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The Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn, Jan. 27, 2021

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

How Shootings Spiked at NYCHA Complexes Targeted in de Blasio Crime Prevention Campaign

SHARE How Shootings Spiked at NYCHA Complexes Targeted in de Blasio Crime Prevention Campaign
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On a Monday afternoon in mid-December, residents of the Red Hook Houses came upon a 22-year-old man sprawled on the cold sidewalk after someone shot him in the head. 

It marked the fourth murder and seventh shooting of 2020 at the public housing development in Brooklyn.

That’s a big difference from the year before when the complex, which houses 6,000 New Yorkers, logged zero killings and zero shootings.

The surge of violence occurred despite the Red Hook Houses’ designation by Mayor Bill de Blasio as one of 15 New York City Housing Authority developments targeted to get extra policing, added safety measures and expanded community services to combat crime.

Red Hook was part of the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, a campaign de Blasio announced in 2014 to turn around an alarming crime rise in public housing, whose residents had already been disproportionately victims of violence. Bringing the “MAP” program to 15 high-crime developments, the mayor contended, would benefit all of New York.

But 2020 — when the number of murders and shootings rocketed across the city amid the pandemic — changed the landscape. Last year, MAP exerted little apparent effect on minimizing crime.

An examination by THE CITY found:

  • Shootings rose at 14 of the 15 MAP sites in 2020. All told, 52 shootings took place at MAP developments, up from 22 the prior year.
  • Murders increased at eight of the 15 MAP sites. Overall, killings went from five in 2019 to 16 last year.
  • The number of major crimes — including rape, robbery, burglary, felony assault, grand larceny and auto theft — rose from 762 to 829, a hike of 9%, at MAP developments. By comparison, major crime declined by about 1% citywide and increased across the board at NYCHA developments by just over 2%.

‘Everything Got Messed Up’

Overall, 2020 proved a very bad year for violent crime in New York City. 

Shootings jumped by 97%, from 769 to 1,518; murders rose by 41% from 317 to 447, according to the NYPD. That marked the highest number of homicides in nearly a decade, with the deaths of a 43-year-old mother shot through her bedroom window and a 1-year-old boy shot at a barbecue in a Brooklyn park shaking many New Yorkers. 

NYCHA fared even worse. Shootings rose by 103%, from 155 to 314, while murders jumped by nearly 50%, from 47 to 70. Both increases exceeded the citywide percentages.

And much of that increase occurred at the city’s 15 MAP sites, including the Red Hook Houses, a sprawling development erected on land that once featured a Hooverville of shanties built by the homeless during the Depression.

Opened in 1939 and expanded in the 1950s, Red Hook now boasts more than 2,800 apartments, making it Brooklyn’s largest public housing development. 

Some tenants who’ve lived there for decades talked to THE CITY last week about the crime increase.

All noticed a spike began over the summer amid the pandemic and stretched well into the fall. They also added some historical context, recalling with a shudder the violence associated with the crack epidemic that rocked the development and much of the city in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In those bad old days, shootings and murders perpetrated by warring drug gangs wreaked havoc at the Red Hook Houses. A low point came in 1992 when the principal of nearby PS 15 was fatally shot in the middle of the school day while searching the neighborhood for one of his missing students.

“It used to be like the O.K. Corral back in the day,” recalled a 61-year-old longtime tenant who didn’t want her name used. “Before it was about drug turf. Now it’s mainly about beefs.” 

She described the recent shootings there as carried out by “the younger generation. It’s gang stuff.”

A memorial stands at the Red Hook House near where two people were killed in separate incidents last year.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A 70-year-old tenant, who gave her name only as Yolanda, spoke of mayhem past and present, standing a few feet from a makeshift sidewalk memorial near where two people were killed in separate incidents last year. 

The flowers had turned brown, a pale blue ribbon marked “Beloved Brother” flapped in the frigid breeze, and a line of unlit candles and empty Patron bottles collected dust kicked up from the street.

“They shot somebody in my building” at 30 Bush St., Yolanda said. “At 38 Bush St., there was a shootout. At 412 Columbia [St.] too.”

Now she doesn’t allow her grandchildren to visit and stays inside most of the time with her door locked.

“The crime was quiet. We were doing good,” she said. “As soon as the pandemic started, everything got messed up.”

‘We Need to Double Down’

At Red Hook, the number of major crimes rose by 43% last year from 2019, one of the biggest surges in all of NYCHA. An analysis of NYPD data by THE CITY revealed that overall crime went up by more than 30% last year at four other MAP sites, too.

Renita Francois, MAP’s executive director, defended the program in an interview Friday with THE CITY, noting that in its own way, the effort contributed to the city’s response to the pandemic.

Over the last five years, the city has spent $210 million on MAP, plus millions of dollars in forfeiture funds provided by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. 

That’s allowed housing officials to expand community center hours, install security lighting and lobby cameras, and create new programs for young people to discourage them from getting involved in crime. The NYPD also assigned extra cops to the developments at different times.

During that time, MAP built up relationships with tenants and young people living in targeted developments. Those connections helped program operators to distribute food and protective masks in the developments after the pandemic struck.

Asked about the wave of shootings, most often committed by young men, Francois conceded the pandemic greatly hampered MAP’s ongoing youth outreach efforts.  

“We know we had a rough year but that’s not every [MAP] site. Not all of them struggled the way that others did. There’s just more work to  be done,” she said. “There were plenty of young people — despite being in this virtual world, despite what they’re dealing with at home — many of them logged on to these programs.”

