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Youth, Advocates See Pros and Cons in Adams’ Sprawling Public Safety Proposals

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Mayor Eric Adams attends a vigil after a shooting in The Bronx on Friday, January 21, 2022

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Eric Adams made a last-minute visit to Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx on Thursday afternoon, following reports of a hostage situation there early Tuesday morning, as teen detainees allegedly threatened staff with makeshift weapons and stole their keys.

The hastily announced trip, which was closed to journalists, was the latest big move for a new administration that has had a plate full of youth justice issues in its first month. 

From his support of gang raids and violence interrupters, to a new plan to improve youth employment and help pledged for foster and homeless teens, and now Thursday’s listening session with juvenile detention guards, Adams has touted a broad strategy he calls “intervention and prevention.”

It’s unclear what Adams, who has called for bringing back solitary confinement in adult jails, will do on juvenile lockups like Horizon and Crossroads in Brooklyn. A recent federal monitor’s report said the Mott Haven youth facility was beset by “ violence and disorder” with staffing issues made worse by the pandemic. 

The Administration for Children’s Services, which took over operation of the juvenile facilities from the Department of Correction in the winter of 2019, contends that COVID has had a severe impact on staff, operations and programming at the facility.

“Commissioner [Jess] Dannhauser has initiated a review of the needs and supports for staff and the programming for young people,” said ACS spokesperson Marissa Kaufman, adding that the agency has introduced new measures like bonuses, enhanced training practices and wellness activities for staff retention.

‘Reaching Young People’

Last year while campaigning, Adams stood at the site of the now-closed Spofford Juvenile Center in Hunts Point — where he says he once spent a night as a teen — and promised to “tear down the Spoffords symbolically throughout our entire city and give our young people the opportunities they deserve.”

On Monday, he laid out some of those plans mere hours before the mayhem at Horizon. 

“Just as we utilize precision policing, we must utilize precision prevention — reaching young people long before they turn to guns and violence,” said the mayor.

Adams’ announcement included an expansion of the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program and more support for youth aging out of foster care, highlighting that many of the proposals in his Blueprint to End Gun Violence are preventively aimed at young people.

Some impacted teens told THE CITY they are cautiously optimistic about potential new opportunities for youth Adams floated Monday in his sweeping take on public safety. But others worry a reactionary mayor could lead to fewer civil-rights protections for young Black and Latino New Yorkers, who make up a disproportionate amount of juvenile arrests. 

Alexander, an 18-year-old Brooklynite who has a now-expunged juvenile record that included a gun case, said that he is distrustful of and frustrated with Adams’ hardline approach to kids wrapped up in gang and gun charges. 

Alexander had a juvenile gun charge and says he benefited from social services that he didn’t know about before being arrested.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“If they’re teenagers, and y’all already arresting them for a charge that they can spend, basically, like the rest of their life in jail. It’s like, you don’t really have no chance to show that they will make a change,” he said. “You’re not really giving them a chance at all.”

He said he didn’t understand why it took being arrested to get him connected with job opportunities and therapy — things he says have changed his life, and which he wishes others could have access to before any contact with law enforcement.

“Instead of sitting here trying to indict us and throw us in jail for the rest of our life, I feel like we should have more opportunities. We shouldn’t have to be arrested and catch a case to see that somebody young needs help,” Alexander added.

A Guiding Light

Marcus Diego, a 24-year-old Harlemite, rejoiced at Adams’ plan to expand the  Summer Youth Employment Program, which provides job opportunities, as well as Fair Futures, which bolsters support for foster children.

“Not everybody can just be motivated and say, ‘I want better for myself,’” he said. “I mean, these days, some of these young adults do need the support mentally to say ‘Hey, you know, I know there’s something better out there for me, I just need a guiding light.’”

Diego himself was in foster care and says he was helped tremendously by Fair Futures, a city program that provides life coaches for people in the foster care system and that Adams wants to expand.

Marcus Diego is encouraged by Adams’ calls to invest in social programs for teens and young adults.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Diego said he felt seen by the mayor’s mention of ending youth homelessness.

“I understand not getting the support of vouchers and having to struggle to find an apartment or for a landlord to really approve it,” he said. “Because I did sleep on many trains for the last couple of weeks and it was really bad, you know.”

Diego told THE CITY he had 145 case workers and 14 foster homes before aging out of foster care, which led to homelessness. In fall, he received a Fair Futures coach —  someone he said understands the foster care system, and would always “cheer me on.”  

