Differing visions of community policing and Island safety emerged at a January 25 public forum hosted by the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association’s Public Safety Committee (PSC). The forum, held in collaboration with the Island’s Public Safety Department and the New York Police Department, was prompted by the January 12 assault on an Island mother in front of her child by a man believed to be smoking marijuana next to a playground.
A group of roughly 70 Island residents gathered in the Good Shepherd Community Center on a Wednesday night to express concerns and share experiences with pot use on the Island. RIRA President Jeffrey Escobar emphasized that the goal of the meeting was “to build an Island-wide foundation, and start a dialogue, not find an immediate solution.”
A large contingent of audience speakers expressed concern at recent calls in the community for stronger police presence, and advocated instead for a more understanding, less harsh approach.
Longtime Islander and dad Andrew Giacolone is a RIRA Common Council representative for Island House. He said, “I work for a prominent criminal justice reform organization. I was concerned about the tone in many of the emails on the Parents’ Network. They seem to be advocating for a very heavy-handed approach. I would encourage the Common Council to evaluate other methods to try to mitigate the marijuana use in public spaces. It is illegal, but the City has decriminalized it. I think [when we talk about marijuana], we should replace it with cigarette smoke. If someone were smoking a cigarette near my child, I would be equally upset.”
Giacolone also pointed out that many adults on the Island expect an understanding PSD response when it comes to enforcement of open-container laws and the like. “I attend barbecues on the Island, I am a responsible adult, and whenever there is grilled meat, a little wine goes into a Solo cup [and Public Safety looks the other way]. I would advocate a more understanding [similar] approach for minors.”
Islander Michelle Fei agreed, “The community response – a call for greater policing – is not reassuring.” Fei counseled, “You don’t have to make an arrest every time you see someone smoking… Roosevelt Island is special. We want a community approach. Not because we are soft on crime, but because we are a community. I think we want to be careful about increased surveillance and increased policing.”
Chief McManus responded to suggestions for a more understanding approach for minors, saying, “You have folks who are absolutely livid over the smell of marijuana. Simply put, if you are smoking a marijuana cigarette in public you will be summonsed or arrested. We can’t have two sets of rules.”
Brian Ashley went so far as to suggest setting aside community space for smoking. He said, “I separate the incident from the marijuana smoking. I think the marijuana part is a lack of courtesy. Is there a way to have a public space where these people could go just for marijuana or things like that. If they’re not assaulting people, would that be okay?”
Deputy Director Brown said, that although he loved the HBO television show, The Wire, “We’re not going to have Hamsterdam [a drug tolerance zone] here.”
Other members of the audience voiced concerns about PSD’s response times once complaints about pot smoking are made. Rivercross resident Kaja Meade said that she came to the meeting to be educated and asked where the issue of marijuana use fell in PSD’s list of priorities and concerns on the Island.
“It is a priority and that is why we are reacting to it,” McManus said. “First of all, when someone is assaulted, you don’t want to hear that this is the safest place in New York City, and I respect that. But in reality it is. We have the quickest response time in any neighborhood in the City. We hear you about marijuana, and it is a priority.”
In response to public comments, PSD Chief Jack McManus confirmed several times that his department would continue to carefully follow New York law. “It’s not a hard or soft approach,” Chief McManus said. “We have so many complaints about marijuana that we have to attend to the law. And that’s what drives us. We can’t cherry pick who we arrest. We don’t give people breaks. We can’t do that because of the amount of the complaints. We arrest whoever we find smoking. We don’t draw the line at any color, religion, or socio-economic class.”
McManus also expressed compassion for the younger members of our community, “We work with the younger people and it breaks my heart to see 16 or 17 year olds going through the system. We have to take a more worldly view; we recognize the complaints and we recognize the consequences.” He described the department’s focus as “community policing, all the way through.”
“We condemn the act that took place on the seawall,” Chief McManus said of the recent assault. He also told the crowd that he believed the suspect in the January 12 assault was not an Island resident and expressed confidence that the individual would be arrested.