The pandemic’s effect “really showed us it’s not just a one-and-done thing. This is really a long-term thing and they need a long-term commitment,” she said. “We need to double down and this year really made that clear.”

‘Once-in-a-Lifetime Situation’

Liz Glazer, former director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) and one of the architects of MAP, said no crime prevention program could have withstood the disruption of the COVID-19 crisis.

“The statistics show what they show,” Glazer said. “Could MAP by itself break the shootings? I don’t think so. That sort of once-in-a-lifetime situation — even these carefully constructed efforts that are based on social connection and informal social controls — even those get overwhelmed. I don’t have a good answer for you.”

“I do wonder a lot if it would have been worse without MAP,” Glazer added.

But critics say the wave of crime that erupted amid the ongoing pandemic highlights MAP’s flaws.

Christopher Herrmann, an assistant professor at CUNY’s John Jay College and a former NYPD data analyst who has examined NYCHA crime patterns, noted that public housing developments have for years consistently absorbed a disproportionate share of crime in the city. 

NYPD data shows that while NYCHA’s 400,000 tenants make up about 4% of the city’s population, approximately 20% of violent crime occurs inside or within 100 feet of public housing developments.

Most violent crime in the city takes place in hot spots with multiple shootings within a quarter mile. Hermann’s examination of data from 2009 through 2018 shows in 75% of these clusters, shootings took place in or within 100 feet of a NYCHA development. 

That includes 11 hot spots with 100 or more shootings during that time period.

Herrmann created a graphic denoting the 11 hot spots with yellow circles around a total of 40 NYCHA developments in three areas: East Harlem and some sections of Brooklyn and The Bronx.

Courtesy of Christopher Herrmann

“The scary and sad things is each one of those yellow circles contains over 100 shootings in that 10-year period so that these are super problems that never get fixed,” he said. “To have 100 shootings over 10 years means things are not changing.”

Herrmann also noted that only four of the 40 developments within the hot spots — Brownsville, Tompkins and Van Dyke in Brooklyn and Butler in The Bronx — are MAP sites.

He questioned the idea of targeting a handful of NYCHA’s 320 developments, noting that crime can occur at a development across the street from a MAP site and not get the same attention, money and resources as its neighbor in the program.

“They wanted to throw money at the problem and they wanted to get the most bang for the buck,” Herrmann said. “What they’re realizing now is it’s not so easy to throw money at a problem and assume that the gun violence is going to disappear.”

‘Broken Promises for Young People’

And the pandemic made all of this worse.

“The crime increased,” said Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D-Brooklyn), who chairs the public housing committee.

Ampry Samuel’s district in central Brooklyn contains several hot spots centered around NYCHA developments. Among them: two MAP sites, the Van Dyke and Brownsville houses, where the number of murders and shooting incidents rose last year. 

She questions the effectiveness of MAP in confronting persistent clusters of violent crime.

“For me, I don’t see the tangible results outside of them continuing to engage with the number of young people. It’s alarming, but to me we could have predicted” last year’s crime surge, she said. 

“If there are no concrete tangible commitments, that’s not just talk — that we are putting additional funding and resources to specific neighborhoods ... to stop the young people from committing violent crime and picking up a gun — then it will continue,” she added.

Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D-Brooklyn) speaks at a City Hall rally for additional public housing funds from the state, Feb. 3, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The Council member flagged specific City Hall MAP promises she says have proven elusive.

During a 2019 visit to the Brownsville Houses, de Blasio promised a new teen center would be built there as part of MAP. “It never happened,” she said.

Trauma counseling for young people at Brownsville wrestling with the shooting deaths of their peers was supposed to start “years ago,” but didn’t begin until July, Ampry-Samuel said. A boxing gym promised years back for Van Dyke Houses was supposed to cost $1 million, but will now run $10 million, with no contractor hired as of yet.

“This is so many years later and how does the project start at $1 million and it becomes $10 million?” Ampry-Samuel said. “It’s a bunch of promises that have not landed. Because it takes so long to start a project, let alone complete it, that’s why we continue to see the violence we see. There has to be a change in the procurement process. Right now there is just broken promises for young people.”

Calls for More Help

Ampry-Samuel’s district includes the Woodson Houses, a NYCHA development for seniors that exploded into the headlines this month with the arrest of a tenant charged with strangling three elderly women living there over the last five years.

Woodson is not a MAP site, but sits across the street from one, the Van Dyke Houses where the number of murders increased last year from zero to two while shootings went from one to four.

Citing the Woodson Houses killings, Ampry-Samuel has called for MAP to be more flexible and target more than just the original 15 sites. Francois says she would like to do that, but needs expanded resources — and more money.

“Our hope would be we could expand out to the ones that are next door” to MAP sites, she said. “I don’t have a magic city checkbook.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio announces appointment of Liz Glazer to head the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Criminal Justice Director, March 11, 2014.

Ed Reed/The Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

Francois’ former boss, Glazer, said MAP has suffered from a lack of commitment from the top echelons of City Hall. 

“It required and requires right now a real concentration by government at the right level to coordinate and open up services,” she said. “There simply wasn’t that ability because you needed a commitment at a higher level to be able to bring together all the agencies. It wasn’t there and it still isn’t there.”

Francois was somewhat more circumspect.

Asked by THE CITY Friday whether MAP gets the necessary backing from City Hall, Francois responded, “Do we have support? So you know, I think we definitely have some champions at City Hall for the work that we do. 

“Would we want more support? Of course.”