Maya Wiley’s choices, and NYC’s: The city is at a crossroads on crime, again

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When Maya Wiley, the civil rights attorney and former de Blasio counsel who’s running for mayor, put out her first big position paper earlier this month, a gun violence prevention plan, what stood out was what wasn’t there: any productive role for the NYPD.

The other thing conspicuous in its absence was how little attention the plan drew from her rivals in an absurdly crowded primary field, and what that suggests about both the Democratic voters poised to effectively decide our next mayor and the damage that the NYPD and its Trump-endorsing unions have done to their own cause over the last few years, including with their screwed-up response to this summer’s policing protests.

Wiley’s plan defines gun violence — which has roughly doubled in New York City in this most unusual year — as “a public health crisis built on the failure to address racial equality” and interrelated with the coronavirus public health crisis and its economic impact on Black and Latino New Yorkers in particular.

To prevent gun violence, she’s proposing a brand new $18 million Participatory Justice Fund “established with money redirected from the NYPD budget” for “communities identified by their rates of gun violence” to “support a democratic process” to identify and develop their own ideas for “transforming potential perpetrators into community investors and shareholders of public safety” by doing things like “partnering with on-the-ground leaders to negotiate shooting truce/ceasefires (and) coordinating existing city resources to provide job training and relocation.”

And then expanding existing programs to dedicate 5,000 more summer jobs to at-risk youth, and “models that have been shown to reduce violent reoffending by 50%” including “trauma-informed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and intensive mentorship” along with “community-based violence interruption and hospital-based violence interruption to public health facilities with the largest share of assault and gunshot wound patients,” with those unspecified costs coming from sources that include the police budget.

It’s less of a governing plan than a campaign’s expression of its values, a prospective mayor pointing to a somewhat symbolic $18 million drop in a $90 billion bucket moving away from cops and into communities.

But the fourth and final part of the plan goes further, calling out the “tragic conundrum” of the NYPD as a fundamental threat to community safety:

“We cannot watch another video of police killing an unarmed Black person. We cannot watch as police fail to deescalate a situation and it results in an unnecessary death. We cannot continue to watch state-sponsored violence and look to those same avenues for protection from violent crime. In order to prevent gun violence, we need to return the public back to public safety and commit to actions that genuinely keep people safe in our communities and in our schools and hold officers who abuse their power accountable, while focusing police resources in appropriate areas, like keeping guns out of our communities to begin with.” That tacked-on bit at the end is it in terms of what the plan says the NYPD should be doing about gun violence.

And then it punts: “We need to fix policing in this city, and we will soon be releasing my full policing plan” before concluding with three schools-related “public safety efforts that prevent rather than exacerbate gun violence,” presumably in contrast to policing efforts.

It’s all of a piece with six decades of liberal arguments about how police supposedly have no real role to play in reducing crime or maintaining public safety and how community groups can do both of those things with sufficient public funding.

Wiley, a compelling communicator and prominent participant in the summer’s George Floyd protests, has avoided the “defund” and “abolish” slogans but clearly sees an opening for more radical, and riskier, policing reform or transformation after eight years of the current mayor gesturing toward that and then edging away.

In an interview, she stressed that her plan had been composed in close consultation with victims of gun violence, and noted the overlap between potential victims and perpetrators often in need of the same sorts of help. And she stressed that a budget is a moral document, that “you can’t have public safety in the absence of the public,” and that the people impacted by gun violence “are asking for investments in education, in trauma-informed care, in things that aren’t about what the powers that be think of as public safety, which is policing. And that’s exactly what demonstrators were marching about as well.”

***

Then I asked her about the private patrol car where she lives in Prospect Park South, the first and grandest of what became a series of micro-neighborhoods in Flatbush filled with Victorian houses built over a century ago on what had been farmland.

Some of those developments have given way to apartment buildings, but Prospect Park South remains a haven of grand and individually distinctive mostly single-family homes set back from well-tended lawns and a tree-lined mall maintained by the city running down the middle of Albemarle Road from Coney Island Ave. to Buckingham Road (as E. 16th St. is called there), where it’s separated from the apartment buildings to the east by the fenced-off street-level tracks for the B and Q trains.

The original prospectus for Prospect Park South pitched it as a suburb for “people of intelligence and good breeding,” with buyers submitting references to vouch that they were proper WASPs fit for a community “where a wife and children, in going to and fro, are not subjected to the annoyance of contact with the undesirable elements of society.”

Those screenings are long gone, and for every very rich person or minor celebrity there now, there are many more long-time homeowners (including my parents, a micro-neighborhood over) who invested in the community during the long wave of flight that preceded the more recent wave of gentrification.

