By Sam Bojarski
Robinson Joseph found out through social media that his friend, Sterling “Spooky” Cesar, had been shot and killed on Aug. 26.
The incident Joseph recounted occurred at the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Avenue D in East Flatbush, according to the Citizen public safety reporting app.
“I was devastated,” said Joseph, 44, a local restaurant owner. “That was one of my closest friends. He was loved by so many, including me. He had many older brothers, and everybody was impacted by this.”
Brooklyn’s Haitian community has experienced a tumultuous summer defined by the pandemic, subsequent job loss and a national reckoning over racial justice. As the heat index rose, gun violence also spiked, rising more than 60% citywide compared to last year. In the 67th Precinct alone, which encompasses East Flatbush, murder rose more than 120% through Oct. 4 — double the citywide figure.
Law enforcement and criminal justice experts disagree on some of the causes, with each side pointing to factors that have become politicized as the country confronts systemic injustice. They say Law enforcement has pointed to recent bail reform policies, while both parties have identified police-community tensions and socioeconomic conditions, exacerbated by the pandemic, as factors underlying the increase in crime.
To community members, like Joseph, what matters even more than the causes is the need for the borough’s leaders and elected officials to actively address the rise in murders. To them, the officials’ response appears insufficient given the level of pain the violence has caused.
As Joseph sees it, elected officials can make themselves more accessible to residents who are concerned about crime.
“Our leaders in the Haitian community, [they] don’t have any presence in our community,” Joseph said. He also noted the need for more programming, to facilitate reentry into society for those who have been convicted of crimes.
The data: Overall crime down, murder skyrockets
Historically, murder and overall crime in Patrol Borough South, the group of 13 NYPD precincts that includes the 67th, are down by 30% and 23%, respectively, compared to 10 years ago. Year-over-year, the division has seen an overall decrease in crime of about 1% year-over-year, through Oct. 4.
However, murder increased by 88% in those central Brooklyn precincts.
In neighborhoods with large Caribbean populations — specifically the 63rd, 67th, 69th, 70th and 71st precincts — police have seen a rise in gun violence, said Claude Jean-Pierre, a board member of the Haitian American Law Enforcement Fraternal Organization (HALEFO). Specifically, Jean-Pierre said, drive-bys and shootings in broad daylight have increased.
Such violent crime has upended lives, including those of innocent bystanders. In September, a shooting during Labor Day weekend in Crown Heights wounded three people, including a 6-year-old boy. It was one of several shootings that weekend.
“Now, it’s more pervasive, people are shifting blame on the police and the mayor [saying] the police don’t care anymore,” said Ronald Aubourg, 59, a longtime immigrant rights advocate.
Bail reform and police-community tensions
Since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protesters across the country have called for cuts to police budgets as part of a national reckoning on systemic racism.
The NYPD did not return an email seeking comment for this story. However, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea has blamed the $1 billion cut to the NYPD budget as one of the reasons behind this summer’s crime spike.
Among law enforcement, the national reckoning has politicized police work and crime, said Garrio Coicou, a HALEFO member.
“The person who’s committing the crime has become fantasized as a heroic figure,” Coicou said.
The NYPD has also blamed the statewide bail reform law for the rise in crime. The January 2020 law allows people charged with misdemeanors and felonies to be released without needing bail. It was amended in April so that judges could impose bail for certain offenses, like second-degree burglary.
For Coicou, a 19-year veteran who works in Brooklyn, the bail reform law has created a revolving door that quickly puts criminal offenders back onto the streets.
“For me, it’s a sledgehammer to the whole judicial process,” he said. “The whole component of a court where you have to make bail a case has simply been decimated.”
Some community members say a perceived lack of progress on police-community relations, Aubourg said, has boiled over into frustration. Police, he added, need to treat residents more humanely because the NYPD’s “courtesy, professionalism and respect” slogan often does not match the reality of policing in central Brooklyn.
“In most neighborhoods, it doesn’t apply,” said Aubourg, who resides in East New York and works in Flatbush. “That courtesy is out the window.”
Jobs down, anxiety up
Gun violence in Brooklyn also mirrors the increased frequency throughout the country. In July, USA TODAY reported that shootings for the year were up by 46% in Chicago and 23% in Atlanta, compared to the same period from 2019.
