Church in Central Islip. “The superintendent, the principals, the politicians and the reverends — and most of all, the people in the street. We say to everyone: Let’s stand together on this one.”
The crowd, clapping, shouted back: “Let’s stand together.”
With Víctor Manuel Ramos