Divided America: Bridging the gap between police, policed
NEW YORK >> On an unusually cool night for summer, Mike Perry and his crew thread the sidewalks running through Staten Island's Stapleton Houses, tracked by police cameras bolted to the apartment blocks and positioned atop poles.
"The better the weather, the more people will be out," Perry says. "Activity — not all good, neither."
Perry's group, five black men and one Latino, all acknowledge past crimes or prison time. Perry, himself, used to deal drugs around another low-income housing complex, two miles away. Now, though, their Cure Violence team works to defuse arguments that can lead to shootings and match people with job training and counseling. Their goals are not so different from those of the police.
While Perry gives cops their due, he keeps his distance. Two years ago, within walking distance of this spot, a black man named Eric Garner died in a confrontation with police officers. Garner was suspected of selling loose cigarettes; an officer wrestled him to the ground by his neck. His last words — "I can't breathe" — were captured on cellphone video that rocketed across the internet.
"I know those officers did not mean to kill Eric," says Perry, a 37-year-old father of two who knew Garner.
But, "you need to look an officer in the eye who doesn't understand and go, 'Brother, I want to get home, too.' They're defending these communities that they don't know."
As Americans struggle with the highly publicized deaths of black men in encounters with police in Minnesota, Louisiana and across the country, and now the sniper killing of five Dallas officers, Perry and his fellow Staten Islanders have the dubious distinction of being a step ahead. Since Garner's death in July 2014, they have confronted a measure of the anger, pain and alienation that the nation now shares. On this 58-square-mile island that residents say often feels like a small town though it's part of the nation's biggest city, police and the policed have had to coexist.
The events of recent weeks have focused new attention on the chasm between police and minorities, one of so many divides in this contentious election year. Years of tension have left people wary in both the policing community and in minority neighborhoods, with many yearning for one another's respect.
It's not simple, though, to change the way people see each other.
"What we have to bear in mind is that when a particular culture has been created, or when people sense a certain culture is operating, it takes time in order to change that culture," says the Rev. Victor Brown, a pastor of one of the larger African-American churches on Staten Island's North Shore. Brown, a spiritual adviser to Garner's family who criticized the grand jury's decision not to indict the officer involved, serves as a part-time police chaplain.
The challenge was captured in a nationwide poll last summer by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs, in which 81 percent of black Americans said police are too quick to use deadly force, compared with 33 percent of whites. A third of blacks said they trust police to work in the best interest of the community, less than half the percentage of whites.
The voices of Staten Islanders speak to attitudes and experience that are often more complicated than might be reflected in polling numbers.
Like the white retired officer who credits a longtime black partner for much of his success in patrolling poor neighborhoods, and worries today's cops are not street-wise enough.
Or the black street vendor who rails against police for Garner's death, but says officers are needed to clean up the street where that death occurred.
"I think the divide is worse than it should be and more than people think it is," says Joe Brandefine, a retired NYPD detective who helped organize a 2014 pro-police rally. "I believe there's truth in both sides, that each side needs to see each other in a little different light."
'Police are family'
On Staten Island, police-community relationships have long been personal.
About 3,000 police officers, scores of retired cops and their families live here, many in the heavily white neighborhoods on the southern two-thirds of the island. In those neighborhoods, protests that followed Garner's death in July 2014 were met with "God Bless the NYPD" yard signs and pro-police rallies. The tensions intensified after a grand jury decided in late 2014 not to indict the officer for Garner's death. Two weeks later, a man claiming vengeance killed two police officers in Brooklyn, one of them a former Staten Island school safety officer.
"As far as Staten Islanders are concerned, the police are family and I think it's like standing by your family no matter what," says Samantha Smith, whose father, grandfather and uncle all worked as officers and who is writing a book about 9/11's impact on the island's first responder households.
On an island of 475,000 that is 75 percent white and mostly suburban, the North Shore's comparatively dense neighborhoods are home to nearly all of the borough's African-Americans, enclaves of Liberian, Mexican, and Sri Lankan immigrants.
