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Inside New York’s 'Belly of the Beast'

Cultural shift within New York police department credited for the latest record-low murder rate.
Last modified: 29 Dec 2013 22:10
Shanduke McPhatter [Photo: Geoff Mills/Al Jazeera]

"This right here, is known as the belly of the beast," our guide tells us confidently. We’re at the intersection of Mother Gaston Boulevard and Sutter Avenue in Brownsville,
Brooklyn. We’re just a few miles from the glitz of Manhattan and even closer to the wave of gentrification sweeping over other parts of the borough.

We might as well be on the other side of the world.

The intersection divides one of the highest concentrations of public housing in the United States. It has also become a notorious fault line for the street crews battling for control of one of New York City’s poorest and most violent neighbourhoods.

Our guide for the day is Tony Herbert from the National Action Network, one of the groups working to reduce gang violence in neighbourhoods like Brownsville.

"The animosity between the crews is so strong and goes back so far, many of the gangbangers don’t even know where it started," he says.

Gang violence victim

Herbert’s work has turned him into something of a local celebrity. Everywhere we go, people come up to say hello or wish him well. His affable personality contrasts with the macabre nature of our tour as he shows us the various gang rivalry flashpoints in the area.

He points to a spot near Mother Gaston and Sutter. He tells us it’s where a 16-month-old toddler, Antiq Hennis, was shot in the head and killed in September, an incident that made national headlines. Antiq was the victim of gang violence. The intended target was his father, a crew member, who was pushing his stroller at the time.

Antiq was one of 13 people murdered in Brownsville this year. The figure may not sound like a lot, but Brownsville's population is only 58,000.

Still, 13 is an improvement on last year and the downward trend is being matched in neighbourhoods across New York City. So much so, that 2013’s murder rate is set to go down as the city’s lowest on record, beating by 20 percent the previous record of 419 murders set in just 2012.

For New York’s outgoing mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and his also-departing police chief, Ray Kelly, the figures represent nothing less than a robust vindication of their crime fighting policies during their 12 year tenure. Policies that include the highly-controversial Stop and Frisk.

It’s a view echoed by Professor David M Kennedy from the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College in Manhattan.

"People have mostly forgotten that New York was really close once to being declared a lost city in the seventies and eighties. The violence was out of control. The subway was out of control. There were street drug markets that covered entire neighbourhoods."

Kennedy credits the dramatic turnaround to a cultural shift within the New York Police Department, from chasing after criminals to trying to prevent crimes from happening.

"Starting in the 1990s, the NYPD was really alone among big city departments in saying we are going to be effective against violent crime and we are going to figure out what works. That’s a shift that’s survived multiple mayors, multiple police commissioners."

Dangerous neighbourhoods

As for the more recent decline in murders in the city, Kennedy points to the NYPD’s Operation Crew Cut - launched a year ago - which saw a doubling of the department’s gang division to 300 detectives. The plan widened the targets to smaller, loosely-affiliated groups of teens and not just more established gangs such as the Bloods and Crips. It also focused attention on specific blocks and streets known for crime.

"We tend to think about dangerous neighbourhoods, but there turn out to be very concentrated, very small places within these neighbourhoods that generate most of the crime. It’s a very small pool of very exceptional people who are likely both to hurt and be hurt," Kennedy says.

Shanduke McPhatter could definitely have once been described as one of those 'very exceptional people'. He was once a high-ranking Bloods gang member - a role for which you might think bravado is a prerequisite. But McPhatter instead appears bashful when he talks about himself in those days, "I don’t like to toot my own horn but I was one of the worst. I looked forward to the violence. I was just lucky I didn’t take anybody’s life."

McPhatter did, however, spend time in prison, but is now part of a group called Gangsters Making Astronomical Community Changes - former crew members who go out onto Brownsville’s most dangerous corners at night and try to deter youngsters from violent crime and the gangs.

"One thing I’ve learned is that you cannot simply tell a child not to be part of that, because people see the gang as a family, a way out. They see it as a support," McPhatter says.

While he acknowledges that violent crime has eased in Brownsville, when asked if it’s all down to a triumph of police work, McPhatter breaks into a wry smile. "When someone gets shot, the police just want a conviction," he says. "They’re not the ones going to the homies of the victim and saying 'we understand how you feel but what sense does it make for you to kill somebody else in revenge?' This is the work that we’re doing. That’s what’s really bringing down the murder rate."

Tony Herbert agrees. While neither he nor McPhatter acknowledge the role of the police, they both say the NYPD could do a lot better. "I’m actually for Stop and Frisk… as a tactic. It’s just the application of it that’s wrong," says Herbert, "The NYPD sends inexperienced officers who are about 22 years old and have never been to Brownsville to work here. They get nervous. An experienced cop would be able to effectively stop and frisk simply by having a conversation with the kids. They’d tell if something was wrong."

McPhatter’s group is one of many that have sprung up across Brooklyn and Queens over the last five years. Dedicated men trying to change their neighbourhoods for the better. So is it difficult to get the kids to respond?

"You’ll be surprised how little it takes sometimes," McPhatter says, "A child might tell you that he’s looking for a mentor, and that he doesn’t want to do this but he doesn’t know what else to do. It’s important that they see someone like me who’s turned their life around. If I can change, then there’s hope for anyone."