As Shootings Increase, N.Y.C Returns to Disputed Tactic: Gang Takedowns

A father was wounded while shielding his three children from gunfire at a car dealership. A teacher was killed on a morning dog walk when a gunman missed his target. And a baby in his stroller was mortally wounded when two men opened fire on a nighttime cookout.

Arrests in all three shootings in recent months show the authorities blamed the same problem in each case: armed street gangs that have contributed to a wave of violence that escalated last summer during the pandemic. The bloodshed has continued this year, wounding over a thousand, killing hundreds and threatening the city’s fragile recovery.

The police say the majority of the more than 2,500 shootings recorded since the beginning of last year can be linked to gangs. And this year, as shootings have risen from historic lows in 2019 to their highest level in a decade, a chorus of leading officials — including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Eric Adams, the Democratic candidate to replace him — have joined the Police Department in vowing to dismantle gangs as the surest strategy for reducing gun violence.

But the anti-gang tactics used by the authorities have long faced criticism from law enforcement experts, civil rights advocates and even some prosecutors. Targeting gangs relies on police intelligence gathering that critics say is often unreliable and classifies far too many young men of color as gang members, sowing mistrust in communities and even hardening gang ties.

The focus on violence — largely driven by people who have not lived in the affected neighborhoods — overlooks that the decision to join a gang is often made for survival and self-preservation, said Kristofer Bain, who leads anti-violence efforts at the Queensbridge Houses.

“Gang member means grandson, granddaughter, nephew, auntie, uncle — it means that I have subscribed to a unit of protection because I feel unsafe,” Mr. Bain said during a town-hall meeting last week, following a gang takedown tied to the teacher’s killing.

The takedown was emblematic of the hard-line tactics that the authorities are now emphasizing. But legal experts say that approach is better suited to taking down drug cartels and the Mafia than New York’s mostly young, Black and Latino street crews.

“It is making a lot of noise, it is getting big headlines that no one follows up on, but it is not at all getting at the root of the problem,” said Babe Howell, a law professor at the City University of New York who has examined dozens of gang indictments. Her study of a 2016 bust in the Bronx that included 120 arrests found that many people charged were only loosely connected to any gang activity.

John A. Eterno, a criminal justice professor at Molloy College and a retired New York City police officer, said the authorities view gang takedowns “as the aggressive stance to fight the violent crime and shootings and so forth that’s taking place in the city.”

But, he asked, do the communities that are bearing the brunt of the violence agree that they are plagued by dangerous gangs? “Or is the Police Department acting unilaterally and saying, ‘This is a gang and we’re going after it?’”

Prosecutors and the police say they have been efficient in targeting the people directly connected to shootings as they crack down on gangs.

“Whether it is a narcotics gang, financial crime gang, a robbery gang, or in many instances, historical beefs between rival gangs, gangs are the drivers of violence in New York City,” said James W. Essig, the Police Department’s chief of detectives, at an Aug. 5 news conference announcing that 28 members of rival crews had been indicted in Queens.

Eric Gonzalez, the Brooklyn district attorney, said in an interview that gang takedowns done for the sake of appearing tough on crime are meaningless and destructive, and ignore that the main reason people join gangs is for protection. But the prosecutor — who has secured indictments charging 51 people in three takedowns since January — said the tactic can be effective when authorities focus on the individuals who perpetrate violence.

“These are the people who are using the guns to hurt others, and that’s what people want to stop,” he said. “I don’t believe that that’s inconsistent with ‘defund the police’ or with the Black Lives Matter movement or the George Floyd protests.”

New York is far from alone in focusing on neighborhood gangs to address the spike in gun violence. Cities from Buffalo to Los Angeles are facing similar pressures to set back rising gun violence, while at the same time grappling with social-justice demands to address inequities attending violence and enforcement.

The details included in several gang indictments in recent weeks are alarming.

Earlier this month, prosecutors in the Bronx and Manhattan unsealed indictments against eight members of a crew called “20-30,” who were charged with robbing Uber drivers, stealing unemployment benefits and shooting Anthony Jefferson, 39, as he shopped for a car with his children.

“Please, I got my kids,” Mr. Jefferson, who was not the target, could be heard saying on surveillance video from the dealership as he lay over his children, shielding them from flying bullets and shattering glass. He was struck three times and survived, and his children were not injured.