Five miles of water divide Staten Island from Manhattan's southern tip and you can't get here by subway. That separation from the rest of the city has long united islanders — not just the ferry ride or detested bridge tolls, but also conservative politics and a shared sense that their borough is ignored.
Spend your life here and it can feel like you know everybody, residents say, recalling how they aided each other after Superstorm Sandy. But very few blacks live below the Staten Island Expressway, which some residents say amounts to a local Mason-Dixon line, reinforcing divisions of race and economics that shade the tensions around policing.
Richard Bruno, 54, is the former commanding office of Staten Island's 120th Precinct, and lives in one of the precinct's largely white neighborhoods. But he belies the stereotype of the white cop uninitiated to life in poor neighborhoods.
"I grew up in a tenement until I was 7 years old," says Bruno, whose father, a truck driver, eventually saved $3,000 for a deposit on a house on Staten Island. "I remember for sport, shooting with dart guns the cockroaches off the wall ... I think that gave me an extra sense of empathy for people that have to live like that."
On this overcast June morning, Bruno, who retired from the force at the end of 2007, points to places where police intervention worked. Here's the corner off Richmond Terrace where officers caught a notorious graffiti artist. He nods to the church where he met with Mexican immigrants, many in the country illegally, trying to gain trust needed to curb a series of robberies and attacks.
"The good thing about being able to keep these communities safe is because they were isolated pockets, you could focus your resources," he says. "Now to some citizens, maybe that might feel like that's an occupation, while other citizens that live in the communities welcome it. We found mostly, overwhelmingly, they welcomed it."
But Bruno, who followed an older brother into the NYPD, laments policing's blunt realities. Driving around the Stapleton Houses, he points to where a gunman dumped a car in 2003 after killing two undercover detectives.
He declines to pass judgment about Garner's death: "He wasn't an evil person. He was just out there hustling."
But in a city of 8.5 million and 35,000 cops, there will always be unintended casualties, Bruno says. That guarantees police will come in for resentment.
"You can't take anything personal, because it's not really about you at all. It's more about your position and anti-government," he says. "The public doesn't know any police officer personally. It's just really what they represent."
'It's so frustrating'
With the car windows open to the night air, Leroy Downs cruises past brick apartments and porch-front houses set into the slope rising from the ferry landing.
An eastern European couple, both white, shouts back greetings from steps across the street.
A group of black teens and young men welcome him in to their basketball game in a hilltop playground.
Downs, 41, has lived on Staten Island since he was 5 and works as a drug treatment counselor nearby. But tonight he talks about, just maybe, becoming a cop. It's not hard to imagine, given his almost paternal attention to the neighborhood. Except that Downs, who is black, has gone to court to fight the NYPD, and its widespread stop-and-frisks, mostly of black and Hispanic men.
He nears a spot where the hill starts dropping toward Jersey Street, known for random shooting.
"That's where we (Downs and his cousin) were parked when the officers pulled up on us when we were eating Wendy's. Just drove up and jumped out," he says. "It's like, bro, why is it like this? It's so frustrating."
It wasn't the first time. In 2000, police arrested Downs on the street, before moving on to nearby neighborhoods to pick up two men he says he'd never met, and accused the trio of conspiring to sell drugs. Downs' charges were eventually dismissed.
In 2011, Downs was sitting on his doorstep, talking on the phone, when two officers stopped to ask if he'd been smoking marijuana. A few weeks ago, a cop blocked his exit from a bank drive-thru lot to ask what he was doing there. He's hardly alone.
Shawn Mitchell, 28 and black, takes a break from a basketball game to recount being stopped recently by a police officer suspicious of his fast-food cup of lemonade.
"I feel like the tactics they're using as officers is we're the enemy," says Mitchell, who works odd jobs in construction. "Treat the badge like a badge used for respect, not for authority."
Down the hill, Darrell Pittard lifts his head from under the hood of a car he's repairing.
