Posted on August 27, 2021

As Shootings Increased, N.Y.C Returned to Disputed Tactic: Gang Takedowns

Ashley Southall, New York Times, August 26, 2021

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. {snip}

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