And in the Aug. 5 arrests, prosecutors said the teacher, George Rosa, was walking his dog near the Queensbridge Houses on July 25, 2020, when he was shot by a teenager with ties to a crew in Ravenswood Houses, who was aiming at a foe.

But official data leaves a murky picture of gangs’ overall role in the spike in violence.

The police have labeled about half of the shootings during the recent uptick as gang related. The label includes any incident in which a person associated with a gang was a suspect, a victim or merely a bystander. And those determinations are based in part on the city’s controversial gang database, long criticized for including thousands of people whose ties to gangs are tenuous and which is currently the subject of a yearslong investigation.

A much smaller number of shootings — only a quarter to a third — have been deemed gang motivated, a more clear-cut assessment where authorities determined the violence was explicitly part of the group’s conflicts.

Commissioner Dermot F. Shea, in an appearance last month at the mayor’s daily briefing, acknowledged that details about the motives behind each incident can be difficult to pin down. “Sometimes you’re dealing with individuals that don’t cooperate, you’re dealing with not knowing who the true target is,” he said.

But the gap in the data, along with the database that police use to label individuals as gang members, fuel skepticism that gangs’ roles in violence is exaggerated.

The database contains information about 18,000 people whom the department believes are affiliated with gangs based on information about their hand signs, clothing colors, music lyrics and hangout locations gleaned by officers, informants and other agencies. Nearly everyone in it is Black or Latino, and most have not been convicted of a crime, fueling criticism that the database puts young men under criminal suspicion based primarily on their race.

Recent gang takedowns are still making their way through court. But Professor Howell said they warrant close scrutiny given the data that emerged from her study of the 2016 bust in Eastchester Gardens. Most of those arrested were not charged with violence, and almost half were not accused of being gang members.

“I think a good prosecutor should not use these charges because he ought to have the evidence to prove the case,” Professor Howell said, “without resorting to a label that will absolutely trigger racism in some people and fear in most people.”

Officials say their focus has narrowed to the gang leadership and members who have been involved in shootings. For example, out of the 37 defendants named earlier this year in a set of Brooklyn indictments targeting the Hoolies crew and the 900 gang — both based in Bedford-Stuyvesant — 24 were identified as gunmen. Prosecutors said the remaining defendants drove them to hits, procured guns and plotted attacks.

Mr. Gonzalez said he believed the indictments have helped to bring down shootings in Brooklyn, pointing to maps that showed incidents falling recently in the public housing developments where the gangs battled. “It just stops cold,” he said. “We believe the guys we took out in our gang investigation are the shooters.”

But the crossfire between the Hoolies and their rivals have continued. A recent gun battle between them left eight people wounded at a party in the Roosevelt Houses, considered Hoolies territory, the police said.

Critics of gang takedowns say they create a void that others eventually fill, something proponents concede. Instead of rounding up dozens of young Black men and teenagers, defense lawyers and anti-violence activists say, New York should spend more effort and money to alleviate the conditions attending violence, like unemployment, homelessness and the flow of illegal guns from other states.

Mr. Bain, the executive director of 696 Build Queensbridge, said people at risk of joining gangs should be met with empathy before enforcement. “I don’t want to go hard on guns, I don’t want to go hard on gangs,” he said. “I want to go hard on what has caused us to think that these were the options.”

In Harlem, where 103 people were charged in a takedown in 2014 that was the city’s largest at the time, Taylonn Murphy is among those trying to reach young people at risk of perpetrating violence or becoming victims of it.

In 2011, his daughter, Tayshana, a nationally ranked college basketball player, was shot to death in the General Grant Houses. Three years later, his son, Taylonn Jr., was charged with killing a rival who mocked her death as part of a massive gang sweep in the Grant and Manhattanville Houses. At 20 years old, he was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

In 2012, Mr. Murphy created a foundation named for his daughter and began conducting restorative justice clinics in area schools, conflict mediation in the neighborhood and job training for people returning from prison. Two of the men charged alongside his son now work for him.

“It was a lot of pain,” he said of the violence and the raid, adding that he sought to create something positive and empowering in the aftermath. “We’re trying to be those street doctors that actually go out and heal what’s going on, the trauma that’s been imposed on the community.”

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