Carmen Suarez has felt uneasy recently in her salon and barbershop on West 135th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. She's been locking the doors even during business hours and worrying about what might happen when the weather warms, noting that crime is usually lowest during the cold winter months.
“I want less crime and more safety,” Suarez said. “We’re at January 22nd, and how many shootings have we had?"
Several residents said Saturday that they've increasingly felt unsafe in the city, particularly after Friday night's fatal shooting of an NYPD police officer.
Jason Rivera, 22, died Friday evening after responding to a domestic violence call from an apartment at West 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. A second officer, Wilbert Mora, was also shot and still in critical condition at Harlem Hospital on Saturday. A third officer, who has not been named, shot and injured the gunman, LaShawn McNeil, according to police.
That tragedy is the latest in a string of violence since the beginning of the year, including two other NYPD officers shot while on duty. One officer was shot in the leg while executing a narcotics warrant on Staten Island on Thursday, and another police officer was also shot in the leg in Brooklyn during a struggle with a teenager on Tuesday. The year began with an off-duty officer who was grazed by a bullet in East Harlem on New Year's Day.
Recent high-profile civilian cases have also rattled the city. A 19-year-old Burger King employee was fatally shot during a robbery on January 9th. Less than a week later, a woman died after she was pushed into the path of an oncoming train at the Times Square subway station. On Thursday, an 11-month-old baby in the Bronx was grazed by a bullet in her face.
One activist who works in the community as a violence disrupter said the pandemic has driven up serious crime. There were 479 homicides in New York City last year, compared to 319 in 2019.
“I think that the city has experienced being unsafe for a while, since the pandemic,” said Iesha Sekou, the chief executive officer of Street Corner Resources and an anti-violence activist. “I wouldn't say that the whole city is unsafe… More and more, we're seeing gun violence show up. We're seeing stabbings and shootings and brutal beatings in a number that we wouldn’t normally have seen before.”
Police said the gun that McNeil used to kill Rivera and wound Mora had been stolen and was registered in Baltimore.
Another activist said violence has always been around, but the city’s crisis during the pandemic has exposed the lack of investment in anti-violence measures.
“What they were doing was putting a bandaid on the Grand Canyon. Violence was always there but because we never really adjusted (putting) important resources and services and help, it just exacerbated,” said Stephanie McGraw, the founder and CEO of We All Really Matter. “It was always there. We're not blaming COVID because it was always happening, but when the world shut down we was able to really see what the real issues were.”
One resident who said he had worked as a NYPD dispatcher said the difference in the neighborhood is noticeable once night falls.
“In the evening time, it can become dangerous,” said Joe, who declined to give his last name and has lived in the community for 50 years. “Because people come out, you know, you got people that come out at night whose ulterior motive is to commit some type of mischief or crime, okay?”
Joe, a lifelong Harlem resident, said it was time to bring back stop and frisk-type surveillance. “You know, if you don't stop this now, it's going to get worse. And how much worse can it get?” he said. “If you're willing to shoot out a cop then my life means absolutely nothing. You would shoot a citizen just, you know, point blank.”
That type of surveillance in New York was roundly criticized for disproportionately targeting Black and brown residents, the vast majority of whom were innocent of any crimes. Defenders of the practice argue that crime decreased while it was an allowed practice, although studies have shown that this may have been due to more to additional police resources in high-crime areas. A federal judge ruled in 2013 that NYPD's use of stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional.
Luis, another Harlem resident who has lived in the community since 1993, said while he feels safe he wants a different kind of policing: “It's just the problem is that we need more presence […] more beat cops walking, meeting your community. It’ll decrease a lot of stuff."
“All patrol do, (they) look at us like we animals here. That's how you look at us. They sit in a cage as they drive by,” Luis added.