Bronx Community Solutions

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Making a difference

Ever since Bronx Community Solutions began operations in 2005, one of its main goals has been to demonstrate that an innovative approach to court-ordered community service can result in projects that are more meaningful for both defendants and the community and lead to higher rates of compliance. By scheduling clients to begin community service immediately, identifying new community service partners, developing its own clean-up crew, and closely monitoring the work of clients, Bronx Community Solutions has created visible improvements to neighborhood conditions in the Bronx.

We recently received some awards recognizing the contributions that our community service programs have been making in the Bronx, so I thought I would share a little bit of the story behind each of them.

Graffiti and the 44th Precinct
Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development and rising property values in the Bronx, complaints of graffiti in the borough increased by 58% in 2008 (New York Daily News, "Graffiti a slap in the face to changing Bronx"), costing business owners and taxpayers thousands of dollars. In response, Bronx Community Solutions has partnered with the District Attorney and the NYPD to tackle the issue. First, the District Attorney and Bronx Community Solutions work to make sure that graffiti offenders who don’t face long incarcerations are sentenced to community service and assigned to clean-up crews that work specifically to repair the damage of graffiti (you can view an analysis of the sentences graffiti cases receive in the Bronx that we conducted here).

Then, Bronx Community Solutions works with NYPD Community Affairs officers in 8 of 12 police precincts across the Bronx to identify sites, work with property owners to obtain permission and conduct clean-ups. Bronx Community Solutions was recently recognized by the 44th Precinct Community Council for its efforts to address the problem of graffiti in a ceremony attended by the Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and District Attorney Robert Johnson, and has also been recognized in several newspaper articles.

Coordinator of Community Service Moises Reyes and Crew Supervisor Ramon Semorile celebrate their award from the 44th Precinct with Officer Lonesome of the NYPD.

Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Centers
In the Summer of 2008, Mike Rustin, the director for youth and family services of Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Centers (SEBNC)’s Forest Neighborhood House, approached Bronx Community Solutions. His organization had three neglected and overgrown lots that had been the site of considerable dumping. His dream was to rehabilitate them and put them to use for gardening with mentally disabled adults. However, like so many small non-profits, his budget was tight and he was hoping Bronx Community Solutions might be able to assist him.

We already had some experience tackling tough projects like this (back in 2007 we worked with Mount Hope Housing Corporation to address severe dumping that had occurred on the site where they have now built a beautiful new community center), and we've been working with Sustainable South Bronx and others to assist community gardens, so we thought that we could help.

We brought out crews of community service participants to clear out the dumping and now we're working with SEBNC to develop a garden on the site. After SEBNC installed a new floor in their gymnasium we helped them paint the facility and then decided to partner with them on hosting our basketball league. The league, designed to provide a forum for positive interactions between youth and law enforcement recently completed its third season with a spirited championship game between a youth team and a team of police officers from the 41st Precinct.

Judah Zuger accepts an award from SEBNC

D.A. race

Here's a long piece on Robert Morgenthau and the contest to succeed him in the office of Manhattan District Attorney.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Youth Empowerment Forum

From Maria Almonte-Weston:

“I want to be the voice of my community”.

This was the main reason why Michael Patterson, a senior in John F. Kennedy High School decided to intern at Bronx Community Solutions’ Youth Empowerment Forum, a program created to address youth and police interactions related to low-level offenses in the Bronx. He, along with two other young adults, participated as youth leaders at our Bronx Week event held on June 12, 2009.

During their internship, which was led by Bronx Community Solutions staff Monica Garcia and T.K. Singleton, the participants conducted several roundtable focus groups with youth and criminal justice personnel. According to Michael, “the hardest part was coming up with the right questions to ask. Being impartial was hard!”

All of the youth leaders spoke about how this experience changed their perspective: “Even though my views have not changed about the criminal justice system, my perception of what happens has,” said Mitchell Hicks, another youth leader who also wants to be a defense attorney and work in the Bronx some day.

At the event, participants shared their research findings and presented a few recommendations to a panel of criminal justice experts (Seann Riley, Bronx Defenders Deputy Director; Odalys Alonso, Executive Chief Assistant District Attorney; and Detective Warren, the NYPD 40th Precinct’s youth officer), an audience of their peers, teachers and other court personal.

Paige Grant, a senior at John F. Kennedy, moderated the panel discussion; she decided to join the Youth Empowerment Forum because she wanted to gain experience in policy. She shared that her experience with the police was both good and bad. “I have very strong feelings towards officers and the way they deal with youth, but when I led the round table discussion with the criminal justice representatives I got such a better understanding of each players role in the system that serves my community. I also felt like my voice and point of views was heard and I hope that they could apply it when they interact with youth in the Bronx.

In the community interviews conducted by our interns we found that residents wanted to voice their concerns about four major issues: Police harassment or abuse of power, youth starting trouble, the need for more constructive activities for youth, and problems with conditions in their community.

People felt that when policing, officers would abuse their authority, for example abusive language or abusive actions (like putting the hand cuffs too tight). Another complaint was not taking the time out to explain arrests. Many people claimed they did not even know why they were being arrested until they were in court. Some interviewees also felt that some officers did not follow proper procedures when making an arrest for charges of trespass (Operations Clean Halls).

