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Crime is Down in the 46th Precinct, But Problems Remain

November 24, 2006


Some evenings, Deputy Inspector Kevin Harrington, the 46 Precinct’s Commanding Officer, doesn’t make it home to his wife and four kids. Instead, he’ll work through the night, perhaps grabbing a few hours sleep in the makeshift apartment next door to his office.

Maybe this work ethic isn’t surprising: Harrington is young and ambitious. But more to the point, the 46, or the “Alamo,” as it’s known to those who work out of 2120 Ryer Avenue, demands long hours. After all, it’s one of the busiest precincts in the city.

Yes, crime has fallen significantly in the area – as of Nov. 19 it was down 16 percent on two years ago, compared to a 13 percent reduction citywide – but it’s still rampant. For despite being the smallest precinct in the Bronx, at a little over one square mile, the 46 routinely leads the city in arrests. They arrest 10,000 people each year, and this, Harrington said in a recent interview, “will be my legacy.”

Kevin Harrington

Harrington, a fast-talking man with light blue eyes and short blond hair, joined the 46 in March 2005. It is his first position in the Bronx – his previous law enforcement jobs include leading Brooklyn’s street crime unit – although he grew up just south of here, close to the Yankee Stadium.

“I was surprised [to be given the job of Commanding Officer],” Harrington said. “I wouldn’t say it was a badge of honor, but I should feel grateful that I was given this command. It displays a certain amount of trust… the guys before me are chiefs now. There’s a lot going on here for better or worse.”

The 46 is also one of largest precincts in the city in terms of staff. “Probably top two or three,” says Harrington. At peak this year they had 350 uniformed officers, 40 sergeants, eight lieutenants, 30 detectives, and 25 civilian workers. This figure fluctuates, but overall more people work at the 46 than in previous years, thanks to “Operation Impact,” a New York State initiative to flood troubled neighborhoods with cops.

Harrington and Captain Donald McHugh, the precinct’s second in command, put the high crime rate down to a number of interwoven factors: the poor immigrant communities that live in Community District 5, the disproportionate number of young people and parolees in the area, the high unemployment, the overcrowding, and most of all, the presence of narcotics.

Certainly, drugs aren’t the problem they once were. In the 1980s, Mount Hope and Morris Heights were popular with out-of-towners. Not tourists coming to gaze at the elegant architecture along the Grand Concourse, but drug users looking to buy crack and heroin.

According to Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, in her non-fiction bestseller, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, on any given day, cars with license plates from Pennsylvania and New Jersey would choke the streets, as they waited in line to do business with local dealers. One dealer LeBlanc writes about was raking in $500,000 a week, before the police – and a life sentence – caught up with him.

Still, drugs remain a huge issue, a lead weight around the proverbial neck of this 130,000 strong community. The 46 makes more drug arrests than any other precinct. “I’d say that most of the problems we have here are driven by the narcotics trade,” said Harrington. Addicts rob to fund their habit, and rival dealers resort to what Harrington calls “narcotics related violence,” which routinely involves guns.

Ridding these neighborhoods of illegal firearms is a major part of the 46’s work. The foyer of Harrington’s office is decorated with photos of recently confiscated guns. So far this year, 150 have been taken off the streets. Harrington says he displays the pictures to boost the morale of the officers responsible for each seizure. But they are also a lucid reminder of what the men and women of the 46 are up against everyday.

Many were seized during raids, and obtaining search warrants is something at which the 46 excels. “We’ve just executed a search warrant on Grand Avenue, our 107th search warrant of the year,” said Harrington, adding that his officers and detectives do an excellent job building intelligence. “I don’t think anyone else in the city has more than 50, so we’re far and away the leaders in that area.”

If nothing else, the number of arrests made and search warrants carried out, show the precinct is flexing its muscles. But another role of the a precinct, said Harrington, and one which he says the 46 takes seriously, is reaching out and engaging the local community, to build up mutual trust and understanding.

“We met with all the [local school] principals on Oct. 11, and then met them individually, about what their problems are and what they’d like us to do” Harrington said. “And several times a week we’ll have meetings with different members of the community, different buildings, different associations, the PAL [Police Athletic League], people from Richmond Plaza and Park Tower.”

“In the community that we serve, I think we’re getting a lot of cooperation,” he continued. “We’re getting more people coming forward [with information], not because there’s more drugs, or more gang members, but because people are feeling more comfortable telling us what’s going on. When you come to one of our meetings that’s something we’re really trying to drive out. We always have detectives from narcotics present, detectives from the intelligence division, supervisors from the gang division, just if you want to talk privately.”

Sidney Robinson, a long time Mount Hope resident and a regular at these monthly meetings, agrees that the precinct has an improving relationship with the community. (In the 1980s, Robinson and several other long term residents said people were afraid to talk to the police because it was widely believed that the 46 was in on the drugs take.)

“He seems to be trying to work with the community,” Robinson said of Harrington. And he’s impressed with McHugh, with whom he’s had more contact. ““I like the Captain,” says Robinson. “You can get a feeling, it’s a funny thing, you can sense whether someone has the community at heart or if it’s just a job, a title. For the Captain it’s more than that.”

Certainly McHugh, an accomplished attorney as well as a cop, is prepared to talk candidly about the problems facing the 46. At Community Board 5’s general board meeting in October, he spoke about gangs, and a growing propensity for girls to carry weapons.

McHugh says gangs are active in the district, “although we’re nowhere near where the West Coast is,” he said.

“It’s definitely an element we have to deal with,” Harrington added. “But I wouldn’t say it’s the overriding problem so much as drugs… narcotics.”

