HARLEM — Gunfire erupted on West 133rd Street near Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and one of the first things NYPD Officer Peter DiViesti did was reach for his iPhone.
He had befriended a property manager on the block months before the September incident as part of the NYPD’s neighborhood policing strategy — which gets officers off the radio and gives them more time to meet community members — and the worker had given him access to his building’s cameras.
Now, through the tap of a button, he could monitor that surveillance at any hour on his phone — and he immediately recognized the shooter as someone he’d nabbed for drug possession months before.
“He came back on the block and was up to his old tricks,” DiViesti, 36, said. “We saw him go into the basement with the gun, then we saw him come back up.”
Matthew Hall, 52, was later charged with criminal possession of a weapon for firing those rounds.
And while an arrest for shots fired may not be on the same scale as a bust for murder, it’s the type of crime the NYPD says is now being cracked more easily through the neighborhood policing model.
On paper, the stats had been strong for years — an 85 percent drop in murders across the city from 1990 to 2013 and a 54 percent decrease in felony assaults — results of the data-driven COMPSTAT era that took an analytical approach to crime fighting.
“But the communities weren’t feeling it,” NYPD Chief of Patrol Terence Monahan said. “It was all about the numbers. Make stops, give out summonses. How many numbers did you do as opposed to what results did you get? It did reduce crime, but it really didn’t teach a cop how to be a cop.”
Police-community relations became a centerpiece of the 2013 mayoral race. Bill de Blasio was elected, at least in part, on a pledge to replace NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and make significant reforms to stop-and-frisk, which had reached a record high of more than 680,000 just two years before.
But it was difficult to quickly change the reputation of a department that had largely been seen as overaggressive for years.
Those relations were further strained in July 2014 by the chokehold death of Eric Garner by police in Staten Island and then weeks later by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., both of which sparked massive protests throughout the city and across the country.
“We had to adapt, and we had to adapt quickly,” Monahan said.
So Monahan, then the No. 1 in Chief of Department James O’Neill’s office, flew to Los Angeles in November for a four-day crash course on its community policing program.
The most compelling element he said he saw with the LAPD was the pride that officers had in their areas.
“They knew the people, they were really in tune,” Monahan said. “And once you get to see the really good people that live and work in your neighborhood, you want to protect them.”
The challenge would be figuring out how to condense the tips and information these neighborhood officers were receiving and then disseminate that to detectives and patrol officers, who run on dozens of 911 calls a day and have far less intimacy with neighborhood residents.
Over the next four months, Monahan, O’Neill and other top NYPD officials met regularly to devise a sustainable model for New York that would improve relations while still reducing crime.
“If crime goes up, it doesn’t matter how much connectivity you have with the community,” Monahan said. “If people aren’t safe, this doesn’t work.”
They ultimately agreed on a pilot program that would keep the precincts broken down into sectors, smaller segments that officers regularly patrol.
Each sector would also be assigned two neighborhood coordination officers (NCOs), who would be the eyes and ears on the street. They’d go to shops and businesses, attend community meetings more frequently and even give out their phone numbers — with the goal of creating a friendlier NYPD.
“They were also going to be the ones who were going to have the ultimate responsibility for crime,” Monahan said.
Additionally, smaller teams within the department such as the street narcotics enforcement unit would be disbanded with officers put back on patrol to ensure that crime numbers remained low.
Over the next several months, the prospective NCOs received extensive training on everything from conflict resolution strategies to public speaking, and by May 2015, the program was rolled out in the 33rd and 34th Precincts in upper Manhattan and the 100th and 101st Precincts in the Rockaways, to mixed expectations.
“A lot of people looked at this and said, ‘This isn’t the way we did business. Crime is going to go up,’” Monahan said.
“There was so much fear from the boss level, but if you took it back down to the cop level, it was, ‘Thank God someone is actually going to trust us.’”
MEET YOUR NCOS
Det. Theodore Watson, like several NYPD officers interviewed by DNAinfo for this story, said he wasn’t entirely sure what he was getting himself into when he signed on to become a neighborhood coordination officer at the 101st Precinct in Far Rockaway.
But with the highly-concentrated units in the department being disbanded, Watson, a 14-year veteran, needed another role — and he didn’t want to go back to just running on 911 jobs.
“I just thought this was gonna be like shaking hands and kissing babies,” he said. “I took it as something like, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’”
The 101, as one of the four pilot precincts, had been given a lot of flexibility by department brass to customize its neighborhood policing strategy as it saw fit.
So, in the early weeks, Watson and the seven other NCOs went around to stores and community centers in the area to begin promoting the idea.
“Get to know the players, the good people, the not-so-good people,” his supervisor, Sgt. Robert Garrity, said.
But the relationship between police and residents has long been tumultuous in Far Rockaway, and it was not going to be mended in a few weeks with a couple handshakes and smiles.
Two unsolved, high-profile murders of teen brothers Shawn Plummer, 18, who was killed in 2012, and NeShawn Plummer, 16, who was fatally shot in 2015, still haunt investigators, and there’s a sense in the area that residents have an idea of who the killers are.
Yet, tips at this point appear to be scarce.
“People know,” said the boys’ mom, Sharon Plummer. “But they’re scared of retaliation. And there’s a big trust gap. A lot of people don’t trust police because of things they’ve done in the past — unnecessary stop-and-frisk stuff they weren’t supposed to do. And that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.”
O’Neill, however, now NYPD commissioner, has said neighborhood policing is a long-term strategy that has already paid short-term dividends.
When a gang member in January fired several rounds outside a pizzeria on Beach 20th Street near Mott Avenue, narrowly missing a group of young kids, investigators could only come up with was a grainy surveillance image of the suspected shooter.