"This is Staten Island. You know what the pretext (for a police stop) is? Driving while black," says Pittard, 48, a subway mechanic who says he is frequently stopped by police who appear suspicious of a black man driving a Mercedes. "Granted, the engine is a little loud, OK. But here comes this guy on a Harley, what about him?"
Downs testified against the NYPD when a legal advocacy group sued and won a 2013 ruling that sweeping stop-and-frisks violate the constitutional rights of minority New Yorkers.
He sees little change in the relationship between cops and minorities despite the verdict. But he hasn't given up hoping.
"I can't imagine the world without police," he says. "It'd be anarchy."
A living memorial
It's been years since Larry Ambrosino was assistant principal of Police Officer Rocco Laurie Intermediate School 72. But as he walks the hallway, teachers offer handshakes and hugs to a man who's never really left.
For five decades, Ambrosino has worked to maintain this school, not far from the Staten Island Mall, as a living memorial to a slain New York cop. Laurie, raised on the island, was 23 in 1972 when he and partner Gregory Foster were shot in the back by members of the Black Liberation Army while policing Manhattan's Lower East Side.
"We do a lot of things to keep his name alive and let people know this is the kind of person we should look up to," says Ambrosino, a boyhood friend of Laurie's. "And there's a lot of cops out there today like Rocco, doing their job every day, and not sure if they're going to come home."
In another city, a dead cop might have faded from memory. Here, every sixth grader writes a research paper about Laurie. In March, 400 packed the gym for the 45th annual Laurie charity basketball game.
"A lot of kids in this school have parents who are police officers — a lot," says Peter Macellari, principal of the school, where about a quarter of the students are Hispanic and 5 percent are black. He notes that Rafael Ramos, one of the two cops shot to death in Brooklyn was once the school's security officer.
Laurie is hardly the only testament to islanders' regard for police.
Anthony Sabbatino, a former police officer who is now a firefighter, paid tribute with the recently closed 10-4 Bar & Grill, hiring an artist to paint a mural of first responders at the World Trade Center. When the president of the city teachers union joined activist Al Sharpton in a march, Staten Island teachers urged colleagues to protest by wearing blue to work.
"There's always going to be a couple of crazy cops that are wrong," said Ken Peterson, a retired NYPD detective who organized a 2014 pro-police rally that drew 700 to a South Shore park. "I just said this is ridiculous. They just don't even get respect, no less accolades for what they do."
Peterson acknowledges, though, that a rift remains.
Ambrosino has his own answer. Each year he tells Laurie students the story of their school's namesake, noting that Laurie was white and the partner slain alongside him was black.
"I always tell kids when Rocco Laurie and Gregory Foster were lying on the ground dying, they bled the same color blood."
The reminiscences, aided by cold beer, fill the Knights of Columbus hall on Staten Island's southeast shore even before the pledge to the flag.
Here's Pat Lavin, who can trace policing lineage from his grandfather's days as a bobby in northern England to his own son's promotion to detective in Brooklyn. Jack Hellman recalls days on patrol when cops carried no radios.
"Let me show you something," says Richard Commesso, a retired detective. He pulls out a black-and-white photo of a man with a thick, graying beard. Hard to believe, but it's the clean-shaven Commesso, from his days in a "decoy unit," disguised as a Hasidic Jew to catch a band of Brooklyn muggers.
The stories attest to blue fraternity. But members of the NYC Verrazano 10-13 Association — all retired Staten Island cops — lament today's policing climate, even as they wax about the old days.
"Things have changed drastically," says Commesso, president of the group whose name incorporates the NYPD code for an officer requiring assistance. "If you make an arrest today, there's somebody there with a camera and, my own personal opinion, you're getting a lot of kids today, just out of school, never had a job before, becoming a cop."
Combine officers lacking street savvy and people in minority neighborhoods who mistrust them and policing is much tougher, says Commesso. He credits his long-ago partner, a black cop, with schooling him to the ways of the neighborhoods they patrolled.
