In poor New York neighborhoods, residents ask: Where are the police?

By Emily Flitter and Luciana Lopez

(Reuters) - On the sidewalk of a public housing development in Brooklyn, New York notorious for gang violence and drug activity, the words "Fascist pig, go home!" in black spray paint are fading but still legible.

These are the Marcy Houses, 27 brick H-block buildings, each six stories high, that are home to nearly 4,300 people, many of whom are black or Latino. The rapper Jay-Z, who grew up in the complex, described Marcy as "a block away from hell," the place where "news cameras never come," in a song called "Where I'm From."

In recent years, Marcy has had a group of very reliable visitors: the police, who patrol on foot and in cars as part of a controversial "broken windows" strategy that focuses on cracking down on small crimes to prevent bigger ones. Until three weeks ago, they had been an ever-present, highly visible presence in Marcy Houses.

Now, the police have all but disappeared, raising safety concerns among some residents while pleasing others who view the police strategy as oppressive. A reporter saw only one police car on a visit on Thursday.

The shooting of two police officers in their patrol car a block away from the development on Dec. 20 has widened a rift between the police unions and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who they accuse of making anti-police statements and fuelling a hostile environment for police, allegations he denies.

Police department data shows the number of arrests and court summonses has plunged across the city since the shooting. But it is in higher crime areas like Marcy Houses, and neighborhoods such as Mott Haven in the Bronx, that the lower police profile may be of most concern.

No court summonses were issued in the 79th police precinct, which includes Marcy Houses, in the week following the murder of the two policemen, compared to 401 summonses in the same period in 2013, according to police data. There were only 10 summonses issued last week, compared to 405 a year earlier.

New York Police Commissioner William Bratton confirmed for the first time on Friday that there has been a widespread work slowdown by police officers. Police unions deny orchestrating any slowdown.


Marcy Houses resident Nisaa, a 22-year-old black woman who declined to give her last name, pointed to a nearby street corner and said that until a few weeks ago, there was always a patrol car parked there.

She thought the decrease in police presence was a good thing because so many of Marcy's residents feared confrontations with the cops. "It actually makes people feel better," she said.

Before the December shooting, patrol cars could be seen parked in regular spots along the perimeter of the eight-block compound. Police officers were often seen on the rooftops of the buildings and on foot throughout the complex, according to residents.

On Thursday, there were no marked police cars parked in the spots some residents said were their normal posts. One NYPD patrol car circled the complex but did not stop.

"I drive my husband to work every morning at 3 a.m. and when I would come back they would be there," said Luz Delia, 34, pointing to a parking spot along the edge of the complex. She said she liked parking her car and going back into her apartment knowing they were there. "I used to feel more safe."

There was no immediate comment from the NYPD.

The president of the Police Benevolent Association Patrick Lynch has said the union has not initiated or supported a slowdown, but experts say officers do have discretion in how they choose to enforce some infractions.

If police officers are engaged in a slowdown, it could backfire if it continues, said Robert Snyder, an associate professor at Rutgers University who has written about police and community relations.

"Police officers are not going to look good if they put on their uniform on and don't fight crime," Snyder said.


More than 11 miles from Marcy Houses lies Mott Haven in the South Bronx. The shops that line the main street of this poor neighborhood, population 91,000, are rarely the name-brand national chains, while music in Spanish spills out onto the streets from small stores.

Take the No. 6 train from Manhattan and into the Bronx, and the cars slowly become less white. The Bronx area that includes Mott Haven is almost exclusively black or Latino, according to a Census survey.

Just a few minutes of conversation with residents in the neighborhood is enough to draw out stories of shootings, stabbings, murder, or other violent crime, either experienced personally or witnessed. Police stops are considered a normal part of life, just another every day occurrence.

Yahaira Quinones, 37, said her building was normally patrolled by police under the Clean Halls crime prevention program but "I haven't seen that in a while."

She has also noticed fewer police officers in her neighborhood lately. In the past, if she needed to send her teenage daughter to the corner store, she would wait until she saw a cop on the street. Now, she doesn't feel safe sending her daughter out alone any more.

While crime in the Bronx has plummeted in recent years, residents in Mott Haven remain wary. Some of those interviewed said they simply try to socialize elsewhere and keep themselves and their children off the streets.

Not everyone sees a change in the police presence, and some of those that do are glad that there are fewer officers on the streets because they perceive police stops as demeaning.

Marissa Rivadeneira, 22, said she has definitely noticed fewer police around Mott Haven. She is now afraid when she walks home late at night from the subway station.

Rivadeneira used to call her mother on her way home, but now does not want to pull out her cellphone. When asked if her mother worries about her, Rivadeneira said, "Yeah, she does."

(Additional reporting by Samantha Sunne and Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Ross Colvin and Tiffany Wu)