PSD Deputy Director Kevin Brown also declined to entertain any policy changes. “One side of the room wants enforcement. They don’t want marijuana smoking ever, ever. The other groups say ‘let ‘em smoke.’ What we have to do as Public Safety, we have to enforce the law. We have to enforce the law and protect our citizens.”
Several Roosevelt Landings residents took the microphone to turn attention to what they say is a pervasive and ongoing problem with pot smoke in the hallways and stairwells of their building.
Ana Blanco complained, “The fourth and seventh floors of [Roosevelt Landings], it doesn’t matter the time of day; I walk in with my three-year-old daughter and there’s a cloud of marijuana and cigarette smoke.” Several audience members voiced agreement.
“We do vertical patrols in Eastwood, Westview, Island House and Rivercross,” explained PSD officer Jeff Laszczych. “We have officers inside Roosevelt Landings, 24/7 because of the scope of the building itself. We address hot spots in the building. These things tend to be fluid. We try to be everywhere as much as possible, but it is responsive. We need you guys to be comfortable coming to us. It is an imperative function of response. We want you to know we’re here.”
Roosevelt Landings is a unique building on the Island in that it has 49 doors and 12 staircases. In response to resident complaints about people from other buildings going there to hang out and smoke marijuana, McManus said, “The easy access to Urban American buildings should be brought to building management.”
Roosevelt Landings tenant association president Joyce Short said, “As you know, I’ve been a diehard about locking the doors of our building. Many of our problems have to do with the laxness. 49 doors in the building doesn’t make it easy. It would help if PSD tried every night to record what the conditions are for each of those 49 doors.”
McManus responded, “If we’re checking 49 doors, that means we’re not checking inside the building,” adding that, “When it comes to vertical patrols, they take about 75% of my evening tour resources.”
According to Vivian Hynes, a Roosevelt Landings resident since 1987, “There is never a public safety officer on the fourth floor and the seventh floor. I police my floor, but I shouldn’t always have to do that. Some of these officers are the same officers who are friends with these marijuana dealers, so you’re not going to get a lot of responses from residents.”
McManus explained that with community policing, the officers’ relationships with their subjects is “not a crime, it’s an outreach effort.” He said he’s been coaching Island kids in three sports, for over three years. “There is not intelligence being transported to these folks.”
Although Urban American manager Doryne Isley, who manages Roosevelt Landings, was not at the meeting, RIRA Public Safety Committee Chair Erin Feely-Nahem read a statement from her. In response, a Roosevelt Landings resident said, “It is unacceptable that they are not here today. That shows the attitude of the management in that building. It is very telling. I have sent messages, I have called, I have sent pictures and I have never received a response ever.”
Praise for PSD
NYPD Officer Mathis addressed the audience to offer praise for the Island’s Public Safety Department: “I am a big fan of Public Safety. I think they’re great. Jack [McManus] was a chief in the NYPD. He was the commanding officer of three precincts. He had hundreds of cops underneath him. He runs Public Safety like a precinct. You’re actually lucky to have Jack. Kevin [Brown] was a lieutenant. And you have officers like Jeff. I have seen these guys in the buildings a lot. It’s very hard to catch these weed smokers. You smell it all over, but it’s hard to pinpoint where it is. There’s 19 floors, and 12 staircases [in Roosevelt Landings]. The Island is very safe. It’s not due to chance. It’s Public Safety.”
Although not part of the official program, RIOC CEO Susan Rosenthal spoke at the close of the meeting in support of PSD. “I am very proud of our Public Safety Department. They are committed to community policing. I’ve spoken to the entire group of officers. They understand that that is our method of operation. We brought [Deputy] Kevin [Brown] in because he is committed to community policing.”
In the future, Rosenthal said, there will be regular meetings with building managers. “We will have regular meetings with them and Public Safety. If we have a regular, ongoing dialogue it can improve the quality of life in many ways.”