I finally got a bike. It’s a vintage Fuji, and it belonged to my dad. I took it out for a spin through Prospect Park over Memorial Day weekend. I zoomed around the park, stopping to enjoy the lake for a bit, and again to listen to a drum circle where a large group of people were dancing. I sat on my bike, one foot on the curb, and took in the scene.
A baby-faced police officer around my age approached me and tapped me on the shoulder. I was in the road, and though there were no cars or any threat of danger, he told me to move. I ignored him for a minute before using the Lord’s name in vain and peddling off.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m well aware that we need police officers. They risk their lives to respond to the ills of society; and they do it for not very much money. That officer was probably still making the NYPD’s starting salary, a meager $25,000 per year.
The whole experience happened in just a few minutes, but it got me thinking about my time as a community liaison for a state senator in Brooklyn.
I worked on housing and policing issues, and often met with residents and officers. We held evening meetings for residents and officers to discuss combating crime in the area. Residents complained that they were unable to voice concerns at public precinct meetings for fear of retribution from drug dealers. Officers claimed to be doing their best to keep them safe.
When I started the job, I was unfamiliar with parts of the district, and one of the captains of the 70th Precinct, a white man in his early 40s, offered to take me for a spin in his patrol car.
The next week, he showed up at my office with his partner around quitting time and handed me a bulletproof vest. I looked at him incredulously. Would I really need a vest while sitting in the back of a patrol car? "It couldn’t hurt," he responded.
I didn’t agree, but I put it on anyway. I got in the car and we headed down Flatbush Avenue to Church Avenue and into the heart of Flatbush. This precinct was of special interest to me, because it was within its walls that Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, had been tortured with a plunger seven years earlier. Animosity was still thick in the air. A young black man with baggy pants jaywalked in front of the patrol car. The officers took it as a sign of disrespect.
Though parts of Flatbush are very much neglected, there are many gorgeous prewar buildings centered around courtyards filled with residents in the summer months. The officers told me that even when they received a tip about crime in buildings like these, it was often difficult to enter undetected because lookouts perched above building entrances would notify their comrades that the police were on their way.
I was told this was the front line of the war on drugs, and federal agencies have little inclination to assist. The officers of the 70th Precinct were charged with rounding up offenders, and rarely could they do more than put them through the system and eventually let them out again.
We headed into Kensington, down Ablemarle Road (which runs parallel to Church Avenue), where huge Victorian mansions with manicured lawns edge toward the clean, tree-lined street. The officers’ uneasiness subsided.
They told me that it was areas like Flatbush that saw the newest crop of academy graduates every year. Seasoned officers unlucky enough to still be posted in crime-ridden areas mentor the recruits, and the cycle continues. Almost none of these mostly white and male officers live in the area. Rarely do they even live within the confines of the five boroughs. This is where two opposite worlds collide.
I would often hear from older residents about the good old days when they knew their local beat cop. He knew everyone, and there was community spirit, a special camaraderie. Officers could afford (and had the desire) to live in the area, and therefore got to know the residents they were charged with protecting.
My first week in Prospect Heights earlier this year, on a walk over to my younger brother’s apartment, just a few blocks from mine, I walked alongside a young officer up Washington Avenue. "Slow night?" I asked.
"Actually, no," he responded. "Someone was shot on Sterling and Underhill."
I can’t remember a time since then that I’ve seen officers walking the streets of the neighborhood. Every now and again a patrol car will zip by. But never do I see cops making nice with residents.
I’m no expert on how to solve these problems, but talking about them might be the right place to start. Once we can recognize each other as living, breathing human beings, we might get somewhere.
Until then, don’t let the man catch you stopped in the road in Prospect Park. He’ll only warn you once.