More often than not, say Harrington and McHugh, it’s youngsters messing around. “We get complaints about kids hanging out, kids smoking pot, and boys and girls getting together,” Harrington said. “They have nowhere to go so they’ll gather in front of a location. Whether they’re a gang, like a strong allegiance, with a hierarchy, I don’t know. It’s more a case of kids being kids.”

Harrington says the district is a “great community,” that he enjoys working here, and that he’s got great people under him. Of McHugh, Harrington said: “I’m fortunate to get a guy of his caliber.”

But how long Harrington stays at the 46 is not up to him, he admits. “When the community is happy and the people in command are functionally well, they can leave someone here for four years,” he said. “But the decision about my career gets made by people above me, my bosses, and if an opportunity presents itself, and they decide I’m the person for that job, I go. So while you’re here you play hard every day.”

In all likelihood then, Harrington will be long gone by the time the 46 moves to a new location, even though 2120 Ryer Avenue is old and decrepit. Harrington himself says it’s functional, but repeatedly uses the word “antiquated.”

For starters, Harrington’s makeshift apartment is most definently “antiquated,” and so are the cells. (The building has housed the precinct since 1934, before which it was a library, says McHugh.) Plus it’s overcrowded. “That’s one of the downsides of having all these extra cops [from Operation Impact],” said Harrington.

For Harrington, however, the lack of parking is the real issue. “Parking would be more of a priority than a facility itself,” he said. With 400 people working at the 46, and no parking garage, the surrounding streets can get gridlocked. At precinct meetings, attendees complain about the excessive double parking, which blocks streets and prevents the Sanitation Department’s trucks from cleaning. In the past, traffic cops have been reluctant to ticket, in case the vehicle is an unmarked police car. Harrington says this practice is on its way out.

So what are Harrington’s hopes for the future of these neighborhoods? “We’d like to see a continuation of crime going down to what we think are acceptable levels within the community, and get a handle on narcotics violence,” he said “Public safety is one of the cornerstones of community recovery. Public safety and [better] education are what’s going to make this a viable community.”

It be would wrong to think everyone is 100 percent happy with the 46th Precinct. “The statistics say it’s going down but I think it going up,” said Louella Hatch, president of the precinct’s community council, of the crime rate.

Beverly Smith, Community Board 5’s Chairperson, said at September’s board meeting that she was angry no senior police officer from the precinct was present, as “they’d been shootings [in the area] all summer.”

Nevertheless, there’s no doubt the 46 has made headway in recent years – to give a crude statistic, there have been 16 murders so far in 2006; in 1990 there were 82.

But whether crime will continue to fall remains to be seen. Harrington can only keep his fingers crossed, and keep working those long days, which regularly transcend into long, sleepless, nights.

Harvest Festival Feeds 500

November 20, 2006

Nov 20 – Thanksgiving came a week early for some 500 hundred Mount Hope and Morris Heights residents, who last Thursday enjoyed a free feast at Mount Hope Housing Company’s fourth annual Harvest Festival.

Local restaurants donated food and drink, and Center Care, a health insurance company, paid for the hot food – trays deep with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoe, and vegtables. The festival was held in the community center basement at 130 West Tremont Avenue in Morris Heights.

Harvest Festival
Alice Simmons and Loretta Ruddock-Smith, Mount Hope Housing Company board members, helped serve the grub, as did volunteers from the coffee chain, Starbucks.

In past years, Mount Hope Housing Company has advertised the event in it’s apartment buildings, but this year they extended the invite to all the needy in the community. “We felt that a lot of families were unable to have a good meal,” said Tee Lawton, Director of Community Relations. “So we thought we’d be of some help. We’ve got four shelters in this neighborhood.”

One of these shelters, Theresa Haven, partnered with Mount Hope Housing Company in promoting the event.

Of the festival, Lawton said: “It’s getting bigger every year.”

A New Playground High Above the Cross Bronx

November 4, 2006


Nov 4 – Three years ago, Sidney Flores summoned News 12 to film what had become of his local park. It didn’t take them long to get footage of someone using crack cocaine on the rat-infested lot.

Fast forward to Nov. 3, 2006, and News 12 was there again – this time to document local residents, elected officials, parks staff, and fourth graders from C.E.S. 70, gathering for a groundbreaking ceremony at what will be Morris Mesa Playground.

The playground, to be built on this slice of underutilized land on the north side of the Cross Bronx Expressway at Morris Avenue, will open in about a year, according to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. It will be approximately a third of an acre.

Play equipment will be erected, and rubber safety matting put down. There will be benches, and maple and cherry trees will provide welcome shade in the summer. A drinking fountain and a sprinkler system are sure to be popular in hotter times too.

The $500,000 playground is being funded by Council Member Maria Baez. “It’s my pleasure to be supportive of this project,” Baez said, speaking over the hum of the Cross Bronx 20 feet below. “This is what our children need: a safe place to play.”

Baez was also quick to pay tribute to Flores. “Sidney’s been a trooper,” she said. “He always had this vision.”

Flores, a community activist with a reputation for getting things done, collected approximately 900 signatures, and lobbied Community Board 5 and elected officials.

The land, which was acquired by the city in the 1950s when the Cross Bronx was built, was used as a park of sorts in the past but became spoiled of late. “It was infested with rats, drugs and prostitutes,” Flores said.

As well as attracting News 12, Flores also convinced Adolfo Carrion, the Bronx Borough President, to meet him there. The two shook hands – Flores has the photograph on his living room wall – and Carrion assured him something would be done.

For Flores then, the groundbreaking ceremony was the realization of a long held dream. Not that his work is finished; he’ll be keeping a close eye on proceedings, he said, and when the playground opens, he’s volunteered to lock-up every night.