Many people felt that young people who live in the community where disrespectful (to the police and elderly), hang out around the outside of buildings and hallways, and do not listen to adults. Many of the members of the community felt that if young people had a place to hang-out the youth would not be targets of arrest. Many Community members had major issues with the quality of life crimes and concerns, including graffiti, trash, smoking everywhere, and too many people just hanging out.

The participants in the Youth Empowerment Forum had three recommendations:

1. Developing/funding after-school programs for youth that vary from sports and arts to counseling programs (to name a few)

2. Educating youth on trespass legislation, their rights and responsibilities as residents and community members (for example, creating public announcements and or short films, passing out paraphernalia on top ten do’s and don’ts when in dealing with the police)

3. Enhancing relationships/dialog between youth and police, creating more roundtable events and/ or town hall events with community officers to increase positive communication and better treatment.

[For a detailed report from the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest on policing in New York City public housing, vertical patrols, trespass enforcement, and Fourth Amendment rights of residents of public housing go here. The event was held in the magnificent Jury Assembly room in the new Hall of Justice. For previous discussion on this blog about the new courthouse, go here, and for an insider's view of a day in the life of a Bronx jury, go here. -Ben]

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Crime in the Suburbs

As crime rates in New York have steadily declined, some observers have wondered whether problems were just being pushed out of the rapidly gentrifying urban core of the region and into the suburbs and upstate (for more on that topic, read here). Now the New York Times reports on Nassau County's gang problem: "In a Suburban Gangland, Young Lives Cut Short").

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Better Policing

After a decade of policing crises that began with the beating of Rodney King in 1991 and culminated in the Rampart police corruption scandal in 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice announced in May 2000 that it had accumulated enough evidence to sue the City of Los Angeles over a pattern-and-practice of police misconduct: excessive force, false arrests and unreasonable searches, especially of members of minorities. Later that year, the city government entered a “consent decree” promising to adopt scores of reform measures under the supervision of a federal court.

That court imposed monitoring is set to expire today, and the New York Times is reporting on arguments by various interested parties about whether that monitoring should be continued: "Monitor Cites Reform, Though Incomplete, by Los Angeles Police." The changes that have occurred over the time of the consent decree contain very important lessons about the quality of policing. Click Here to read more.

Views on possible police misconduct usually fall into two camps: some argue for a "tighter rein" on police conduct, increased accountability and reform to address misconduct and abuses; others charactorize critics as "anti-police" and argue that citizens shouldn't question police tactics, allowing them to do whatever is necessary to keep us safe.

What is so important about the recent example of the LAPD under the consent decree is that it disproves this false dichotomy. A comprehensive study by the Kennedy School of Government found that better management and governance, improved supervision, increased training, and enhanced protocols could lead to improvements in community police relations and improved policing [thanks to Kate Krontiris for highlighting this study at Rethinking Reentry].

From the Executive Summary:

"Despite the views of some officers that the consent decree inhibits them, there is no objective sign of so-called “de-policing” since 2002; indeed, quantity and quality of enforcement activity have risen substantially over [this] period. The greater quantity is evident in the doubling of both pedestrian stops and motor vehicle stops since 2002, and in the rise in arrests over that same period. The greater quality of stops is evident in the higher proportion resulting in an arrest, and the quality of arrests is evident in the higher proportion in which the District Attorney files felony charges. . . .

In sum, the evidence here shows that with both strong police leadership and strong police oversight, cities can enjoy both respectful and effective policing. The LAPD remains aggressive and is again proud, but community engagement and partnership is now part of the mainstream culture of the Department. The Department responds to crime and disorder with substantial force, but it is scrutinizing that force closely and it is accountable through many devices for its proper use."

[Incidentally, the LAPD also has the best web-based tool for mapping crime trends that I've seen. By combining real-time data on eight major crimes with Google Maps, the LAPD lets citizens see what's going on in their neighborhoods.]

Another city operating it's police department under a consent decree over about the same period of time is Cincinatti, Ohio. This week's New Yorker has a article on efforts there to implement the "Ceasefire" strategy with help from John Jay professor David Kennedy. Here's a link to that article (subscription req'd).

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Judicial Elections

The Supreme Court ruled this week by a 5-4 decision, in Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co. that judges must recuse themselves from cases involving people who spent exceptionally large sums to put them on the bench.

In the case, a coal company spent over $3 million to help remove the incumbant judge and support the challenger (more than the total amount spent by all other supporters and three times the amount spent by the candidates own committee) and then subsequently received a very favorable ruling on its business interests from the new judge which helped the company to put its competetors out of business. While the decision was lauded by many in the legal establishment, it also left many questions open that will now have to be worked out by lower courts.

This decision, of course, seems to affect civil matters more than criminal ones. Every criminal judge in New York City (where the judiciary is composed of a mix of elected and appointed judges) keeps the "New York Post/Daily News" rule in mind: "If I release this defendant, is it possible he might do something horrible, and I might end up on the cover of the Daily News?"

I urge anyone who is interested in learning more about the rules and financing of elections in New York City to visit the website of New York City Campaign Finance Board. It includes a well designed searchable database of all contributions to 2009 candidates for elected office.