by Tina Rosenberg
July 10, 2018 — read the original
New York City is the safest big city in the nation. Can it get even safer?
The city is betting it can, with a novel strategy that goes far beyond traditional crime-fighting.
The strategy, embodied in the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, is being employed in 15 of the most dangerous public housing complexes in the city. The idea is to lower crime by making these neighborhoods better — places where residents live in well-maintained buildings, have necessary services, are engaged in civic life and can collaborate to solve problems.
Working elevators, summer jobs for teenagers, community centers open till midnight, residents who know what to do when the trash piles up — no one would doubt that these are good things. But it seems a stretch to call them crime prevention measures. Will people really commit fewer robberies and shootings if the trash gets picked up?
The city is working with researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to test exactly this. So far, crime has dropped more in the 15 complexes involved in the plan than in other public housing (with one exception: Shootings are way down in both, but more so in sites not in the program).
Why? It might be this: Crime is in part a function of trust. “Trust is the heartbeat of civic life,” said Elizabeth Glazer, head of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. “It’s not just about policing. It’s not just that you have to have trust to report crime. You have to have some relationship to government. These neighborhoods feel completely estranged.”
Perhaps more important, a necessity for improvement is what social scientists call “collective efficacy” — achieved when neighbors feel that they can trust and rely on one another and work together to get things done. Collective efficacy is so important that the lack of it — common in disadvantaged neighborhoods — is most of the reason poor communities have more crime. When they build collective efficacy, even without other changes, crime drops.
So it’s not the trash pickup that lowers crime. It’s having an engaged community that can get it done.
In June 2014, in East New York, Brooklyn, a man entered an elevator in the Boulevard Houses, a public housing complex where outdoor lighting was poor, and stabbed a 6-year-old boy to death and seriously wounded a 7-year-old girl. (She survived to testify against the murderer, who was sentenced to 50 years to life.)
Within a few days, the city had installed temporary safety lights at the complex. The crime also awakened government officials to the consequences of the staggering neglect of New York’s 2,413 public housing buildings. The federal government has cut $3 billion from its support of New York’s public housing since 2001. The city too has undermined public housing, with a lack of accountability and alleged fraud. For example, prosecutors have accused the housing authority of failing to comply with lead-paint regulations, and then lying about it.
The result has been failing boilers, broken elevators, mold, leaky roofs and mountains of trash. Housing officials recently released a report that put the cost of covering necessary capital improvements at $31.8 billion. From all sources, the city said, it has commitments for just one-third of that. Last month New York City signed a consent decree authorizing federal oversight and committing the city to spend an additional $1 billion over the next four years.
The malignant neglect has had another consequence: apathy. Tyrone Ball, a freelance security operator who is president of the residents’ association of the St. Nicholas Houses in Harlem, said that when his neighborhood was thriving, people were involved. But with disinvestment, he said, “people became apathetic — the same old ladies doing the same thing.”
A month after the stabbing, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice introduced the action plan. City officials met with residents to see what mattered to them, and then looked at research on crime to identify programs that had been successful.
Obviously, there’s no simple relationship here — even as public housing deteriorated, crime continued to plummet, for many other reasons. But city officials believe that their plan might be effective against crime that hasn’t responded to other strategies.
Part of the action plan is improving buildings. Part is providing new social services. Those are normal tasks of government. But the plan is also trying to encourage more resident participation and stronger social bonds. Can a city government do this? We don’t know.
Working with the Center for Court Innovation, the plan is hiring an “engagement coordinator” for each complex. At St. Nicholas, the complex that’s furthest along, the coordinator is Karla Alonso. She started by walking around the buildings, talking to residents in their homes, on the sidewalk and at the playground. “If you had a magic wand, what would you change in your development?” she asks people.
“Sometimes it is hard to recruit people,” she said. “Some people have lost the faith — nothing can ever be done. But at the same time, it becomes easier after seeing certain things being put into action.”