But outside of the wonderful Halloween parade, the manors of Albemarle Road have remained one block and a world away from the stores and apartments on bustling Church Ave. Prospect Park West has endured as a place where a family can live without so much “annoyance of contact,” though that’s changed a bit during the pandemic as some New Yorkers have used the mall as a mini-park and some houses have hosted concerts on their porches and lawns.

For decades, Prospect Park South homeowners have paid for a private security car to act as a for-hire version of Jane Jacobs’ eyes on the street for streets with nothing but big, beautiful houses and not that many eyes to go around. These days, the tab comes to around $550 a year for the roughly half of the houses paying for the car’s daily shift, separate from the homeowners’ association dues that vary from house to house and mostly go to helping maintain the public malls and the grass between the street and the sidewalk outside each house.

The car really isn’t much security. The driver is supposed to call 911 if there’s trouble but rarely does. Occasionally, he gets asked to drive alongside a homeowner walking home from the Church Ave. subway stop. None of the longtime residents I spoke with could remember any incident or issue involving the car, and I don’t recall having ever seen one interact with a passerby in three decades walking through the neighborhood, though a few “young white people,” as they were described to me, raised concerns about the car on a private neighborhood Facebook group this summer.

But I was curious if Wiley paid for the patrol, and if she thought that was the sort of thing her Justice Fund could help provide other neighborhoods.

“I think it’s ridiculous and we shouldn’t have it,” she told me, mentioning an incident where she’d scolded a driver for telling a neighbor’s teen sons, who are Black, that they couldn’t be on the mall where they were playing around — an incident she said was outrageous but also highly unusual. And she said, more generally, that “it’s neither effective nor does it create the sense of community that I support. And I don’t think it reflects the actual reality of our community in terms of whether it’s even needed.”

But, she explained, Harlan Mandel, her long-time partner, had started paying for it again after they hadn’t been for a while, and she’d only found out after I’d asked the campaign about it a few days before we spoke.

“The complicating factor is that Harlan was mugged after September 11th,” while walking from Church Ave. down Buckingham Road to their home. He was a few houses away from their home when he was beaten badly enough that he was hospitalized and out of work for six weeks. He still has no memory of the attack.

“To this day, if it’s dark out he walks down the middle of the street, he doesn’t walk on the [poorly lit] sidewalk. And he said, one night he was coming home from work and he saw the car at the end of the block and it just made him feel better. And so he started paying again and then I had a very hard time saying, ‘don’t do it,’ ” she said. “It’s not necessarily rational but it is his trauma response so it’s a complicated one for our family.”

She continued: “I’ve lived here 20 years and in that time there was Harlan’s mugging, which was horrible, and one other mugging that I’m aware of on our block. So it’s horrible, but that’s how likely you are to be a victim. And then there’s just the trauma or the fear because it’s so devastating if you are. It’s complicated from that standpoint, but I don’t believe it makes folks safer and I believe there are lots of ways we could accomplish the same goals differently.

“Part of the challenge always with issues of public safety is, you know, fear is real and it has to be recognized as real,” she concluded. “I mean, people are fearful for reasons that are not totally irrational, right? The question is what works.”

Nathan Thompson, who’s been involved in neighborhood community safety issues for more than two decades, recalls that “I first met Maya Wiley the way I sadly met many of my neighbors then: because something bad happened to them.”

Referring to Mandel’s mugging, he said that “Maya was, early in her time here, both a victim of violent crime and the victim of a Police Department that failed her.” A camera outside a neighbor’s house had captured the assault, but detectives left without that footage, and without even leaving a card, after the VHS tape got stuck when she tried to eject it. Later, the woman’s husband saved the tape and Thompson took it and knocked on Wiley’s door, introducing himself and explaining that “I had the tape and I wanted to print up reward posters from the images. Maya was open-minded to try anything as there was a sense the NYPD was not aggressively pursuing this.”

The stills were muddy, but “I did make a reward poster with them and Maya and I took them to a 70th Precinct meeting and circulated them. At some point, the commanding officer got one handed to him, and he was not pleased. He stood up and said, ‘So someone made their own reward poster. Look, I am not a lawyer but...’ and Maya shot out of her chair and said: ‘Well I am a lawyer, and there is nothing illegal about us trying to do a job you didn’t finish.’ There was a big group in attendance and they kind of went nuts.

“I knew at the moment that Maya was going to be that truth-to-power person to push back loudly when she had to, and that she was not afraid of the NYPD machine.”

harrysiegel@gmail.com

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