"If you go to a high-crime area they have nothing but contempt for you," Hellman says.
The blame belongs to activists who portray cops as enemies rather than allies, says Vincent Montagna, a fellow retired cop.
How, exactly, do you build trust between police and people in minority neighborhoods?
On a steamy afternoon, NYPD officers Jessi D'Ambrosio and Mary Gillespie pull up to the Richmond Terrace Houses to start their patrol.
Last year, the city began assigning pairs of officers to specific neighborhoods, rather than having them rush from call to call across precincts. They are mandated to spend a third of their shift "off-radio," talking with residents to forge relationships. The new approach was rolled out to the North Shore in December.
D'Ambrosio, 32, and Gillespie, 28, are the new "neighborhood coordinating officers" for the six-building project where Garner once lived. Jersey Street, with a reputation for crime, runs the length of a complex, most of whose residents are black.
"We want them to feel comfortable with us and that's what we're building on," Gillespie says.
When the two officers, both white and longtime Staten Islanders, walk through the grounds, residents readily return their greetings. During their first hour, they don't answer a single call. Instead, they spend most of it helping Monique Williams, who accidentally locked her two young children inside her car, asleep with the air conditioner running.
Eunice Love, president of the complex's tenants association, recalled years of seeing officers without knowing who they were. But D'Ambrosio and Gillespie? "They're such homeboy, homegirl," Love says. "They know how to get along with people and relate and we love that."
D'Ambrosio measures progress in everyday experience. He and Gillespie give out their cellphone numbers freely. But when one resident called to say she'd spotted a teen wanted for breaking into nearby houses, he took it as a sign of trust. When the pair ticketed cars blocking a wheelchair ramp and an elderly woman thanked them, that was another.
People can resent police after years of negative experiences. Maybe it was being pulled over when they felt they did nothing wrong, or filing a noise complaint only to have a cop seemingly brush them off to respond to a more urgent call, D'Ambrosio says.
"It's small steps," he says. "You know you can't just wake up tomorrow and think the world is going to change. But they seem, still, to have accepted us."
Nearly two years after police wrestled Eric Garner to the sidewalk in front of Bay Beauty Supply, his mother, Gwen Carr, stands in the small park across the street and cringes at the scene.
A man who appears to be homeless sprawls across a bench, asleep though it's not yet 1 p.m.
A young woman — "Alcohol Gives You Wings," tattooed down her left arm — sits on the edge of a dry fountain, trying to sell used shoes.
"How much good did they do?" Carr says of police, who arrested her son repeatedly for selling untaxed cigarettes. "Where are they when you need them?"
New York paid $5.9 million to settle claims by Garner's family, including his five children. That does not satisfy Carr. If her son's death means something, officials can clean up this block where regulars, black and white, say drinking and drugs have increased since Garner's death.
Confrontational cops are not the answer, Carr says.
Instead, she wants New York to turn the park into a playground, named for her son. City law reserves playgrounds for children, their parents and guardians. Transforming this triangle would displace the addicts, who could be directed to treatment, and make this area safe, Carr says.
Police should play a role, she says. But too many haven't built relationships with people in the neighborhoods they patrol, Carr says.
"If they did there would be less killing, less crime. The police wouldn't have that much of a problem weeding out the bad guys because the people in the community would let them know," she says. "That is not snitching. That is trying to preserve your community."
That requires trust, though.
"The more I think about it (Garner's death) the madder I get, because that man should not be dead," says Doug Brinson, who sells T-shirts and household items from folding tables on the sidewalk.
Most police are good, but they don't do enough to get rid of the bad ones, says Brinson, who is in his 60s and says he has been arrested for unlawful peddling. Still, he says, the fights, the drinking and the drug use here make clear this neighborhood needs police.
"You've got to have cops on this block," Brinson says, looking down at the makeshift memorial for Garner that he helped build.
"You've got to coexist with the guys on the beat. You've got to. It's only fair."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.