Ms. Alonso has recruited a committee of 15 residents of various ages, including some residents who hadn’t been active before. The committee does safety audits — talking to people and looking at the buildings to see what’s unsafe. It also has a small fund to use for projects it chooses. She has trained members in community organizing and helps them communicate with neighborhood groups and city agencies. “I want them to no longer be afraid to pick up the phone and call an agency and say, “Please assist us in solving this problem,’” she said.
One example is broken elevators. She helps the committee members connect to the right person in the fire department, trains them to ask for what they need and to follow up to make sure it happens. Pretty basic — but it wasn’t happening. “There could be 25 to 30 people in the lobby waiting for the elevator that’s not coming,” Ms. Alonso said. “Each one assumes the person next to them has called.” And no one knew the phone number, or whom to contact.
To get all this done, the action plan relies on CompStat — an accountability method invented by the police department that has become a standard part of police departments in medium-size and big cities all over the country.
Before CompStat, precinct commanders submitted their crime data every few months. With CompStat, data is collected and analyzed every week. Precinct captains regularly stand at the podium of a huge room in Police Headquarters to be grilled about problems like why cellphone robbery is rising. The captain is required to have a plan for knocking those numbers down — one from which he or she can present results at the next CompStat session.
CompStat is a way to know what’s going on, deploy resources intelligently, and hold people accountable for results. It’s good for more than crime, and some cities have been using it to track, for example, pothole repair or homelessness. Baltimore was early to the idea, inventing a program called CitiStat to hold city officials to account on all kinds of issues. (As with many other good ideas, though, this one has fallen victim to politics in Baltimore.)
On a Wednesday morning in late June, about 200 people gathered around the U-shaped table in the CompStat room at 1 Police Plaza in New York. They were there to hear from police and housing officials and residents from St. Nicholas Houses and two other Harlem complexes, the Polo Grounds Towers and Wagner Houses.
Officials from 10 city agencies relevant to public housing, including the fire department and homeless services, were in the room.
Deputy Chief Ruel Stephenson questioned the police officials about their crime reports. Capt. Michael Shugrue detailed each shooting, rape, robbery and incident of domestic violence. “We are, by and large, the safest we’ve ever been,” he said of St. Nicholas. That was true elsewhere as well — the Polo Grounds hadn’t had a shooting for 17 months.
Then, housing authority property managers, residents and police officers moved onto other data. How many people attended the free fitness classes? How many lights were installed? How many work orders to fix doors were issued How many youths enrolled in the summer jobs program?
Amy Sanaman, the senior strategy adviser at the Criminal Justice office, called out St. Nicholas on summer jobs. “You had 238 people apply, but 80 not yet enrolled,” she said. “There’s still a week left before summer starts. Please work with your networks to help young people get that paperwork in.”
Mr. Ball, the residents’ association president, said that at St. Nicholas, the plan’s record was mixed. “It does bring in a bunch of people, but you still have to go through bureaucracy and red tape,” he said. One reason for broken doors, he said, was that firefighters had broken them open on calls and no one had fixed them. “Two meetings ago, the issue of doors was addressed,” he said. “People at the top said, ‘We’ll stop doing that, we’ll talk to our people.’ But there’s been no change.”
Safety has improved, he said. “Lighting has worked out well,” he said. “The summer youth jobs program — that’s very important.”
And he said that more people have been getting involved, because they’re seeing changes — perhaps the most difficult of the plan’s goals. “We’re getting people to start to care about the community a little bit more,” he said. “Some of those efforts were there,” he added, but the Mayor’s Action Plan “started to stoke the fire with some folks.”
“You can throw money at any problem, but nothing’s going to be resolved because people don’t care,” he went on. “So keep trying to stoke it. Make sure people know that you can actually make a change where you live.”
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Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.” She is a former editorial writer for The Times and the author, most recently, of “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” and the World War II spy story e-book “D for Deception.”
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