Additional reporting by Ben Fractenberg
Long before 83-year-old Jackie James was beaten to death in Brooklyn’s Woodson Houses on April 30, residents had pleaded for better security at the seniors-only public housing building.
Another elderly woman, 82-year-old Myrtle McKinney, was fatally stabbed inside her apartment there in 2015. Tenants at the Brownsville building had pushed again and again for security cameras, to no avail. And weeks before James was murdered, tenants let NYCHA managers know the part-time private security there was next to useless.
Meanwhile, across the street at NYCHA’s Van Dyke Houses, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on cameras and lights and extra cops as part of a de Blasio administration anti-crime effort known as the Mayor’s Action Plan (MAP), which has targeted a special list of 15 high-crime public housing developments since 2014.
Woodson is not on the MAP list.
‘We’re Wide Open’
“When Ms. James got murdered, her family wanted to know, ‘How come there’s no cameras? Why not?’” said Woodson Tenant Association President Diane Johnson. “When NYCHA gets money, they took care of all the other buildings around us. How did you forget about the seniors building?”
The slayings of both McKinney and James remain unsolved, and the concerns about security at Woodson have yet to be addressed. A full review is now underway, NYCHA officials say.
“The fact that two murders took place at a senior development within just a few years, and right across from a MAP site, shows that NYCHA and the city can be doing more,” said Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D-Brooklyn), chairperson of the public housing committee.
At a June 6 Council hearing, NYCHA’s security chief, Raymond Rodriguez, conceded under questioning from Ampry-Samuel: “Unfortunately, no cameras to this day are at Woodson.”
Johnson made clear that NYCHA had fair warning about security issues well before James’ death.
She said that McKinney was stabbed to death in her sixth-floor apartment on Nov. 9, 2015, the 430-plus elderly tenants at Woodson — most of whom live by themselves — began pushing for better security. Without cameras, they rely on a private security firm NYCHA pays to staff the front doors of Woodson’s two high-rise buildings.
But the security firm is only on the job from 5 p.m. until midnight.
“Before [security] comes at 5, we’re wide open. And after 12, we’re wide open,” Johnson said. “The first floor — that’s all they can do. They’re supposed to walk the perimeter to check the door. Other than that, they’re not to come upstairs.”
On March 8 — seven weeks before James’ murder — NYCHA completed a security assessment of Woodson. The one-page, partially redacted report obtained by THE CITY shows NYCHA red-flagged several perimeter lights that were out and staircase doors that didn’t close fully. There was no analysis of the private security or lack of cameras.
NYCHA security managers returned to Woodson March 26 to meet with tenants. At that meeting, tenants made clear their complaints about the inadequate private security coverage and, again, requested cameras.
Just over a month later, James was murdered inside her apartment.
Low on Priority List
The question of why the Woodson Houses did not get security cameras after the 2015 murder is answered in part by the system the city uses to prioritize which NYCHA tenants get anti-crime resources and which do not.
In July 2014, de Blasio created the MAP program to combat what was then an alarming spike in crime within public housing developments. He steered extra resources — including the extra police, cameras and lights — to the 15 specific developments NYPD said accounted, at the time, for 20% of all crime at NYCHA.
Since then, however, crime has moved around quite a bit, with non-MAP developments such as Woodson experiencing spikes while many of the targeted sites benefited from the attention and saw drops.
Yet five years in, the list of 15 remains unchanged.
The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice is in the “middle of an evaluation” and awaiting the findings of an analysis by John Jay College that’s not expected to be complete until next year, according to MAP Director Renita Francois. In the meantime, there are no plans to adjust the focus to other sites.
In an interview with THE CITY, Francois emphasized that the focus on the 15 has had significant results in bringing down crime — not just with more lights and cameras, but by working with residents to confront underlying issues of poverty and unemployment.
“What’s happening in MAP communities is deep and powerful. This is not just a seat at the table. It’s a new table where residents are not the recipients of community change — residents are the creators. This is what public safety looks like when the public is at the center,” Francois said. “This work aims to invest in people who have experienced inequity for decades with little relief. Doing it right and at the magnitude it deserves requires care, thought and resources.”
Crime Rises Elsewhere
Meanwhile, the insistence on sticking with the 15 sites red-flagged five years ago has created an imbalance at neighboring housing developments.
Take Wagner Houses in East Harlem, one of the 15 MAP developments. The major crimes tracked by NYPD, including murder, rape, felony assault, robbery, burglary, grand larceny and shootings, rose 14.3% at Wagner from Jan. 1 through June 2 compared to the same period last year.
But during that same time period, it was much worse at nearby non-MAP developments, police data reviewed by THE CITY show. Five blocks south, at the Jefferson Houses, major crimes jumped by 46.7%, while crime at Taft Houses, another two blocks west, was up 60%. Both Jefferson and Taft experienced a significant rise in felony assaults.
This is also the case at the Woodson Houses, which sits right across the street from Van Dyke Houses.
From the beginning of the year through June 9, the 22 major crimes reported at Van Dyke represented a 38.9% drop from the 36 crimes there during the same period last year, NYPD records show. Robberies dropped from nine to three, felony assaults from 18 to 13.
During that same time at Woodson Houses, the number of serious crimes jumped 600% from one crime to seven, including James’ murder, three felony assaults and three burglaries, NYPD records show.
The path to improved security at non-MAP sites can be daunting, tenants say. NYCHA says it does not “traditionally” fund cameras, relying instead on the largesse of elected officials.
The millions of taxpayer dollars set aside for the 15 MAP sites, for instance, came from de Blasio, the City Council and $101 million from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s vast pool of forfeiture funds.
Non-MAP sites rely on much smaller individual allocations from the City Council, borough presidents, mayor or other elected officials.
Woodson TA President Johnson said she’s tried in vain to find money for cameras.
In 2018, she says she first sought help from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who’d years earlier allocated $100 million in state funds to Assembly members for multiple NYCHA projects, including security cameras. Johnson said she was told to reach out to local elected officials, and she reached out to Assemblymember Latrice Walker and Councilmember Inez Barron.
Walker did not return calls for comment.
Barron said she has received a commitment from de Blasio to fund a camera system at Woodson, which NYCHA estimates would cost $858,000. She criticized the Housing Authority for relying on elected officials to pay for a safe environment for its elderly residents.
“We’ve had seniors attacked and killed inside their own apartments,” Barron said. “So this is a priority. This is certainly an issue that needs to jump to the top of the list. We’re talking about a vulnerable population.”
Last week, Caitlin Girouard, a spokesperson for Cuomo, told THE CITY, “These tragic incidents are reprehensible, and every New Yorker deserves a safe place to call home. We implore NYCHA to make sure that is a reality for the tenants at Woodson Houses, as well as at all the other developments they operate.”
Ampry-Samuel, who has sponsored $1.6 million for NYCHA cameras since taking office, said the housing agency avoids taking ownership of security issues by shifting responsibility to others.
“It was made clear, after a recent public hearing with NYCHA, that they are not capable of taking responsibility for the public safety of New Yorkers. Instead, they have relied on local elected officials to fund safety and security equipment through discretionary funding,” she said. “It is not the responsibility of the Council to make up for NYCHA’s unwillingness to prioritize funding.”
Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.
Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.