A NYCHA building entrance (photo via NYCHA on flickr)
Protests recently broke out in response to the sentencing of former police officer Peter Liang to five years of community service for the killing of Akai Gurley. Officer Liang’s criminal behavior in a stairwell in Brooklyn’s Pink Houses might have been less professional than some of his more experienced peers, but he was hardly an extreme outlier. He wasn’t even the first officer to shoot a totally innocent person by mistake during a vertical patrol. In 1994, thirteen-year-old Nicholas Heyward Jr. was killed by police on the roof of his building in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Houses while playing with friends on the roof. The officer claimed he was startled by Hayward when he opened the door to the roof.
In order to really reduce the chances of these kinds of violent encounters we are going to have to make changes that go far beyond incarcerating one or two officers or changing the way training is conducted. One way to start would be for the City to take broad responsibility for the social and physical conditions that led to this tragic encounter.
The problems in Pink Houses and many other public housing complexes run much deeper than one poorly trained rookie police officer. There has been widespread acknowledgement that the physical upkeep of the building played a role in Gurley’s death. The only reason Gurley was using the stairs was because the elevators weren’t working properly. There was also a lack of decent lighting that at the very least played an indirect role in this tragedy because it produced a climate of fear that contributed to Liang’s decision to patrol with his finger on the trigger.
As I pointed out recently in the New York Times, the City needs to stop using the Broken Windows theory to justify aggressive and invasive over-policing of communities of color and instead fix some actual broken windows. For too long when communities complain about not feeling safe, the City’s only response is to send in more armed police. These communities don’t need more criminalization, they need real services to improve the quality of their lives.
In July of 2014, Mayor de Blasio announced the creation of the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, in response to an uptick in crime in public housing. The plan called for providing much needed maintenance funds to NYCHA as well as some improvements in security technology such as better locks, security cameras, and exterior lighting. There was also a small amount of money for some short term funding for summer youth programs. But, the centerpiece of the program was assigning 700 more police to public housing.
Why hasn’t the City instead used some of the millions of dollars it has spent on increasing the number of police and enhancing security technology to hire doormen for these buildings? Yes, doormen.
One of the major factors contributing to insecurity in public housing is lack of adequate control over building entry. People routinely hold the doors open for others or buzz in people they don’t know. Even more shocking is the routine way in which the locking mechanisms and intercom systems simply aren’t working. A doorman working on the building would be able to control entry and monitor conditions in a building’s lobby and other public spaces.
With doormen, there would be a major reduction of exactly the kinds of low-level quality-of-life concerns that motivate the vast majority of resident complaints such as trash, noise, broken lights, people hanging out in the lobby, and non-working elevators. Right away there would be a huge drop in the number of arrests for trespassing, something the NYPD has been heavily criticized for in the past. Over and over again people tell stories of being erroneously arrested or ticketed for trespassing while legitimately visiting a friend or relative. In a number of cases people who actually live in the building have been subjected to this treatment.
If these buildings had doormen, there wouldn’t be a need for vertical patrols by the police and the dangerous encounters that go along with these patrols.
A doorman policy would also dramatically reduce the numerous arrests and summonses police give out in public housing buildings for a host of minor violations that could be avoided by having someone in charge of “keeping the peace.” In cases where the police are called, the doorman would be able to assist them by pointing out those that belong in the building and those that don’t. A doorman would also quickly learn about suspicious activity such as constant late-night visitors to a particular apartment that might indicate drug dealing or other problematic activities.
Putting in professional doormen would cost the Housing Authority money. But it might also save the city a significant amount of money. Right now the city spends hundreds of millions of dollar on armed Housing Bureau police. A system could be put in place where we incrementally shift resources from policing to civilian doormen in an effort to find a better balance between providing aggressive policing and much needed civilian services.
Some may say that government shouldn’t be providing amenities to poor people that many middle and working class families can’t afford. This is an understandable argument given the exploding cost of living for many. But the reality is that when crime and disorder go unchecked in public housing we all end up paying the price in the form increased expenditures for police, jails, and emergency rooms. Public Housing should be a model of housing for poor and working class New Yorkers, not another burden for those already struggling.
Alex S. Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He is on Twitter @avitale.