But a couple of days later, a tipster with a checkered past walked by the precinct and spotted Det. Watson, who had previously cooled down a heated situation between him and other officers from the 101, saving the man from arrest.
“He’s a real pain the butt,” Watson said. “He’s been collared plenty of times, real perpetrator.”
“So I’m standing in front of the precinct and he’s just walking through and he goes, ‘Yo, Watson, can I talk to you for a second?’ He was like, ‘I usually don’t talk to the cops, but I’ma talk to you ‘cause I’m cool with you, and when kids are in danger, I’m not gonna tolerate that.’ So he tells me what happened.”
Watson then went upstairs to the precinct’s detective bureau and relayed that information. He later moderated a meeting between investigators and the informant.
Days later, police had a suspect in custody.
Smaller success stories like that have been common across the city since the inception of neighborhood policing, the department insists.
In East New York last fall, NCO Terrance Lloyd was approached outside the 75th Precinct by a mother who said her 16-year-old daughter had been roughed up multiple times by an ex-friend.
“It’s the sort of thing that leads to boyfriends getting involved, and all of a sudden, someone shoots someone over it,” Monahan said.
Lloyd got the name of the other girl, 17, from the 16-year-old’s mother and went over to her house — and ultimately coordinated a meeting between the families at a community center in nearby Starrett City.
“I just spoke and said, ‘Nobody’s in trouble. I’m here to let you guys talk it out, not to say who’s right and who’s wrong,’” Lloyd, 36, said.
“But they were so mad and heated. The mother and grandmother kept going back and forth. The girls weren’t even talking. Everyone just needed to calm down.”
He had the mother and grandmother leave the room and then let the girls talk for 15 minutes uninterrupted, a strategy he learned from his NCO training.
“I was just the referee not letting anybody disrespect anybody,” he said. “I said, ‘Y’all don’t have to be best friends, but y’all don’t have to fight every time you see each other.’”
Ultimately, he learned the feud stemmed from a miscommunication in which another girl had spread false rumors about them, enraging them both.
“It was nothing of any substance where you should ever be fighting,” he said. “They were going by a third party. I said, ‘Did you ever think that girl was jealous over y’all’s friendship?’”
The teens were ultimately able to work it out, he said, and by the end, even the mother and grandmother were embracing.
“It was cool to see,” Lloyd said. “They were so mad, then an hour-and-a-half later, they were hugging and joking.”
But as impactful as his work was, it also underscored one of the major challenges the department says it’s facing.
“How do we quantify what we do?” Monahan asked.
The NYPD insists it’s no longer putting as heavy an emphasis on arrest and summons numbers, so how does it gauge officer effectiveness?
The department recently developed an internal phone app, Craft, that allows police to report their accomplishments that may have gone unnoticed in the past, like jumping in the water to help a child or finding a missing person.
“We want them to toot their own horns,” Monahan said.
But officers expressed skepticism about whether an app that encourages self-promotion will be an effective barometer of success.
“I think some might abuse it,” said Officer Lauren Nadle, 26, of the 101st Precinct. “There’s officers who don’t get a lot of arrests, don’t get a lot of summonses. They may overcompensate by saying, ‘I just did this, this and that.’”
The other key issue with the NCO program is officer turnover, Sgt. Garrity said.
In the nearly 21 months since its inception, the neighborhood program in the 101st Precinct has already had about 15 different NCOs.
The extensive training, specifically the detective courses, are almost too informative, Garrity said, to the point where officers see the program as a steppingstone.
“My guys aren’t staying longer than a year,” he said. “I’m losing my best guys for narcotics, for gang, for detective bureau. They’ve put so much emphasis into the NCO program, but I don’t think anybody thought about retention.”
Yet, Monahan insists that though there are tweaks to be made, the model is working. There are now NCOs in 48 precincts and public service areas — and the department has said they will eventually reach all of them.
The program still does not have a specific budget, but Queens District Attorney Richard Brown recently pledged more than $20 million in asset forfeiture funds toward it.
Crime fell to historically low levels in the city in 2016. In the 101st Precinct, major crime was down about 4 percent, NYPD statistics show. In the 32nd Precinct, it was down more than 7 percent, though it’s difficult to determine what role, if any, neighborhood policing played in that.
Some are more skeptical than others.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and ex-NYPD Officer Eugene O’Donnell said that program is just a public relations ploy by the department.
“It’s a sop,” he said of neighborhood policing. “It’s common to be wheeled out in a time of crisis. After a case like Eric Garner, you send people out. Chicago has had community policing since 1985. They’ve still had 25,000 murders.”
But some New Yorkers said that while they’ve witnessed the uglier side of the NYPD for years, getting to interact with the same officers regularly has warmed them up to the department.
“I’ve witnessed first hand how they can act. I’ve witnessed an officer talking down, ‘You M.F., you this, you that, get out the effing car!’” said Jackie Rowe-Adams, 68, a non-violence advocate in Harlem, who gets a weekly visit from DiViesti and his partner.
“But this has changed people taking the police for granted. When they had no respect for the police recently, they’re seeing the police around now, and they’re making arrests for the right reasons, not just picking on people.”
Derrick Irving, 53, the owner of 361 Laundromat on Malcolm X Boulevard, also sees DiViesti every week. But he said he’s still cautious around him.
“If I need them, they’re here,” he said. “But it’s still the ‘hood, and I respect the ‘hood. I’m not ratting nobody out.”
The exact future of the model and whether tips gathered by NCOs will lead to arrests for bigger crimes remains to be seen.
But DiViesti, Watson and Lloyd insisted their satisfaction comes from their positive interactions with residents, not by anything measured through statistics.
“Some people feel rewarded when they get guns off the street — that’s their thing. But I’m not a big gun guy,” Lloyd said.
“Not to sound cheesy, but I just like helping people.”