For Elise White, deputy research director at the Center for Court Innovation, a New York City-based nonprofit research organization focused on the criminal justice system, the rise in crime in jurisdictions that did not enact bail reform means different factors, like lack of employment, are at play.
In a report CCI released in August, nearly a third of the 330 youth interviewed said they earned money from illicit jobs.
The dive in formal employment opportunities since March has made the situation worse, said Anjelica Camacho, a co-author of the report.
At the same time, neighborhood rivalries resulting from gang conflicts have increased.
“People are literally picking up guns because they have to survive,” Camacho said.
In Brooklyn, Haitians have felt the combined impact of income loss and limited social opportunities amid the pandemic, said Porez Luxama, executive director of Life of Hope Center, a social services nonprofit that serves the community.
Luxama pointed to high school students having to learn remotely, places like movie theaters that once catered to youth being closed and the resulting anxiety as contributors to the rise in gun violence.
“Financially, people cannot go to a restaurant right now,” Luxama said. “The youth have nowhere to go.”
Thus far, the pandemic has stunted HALEFO’s existing efforts to work with schools and community organizations and steer youth away from gang involvement, said Jean-Pierre, who serves as a detective in the 70th precinct. HALEFO, which he spoke on behalf of, has been using social media and email to share information parents can use to guide their children. HALEFO is also working out the logistics of organizing virtual town hall meetings, to discuss crime prevention, Jean-Pierre said.
From a pandemic that has shut down or limited in-person schooling, to increased scrutiny of law enforcement, Jean-Pierre blamed multiple factors for the rise in crime.
“Now that there’s no school, these kids have a lot more time on their hands, and there’s more access to social media and other influences,” he said.
The official response
In its August report, the Center for Court Innovation recommended numerous solutions to make communities safer, including more youth-focused job programs and engaging gang leaders in discussions about community safety. The center also suggested that community-based organizations expand their services into public spaces within targeted neighborhoods, to build trust.
Citing deep distrust in law enforcement, the report called for community safety strategies that do not involve the police.
Community members like Joseph, owner of Kache Restaurant & Lounge, at Flatbush Avenue near Avenue R, have called on elected officials to increase their presence in the community.
In an email, Sabrina Rezzy, a spokesperson for State Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte pointed to Bichotte’s cosponsorship of gun legislation in Albany, including a bill to expand background checks for firearm purchases. Bichotte has also sponsored legislation to prohibit employers from discriminating based on someone’s arrest record, although it hasn’t yet passed the assembly.
In July, Bichotte and several other elected officials announced plans to build a recreation center in East Flatbush.
“This safe space will serve a dual purpose of acting as a technology hub, career training and resources center, while also providing children with oversight and guidance, which will combat crime,” Bichotte said. A groundbreaking date for the center has not yet been determined.
In an effort to address one aspect of crime that has increased amid COVID-19, Bichotte is hosting a panel on domestic violence, on Oct. 22.
Over in City Council District 45, which Council Member Farah Louis represents, her spokesperson, Kristia-Marie Winter, called attention to the public events Louis has participated in. Louis joined other local officials at Gun Violence Prevention Response Day in East Flatbush, on Sept. 12.
Louis has also joined Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and local Cure Violence organizations to participate in street outreach, with the goal of preventing gun violence. In a September statement, Louis pledged to continue advocating for resources to expand the reach of Cure Violence organizations in the city.
Last fall, in October 2019, Louis voted to close the city’s main jail complex at Rikers Island and released a statement calling for more investment in reentry programs, to reduce recidivism. Louis subsequently co-sponsored a bill this February that would, if enacted, help incarcerated individuals obtain documents like school transcripts, that could help them obtain work upon release.
Winter could not immediately address further efforts Louis has made to facilitate productive reentry or support Cure Violence organizations, upon request.
As community liaisons, HALEFO members have made efforts to steer youth away from gang activity, through mentorship. However, Coicou said, gaining trust from youth has proven difficult.
“There’s a barrier between myself and them,” he said. “Those kids, they’re looking to be connected to something, that’s how I see it.”
In Joseph’s view, elected officials need to play a more active role in engaging in residents’ daily lives.
“It’s time for them to stand up and help our community, because too many of our young guys are getting killed,” Joseph said. “We cannot wait every day for a mother to wake up the next morning crying that she [lost] another son.”