5 Days. No Police. How A New York Neighborhood Addresses Over-Policing
The nation’s distrust of law enforcement has been mounting for years. In the wake of police violence, more and more community members have expressed skepticism as to whether law enforcement is here to protect and serve the public or itself. We’ve seen how deadly encounters between civilians and law enforcement can be caused by something as simple as a phone call.
In recent years, many Americans have begun to ask the question: What if communities handled conflict among themselves and leave law enforcement out of it? That is exactly what Brownsville, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, is doing.
According to The New York Times, several times a year, the organization Brownsville In Violence Out, part of the Brownsville Safety Alliance, places its members on two blocks in the neighborhood, and all low-level 911 calls are directed to them rather than the police. For five days, and with plainclothes officers nearby to prevent escalation, the members are tasked with moderating all non-emergency crimes that do not require an arrest.
Established in 2014, Brownsville In Violence Out is an anti-gun-violence initiative whose goal is to change dangerous norms and educate people so that they can facilitate positive change. The program initiated a groundbreaking move to minimize policing and delegate responsibilities to well-respected community members. Neighbors are entrusted to care for neighbors, rather than bringing armed officers into the mix.
It is a novel approach, and quite a daring one. Some neighborhood residents appreciate the move; others are fearful. Lise Perez, 26, spoke to The New York Times about her concerns. Perez owns Clara’s Beauty Salon on Pitkin Avenue. She has over two dozen cameras located around her store, and nobody can enter or leave without her allowing them. She is skeptical of the initiative’s ability to protect residents and business owners on the street.
“In this area, nobody feels too safe,” said Perez. “We’re all here surviving.”
Regardless of one’s stance, the results have been undeniable. Since the initiative’s creation, community members have successfully dispelled physical confrontations and even armed robberies using the power of de-escalation rather than brute force. The New York Times reports that homicide declined 50% in the first half of 2023. Shootings dropped 25%.
This is the work of the Brownsville Safety Alliance, a group of neighborhood and city groups that work alongside law enforcement and the Kings County District Attorney’s office to keep more people from entering the criminal justice system.
The architect of the idea is Terrell Anderson, commander of the 73rd Precinct. Anderson was elected in June 2020, one month after George Floyd’s death. Appointed amid national social upheaval, Anderson had a long way to go in building community trust.
Anderson entered the office with a stance against excessive policing. In a 2020 interview with Gothamist, he said, “When I see these kids, you know, I see myself. I did grow up in hip-hop culture, so that is a culture that I embrace. The way some of them dress — well, I dress that way as well. So, you know, I’m not going to automatically criminalize anybody.”
But residents’ complaints about the excessive use of force by law enforcement and the earlier 2019 shooting death of Kwesi Ashun, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, did little to quell the tension threatening to boil over.
To determine the best course of action, Anderson asked Brownsville residents how their police department could build trust with them. What he found was the need for more community members in charge of each other’s safety rather than armed and uniformed men with badges. From that discovery, the Brownsville Safety Alliance was born.
While members of Brownsville In Violence Out scan the area in case of conflict, other agencies remain seated, offering their services such as free childcare to those in need. This experimental concept does more than bridge the gap between law enforcement and Brownsville residents. It offers ways to strengthen the community so that residents have the tools to improve their conditions in the long term.
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