Now, he is close to completing a degree in journalism from Lehman College and has a Harlem apartment with the help of a federal voucher program. 

In November, THE CITY reported that homeless and foster youth won increased access vouchers, some of which were also increased in value.

But Diego and others were wary of the Mayor’s plans for policing — and said that the mayor adding police to certain neighborhoods sounded like “martial law”. 

“Yes, I agree with having protection,” said Diego. “I disagree with having a lot of boots on every corner of New York City like that. I feel like that’s going to start causing more problems, because people don’t really trust the police, especially Black, brown or Latino [people].”

Guns on the Table

Just four days into his mayoralty, Adams stood in front of a table full of guns with new Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez to announce that 17 young people had been arrested in a gang takedown. 

“There will be more cases like this one, not just here in Brooklyn, but in every borough,” said Sewell. 

On Monday in announcing his wide-ranging public safety plans, Adams reaffirmed his support for the return of so-called plainclothes police units (with clearer identification) as well as more NYPD “boots on the ground.” He also called on Albany lawmakers to repeal some Raise the Age law protections for youngsters caught with guns.

The Raise the Age laws are a series of sweeping reforms passed in 2017 that ended New York’s status as one of the last states to automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

The mayor said that while he supported the broader Raise the Age reforms, 16- and 17-year olds  who do not tell police or prosecutors where they obtained their guns should face adult court and consequences. He also said that minors carrying a gun should be treated as if they had displayed or brandished the weapon.

The Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx, Nov. 12, 2020.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Currently, a judge can keep a minor in adult court if they are arraigned on a gun charge that brandishing a weapon publicly. Prosecutors can also allege “extraordinary circumstances” to keep an older teen in adult court.  

After learning about the Fort Greene gang case on social media, Alexander wondered why the investigators wait to rack up so many charges, watching young people become more deeply involved in crime and compile more victims. 

He said that kids who carry guns need help, and more “open doors,” not indictments.

“We have to worry about the shootings, a lot of killings, then we have to worry about police killing us as well and so what break do we really have and how are we really supposed to feel safe?”

Future of the Database

Maryanne Kashian, a civil rights attorney who has represented dozens of young people with alleged gang ties in court proceedings, said that for her a big worry is oversight. And the fact that the NYPD InspectorGeneral has not yet issued a report on the infamous gang database. 

“We are very much hoping that we still get that report, and that it is an accurate reflection of the actual harms of the NYPD gang database,” she said. “We want to make sure that the city report reflects that, and also that it’s released at all in the interest of transparency.” 

In July, THE CITY revealed that the city’s Department of Investigation was nearing the end of a three-year look into the NYPD’s use of its infamous gang database — used in cases such as the Fort Greene raid. 

Other such investigations in Los Angeles and Chicago have turned up a number of abuses and mistakes in similar databases. There is no way to find out if you are on the NYPD’s list, and no process to appeal to remove your name if you are. 

Adams has yet to name his pick for inspector general, the NYPD’s top watchdog spot .

“DOI’s investigation of NYPD’s gang database is active and ongoing,” Department of Investigation spokesperson Diane Struzzi confirmed last week, but did not provide details on when a report might be released. 

“The NYPD’s Criminal Group Database has a strict set of rules and criteria, multiple levels of review, and is subject to audits to remove individuals no longer active in gang activity,” a spokesperson for the mayor said when asked about the release. 

Kaishian said she hopes that the City Council will be able to act as a watchdog as money is allocated towards the mayor’s new initiatives, noting that the body’s new speaker, Adrienne Adams (D-Queens), has chaired hearings on public safety and even the gang database itself. 

“The NYPD came in and lied about what was really happening. And so she saw that firsthand,” Kashian told THE CITY. 

At Horizon, Eric Adams “appreciated the visit and the chance to speak with staff about their needs, including how to keep youth and staff safe,” said mayoral spokesperson Fabien Levy.

“As someone who spent time in a detention center as a young man himself, the mayor knows that if ACS is given the proper support and the tools needed, youth can thrive to incredible levels,” said Levy.

Darek Robinson, vice president of SSEU Local 371, the union which represents most of the staff at Horizon, said that the mayor did a walkthrough and expressed his support for workers.

“Morale is low, numbers are very low. We’re gravely concerned about their safety, the safety of everyone in the building,” he told THE CITY by phone.

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