At his first town hall in nearly a year--and his first since suspending his longshot White House bid--there was no talk of the impeachment hearings, or questions about presidential contenders. The focus was city issues, big and small, put to the man who’s back to running it all full-time again.
Mayor Bill de Blasio made public safety his top priority Wednesday night. The meeting at August Martin High School in Jamaica, Queens, was less than a mile from the public housing complex where a 14-year-old Aamir Griffin was shot and killed on a basketball court last month.
Standing at the center of the gymnasium, de Blasio said he’d heard the outcry from local elected and community leaders demanding more investment in youth programs in Southeast Queens to help curb a recent uptick in violence in the area.
“Where more police officers are needed, we will do that. Where the bond between police and community needs to be deepened, we will do that,” de Blasio said, but added, “policing alone won’t do it.”
De Blasio said the city would extend the hours at the Police Athletic League Center in Jamaica until 9 p.m. on weekdays and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. And in January, de Blasio announced that the city would reopen the decade-long shuttered community center at the Baisley Park Houses, renaming it the Aamir Griffin Community Center.
Then the mayor opened the floor for two hours of questions.
Tiffany Griffin, Aamir’s aunt, was one of the first. She said she's struggling with her grief and it’s compounded by her job as an employee with the Department of Correction. She took aim at the city's supervised release program, which offers people accused of crimes support and incentives to keep their court dates.
“You say public safety, but giving them gift cards and Mets tickets is not providing safety,” said Griffin. De Blasio pushed back, blaming the media for misrepresenting the program.
After decades of jailing people for minor offenses or just because they couldn’t make bail, the mayor said this program is a crucial part of changing the criminal justice system. “The idea of the initiative is to constantly support, and track and communicate with people and make sure they keep their court appointments -- and it’s been working,” said de Blasio, who stressed that the city does need to make sure the reforms, passed by the state, do not compromise New Yorkers' safety. “But I don’t want the misinformation to spread any further,” he added, having described the donation of a handful of Mets tickets to the program as “irrelevant.”
In what led to one of the stranger moments of the evening, lifelong Jamaica resident Terri Bush, a mother of two, wanted to know why more police officers don't walk the beat, instead of riding around in patrol cars. “You can have cops in a community center, but if they not walking a beat, like when I was a little girl, we don't have neighborhood policing. So mayor, please,” Bush said.
Neighborhood policing, de Blasio explained, is supposed to bring police and community closer together, before punting the question to Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea, the incoming police commissioner. Shea agreed and explained there was still much more to do: “We’re going to need everyone in this room.”
Then Chief of Patrol Rodney Harrison chimed in, turning the tables on the woman wondering if more officers could walk the streets of her neighborhood. He said for anyone that did not understand the concept of neighborhood policing, it was simple: “If you are a New York City resident, you have a police officer assigned to you. And shame on you for not knowing who that officer is.”
It was a line delivered to elicit applause, but the room stayed mostly quiet, while some in the audience exchanged confused looks.
Harrison continued, “Every single cop has a cell phone, every single cop has an email address. We’re on social media, promoting all the things we’re doing. If you have cops that you want on foot to post in your community, in your neighborhood, it is incumbent to make sure you reach out to that NCO (neighborhood coordination officer) and develop those relationships. That’s what this neighborhood policing philosophy is all about."
He added that if someone wants more cops walking the beat in their neighborhood, “it’s a simple fix, it’s a simple phone call.” Then he urged people to attend their local “Build the Block” meeting with their NCOs. “Please, tap into it and if you need a cop to come to your building, or to walk on your block, or hey, you want to have them on bikes, or come into your school, that’s something that they’ll do.”
Bush told Gothamist/WNYC that she’s already tried the local police meetings to no avail -- that’s why she came to the town hall to raise her concern.
Safety wasn’t the only issue on attendees' minds. A group of parents from Success Academy Charter School were lobbying for middle school space that would accommodate their growing needs.
Then there was 9-year-old Amaryllis Greene, a fearless fourth-grader wearing her maroon school uniform, who rattled off a series of probing questions for de Blasio.
“Why is the MTA never on time most of time?” she asked over an eruption of laughter and applause. “Why don’t we have clean trains for the subway riders? How are we going to work on the homeless issue in New York and on the trains? What is the plan to protect subway riders that utilize your subway system? Why is the Q53 bus late to take children to school and people to work? And with all due respect, why was Mr. Benjamin Tucker not appointed as police commissioner?” That last question referred to de Blasio’s controversial decision to pass over the highest ranking African American in the NYPD for the role of police commissioner.
He answered her questions one-by-one, noting that the state runs the MTA, that the city was sending more outreach workers into the subways to help the homeless and that he made the right choice for the next police commissioner.
Addressing the young girl, who is black, and the largely black audience, de Blasio defended his selection of Shea, who is white, saying he needed to put people in the right roles for the sake of the whole organization. “I made the decision that Chief Shea was the right person to lead the whole effort and it takes a whole team to do it,” de Blasio said.
Asked after the meeting if she was satisfied with the mayor’s answers, Greene replied, “not quite.”